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.
In the West, where miners strongly supported the Populists' commitment to expand use of silver in the money supply, the People's Party campaign generated enormous excitement. Appearing with Populist firebrand Mary E. Lease, and accompanied by his wife, Clarissa, Weaver drew wildly enthusiastic crowds in Denver and Pueblo. He spoke to a large and friendly audience in Los Angeles. Bands and celebratory cannon fire greeted the Populists as they toured the small towns of Nevada.
In an unusual and quite possibly painful fundraising stunt, Lease invited the crowd in Denver to hurl coins at her. The invitation prompted laughter, applause and "a rain of silver dollars," according to a Washington Post account.
Weaver's campaign was less successful as it headed south. Democrats, recognizing the Populists as a threat to their dominance, demonized him as a Dixie-hating Yankee who abused citizens under his jurisdiction when he was a Union Army colonel stationed in Tennessee during the war. Moreover, Democrats warned white voters that support for the Populists could take enough votes away from Cleveland to put Harrison back in the White House and strengthen federal efforts to protect the voting rights of black men.
"Do you think that self-respecting Southern men can now vote for such a man?" Democratic Rep. Charles Triplett O'Ferrall of Virginia asked reporters. As the campaign continued, Southern Democrats worked hard to ensure that the answer was "no."
After winning warm receptions in Arkansas and Texas, Weaver headed into Georgia. At Waycross, Weaver and Lease addressed a crowd of farmers, both whites and blacks, without incident but elsewhere in the state, hazing by Democrats grew more threatening. Finally, at Macon, Weaver was hooted off a hotel balcony just after he began to speak, and Clarissa Weaver was struck by rotten eggs hurled by local rowdies. Weaver subsequently canceled the rest of his campaign swing through Georgia.
Back in friendlier territory, Weaver and Lease campaigned in Lincoln, Neb., where Rep. William Jennings Bryan was running for reelection and had endorsed Weaver instead of Cleveland. Nebraska voters returned their young congressman to Washington, but by a narrow margin of 140 votes. In the end, Cleveland returned to the White House, but his second term -- marred by the Panic of 1893, the violence of the Pullman strike and the legions of unemployed who marched on Washington under the banner of Coxey's Army -- was hardly triumphant.
As for Weaver, his Populist campaign proved stunningly successful; for the first time since 1860, a third party won electoral votes. He carried Kansas, Colorado, Nevada and Idaho and won additional electoral votes in Oregon and North Dakota. Despite the intensely negative campaign against him by Southern Democrats, he received 36 percent of the vote in Alabama and 23 percent in Texas. Overall, it was a vast improvement over the dismal third-party showings of the 1880s.
"His stumping exposed him to a vituperative barrage in person and in the press that went beyond a mere attack on his ideas," Kazin writes of Weaver's two presidential campaigns. "But he surely would have won fewer votes if he'd stayed at home."
After 1892, the major parties began to adopt the general's campaign tactics. Four years later, William Jennings Bryan emulated Weaver with a whistle-stop campaign in which he traveled 18,000 miles, and the Democrat hit the campaign trail when he ran again in 1900 and 1908. In 1900, Republicans selected a hero of the Spanish-American War as President William McKinley's running mate. Theodore Roosevelt proved to be as indefatigable a campaigner as Bryan.
Before long, the aversion of presidential candidates to the unseemly business of canvassing for votes was a thing of the past. Today, the notion that a presidential candidate should avoid the campaign trail seems as archaic as the Whig Party, torchlight parades and the multi-ballot convention.
This article is adapted from "Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver," to be published this fall by Edinborough Press.