US political campaigns before 1900

Since there was no TV or radio, how did people find out about who was running and their views ? (for president, governor, senator, not local offices) I know there were newspapers but how many people read them? I guess there were local people who could knock on doors or hold local rallies as well.

Also from what I’ve read the newspapers were very biased to one party or another. Even today there are a few papers which have either Democrat or Republican in their names. For example

Newspapers were very biased, but they were also one of the main ways that each candidate got their names and views out to the public. Newspapers and word of mouth were about the only ways that people had to find out what was going on around the world. Even if a person didn’t read the newspaper, they would probably talk to someone who did, and that person would tell them what they had read. It was an effective way of getting the message out.

Each party would also hand out leaflets and would hold rallies and make speeches, letting everyone know what their party stood for.

Presidential debates weren’t much of a thing until the Lincoln-Douglas debates. After those debates, each party would print an edited version of what their candidate said during the debate, and this highly edited version would be published and distributed. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were such a success that after this, public debates (and their subsequent publishing in print) became a standard part of U.S. politics.

We tend to think of dirty politics as a relatively new invention, and schools tend to teach the early days of the U.S. as if it were some kind of weird happy time when everyone all got along together. If you look back at the leaflets that were handed out back in the 1700s and 1800s, you’ll see that dirty politics is definitely nothing new, and smear campaigns and outright lying were actually quite common. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents published leaflets and newspaper articles accusing Jefferson of boinking his female slaves. Jefferson, on the other hand, accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite. Fun times.

Historians have a fun time with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The published info on them from each side differs quite a bit, and historians compare them to try to determine what was actually said. Both sides tend to leave out the ‘best lines’ of their opponent, or mis-quote them, while keeping the best lines from their candidate, and downplay weak ones.

Well, modern genetic testing has shown that the one about Jefferson is likely true, but the one about Adams is likely false (he produced 6 children, after all, and hermaphrodites are generally not fertile).

In his book “Arguing About Slavery” about the efforts of Congressman John Quincy Adams to repeal the gag rule prohibiting debating slavery in Congress, author William Lee Miller read years of the “Congressional Record”. When he told friends of this, they usually responded how boring that must have been. Miller said no, many ordinary people were very interested in politics. Granted, many of today’s options didn’t exist then but if you look at voter turnout, it was much higher in the 19th century. Yes, eligible voters were more restricted back then. But it must have been harder to get to the polls in a more rural country.

 One thing you often see in the 19th century that it was considered unseemly for a presidential candidate or even hit the campaign trail. Most stayed at home, gave speeches from their home front porch and let surrogates speak for them at various meetings.

“Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”
“Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

In the very old days, you didn’t vote for President, Vice President or U.S. senator. For Pres and VP you voted for electors, who were people known locally. They made their views known and pledged their support to candidates who shared their views.

Senators were elected by state legislators into the 20th Century, so the local person you voted for was the one who’d actually choose your senator.

Of course, in those days, without radio, television, movies, etc., spending an evening at a town meeting listening to people argue about tariffs was considered highly entertaining.

You’re about a hundred years too early. The first presidential debate was in 1960, between Nixon and Kennedy. The Republicans had had a primary debate in 1948 between Dewey and Stassen, and the Democrats had one in 1956, between Kefaufer and Stevenson. Presidential debates didn’t really take off until 1976, though, and there’s been one every election cycle since.