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review 2018-10-28 11:28
The emergence of presidential campaigning
The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson - Mark R. Cheathem

The presidential election of 1840 in America was a notable one for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was its result, as it was the first election in which the nominee of the Whig Party, William Henry Harrison, triumphed by defeating his Democratic opponent, incumbent president Martin Van Buren. Though this was the product of a variety of factors, foremost among them was the Whig's perfection of electioneering techniques that had emerged over the previous sixteen years, the employment of which served in many ways as a model for presidential campaigns down to the present day. In this book Mark Cheathem describes the evolution of presidential campaigning during the antebellum era, showing how these techniques emerged and how they framed the contests for the growing number of Americans voting in national elections.


As Cheathem explains, the development of presidential campaigning was a relatively recent phenomenon. With George Washington as a consensus choice, the nascent political parties did not even confront the problem of electing candidates until the third election in 1796. Even then, elections took place in a very different context, with the electoral college delegates chosen by their state's legislatures rather than in a popular vote. This changed in the 1820s as popular democracy was expanded, a development intertwined with the emergence of the "second party system" in the aftermath of the presidential election of 1824.


With the new parties now needing to appeal to this growing pool of voters they began to develop a range of electioneering devices. Here Cheathem details the emergence of a variety of tools in print, music, and visual culture that sought to promote a chosen candidate and undermine their opponent. As the dominant mass media of their time newspapers were at the forefront of this, often serving as the most direct means for candidates to reach out to their supporters across long distances. But the songs and displays at rallies also emerged as important implements for campaigns to rally voters to support their man. Cheathem also details the growing role women played in this process, as the contemporary views about their role as moral guardians proved a valuable asset in political campaigns.


Cheathem describes this in a brisk narrative that demonstrates a command of both the campaign material of the era and the secondary source literature on his subject. By weaving into this a succinct narrative of the presidential politics of the time, he provide a useful background to the issues touched upon in the campaign materials he describes. All of this is presented in a fluid text that provides its readers with a clear presentation of the era and makes a convincing argument about the development of presidential campaigning in the era. The result is a book that everybody interested in American politics should read, both for the understanding it provides in the development of modern electioneering, both for better and for worse.

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review 2014-10-03 15:09
The Life of Martin Van Buren as told by Davy Crockett
The Life of Martin Van Buren: Heir-Appar... The Life of Martin Van Buren: Heir-Apparent to the "Government" and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson: Containing Every Authentic Particular by Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed: With a Concise History of the Even - David Crockett

Usually I just use the name of the book as the title for my review, however in this case the full title, “The Life of Martin Van Buren: Heir-Apparent to the “Government” and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson: Containing Every Authentic Particular by Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed: With a Concise History of the Events That Have Occasioned His Unparalleled Elevation: Together With a Review of His Policy as a Statesman,” made that a bit impractical. The author has a tendency to be incredibly long-winded, but I'm getting ahead of myself.


Reading Rationale

Aside from the fact that there isn't a particularly wide selection of Martin Van Buren biographies out there (and the fact that this one was free), it was the author's name that really piqued my interest in this one. Due to an apparent lack of folkloric literacy, I was shocked to find that Davy Crockett was actually a real person. I thought the coonskin cap-wearing, cabin-dwelling guy belonged among the ranks of Paul Bunyan or (well, I was gonna say Johnny Appleseed, but it turns out he was real too).

1955 Davy Crockett Disney Poster

In my defense, Disney's appropriation of Crockett as a character threw a wrench in my reasoning. Is Jack Sparrow real? Do I need to start watching out for Mr. Toad next time I'm on the expressway?


Crockett's Case

To put it lightly, Davy Crockett was not a fan of MVB. Though he certainly knew how to draw a crowd when canvassing the country to tell his tales in person, Crockett's thoughts on Van Buren were (evidently) too important not to be put to the page. 

Davy Crockett 1786-1836 Granger

Crockett's complaints were reminiscent of the anti-Kerry ads in the 2004 presidential race; MVB, it would seem, was a flip-flopper, and that (though he was basically hand picked by Jackson as his successor) he is no Old Hickory. Of course, Crockett puts things in different words:

“Every thinking man...must see that Van Buren is as opposite to General Jackson as dung is to a diamond.”

Yeah, Crockett keeps it folksy, which is fun—well, fun to a point. The thing about Crockett (to this modern reader) is that he undermines his clever turns of phrase by going on, and on, and on. For example: 

“Statesmen are gamesters, and the people are the cards they play with.”

Ok. Good analogy Davy, but then he goes on to list how this applies to shuffling, card tricks, games of whist, games of poker, and just about anything having to do with cards ever.


Martin Van Buren: the Original Pol

What Crockett says is true. MVB was happy enough to switch allegiances in order to get himself in position to be on the winning side of things. And was he (Van Buren) a “selfish and insidious deceiver”? Probably. After all, they did end up calling him the “Little Magician” for landing on the winning side of every debate.

The Little Magician Invoked, J Baillie, 1844

Crockett can be given points for running an effective smear campaign (true or not, the facts offered are definitely of the “attack ad” flavor). But MVB landed in office nonetheless. 


Because this was a pre-election book (duh), I actually bothered to read another (mercifully brief) Van Buren piece, Martin Van Buren: lawyer, statesman and man. As to whether or not I will summon the strength to review that one, only time will tell.

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review 2012-12-10 00:00
Martin Van Buren: Eighth President 1837-1841 (Getting to Know the U.S. Presidents)
Martin Van Buren: Eighth President 1837-1841 (Getting to Know the U.S. Presidents) - Mike Venezia Nice little book on MVB - 8th president. Missing a few facts that kiddos would find interesting, but overall, good introduction.
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