Egad! He Moved His Feet When He Ran

James B. Weaver took his long-shot run for the 1892 presidency on the road.
James B. Weaver took his long-shot run for the 1892 presidency on the road. (Edinborough Press)
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By Robert B. Mitchell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

In the early hours of July 5, 1892, before an enthusiastic convention of radical farmers and their allies in Omaha, a 59-year-old Civil War veteran from Iowa made a solemn pledge that helped give birth to the modern presidential campaign.

Gen. James B. Weaver at various times had been a Democrat, a Republican, a three-term U.S. representative and the presidential candidate of the short-lived Greenback Party. In Omaha, he had just won the nomination of the People's Party. Looking out over the assembled Populist delegates, Weaver predictably declared his fealty to the party's platform in the campaign ahead against Republican President Benjamin Harrison and the Democratic nominee, former president Grover Cleveland.

More notably, Weaver vowed to campaign on his own behalf for the White House. "I wish to make you here and now a promise that if God spares me and gives me strength, I shall visit every state in the Union and carry the banner of the people into the enemy's camp," he declared to the convention.

Such a promise hardly seems unique today, but in the 1800s it challenged prevailing political custom. Difficult though it may be to believe in this era of nonstop, multi-year campaigning, presidential candidates of the period usually avoided soliciting votes in person because -- in a textbook example of 19th-century hypocrisy -- they were not supposed to appear too eager to hold the highest office in the land.

That meant staying close to home after winning their party's nomination, which was often accepted with a written statement issued several weeks after the convention concluded. Candidates might grant interviews to sympathetic journalists, make an occasional speech and meet with advisers and delegations of visiting supporters. But they generally kept a low profile while others fought for them.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic candidate in 1880, adhered to this protocol after winning his party's nomination, as an item from The Washington Post that year suggests. "Gen. Hancock passed a very quiet Sabbath," the newspaper reported on June 28. "In the afternoon the General enjoyed a nap the same as if nothing had happened. He is resolutely determined not to be interviewed until after he is formally notified of his nomination, when he will be ready to converse."

Despite the lingering power of this taboo, presidential candidates in the 1800s strategized, organized and plotted to achieve victory at the polls like their modern counterparts. No less than Barack Obama, John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton, they wanted desperately to win. Even so, the public expected them to pretend to be somehow above the fray.

When Republican William McKinley ran his campaign for the presidency in 1896 from the front porch of his Canton, Ohio, home, he conformed to the traditional reluctance to go on the road in search of votes -- even though, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson notes in her book "Packaging the Presidency," he had done exactly that when he made "dozens of speeches" on behalf of Harrison in 1892.

"With George Washington as their model, civic moralists insisted that 'the office should seek the man,' " Michael Kazin writes in "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." Major party candidates generally respected the taboo against personal campaigning, and those who ignored it were defeated, Kazin notes. Candidates of the long-forgotten third parties of the late 19th century were less reluctant to hit the hustings but had little to show for it. When Weaver traveled the country in his 1880 campaign, he garnered a mere 3 percent of the vote.

Weaver's pledge in Omaha injected an element of drama into what was shaping up as a tedious rerun of the campaign of 1888. With Harrison paired against Cleveland, yet another election fought over the dreary terrain of tariffs, the tired Civil War symbolism of "waving the bloody shirt" and states' rights appeared inevitable. The cynicism engendered by the prospect of another contest between Cleveland and Harrison was so pervasive, one observer joked, "either party would have been glad to defeat the other if it could do so without electing its own candidate."

But Cleveland and Harrison possessed two advantages Weaver lacked. Both could depend on local surrogates and well-oiled local and state party organizations to handle campaign duties. Democrats and Republicans also relied on the overtly partisan press of the day to get their message out. To break through the partisan media "filter," Weaver embarked in late July 1892 on an extensive campaign schedule. Although he did not make it to every state, his itinerary took him from California to Florida and many states in between.

Energetic, articulate (though given to occasional flights of florid rhetoric) and combative, the blue-eyed, mustachioed Weaver had spent the better part of the previous two decades campaigning for the economic and political reforms advocated by agrarian radicals. Before the Civil War, Weaver addressed anti-slavery rallies across southern Iowa in support of the Republican Party. A lifetime of stump speeches and schoolhouse debates provided ideal preparation for the presidential campaign ahead.

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