By Rebecca Alt–Scandal and Character in the 1884 Election of S. Grover Cleveland

In modern elections in the United States there are often scandalous incidents involving one or more presidential candidates or the people closest to them. Most recently, New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 Republican candidate was involved in a bridge scandal, which has severely influenced perceptions of his character and subsequent conversations regarding his potential candidacy. Although Christie claims that “Bridgegate” has not and will not affect his 2016 plans, the scandal still remains a black mark on his record and one of the many examples the role personal character plays in presidential campaign rhetoric.

Alt Cleveland PicThis is only one type of scandal voters are exposed to during the modern never-ending campaign season. Apart from incidents that involve an action (or inaction) taken while in public office that could affect the welfare of people, skeletons often come out of closets that prompt audiences to question or reconsider a politician’s character. Juicy secrets are revealed about politicians and presidential candidates to audiences willing to indulge them. Often when the skeletons come out, the mudslinging begins—supporters of the other, better candidates not only share the damning information but exploit it in a variety of ways for a particular end—damaging the candidate’s character enough to cost him/her the election to public office. This topic is ripe with content for analysis, but for this blog post I will focus on one 19th century election and a “major scandal” that resulted in rhetorical acts of mudslinging and character attacks, analyzing one particular artifact (while also showing other related images) that acted symbolically to shape perceptions of S. Grover Cleveland in the 1884 election versus James Blaine.

Character attacks, or the latin ad hominem, are not uncommon to political discourse generally. In the historical discourses we have examined as a part of #COMM 760, it is clear that “mudslinging” is not unique to the most current era of politics. Everything about a candidate’s character—appearance, intelligence, and experience, for example—directly impacted that candidate’s trustworthiness as leader of the nation, more so than “issues” in a campaign. As Trevor Parry-Giles explains, “American elections, particularly at the presidential level, are dominated by images and personality-based arguments.”[1] Political images, then, or “verbal and/or visual rhetorical markers of public character and individual persona,” take the abstract idea of “character” and concretize it.[2] With this basic framework in mind, I turn to the primary political image artifact that appeared during the 1884 Cleveland v. Blaine election: a cartoon entitled “Another Voice for Cleveland.”[3] 

Alt Cleveland Pic 2In this political cartoon appearing in The Judge, magazine Grover Cleveland’s scandalous secret is not only exposed to the audience, but it is exploited in a way that casts Grover Cleveland as cowardly.[4] Ernest Ferguson explains that after the Democratic convention and nomination was secured for Cleveland “came the bombshell. Several days after the Democratic convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published an exposé, headlined ‘A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History,’ which revealed a secret episode in Cleveland’s life. The article alleged that Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate 9-year-old child, and that he’d been paying the mother for years to keep her quiet. Republican newspapers gleefully picked up the story, and Blaine supporters started reciting a jeer of their own: ‘Ma, ma, where’s my pa?’”[5] In the cartoon, the child is visibly upset, but the words read, “I want my Pa!” instead of “Where’s my Pa?” This, as the title of the cartoon does, suggests that the child is “another one for Cleveland.” Cleveland is shown looking discombobulated –almost drunken—as he tries to cover his ears and ignore the cries from his child. Cleveland is depicted as shaken and visibly trying to tune the child out, thus he is cowardly in the face of his secret. The child’s mother—the woman, Maria Halpin, whom Cleveland’s affair was with, is shown hiding her face in shame. Perhaps she is portrayed as such because of the allegations that Cleveland paid for her silence over the years.

There is a significant juxtaposition in this cartoon. The tag hanging from Cleveland’s coat reads “Grover the Good.” Before the exposé of his sex scandal was published, Cleveland had a reputation for public integrity.[6] In fact, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, said, “When a blathering ward politician objects
to Cleveland because he is ‘more of a Reformer than a Democrat,’ he furnishes the
best argument in favor of Cleveland’s nomination and election.”[7] Ferguson continues, “At the Democratic convention in Chicago, one of Cleveland’s prominent boosters said that his friends ‘love him and respect him, not only for himself, for his character, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.’” The Judge cartoon depicts a common rhetorical attack on character: if you think you know “Grover the Good,” think again.

Alt Cleveland Pic 3While the cartoon itself serves as an argument against Cleveland’s personal character, Cleveland responds in a way that just might have been the reason he was able to win the election. When offered an envelope containing James Blaine’s scandalous activities, Cleveland paid for it, shredded it, and burned it.[8] Not only did Cleveland own up and accept responsibility for the illegitimate child, he chose to take “the moral high road” when given the opportunity to stoop to his opposition’s level.[9] Ferguson concludes his historical analysis of Cleveland’s sex scandal by saying “Cleveland wasn’t always honest. He had long held a grudge against the press, and during his second term he and aides covered up the news of a tumor in his jaw and surgeries to repair it. However, that did not dent his reputation for personal integrity and putting the public before politics. He died in Princeton, N.J., in 1908, and on his tombstone at the Nassau Presbyterian Church are carved the words: ‘I have tried so hard to do right.’”[10]

Cleveland’s character issue reflects the larger trend in American politics. Michael Calvin McGee reminds us of the ideal principle “not men, but measures” as the basis for electing leaders, but history has proven that it is oft not the case.[11] Character matters for audiences, and one could study any president/presidential candidate in terms of his or her character and that relation to election success. In Cleveland’s case, perhaps the voters appreciated his honesty when the scandal was exposed, and saw Blaine as posessing low-morals:

A delegate from Chicago summed up the situation. “I gather that Mr. Cleveland has shown high character and great capacity in public life but that in private life his conduct is open to question, while on the other hand, Mr. Blaine in public life has been weak and dishonest, while he seems to have been an admirable husband and father. The conclusion I draw from these facts is that we should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently fitted to adorn.”[12]

Alt Cleveland Pic 4Grover Cleveland won the election of 1884 and married a woman named Frances Folsom in the White House. Mudslinging, character-attacking discourses are compelling arguments against character that could affect the outcome of an election. But Cleveland countered those arguments by enacting the character he had been previously known to have, ultimately overcoming the attack through his virtuous actions. Perhaps today’s politicians could learn from the strategies of Grover Cleveland in the face of political scandal.


[1] Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a ‘Treacherous Piety’: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13, no. 1 (2010): 37-38.

[2] Ibid, 39-40.

[3]; also Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65.

[4] Judge was a popular Republican-leaning publication (Ferguson 65).

[5] Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65


[7] Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 66.

[8] Ibid, 67.

[9] Ibid, 68.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Michael C. McGee, ‘Not Men, But Measures’: The Origins and Import of an Ideological Principle,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 64 (1978): 141-154.

[12] Ibid, 67.

[13] Photo, right: Library of Congress. Cleveland’s opposition event went as far as to question his trustworthiness because he went by his middle name!

Categories: 1884 Campaign

By Will Howell–Campaign Songs, Past & Present

Irving BerlinThe first time I heard this song, it ran through my head for days. Days. If I’d been able to vote in 1952, this song would certainly have run through my brain while I stood in the voting booth. The song was written for the Man from Abilene by the great Irving Berlin (left), who gave us such earworms as “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and (of course) “God Bless America.”

While praise is due to Mr. Berlin for Eisenhower’s catchy campaign song, I’d contrast the success of Ike’s original campaign song with the decision to pair original lyrics with familiar melodies. For a modern comparison of this latter composition, I’d point you to Lyndon Johnson’s campaign song, which paired the melody from the title song of Hello, Dolly! with pro-Johnson lyrics. (Hello Dolly! premiered in 1964, the same year Johnson faced reelection.)

Although there are no doubt earlier examples, I first noticed this propensity when we read The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Melodies (1840) for class. This book, along with several others, provided many, many options for singing supporters of Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler, too).While some were set to folk melodies I knew, many were not. (And if you’ve heard of “Turn out, Giovanni, turn out”…well, I’d like to play on your trivia team some time.)

John FremontThe years following Harrison’s election include many similar examples:

In “’We Want Yer, McKinley’: Epideictic Rhetoric in Songs from the 1896 Presidential Campaign,” William Harpine also noted that, ““Marching Through Georgia” seems to have had extensive appeal as a melody for campaign songs,” particularly in the 1896 election (79).

Although Harpine doesn’t note regional differences, I wonder whether the anti-Southern song was the most effective melody for a national campaign. In 1972, James Irvin and Walter Kirkpatrick argued that music’s rhetorical power came from both melodies and lyrics. They theorized that when familiar—and well-liked—melodies accompanied unfamiliar lyrics, the listener was primed to develop positive feelings toward the lyrics. In using the melody of a song that, in its original form, celebrated Sherman’s March to the Sea, campaigns in the Gilded Age may have—intentionally or unintentionally—alienated a whole region of voters.

Campaign Song GreeleyHorace Greeley (song cover sheet, left) puts my point more succinctly in The Log-Cabin Songbook: “People like the swing of the music. After a song or two, they are more ready to listen to the orators” (quoted from Robert Gunderson, “Presidential Canvass, Log-Cabin Style,” Today’s Speech 5 (1957): 19). Or if they don’t “like the swing of music,” maybe they’re not “more ready to listen to the orators.”

By Devin Scott–Political Cartoons in the 1860 Presidential Campaign: Visual Depictions of Presidential Candidates as Performers

April 17, 2014 1 comment

The Presidential race of 1860 was a hard fought contest that was engaged in on all fronts available to the campaigners and their Parties. One such front was political cartoons; cartoons were widely printed and distributed. As such, political cartoonists’ representations of the presidential candidates are a rich area for study. In this post, I compare and contrast two cartoons that depict the four presidential hopefuls in a contest for the presidency. The first cartoon, “The Great Political Juggle,” which was printed in the (Cincinnati) Rail Splitter, depicts the four candidates as performers who juggle Electoral College electors, to varying degrees of success. The second cartoon I analyze is Louis Maurer’s “The Political Gymnasium,” which depicts the presidential hopefuls demonstrating their athletic prowess for the public.

1860 Cartoon

In “The Great Political Juggle,” the audience views (from left to right) John C. Breckenridge, Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and John Bell engaged in a Juggling contest for the Presidency. The artist depicted Lincoln as the winner of the most states, followed by Bell and Breckenridge, with Douglas in last place. This rendering is accompanied with an explanatory caption that dictates Lincoln’s overwhelming victory in the Free States and Bell and Breckenridge’s splitting of the southern States. Douglas is humorously depicted as having fallen down under the weight of “squatter sovereignty,” a “Black Pill” he was unsuccessful in convincing the country to swallow. Besides predicting Lincoln as the winner of the election, the cartoonist also predicts that it will be a battle not for popular vote, but rather for electoral votes. This distinction makes the campaign primarily about state to state popularity rather than national popularity. The other political cartoon, “The Political Gymnasium” also favors Lincoln, but stops short of predicting the outcome of the election.

In “The Political Gymnasium” the audience again watches the various candidates performing, only this time they showcase their athletic prowess, rather than their skillful juggling of the Electoral College. The cartoon portrays Constitutional Union Party Presidential candidate, John Bell as a barbell being held up by his running mate Edward Everett, demonstrating his lack of athletic prowess in relation to the other candidates, all of whom are depicted in much more active poses. Abraham Lincoln is shown upon a balance beam apparently supported by his Republican Party nomination, while Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, the Democratic nominees for President, box each other for control of their Party. Douglas asserts that he will make Breckenridge cry before taking “a round with the rest of them,” while Breckenridge’s character implies that he will garner enough Democratic support to prevent Douglas from seriously challenging Lincoln for the Presidency.

Political Performance

More interesting than the two political ca1860 Cartoon 2rtoons’ individual depictions of the contest for the presidency is the dominant commonality the two share; both cartoons depict the candidates as performers.  “The Political Gymnasium” shows the candidates as gymnasts who are seeking to showcase their athleticism to the American public. This is not a direct contest where the candidates battle each other with a clear winner, despite the depiction of a boxing match between Douglas and Breckenridge. Instead, it is a performance for the public. Are Everett and Bell’s demonstration of Strength more entertaining than Lincoln’s mounting of the balance beam, or is one of the boxers’, Breckenridge and Douglas, performance most enticing? Despite the inevitability of a victor, the candidates and their Parties are shown as independent performers in the quest for the presidency, not direct competitors.

“The Great Political Juggle” provides a more obvious representation of the candidates as performers rather than direct competitors. Instead of depicting the candidates in a race or contest for votes, the Cincinnati Rail Splitter depicts the candidates as individual jugglers performing their act for the American public, with the winner being the candidate who successfully juggles the most Electoral College votes. Again, the candidates are not shown competing directly; instead, each candidate attempt to individually win the most States through their juggling performance. Once the theme of Presidential candidates as performers rather than competitors is recognized, its prevalence in the two cartoons is abundantly apparent.

What are the wider implications of these political cartoons and their decision to highlight candidates and their performances over candidates and their issues?

One possible explanation is that these political cartoons are overtly about the presidential race itself, but are actually critiques of the characters and Party politics that defined the 1860 presidential campaign. The cartoons may speak to a view of the presidential campaigns as primarily performative, rather than direct contests where the best candidate wins; the campaigners are shown as mere performers that compete on the grounds of character and Party, rather than on issues. These cartoons may be subtle critiques of the lack of issue based campaigning and the reliance of the candidates upon personality and Party to elect them. If this explanation holds true, these cartoons provide a powerful, yet subtle, critique of character and Party based campaigns, at the expense of issue based campaigns.

In other words, we might wonder, if these political cartoons are clever, prescient, critiques of “Man over Measure” politics?

Cartoon Sources:

“The Great Political Juggle”:

“The Political Gymnasium”:

By Will Howell–Comedy and Campaigning, 1931 & 2008

On May 7, 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain made his thirteenth appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. McCain had previously run for president (in 2000), but his appearances were unrelated to his previous candidacy: rather, McCain’s affinity for The Daily Show (and vice versa) grew from McCain’s advocacy for campaign finance reform. As a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, Jon Stewart was more than willing to provide Senator McCain a venue to inform the public about his work.

McCain’s many appearances–and particularly this appearance amidst the escalating presidential election—call to mind a historical parallel from October, 1931. President Herbert Hoover, up for reelection one year later, presided over a deepening economic depression. The conservative president turned to the private sector to revive the economy (and, consequently, his chances for reelection) by creating POUR: the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief.

Perhaps Hoover didn’t recognize the tragic irony of calling this organization POUR, but he knew how to boost its success. He asked popular comedian Will Rogers to appear on the radio with him to promote the program.

Roger’s brief remarks—dubbed “Bacon and Beans and Limousines”—are found below. John McCain’s interview on The Daily Show is available here.

I don’t want to belabor the content of either broadcast, but rather to raise some points of comparison.

In both situations, the comedians (to use Peter M. Robinson’s excellent phrasing) “dominated the middle ground between the people and the president” (or presidential candidate, in the case of McCain). In his book, Robinson traces how this domination solidified over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it’s always been there. From Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley columns to Will Roger’s Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President, from Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, comedians have helped us evaluate our presidents—and given us standards by which we might judge presidential candidates.

In 1931, the politician asked the comedian to help him advocate for a policy; in 2008, the comedian invited the politician. While acknowledging the constant “mediator” role comedians play, it’s also important to acknowledge that the tables have turned somewhat. Fey’s impression has been cited by several scholars and many cultural critics as a contributing factor to Sarah Palin’s public unraveling, and appearing on The Daily Show was a rite of passage for nearly all of the Republican and Democratic candidates who sought to succeed George W. Bush in the 2008 presidential campaign. Right or wrong, American citizens seem to have ceded a great deal of vetting power to comedians.

In 1931, all radio stations carried the politician and comedian’s address; in 2008, the comedian and the politician addressed only a segment of the population who paid to see them. There are three points I wish to make here. First, changing technologies now allow us to see the comedian sitting next to the president. I’d argue that this is a stronger validation of the comedian’s political contribution than hearing his/her voice in tandem with the president/presidential candidate. That being said, it doesn’t carry as much weight if fewer people see it. Perhaps McCain said something insightful, or important for citizens to know as they evaluated his candidacy, when he appeared on The Daily Show…but unless citizens seek it out, its civic contribution is diminished. I am one of those who ’don’t have cable, meaning I’d need to go online to watch the interview; I’d need to make an affirmative decision, and then take steps, to watch it. This leads to a final point: comedians increasingly play to specific audiences. Will Rogers played to everybody, as did Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and the other radio comedy greats. This obviously relates to the broadcast technology they used, but the outcome is what’s important. They did political material alongside jokes about their pets, and their stupid neighbors. Because cable enables narrowcast audiences, comedians in that medium can rule out certain types of material. Coupled with broadcast networks’ concerns about political comedy emerging from the Vietnam War era, this has contributed to a walling-off of political comedy.

Some food for thought while you listen/watch and compare these two broadcasts. There are obviously other points of comparison, and I invite you to both engage my points and note what comparisons you see in your comments.

By Michael Steudeman–Explicit Character, Implicit Pledges: Zachary Taylor’s Platform-Less Campaign

Governments, Michael Calvin McGee asserted, are made up of men, not measures.[1] Defenders of this proposition avoid the cynical disparagement of “image politics,” recognizing the fundamental role that character serves in defining qualities of leadership. In campaigns, issue and image implicate one another: certain character traits correspond with particular policy positions.[2] A wartime leader cannot be a wimp. An economic leader should be a no-nonsense businessman. The current president—who transcended differences in partisanship and race to secure his election—credibly articulated this appeal as a man with a family lineage born of two continents. Whether or not politics should be this way is inconsequential. The point here is simply that politics are this way, and that the positions candidates take cannot be severed entirely from the types of leadership they expound.

What I hope to highlight here, however, is the other side of the coin. Image politics work precisely because they provide a proxy for the types of decisions candidates might make once elected to the presidency. For this reason, image—by itself—cannot provide a full account for electoral politics, either. When images are asserted by candidates without attention to their corresponding policy implications, the results can be surprising, erratic, and altogether problematic.

Taylor from 1848Zachary Taylor’s 1848 presidential campaign provides a revealing case study of the implicit issues that belie even the vaguest candidate images. Controversially, Taylor did not adopt any party platform for his campaign. As a war hero without clear political positions, he could well have been chosen as a candidate by either the Whigs or Democrats.

The movement to draft Taylor as a presidential candidate began during his leadership as a general in the Mexican-American War. Famous for his resilient victory in the Battle of Buena Vista over the forces of Santa Anna, talk began immediately of his potential presidential bid. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his eulogy for Taylor, even “Rough and Ready” himself may have been surprised by the attention:

So soon as the news of the battles of the eighth and ninth of May, 1846, had fairly reached the United States, General Taylor began to be named for the next Presidency, by letter writers, newspapers, public meetings and conventions in various parts of the country. These nominations were generally put forth as being of a no-party character. Up to this time I think it highly probable—nay, almost certain—that General Taylor had never thought of the Presidency in connection with himself. And there is reason for believing that the first intelligence of these nominations rather amused than seriously interested him.[3]

Taylor’s prospective presidential bid began to generate talk during a moment of intense controversy in the United States Congress. Battles over the admittance of newly-acquired lands in the West became a source of bitter sectional dispute. As historian David M. Potter writes, the nominations of Taylor, Democrat Lewis Cass, and Free Soiler Martin Van Buren as presidential candidates emerged during a year when pro- and anti-slavery forces wrangled in a deadlocked House and Senate.[4]

Taylor became a compelling candidate because he lacked a clear stake in the debate over slavery in the territories. The Whigs, in nominating him over their leader Henry Clay, implied this rationale throughout their campaign literature. Due to the virtues of leadership Taylor exuded as a war hero, Whigs felt assured that he would uphold their party values. And, due to his background as a Louisiana slaveholder, Southerners of both Whig and Democratic stripes confidently assumed that he would support slavery in the newly-acquired Western territories. To this end, the Whigs strategically nominated the candidate without requiring him to state his positions. As the American Whig Review wrote in July of 1848 following the General’s nomination:

We seek no further proof and shall not agitate the question; we hold it certain that the affections and prejudices of the nominee incline him to the side which we advocate. We do not ask of him an immediate declaration on every point of Whig policy. As he is honest and prudent, he cannot speak without deliberation: his mind has been occupied with military affairs; in these he is well versed; but as the genius of the great commander differs but little, perhaps not at all in its kind, from that of the civil chief, we may be sure his government will be devoid neither of energy, wisdom, nor economy.[5]

Because Taylor emerged as a candidate on the heels of a military campaign, the argument went, he should not be held accountable to clearly articulate his stance on the issues. Character alone—“Prudence, firmness, justice; invincible resolution, contempt of opinion, of danger and of accident, [and] an elevated spirit”—would lead Taylor to wisely lead the nation through its controversies.[6] Similarly, the Whig Party Platform in 1848 justified the position-less candidate by pointing to his character. Though Taylor had never voted, he assured Whigs that he would have voted Whig in the 1844 election. Citing a “soldier’s word of honor” as reason enough to trust Taylor’s political sentiments, the party felt that no more than “assurance… is needed from a consistent and truth-speaking man.”[7]

One anonymous conservative Whig made the case for supporting the General—a “Whig in principle”—by discounting the import of party pledges in campaigns. “These partisan pledges, these promises of the office-seekers, what are they worth? In nine cases out of ten they are made only to be broken. Pledges! Who that made has ever kept them? Will the lessons of experience never impart wisdom?” Running through the unfulfilled campaign promises of Jackson, van Buren, Tyler, and Polk, he concluded by asserting that the Whigs need not demand any pledges of policy from Taylor to accept his nomination:

What, then, are pledges, what their necessity? when any Administration, rightly conducted, must be guided after all by the progress of human affairs and the exigencies of the moment. Pledges! There can be no pledges but a clear head, an honest heart, and an upright will.[8]

Taylor would thus be run as an entirely character-based candidate. There was no need for him to articulate his positions, the reasoning went, because ultimately his conduct as president would derive from decisions rooted in his virtuous soul and expression of strong character on the battlefield.

In the absence of a clear statement of position, however, Northerners and Southerners alike examined other details of Taylor’s personal narrative to draw assumptions about his policy stances. A critical pamphlet distributed by John Calvin Adams, an anti-slavery Whig from the North, captures the assumptions of both sides of the North-South divide. The lack of a platform, the author asserted, would not fool him or his Northern brethren into believing that Taylor represented a cause other than slave power:

This man is held up by the slave holders of the South as a master for the North during the next presidential term… We are slightingly informed that Gen. Taylor has no opinions on any subject; or does not choose to express them, On the great questions of slavery and the Wilmot Proviso—which more than any others excite the public mind—Gen. Taylor, when respectably solicited to give an opinion, is dumb. He is a Slave owner—a Slave breeder—and the candidate and warrior of the promoters of the Extension of Slavery.[9]

As this sentiment illustrates, the interplay of image and issue—one grafting atop the other—is hard to avoid, even amid a candidate’s silence on the issues. As a slaveholder and a General in a war many Northerners regarded as an effort to expand slavery, Taylor was ascribed an assumed set of policy positions on slavery in the campaign whether he sought them or not. Ultimately, in both the Whig Party Convention and the general election, this assumption of his support for slaveholders took hold. Taylor won the election largely on the basis of his support in the South.

Steudeman Blog Post PicIronically, Taylor instead deeply offended pro-slavery Southerners. Within a year after his election, Potter writes, the newly elected president committed several fairly bold antislavery maneuvers in the territories. He encouraged California to skip territory status to immediately become a state, thus increasingly the likelihood that its government would ban slavery. Then, in an act that offended Southerners, he explicitly declared he would not veto a Congressional passage of the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso.[10] By May of 1850, he further agitated the Southern faction of the Whig and Democratic Parties when he encouraged the incorporation of a disputed Texas territory into the state of New Mexico. If not for his death in July 1850, Potter muses, he “might well have started a war” with divisive implications for the North and South.[11]

“I ask no favors, and shun no responsibilities.” Taylor’s campaign slogan epitomized the supreme elevation of image over issue in the 1848 campaign. The slogan sought to sever him from party connections or associations, stressing only his moral compass as a virtuous general willing to take on necessary challenges as they emerge. In execution, however, the ambiguity about his positions ultimately proved a source of supreme confusion for his supporters. In the absence of a clear statement of pledges, the public invented one; and, as it turned out, invented it incorrectly, failing to anticipate the antislavery policies Taylor would pursue as president. Taylor’s case illustrates the ways in which the identity propositions of a campaign about the virtues or background of a candidate almost inevitably provoke corresponding assumptions about policy positions. Whether candidates try to make an election entirely about issues or, in Taylor’s case, about image, the two concepts imply one another. Despite their infinite violability, then, campaign “pledges” provide an important role for candidates by allowing them to assert—and thus better control—the relationship between their identities and the policies they may pursue.


[1] Michael Calvin McGee, “‘Not Men, but Measures’: The Origins and Import of an Ideological Principle,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 64 (1978): 141-154.

[2] Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a ‘Treacherous Piety’: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13 (2010): 37-64.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, The Life and Public Services of General Zachary Taylor: An Address (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922). Ebook.

[4] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: HarperCollins, 1976), 63-89.

[5] “The Nomination.—General Taylor,” The American Review: Devoted to Politics and Literature 2 (1848): 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Whig Party Platform of 1848,” June 7, 1848, The American Presidency Project, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley,

[8] A conservative Whig, “Considerations in Favor of the Nomination of Zachary Taylor by the Whig National Convention,” Washington, April 4, 1848, online by The Library of Congress, 8.

[9] John Calvin Adams, “A Northern No! Addressed to the Delegates from the Free States to the Whig National Convention,”Philadelphia, 1848, online by The Library of Congress, 8.

[10] Potter, The Impending Crisis, 87.

[11] Ibid, 107.

Hamilton, Adams, & Jefferson, 1800

COMM 760–Seminar in Political Communication Update: For the spring 2014 semester, the graduate political communication seminar at Maryland is actually reading…campaign discourse. Along with all the required theory and criticism about political communication, the seminar is examining a range of campaign texts, from speeches to broadsides, pamphlets to ads to party platforms.

This week, COMM760’s starting with two fascinating campaigns–1800 and 1808. Starting with Alexander Hamilton’s letter “concerning the public content and character” of John Adams, the seminar’s going to discuss a series of letters, speeches, and pamphlets from these elections.

Here are a couple of interesting contemporary takes on 1800:


Categories: Uncategorized

Songs, Campaigns, and Political Images

It happens every four years–some dispute about campaigns and their appropriation of specific songs at rallies, in ads, at conventions, etc. The newest dust-up involves Michele Bachman and her use of Tom Petty’s American Girl at rallies in Iowa and South Carolina.

Of course, one interesting dimension of these struggles involves the lyrics. In the chorus of American Girl, for example, Petty sings “Oh yeah, all right/Take it easy, baby/Make it last all night.” What exactly is the “it” that should last all night, and is “it” something Bachman wants associated with her campaign!?

Here’s an interesting article in the Washington Post about this campaign problem.

Categories: 2012 Campaign