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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

Presidential Campaigns: Packaging the Presidents

Packaging Header

Introduction | Primary Sources and Analysis Tools 
Library of Congress Resources | Primary Source Set

Choose a link below to access printable PDF versions of these materials including additional information, color images and citations.
Presidential Campaigns: Packaging the Presidents Resource Booklet 
Primary Source Set


Political campaigns have become multimillion dollar endeavors. Early in the campaign season students are inundated with advertisements. Today, the bulk of campaign funds are spent on television and radio commercials. But what about elections held early in the history of the United States?  Here you will take a look at some of the broadsides, sheet music, photographs, motion pictures and audio recordings from past presidential campaigns. These items are found within the digitized collections of the Library of Congress. Closely look at the use of broadside posters to publicize candidates and the use of sheet music and political cartoons as means of looking at the issues candidates took a stand for or against.

A variety of policies, parties and personalities inspire American citizens to support or reject candidates. This was true in past elections and continues to be true today! Media coverage provides the American people with great detail about candidates' lives, both public and private. How has this influenced our regard for candidates today? Many presidents experienced turbulent candidacies.

Abraham Lincoln had songs written for him, just for being nominated. Conversely, his anti-slavery position aroused so much opposition toward the candidate.

Most candidates, past and present, have fought hard for their party's nomination. Today, many politicians make this their life's work as they move from city, to state, to national office. This has not always been the case.

Many people don't realize that our country's very first presidential candidate, George Washington, was reluctant to accept the office. "I cannot describe, the painful emotions which I felt in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States."

Washington had fully intended to retire to Mount Vernon when the Constitutional Convention was over. But Washington's sense of duty to his new country outweighed his desire to withdraw from public life.

Washington was not the only candidate to feel reluctant about the presidency. James K. Polk accepted the party's nomination as a duty "neither sought nor declined."
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Reaching out to the People

The methods and media have changed since early campaigns and today's campaign strategies incorporate statistical analysis and the science of influence and affect. Reaching the people and gaining their confidence is still the goal of a political campaign. However, many of the methods for influencing voters remain essentially the same. Advertising, theme songs, stump speeches, and even negative campaigning have been around since our county began.

Candidates Reaching Large Audiences

The Spoken Word
Presidential candidates of the past and today use a variety of ways to communicate with Americans who will cast votes in an election and attempt to reach as many voters as possible. Throughout the years, new media formats have been introduced allowing candidates to broaden their reach and expand from local events such as speaking live outdoors to a gathered crowd to the production of recorded comments, motion pictures, print media and live broadcasts that allow millions to see and hear a candidate in real time regardless of location.

Today, a candidate's every word, action and expression is recorded and shared with the public. Showing the voter that they are both a leader and a "good person" is part of the challenge of the campaign. If we listen to an audio clip of candidate Calvin Coolidge on the subject of Law and Order it is hard to imagine this monotone voice, this "man of few words" appealing to modern voters.
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The presidential election of 1920 was the final campaign only available through record albums. Radio broadcasts and commercials ushered in a new style of campaigning and reaching a much more broad audience. In the twentieth century, radio became the new political medium. In the presidential campaign of 1924, radio broadcast the political speeches of incumbent President Calvin Coolidge, the Republican candidate, and John W. Davis, the Democratic candidate.

Increases in radio use by politicians led to arguments on the issue of the freedom and responsibility of the broadcasting industry in providing coverage of political events. Criticism by political parties, Congress, and Federal Communications Commission led to legislation in the areas of equal airtime and freedom of speech.

President Teddy Roosevelt was the first U.S. president whose life was extensively recorded and preserved in the motion picture format. Although Roosevelt obtained fame before the motion picture form was perfected, he was one of the most frequently photographed subjects among public men. Films are available of Roosevelt and other national figures participating in political ceremonies, delivering campaign speeches, and attending social activities. These items made excellent news film topics primarily because of the high interest factor involved and the relative ease with which the filming could be preplanned and executed. One of the most distinguished groups of films concerns Roosevelt's campaign for the presidency under the banner of the progressive party, formed when Roosevelt left the Republican Party.
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In 1952, the national political conventions and the presidential campaign were televised nationwide for the first time. The public avidly followed television coverage of the campaign and rated television as the most informative of the media available to them. The televised broadcasts of the debates in the 1960 presidential campaign were a response to the public's enthusiasm for this type of coverage. Pollsters of the Great Debates have estimated that approximately 3.4 million voters determined their choice of party solely on the basis of the debates. That milestone event thrust broadcast media into a central tole in American political life. The trend continues in spite of critic's blaming the media for the "merchandising" of candidates, the rising costs of political campaigns, and using advertising agencies in the "image manipulation" of candidates.

On the Library of Congress Today in History page for October 21, 1960, we learn that American viewers were riveted to their television sets for the broadcast of the fourth and final debate between Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, and Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate.

The first-ever televised presidential candidate debate was held on September 26, 1960. An estimated sixty to seventy million viewers watched the first and successive debates-known as "the Great Debates". The first, broadcast by CBS, focused on domestic issues. The 1960 debates have been compared to the famous 1858 debates in the senatorial campaign between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. However, the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates were held outdoors in the towns of several voting districts. Their debates-each lasting three hours-first one candidate spoke for one hour then the second candidate spoke for an hour and one-half, and then the first candidate again for another half and hour, were attended by crowds ranging from 1,500 to possibly as high as 20,000 people.
Accessed 1.13.08 at Today in History page for October 21, 1960

Candidates and the Issues

The following paragraphs present presidential candidates, the stance they took with issues at the time of their campaign and how those positions may have impacted election results. In addition to war, presidential candidates in American history have based their campaigns on issues like corruption, environmental conservation, and foreign policy. Though people change, issues tend to remain constant.

Win the War, Win the Whitehouse
In 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered British troops to George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army. As Cornwallis handed over his sword, he handed Washington the status of America's number one war hero. That status easily translated into Washington's presidency at a time when Americans could celebrate the victory of their stance on issues they had been willing to die for.
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Slavery, Succession and State Rights
Abraham Lincoln's careful stance on a variety of issues guided him to a meager victory in a year when the country and its political parties, were ravaged by many complicated and volatile issues.

1st-Suppose you should be elected President of the United States and the South would not submit to your inauguation: What would you do?-
2nd-Are you opposed to slavery as it now exists in the slave states, and if so, do you believe that Congress has more power to remove it from those states than to protect it in the Territories?
3rd-Where you in favor of J(ohn) Brown the Traitor, or do you now occasionally drop a silent ear or two in honor to his memory?
I am a voter and I want to know exactly every inch of ground you stand upon-I want to know for I want to vote for the right kind of man-if you suit me I'll go for you-if not away with you!!
From Thomas T. Swan to Abraham Lincoln, June 15, 1860

As Swan's letter shows, the election turned on a number of issues including secession, treachery, the relationship between the federal government, states, and territories, slavery and abolition. Candidates had to consider how to hold the nation together as states were divided about slavery, states' rights; questions about federal vs. state power; how to govern Western Territories; and respond to extremist abolitionists like John Brown.

With four candidates in the race, Lincoln won the 1860 election. But by the time he took office in March of 1861, seven southern states had seceded from the Union and one month later the Civil War began. Lincoln's hopes for peacefully preserving the union were dashed. In 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and promoted a Constitutional Amendment to permanently abolish slavery. These bold steps marked a shift from Lincoln's more moderate campaign position on slavery issues. They also shifted the focus of the war from preserving the union to freeing the slaves.

Remarkably, the election of 1864 was not suspended during the Civil War. Union soldiers were given absentee ballots or furloughed to vote. With mounting Union victories, the votes of soldiers and the campaign slogan, "Don't switch horses in mid-steam", Lincoln won the election
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A Fighting Man Fights Corruption
Andrew Jackson earned his first war memento as a fourteen-year-old soldier in the American Revolution. The lifelong scar on Jackson's forehead came from the sword of a British office who had captured the teenager. Jackson's offense was refusing to shine his captor's boots.

To win the White House, Jackson's tenacity would be called back into action. In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson won the popular vote but lost the electorial vote. John Quincy Adams took office instead when fourth place finisher, Henry Clay, threw his electoral votes to Adams. In gratitude, Adams named Clay Secretary of State. And with that appointment, Jackson found the political issue that would carry him into office four years later. In 1828, Jackson returned to campaign against what he called the "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay. Jackson's anti-corruption platform, his emphasis on the political will of the common man, and his popularity as a war hero won him almost twice as many electoral votes as the incumbent Adams.
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Foreign Policy and Issues at Home
Issues surrounding the aftermath of World War I launched Warren Harding's presidency. The wartime boom had collapsed. Diplomats and politicians were arguing over peace treaties and the question of America's entry into the League of Nations. Overseas there were wars and revolutions; at home there were strikes, riots and a growing fear of radicals and terrorists. Disillusionment was in the air.

Harding vowed to keep America out of the League of Nations, an isolationist foreign policy stance that appealed to war-weary citizens. Harding appealed to Americans by promising "A Return to Normalcy" after the difficult and casualty-strewn war years.

Peace and foreign policy were again the issue in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was a candidate for president. His status as a World War II hero and his promise to end the Korean War helped carry Eisenhower into office in 1953. During his two-terms as president, Eisenhower withdrew troops from Korea as promised, and lived up to his own words.

While war weary Americans elected Eisenhower in the 50s to end international military activity, Americans of the 80s were moved by Ronald Reagan's willingness to make a strong military stand as well as his promise to pull America out of economic recession. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan espoused a hawkish position, criticizing Jimmy Carter's failure to secure the release of American hostages in Iran. Reagan won by a landslide, and used his first term in office to toughen America's foreign policy against the "evil empire" of communism.

Capitalizing on his success as a war-hero and courting the American press, Theodore Roosevelt saw his way to the Vice Presidency under President William McKinley in 1897. And it was McKinley's assassination in 1901 that ushered Roosevelt into the Presidency. Once there, however, he used the press to advance his issue agenda which emphasized regulating monopolies and protecting the environment.

Roosevelt easily secured re-election in 1904. His tenure in office was a harbinger of the important influence the American media would have on political issues and the political fortunes of future presidents.
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