Of Presidential Campaigns and Partisan Press: Journalism in the Elections of 1848 and 2016

Of Presidential Campaigns and Partisan Press: Journalism in the Elections of 1848 and 2016

In this presidential election year, some political observers have lamented the disappearance of a non-partisan press. Today, Republicans watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal; Democrats prefer MSNBC and the New York Times. The Internet has further fragmented journalism, putting the mass in mass media. For the Republican who suspects that the establishment has corrupted the Wall Street Journal, there is the Drudge Report. A progressive Democrat who sees the Times as too centrist might turn to the Huffington Post. Indeed, after recent coverage of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s ongoing problems with her emails, her associate Lanny Davis penned an angry defense in The Hill, lambasting the Times and the Associated Press, once considered a guardian of objective journalism, for fixating on Clinton’s alleged ethical violations while ignoring the troubles of Republican nominee Donald Trump.[1]

Students of the Civil War era know well the partisanship of nineteenth-century media and the public fascination with news as entertainment. We can look to another rollicking presidential election—the 1848 contest—for insight into how Americans interacted in a hyper-partisan era where the idea of a non-partisan press would have provoked laughter from the press corps. Though different in a number of ways, the election of 1848 bears interesting similarities to our current contest. James K. Polk, a youthful Democrat who beat the presumptive nominee, Martin Van Buren, for the nomination in 1844, prepared to leave office after a term beset by controversy over his signature policy, the conquest of foreign lands and westward expansion. Van Buren lost again in 1848, this time to the sixty-five-year old political veteran Lewis Cass of Michigan. The Whigs nominated a man who had never voted in a presidential election, Zachary Taylor of Louisiana. Both Democrats and Whigs had courted Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, but the sixty-three-year old candidate declared himself a Whig and beat the party’s establishment candidates, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, for the nomination. Meanwhile, a bruised Van Buren left his political home of a quarter century to ally with a third party—the Free Soilers—on a platform that opposed slavery in the territories on moral grounds.

“Grand, national, democratic banner. Press onward,” 1848. A campaign banner for Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass and William O. Butler, produced by Nathaniel Currier, 1848. People often displayed these banners at home. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
“Grand, national, democratic banner. Press onward,” 1848. A campaign banner for Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass and William O. Butler, produced by Nathaniel Currier, 1848. People often displayed these banners at home. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cass strived mightily to steer a middle course on the issue of slavery and its extension in the West, and he enlisted his allies in the Democratic press for assistance. Obtaining the Mexican Cession, a territory that today encompasses part or all of seven states, as the spoils of war had reintroduced the slavery issue into politics. He proposed to let the people in the territories determine the future of slavery, an idea that became known as popular sovereignty. Cass unveiled his policy via a common practice in the era: he sent a letter to a political associate, who promptly arranged for its publication in the Washington Union, the Democratic Party’s mouthpiece. Cass knew that popular sovereignty would work, and win him the presidency, only if Northerners believed it would prevent the spread of slavery and southerners thought it would allow slaves to enter the cession. Cass’s campaign managers allegedly produced two versions of his campaign biography, one for the North and one for the South, that glossed the slavery issue to suit each section’s preferences. Democratic party editors could scorn Taylor as the “friend of Southern institutions” while maintaining that “Gen. Cass is presented to the whole Union the same in the North as in the South,” while never elaborating on what exactly Cass believed on the issue.[2]

Democrats and Whigs alike used the partisan press to campaign for their candidates. “Documents of the right sort must be made to pass like hotcakes,” one Democratic newspaper noted, “going into every hole and corner where there is the least possibility of making a convert to our faith.”[3] Establishing newspapers specifically for the campaign season constituted a major expenditure for the Democratic National Committee and the Whig Executive Committee. These papers, like the Recruit for the Democrats and the Grape Shot for the Whigs, supplemented the traditional party organs from cities like Washington and New York. Editors made sure to print political propaganda in other languages, especially German, to reach voters who did not speak English.

The press acted as a campaign apparatus for the candidates. Most towns of any consequential size had newspapers that represented the major political parties, and during a presidential election year they worked feverishly to promote their respective party’s candidate. Most often, they reprinted articles from the major party organs. Newspapers displayed large mastheads on their papers with the slate of candidates they supported.

Masthead from the Sunbury (PA) American, June 3, 1848. The masthead from the Sunbury American, a Democratic newspaper in Pennsylvania. Editors proudly displayed their party’s candidates on the masthead during election contests. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Masthead from the Sunbury (PA) American, June 3, 1848. The masthead from the Sunbury American, a Democratic newspaper in Pennsylvania. Editors proudly displayed their party’s candidates on the masthead during election contests. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

An Ohio newspaper sought to illustrate the vacuity of the Taylor campaign by offering a fifty-dollar reward to anyone who could find a Whig principle not contained in this curious stanza:

“Sound the kewgag, strike the tonjon

Beat the Fuzguzzy, wake the gonqong

Let the loud hozanna ring,

Bum tum fuzzlegum dingo bim.”

A Whig poet penned this rebuttal:

“Poor Cass they did interrogate,

His silence has revenged us,

“Confusion” seized the candidate

The “noise,” it was tremendous.”[4]

3.Free soil song, 1848. Not to be outdone in song making, the Free Soilers issued the song, excerpted here, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
3. Free soil song, 1848. Not to be outdone in song making, the Free Soilers issued the song, excerpted here, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The election of 1848 shows how the partisan press often acted as a part of the campaign apparatus, a facet of politics that most Americans accepted as standard practice. Candidates used partisan newspapers to promote themselves and their platform without worrying about anything resembling the objective journalism that modern political observers claim we have lost. From the vantage point of the nineteenth century, the non-partisan media seems the anomaly. Imagine the task of a voter in 1848 trying to make an objective choice for president by poring over Democratic, Whig and Free Soil newspapers, sorting rhetoric from fact, seeking to make a decision. Our hypothetical, however, applied to relatively few voters in 1848, as most Americans held strong allegiances to one of the established parties. The scenario mirrors the present age in politics, with the “astonishing decline of the American swing voter,” as the Washington Post put it.[5] We can infer that most voters have already made up their minds and will seek media that support their conclusions. The antebellum press thrived with a captive partisan readership and perhaps we see a similar pattern today. Seeing the ways in which antebellum media served the candidates rather than the people, and reflecting on the parallels to the present, can lead us to question what kind of journalism we want for our current age.


[1] “Lanny Davis: The media’s undisputed bias against Hillary Clinton,” The Hill, September 7, 2016, http://thehill.com/opinion/lanny-davis/294754-lanny-davis-the-medias-undisputed-bias-against-hillary-clinton.

[2] For the Nicholson letter, see Washington Union, December 30, 1847; Christopher Childers, The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 155-156; Democratic Banner (Louisiana, MO), July 24, 1848.

[3] The Recruit, October 3, 1848, quoted in Joel H. Silbey, Party over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 90.

[4] Quoted in Willard Carl Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (Kent, OH: Kent State University Pres, 1996), 197, 211.

[5] John Sides, “The astonishing decline of the American swing voter,” Washington Post, November 3, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/03/the-astonishing-decline-of-the-american-swing-voter/.

Christopher Childers

Christopher Childers is an assistant professor of history at Pittsburg State University. He is the author of "The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics" (University Press of Kansas, 2012) and is completing a book titled "The Webster-Hayne Debate: Defining Nationhood in the Early American Republic."

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