Through letters, campaign materials, and other documents, this exhibition examines personalities and issues that shaped nine pivotal presidential elections between 1789 and 1948. The words and deeds of winners and losers, and their supporters, remind us that, underlying the hoopla and rhetoric, presidential campaigns have highlighted some of the nation's most important questions.

Election of 1789
After leading American troops to victory in the American Revolution, General George Washington retired to his home at Mount Vernon in 1783. Responding to public pressure, he reluctantly agreed to return to public life as the new nation’s first president under the US Constitution in 1789. Washington, a Federalist and an advocate of a strong central government, was elected unanimously. His immense popularity transcended partisanship, and his modesty alleviated anti-Federalist fears of a too-powerful chief executive.

“An Ocean of Difficulties”

In a letter written on April 1, 1789, to his friend General Henry Knox, Washington confides his misgivings about accepting the office: “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties.”

View the full letter at the Gilder Lehrman website.

The First President

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated at Federal Hall in New York City. As stipulated in the Constitution, he was elected not by popular vote but by the Electoral College.

Washington’s decision in 1796 not to seek re-election after two terms, and thus to relinquish willingly the seat of power, earned him respect at home and abroad.

Election of 1800
The election of 1800 was an angry, crisis-ridden contest between two new political parties that seemed to threaten the nation’s survival. A partisan battle between Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, it led to a tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr; a deadlock in the House; and an outburst of intrigue and suspicion as Federalists struggled to determine a course of action. The unfolding of this crisis tested the new nation’s durability.

Midnight Judges

The formation of two different political parties during the 1790s polarized the voters, and John Adams’s actions led to divisions within his own party, the Federalists. As a result, the beleaguered president received fewer electoral votes than Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the two Democratic-Republican candidates.

Adams spent the final days of his administration appointing Federalists to newly created judgeships. He left the Capitol a few hours before Jefferson’s inauguration.

A “Splendid Misery”

Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson struggled to reconcile his desire to serve the people and his distaste for the rancor of politics.

In 1800, his opposition to the Federalist Party led Jefferson to seek the presidency, an office he once deemed a “splendid misery.”

“A Choice of Evils”

The Constitution mandated originally that the candidate with the greatest number of ballots in a presidential election assume the top office and the runner-up the vice presidency. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes, forcing the House of Representatives to decide which man would be president. Although a political enemy of Jefferson, Federalist Alexander Hamilton urged his party to support Jefferson over Aaron Burr.

“Mr. Jefferson though too revolutionary in his notions is yet a lover of liberty. Burr loves nothing but himself. In a choice of Evils, let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

Read the full letter at the Gilder Lehrman website.

The House elected Jefferson president after twelve tense weeks of political infighting, and Burr thus became vice president. To ensure that such a crisis would never happen again, in 1804 the United States ratified the Twelfth Amendment, providing distinct ballots for the two offices.

Election of 1824
By 1824, American politics was experiencing major growing pains. James Monroe’s two terms in office as president (1817–1825) are often called the “Era of Good Feelings,” but, by 1824, political rivalry bubbled underneath a facade of unity. Although John Quincy Adams won the election, his presidency was subject to savage political attacks and blocked at every turn by an obstructionist Congress and vindictive political enemies.

Vying for the Popular Vote

By 1824, nearly every state had replaced the legislative appointment of Electoral College members with the popular election of electors. Presidential candidates therefore had to appeal directly to the voting public.

This letter in support of Henry Clay’s 1824 campaign portrays the candidate as independent of political faction and a highly principled man of the people. In contrast, two of his opponents are depicted as creatures of the political establishment: John Quincy Adams was secretary of state and William Crawford was nominated by congressional caucus. Clay’s third opponent, Andrew Jackson, has only, in the words of the letter writer, “the renown of a military chieftain.”

View the letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.

A “Corrupt Bargain”

After the votes were counted, no candidate had received a constitutionally required majority of the electoral votes, thereby putting the outcome in the hands of the House of Representatives. To the surprise of many, the House elected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, although Jackson had received the highest number of both the popular and Electoral College votes.

In this letter written in March 1824, months before the election, Henry Clay suspiciously predicts that the vote will go to the House of Representatives. It was widely believed that Clay convinced the House to elect Adams, who then made Clay his secretary of state. Jackson supporters denounced this as a “corrupt bargain.”

Election of 1828
The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 marked a change in American politics. For the first time a presidential candidate had been elected from west of the Appalachian Mountains, marking an end to the streak held by wealthy eastern elites. The war hero from the Battle of New Orleans, who did not have a college education, chewed tobacco, and dueled with pistols to defend his wife’s honor reflected the individualistic ideals of the western United States. The appeal of Jackson to the ordinary man helped lead to a new period in American politics.

Should a General Be President?

Although George Washington came to the presidency as a military hero, during the 1828 campaign opponents assailed Andrew Jackson for entering politics as a “military chieftain.” Jackson detractors warned that he would be a threat to democracy if he were commander in chief of the armed forces.

“Monumental Inscriptions!”

This broadside is typical of the attacks on General Andrew Jackson during his second and, this time, successful run for president in 1828. The so-called “Coffin Handbill” depicts Jackson as a cold-blooded killer of his own soldiers during the Creek War of 1813–1814. Within each coffin is the name of a soldier and the allegedly minor charges for which he was executed.

Election of 1860
The election of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States in November 1860 was a triumph of political organizing. Republican “Wide-Awakes” and tireless Democrats took to the streets on behalf of their candidates throughout an autumn of torchlight parades, political demonstrations, and stump speeches by surrogates. Lincoln’s election quickly led to the secession of eleven slave-holding states and the formation of the Confederacy. 

Lincoln on the Eventual Abolition of Slavery

During his campaigns for the Senate and the Presidency, Lincoln publicly opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, but at this time he drew back from advocating abolition of slavery in the South. Nevertheless, he declared his faith in the eventual abolition of slavery.

In these notes for a speech, probably delivered during the debates with Stephen Douglas for the 1858 US Senate race in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln made clear he would not renounce his stand on slavery in order to gain political office.

The Democrats Split

In 1860, the Democrats were embroiled in acrimonious debate over slavery provisions in their platform. After their nominating convention in April failed to agree on a presidential candidate, they re-assembled in June. Stephen Douglas was nominated, but only after the southern faction walked out and nominated its own proslavery candidate, John Breckinridge.

A Proslavery Democrat

John C. Breckinridge, vice president under President Buchanan, was the standard-bearer of Southern Democrats during the 1860 election. He ran on a proslavery platform of states’ rights and won nearly every state in the South.

The “Wide-Awakes”

This ambrotype photograph is of an unidentified member of the Wide-Awakes, a Republican organization formed in 1860 and renowned for the caped costumes of its members. Thousands marched in their torchlit processions on behalf of Lincoln.

Widespread use of campaign tokens began in the 1820s. By 1860, they were common campaign paraphernalia.

This shows two sides of a Republican token from the 1860 election, with Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, pictured on either side.

Harper’s Weekly ridiculed the flurry of last-minute political speeches in the issue that appeared the week of the 1860 election.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860

On February 27, 1860, in the lead-up to the presidential race, Lincoln was in New York to deliver a speech at the Cooper Institute. The powerful speech was well received in the Northeast and printed versions were disseminated throughout the nation. The speech was crucial in Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate later that year.

While maintaining his intention to leave slavery in place where it existed, Lincoln spoke out against the expansion of slavery into the territories. He concluded with a rousing declaration: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”

A Pro-Lincoln Cartoon

After Lincoln was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, there was an instant clamor for information on the “railsplitter” candidate. Photographs, engravings, and cartoons, not all of which supported Lincoln, were widely circulated during the 1860 campaign.

Shown here is a Maurer cartoon predicting victory for Lincoln. “Uncle Sam,” without beard and attire familiar today, welcomes “Honest Abe” to the White House as he turns away the other three candidates. President James Buchanan is shown inside packing his “dirty linen.”

A Divided Nation

More than eighty percent of eligible voters participated in the election of 1860, one of the highest turnouts ever. Ten southern states did not list Lincoln on the ballot, and the Democrats had split between their Northern and Southern factions.

The election results reflected the divisions in the nation: Lincoln won every northern state but New Jersey, gaining 180 electoral votes, a majority, even though he attracted less than forty percent of the popular vote. Immediately following the election of Lincoln, southern states began to secede from the Union, leading to the Civil War.

Election of 1876
The election of 1876 is better known for its controversial aftermath than for the campaign that preceded it. Rutherford Hayes’s victory was by the narrowest margin in American history. He lost the popular vote but won the disputed electoral vote. Bitter Democrats declared the election “the Fraud of the Century.” 

A Contested Election

The outcome of the 1876 election was decided only three days before inauguration day. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, shown here in a photograph taken eleven years after the election, lost in popular votes to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.

The Compromise of 1877

Tilden was considered the winner until twenty of the electoral votes were disputed, and a congressional deadlock ensued. The situation was finally resolved on March 2, 1877, when a special commission of representatives, senators, and Supreme Court associate justices declared Hayes the winner. To gain Southern Democrats’ support in Congress for the commission’s decision, Republicans promised to withdraw federal troops from the South. The subsequent withdrawal hastened the end of Reconstruction.

Election of 1912
The presidential election year of 1912 began with one unprecedented spectacle, ended with another, and sandwiched a few more in between. In February, former president Theodore Roosevelt stunned the country by challenging his protégé President William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. The move was not only a repudiation of his old friend Taft; it also violated an unwritten rule of American politics: Roosevelt had already had two terms in office, and no president had ever had a third, though the Constitution did not prohibit it.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Second Try

In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt opposed incumbent William Howard Taft, whom he had endorsed as his successor four years earlier, for the Republican nomination. At the convention, Roosevelt was outmaneuvered and Taft received the party’s nomination.

The Bull Moose Party

Roosevelt led the Progressive Party, which became known as the Bull Moose Party, a nickname based on Roosevelt’s statement that he felt fit as “a Bull Moose.”

The Bull Moose Party collapsed in the midterm elections of 1914 and died in 1916, but the ideals that the Progressives articulated in 1912 lived on in American politics for decades. Their influence can be seen in Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Wilson Wins

Republican divisions gave Democrats an opportunity to regain the White House. Former Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan declined another run, but actively opposed the nomination of “anyone under the obligation of [banker] J. Pierpont Morgan.”

Woodrow Wilson, governor of New Jersey and former president of Princeton University, was the Democrats’ choice. With Republicans split, Wilson won an overwhelming electoral victory. Roosevelt ran a respectable second in the popular vote.

Election of 1936
Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected to the presidency in 1932. By 1936, he was still working to push his New Deal economic plan through Congress. The New Deal policies that had been enacted, such as Social Security, were already popular with most Americans. Roosevelt won re-election in what proved to be the most lopsided election in American history, gaining a record number of electoral votes and a large percentage of the popular vote. This election marked widespread approval of the changing nature of the relationship between Americans and the federal government.

Franklin Roosevelt’s first and most important contribution to solving the great economic crisis he inherited in 1933 was to exude confidence and optimism. He invited frightened Americans to put their trust in his energy and activism.

FDR’s New Deal responded vigorously to one of the greatest problems of the Great Depression—an unemployment rate that had reached 25 percent. No president had ever before intervened in the economy as extensively or aggressively as Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, and the sheer magnitude of his activism and his legislative achievements awed not only many Americans, but much of the world.

Friend of Labor

This Democratic Party campaign poster from 1936 outlines some of the agencies and regulations Franklin Roosevelt put in place to try to solve the most urgent problems of the Great Depression.

While it reminds laborers of how they have benefited from the New Deal and encourages them to support Roosevelt’s re-election, it acknowledges that the Depression is not over and that “the unemployed still look for jobs.”

Franklin Roosevelt is one of the most popular presidents in American history. He remains the only president to win four presidential elections. The 22nd Amendment, passed in 1951, placed a two-term limit on the presidency.

In the video above, Michael Flamm, Professor of History at Ohio Wesleyan University, briefly discusses FDR’s popularity and his powerful place in American memory.

Election of 1948
Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. If the New Deal greatly expanded the role of federal agencies in managing the economy, Truman’s Cold War liberalism extended presidential power into many other areas. 

Executive Order 9981

When the United States entered World War II, more than 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and African American women also volunteered in large numbers. However, the US military was segregated throughout WWII.

In 1948 Truman issued Executive Order 9981, officially integrating the armed forces. This led to backlash among southern Democrats. Divisions in the party contributed to lukewarm support for Truman during the 1948 election and predictions that New York’s incumbent Republican governor, Thomas E. Dewey, would defeat him.

“Dewey Defeats Truman”

Before the election, polls showed Truman far behind. Furthermore, he had encountered dissension within the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats, angry over civil rights provisions on the platform, formed the Dixiecrat, or States’ Rights, Party. Their presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, ran on a platform of racial segregation and states’ rights. Truman won the election with 49 percent of the popular vote.

With votes still being tabulated for the 1948 election, the Chicago Daily Tribune prematurely declared Republican Thomas E. Dewey the winner. The victorious President Truman was photographed with a copy of the erroneous headline on his way back to Washington.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
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Created by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Scholar advisor Barbara A. Perry, White Burkett Miller Professor of Ethics and Institutions at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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