If you’re wondering how this spiral of spending tons of money trying to get elected president of the United States got started (and it’s only the beginning of the primary election season), it didn’t begin in early America. George Washington never ran for office — he was chosen by an electoral college largely removed from popular pressure.
For local offices such as sheriff, there were contested elections, but about the only money that was needed was for entertaining voters after the fact. In colonial Virginia, for example, a voter, who had to own real property, expressed his candidate preference for all local offices by telling it orally to a local official who sat in the middle of representatives of each of the candidates. After indicating his choice, the citizen would be given a warm greeting by the candidate he had favored and invited to partake of some nearby refreshments — mostly, booze. This practice ultimately led states to close liquor stores on Election Day.
Voters used this oral vote to select members of the lower house of each colony’s legislature. Members of the upper house — similar to today’s Senate — were chosen either by the governor or the lower house. So in both cases there was little need for financing campaigns.
The new territories in the West that became states in the 1800s moved in the direction of universal suffrage for men. They also supported the idea that any man could run for political office, even if he had little or no real property — a condition imposed by most Eastern states. Such democracy elevated candidates and voters alike and for the first time put a premium on getting to know each other through campaigning.
The first commoner to run for the White House was Andrew Jackson, who in 1824 lost to John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams. Although a military hero in the War of 1812, Jackson was the antithesis of the proper Adams and all previous presidents, carrying the seemingly unwanted baggage of being characterized as a duelist, drunkard and gambler. But he was revered by his troops and, consequently, the public as a result of his leadership and success in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and was dubbed “Old Hickory” for his camaraderie.
But after his loss to Adams (decided by the House of Representatives because no candidate received a majority of electoral votes), Jackson began immediately to campaign for the election of 1828. Although he had been elected a senator from Tennessee in 1822, he resigned his seat in October 1825 and devoted full time to campaigning. First, he organized a committee that included big names at the time, Martin Van Buren of New York, Amos Kendall of Kentucky, and Thomas Ritchie of Virginia, to set up fundraising organs throughout the nation. “You must avail yourself,” he said to them, “of an organized body of men.”
In turn, the main committee saw to it that subcommittees were set up to promote “Friends of Jackson,” that is, followers who would pay money through dinners, barbecues and the purchase of “hickory poles,” Jackson’s symbol. In fact, these poles were placed throughout towns or carried in parades, one of which in New York City was more than a mile long. Hickory brooms were sold to supporters as well, designed to sweep out the corruption in the Adams administration. And posters were big-time fundraisers, with the slogan: “Vote for us if you believe people should govern.”
Advocates also took advantage of rapidly changing demographics. By 1828, more men were eligible to vote than ever before, with Eastern states easing voting restrictions. In all but two states the people voted directly for presidential electors. The number of voters tripled from the 1824 campaign, and Jackson put together a campaign strategy that touched the lives of these more common folk: songs, rallies and newspapers to get across his views — all paid for by supporters.
Jackson himself took no part in the fundraising or campaigns, attending only a celebratory anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which attracted more people than any other public event up to that time.
President Adams shunned such tactics on the grounds that “to pay money for securing the White House directly or indirectly was incorrect in principle.” In practice, however, Jackson’s campaign worked.
Adams didn’t serve a second term.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.