DECATUR — Political campaigns are often presented as intense or even offensive today, but compared to the common campaign practices of the 1800s, many of today’s more extreme examples seem mild in comparison.
Dan Monroe, the chair of Millikin University’s History Department, has always found these earlier American political races and debates fascinating. With their exuberance, relative lawlessness and historical importance, they represent a colorful slice of Americana the professor doesn’t want to see forgotten. With this in mind, he decided to host “Running for Office in the 1800s,” a free Sept. 1 presentation at Rock Springs Nature Center.
“I find the culture of that period interesting, because the campaigns were conducted on such a local and personal level,” said Monroe, an “Americanist” who teaches American history courses focusing largely on the prewar antebellum period of the 1800s. “Campaigns were celebratory and very participatory, and voter turnout was through the roof for those eligible to vote.”
After announcing their intent to run, candidates would typically get nominated by local convention and begin literally taking their platform to the streets. Massive picnics, parades and assemblies were often held, anchored by candidates’ speeches. To entice the male voter base, hard liquor was even distributed for free in some instances.
Naturally, this could lead to some boisterous assemblies. Things could get even more heated when candidates who disagreed came into contact with one another. Even elected officials weren’t above an occasional melee, such as the famed instance when Democratic Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina nearly beat Republican Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the floor of the Senate in 1856. For what today would be classified an attempted murder, Brooks was instead fined and abdicated his seat in Congress. A month later, he was re-elected by his state in a special election, but died before taking office again.
“It was not an age that had much restriction on what you could or couldn’t do to campaign or raise money,” Monroe said. “It wasn’t unusual for there to be fisticuffs when candidates met in person. A lot of the debates were mean-spirited as well. For instance, the Lincoln-Douglas debates are rightly famous, but they weren’t exactly a great Socratic debate. There were a lot of nasty personal jibes there.”
Other famously contentious campaigns that Monroe will discuss include the 1828 Presidential Election between incumbent John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, where seemingly no accusation was off limits.
“It was notoriously harsh between both parties,” he said. “Jackson in essence accused him of winning the previous election through corrupt means, and Quincy fired back about Jackson’s participation in duels earlier in his career, basically calling him a murderer.”
Nonetheless, there are elements of the political campaigns of the time that Monroe feels were positives. The responsibility and beholden nature of candidates to their constituents in particular is something he finds lacking from modern politics.
“In a statewide campaign, a candidate might give 100 speeches in different locations and be forced to interact with people at every one,” he said. “People got to address their government all the time. Maybe that was better for democracy, that the candidates actually had to get out on a street corner and answer questions from the voters.”
Monroe’s free presentation of “Running for Office in the 1800s” begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1 at Rock Springs Nature Center’s Homestead Prairie Farm in Decatur.
If you go
WHAT: Running for Office in the 1800s
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1
WHERE: Rock Springs Nature Center
ON THE WEB: www.maconcountyconservation.org/rocksprings.php