Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

Presidential elections: The beginning of debates

Under the new U.S. Constitution in 1789 the only debates over the Presidency were in Congress and the state legislatures. The first Electors, virtually named by the states' legislatures, appointed George Washington as the first President when 10 of the 11 states agreed. New York didn't think the matter important enough to argue over and simply didn't vote. By 1792 there were 15 states and with little fanfare the Electors, voting by state, unanimously re-appointed Washington. John Adams was Vice President for both Washington terms.

In the election of 1796 Adams won the job. Thomas Jefferson, who had been Secretary of State for Washington's first term, came in second to become Vice President. Political divisions began appearing during Washington's tenure -- Federalism versus states' rights -- with Adams a strong Federalist and Jefferson just as strong for states' sovereignty. Differences between the two had been exposed when Jefferson began publishing his views in Virginia newspapers and when New England papers countered with support for Adams.

Technically, this activity could be labeled "debates" although the candidates were behind the scenes, avoiding ANY appearance of running for office. Jefferson dutifully served as VP, but throughout the four years he continued to push his own views even when they clashed with Adams. By 1800 Adams' popularity had diminished and he failed to win a majority of states in the Electoral College, receiving only enough to place him third behind Jefferson and Aaron Burr who tied with 73 votes. The decision was made by the House in Jefferson's favor in February, 1801.

Jefferson served two terms, followed by James Madison for two terms, and James Monroe for two terms. In the 1824 election Andrew Jackson won 11 of 24 states and John Quincy Adams won 7. Neither having a majority of electoral votes, the election once more went to the House where Henry Clay, another candidate, threw his support to Adams. Adams became President, with a final tally of 13 states, in spite of Jackson's larger popular vote.

The irony of the 1824 election was that John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson were Federalist in the sense that both were strong believers in the federal government taking a pro-active role. Jackson, an aggressive leader, was determined that the next election would not be left to bartering in the House. He worked feverishly to build a national organization and became a founder of the Democratic Party. He won election as President in 1828 mostly because his party was so well organized throughout the nation. Jackson's military fame also attracted many voters.

The 20-year period after Jackson became President is often called the Age of Jackson. Under Jackson's leadership, his followers tried to win reforms in the states by demanding state regulation and inspection of banks, they fought for the right of workers to organize labor unions, and called for a 10-hour workday. They sought adoption of the secret ballot in elections. When Jackson was re-elected in 1832, he became the first President who had been nominated by a national political convention. Historians often use the term Jacksonian Democracy to describe the reforms and reform movements of the period from 1828 to 1850.

Another irony is that the Democrats were the first to take campaigns to the general public and organize national conventions, yet by the turn of the century (1900) this same party (in name only) had become the party of smoke-filled back rooms, horse-trading and secret agendas.

In 1858 the man from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, was nominated for U.S. Senator to run against Stephen Douglas. He accepted with a speech that caused severe criticism. He said:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

After a few speeches, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates. Douglas accepted, and named seven places for the meetings. The first debate was held at Ottawa, Ill., on Aug. 21, 1858. The last was at Alton, Ill., on October 15. Each candidate spoke for an hour and a half. Large crowds attended all debates except one which was held in a remote area. Historians say that Lincoln won the debates, but it is factual that Douglas narrowly won the election. However, the debates made Lincoln a national figure and two years later he won the Presidency.

Jackson's overt organizing and Lincoln's public debates ended forever the reticent candidacy of presidential campaigns. For the next hundred years campaigns followed a general pattern; a few public debates interleaved with speeches from a stump, off a hay-wagon, or from the back of a train. Then came television.

During the campaign of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, some TV executives put forth the idea of televised debates. Kennedy, well behind in the polls, loved by the media, an excellent public speaker, and with nothing to lose, quickly accepted. Nixon, falsely believing that he HAD to accept, finally agreed and the rest is history. Kennedy's bright image and glib speaking style presented a stark contrast to a more stilted, nerdish Nixon. The result was that Kennedy gained the momentum and went on to win by one of the narrowest popular votes in history. Nixon won 26 states to Kennedy's 23 but Kennedy had states with more electoral votes. [It is possible, under the Electoral College system, to lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral vote. This nearly happened with the 1960 election.]


[As we now know, it happened again in the election of 2000. However, in 2000 a new phenomenon was exposed. As reported on TV, George W. Bush was ahead in the national popular vote until the California votes were counted. As the massive numbers were tallied for that state, Gore moved ahead and finally gained the popular total by about 500,000 votes. Of course, that is irrelevant. Popular votes mean nothing in a Presidential race. As specified in the Constitution, Presidents are elected by receiving the most votes in the Electoral College.]

==== COMMENTARY: ====

This is the third irony. The TV programs put on by the networks under the guise of debate, add nothing to the public discourse. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, confusing, rather than enlightening.

Webster's Dictionary defines:

"DEBATE: = To dispute; hence, to discuss or examine a question by considering arguments on both sides."

That is not what happens in these TV freak shows. The sham is tightly control by a set of ill-conceived rules limiting a participant's response to the point posed by a news reporter, as though the reporter is some all-knowing political guru who represents the public. What claptrap! The CANDIDATES are supposed to be the ones who know what the public wants to hear; not some reporter.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates (and until TV of 1960) each side had a time limit BUT during their time they could make ANY point they wished to make. That's as it should be. THAT'S a debate. If a debater squanders time on the wrong point, the debater loses. THAT'S debating. Under the TV fiascos, if a candidate squanders time, the public hardly notices because the segments are so short. Within the format used today, the public focuses on hair styles, smiles, and the press, and not on the discussion.

Placing the candidates on a stage under rules similar to those used by Lincoln-Douglas would refocus attention to the issues.

Philosophos Historia

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