America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History

America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History

America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History

America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History


Elections are, and always have been, the lifeblood of American democracy. Often raucous and sharply contentious, sometimes featuring grand debates about the nation's future, and invariably full of dramatic moments, elections offer insight into the character and historical evolution of American politics. America at the Ballot Box uses the history of presidential elections to illuminate American political democracy and its development from the early Republic to the late twentieth century.

Some of the contributions in America at the Ballot Box focus on elections that resulted in dramatic political change, including Jefferson's defeat of Adams in 1800, the 1860 election of Lincoln, and Reagan's 1980 landslide victory. Others concentrate on contests whose importance lies more in the way they illuminate the broad, underlying processes of political change, such as the corruption controversy of Cleveland's acrimonious election in 1884 or the advent of television advertising during the 1952 campaign, when Eisenhower defeated Stevenson. Another set of essays takes a thematic approach, exploring the impact of foreign relations, Anglophobia, and political communications over long periods of electoral time. Uniting all of the chapters is the common conviction that elections provide a unique vantage point from which to view the American political system.

Ranging from landmark contests to less influential victories and defeats, the essays by leading political historians seek to rehabilitate the historical significance of presidential elections and integrate them into the broader evolution of American government, policies, and politics.


Gareth Davies and Julian E. Zelizer

Mark Twain once quipped that “if we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election time.” “If voting made any difference,” he wrote elsewhere, “they wouldn’t let us do it.” Such sardonic reflections aside, elections are, and have always been, the lifeblood of American democracy, embodying the bedrock assumption of American politi cal culture that legitimate rule derives from the consent of the governed. Sometimes, when differences between candidates have been modest or during uncommonly quiet times, elections have been notable primarily for exuberant Political theater and overheated invective. Other contests, though, have featured passionate debate about the character and destiny of the Republic. Either way, by the 1820s presidential elections had become a mass-participation affair; at a time when British elections, if often raucous and fiercely contested, were firmly an elite sport, the United States was already a mass polity, and nothing distinguished it more dramatically from the Old World than its approach to elections. Early on in his 1842 American tour, steaming out of Boston, Charles Dickens remarked that “politics are much discussed” on an American train, that “party feeling runs very high,” and that “directly the acrimony of one election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins, which is an unspeakable comfort to all strong politicians and lovers of their country; that is to say, to ninety- nine men and boys out of every ninety- nine and a quarter.”

The early centrality of elections to American politics—their pervasiveness— was also a function of a less obvious singularity, namely, their metronomic regularity (quadrennial for the presidency, biennial for the House of Representatives, similarly fixed in the case of state contests). Presidents and legislators alike have had to keep a constant eye on the electorate for fear of losing office, and it is not just in recent years that reelection has loomed as an early . . .

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