Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the Campaign Trail: Electing a President

Every four years voters are told that they are voting in one of the most important elections in American history.Well...maybe. To those of you who might wish to offer a rejoinder when encountering these claims, this is a round-up of some books we have here in the library, some relatively new and some "classic," that take a look at some of the more interesting and important Presidential elections.

One of the prime candidates for the most important Presidential election in U.S. history would have to be the election of 1800. This was the election in which Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams after there had been a tie in the Electoral College vote.It helped to sort out some procedural problems with the Electoral College system (that resulted in the 12th Amendment which required electors to make a distinction between their presidential and vice-presidential vote) but most importantly, it was the first time that a successful transfer of power was made, and made peacefully, between opposing political parties. You can read about it in Adams vs. Jefferson, the Tumultuous Election of 1800  by John Ferling, in America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 by Bernard Weisberger, and in A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, American’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward Larson.

The Civil War was the major crisis in the history of the young American republic, and the elections of 1860 and 1864 were certainly very important Presidential contests. Douglas Egerton’s 1860 Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought the Civil War tells us about the means and consequences of Lincoln’s election, and Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening contains some interesting chapters on the election, particularly about the activists known as the “Wide Awakes.” The wartime election of 1864, and the potential threat it posed to a continued prosecution of the conflict are explored in Decided On the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864 by David Alan Johnson and in Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency by John C. Waugh. The election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden is famous in American history because Tilden won an absolute majority of the votes cast and still did not become President. The electoral votes in three states were in dispute, and eventually all of them went to Hayes in an informal deal that resulted in his agreement to remove Federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction and setting back the cause of black civil rights for years to come. The story is told in Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris.

The library collection contains a number of books about Franklin Roosevelt’s campaigns for the Presidency, including two very recent books on the wartime election of 1944, in which Roosevelt faced Thomas E. Dewey. The Great Depression campaign of 1932, which resulted in Roosevelt being elected to his first term as President, is  one of the most important elections in U.S. history. You can read about it in Steve Neal’s Happy Days Are Here Again. Roosevelt’s 1940 election is discussed in Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing “We Want Wilkie!” Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save The Western World. Rousing accounts of FDR’s final campaign, the wartime election of 1944, can be found in two books published in the last year, FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan and in Stanley Weintraub’s Final Victory: FDR’s Extraordinary Campaign for President during World War II. Of course, one of the most famous photographs in American Presidential politics is that of the triumphant Harry Truman holding up the copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its headline that read, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” A rather biting account of the 1948 campaign can be found in 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and The Year That Transformed America’s Role in the World by David Pietrusza.

The Presidential campaigns of the turbulent 1960s were considered to be a major turning point in the way Presidential campaigns were waged, primarily because of the growing importance of the television broadcast medium in American life. Theodore White’s classic Making of the President 1960 was the beginning of a whole new genre of literature in American politics, one that presented a detailed postmortem and explained to voters why one candidate won and the other lost. Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968 took a more jaundiced view of the use of the television medium. The election of 1968 was also the subject of what is my favorite political memoir of them all, Norman Mailer’s literate and uniquely subjective Miami and the Siege of Chicago, written at a time when conventions were still great shows and not the tame and scripted affairs they are today. It was a time when getting a group of Democrats or Republicans together could be a raucous and wild affair and nobody knew when the lid would blow off.  Believe it or not, conventions were at one time great political theater and engrossing live television. Those were the days.

So whatever your stripe, if you are a Presidential political junkie and love this stuff, these are some titles you will find interesting. You might consider one of these books just in case things don’t live up to your level of political excitement between now and the first Tuesday in November. Which of course will be the most important Presidential election in American history.

P.S. Watch for a special display of Presidential memorabilia in the lobby of the Central Library in October!

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