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A Look Back at Presidential Elections | Ryan Bridges

With another presidential election weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, it’s both interesting and topical to look back at the legacies of elections past.

Let’s go all the way back–back to 1788, where the first presidential election was taking place. This election was absolutely nothing like what we see now. The popular vote held no values–a college of electors, who each had two votes they would cast, would select a president and vice president. Only ten states’ electors cast ballots at all. The presidential campaign for this election was, for the most part, the public trying to get Washington to accept the presidency–there was no one else the country would accept, and he knew it too. Washington’s advisors warned him about conceding the Presidency to someone that is less experienced and could not handle the weight of the new nation that would be placed on their shoulders. In the end, Washington was convinced to enter the contest. He won by unanimous vote. 

An especially pivotal election occurred in 1800. This election made its on the way elections were run: the 12th Amendment was introduced following this election, which eliminated the convoluted dual-vote electoral college system mentioned above (before the change, the second place finisher in an election became the vice president, which caused bitter rivalries between presidents and vice presidents). 1800 was notable in that a peaceful transition of power occurred: the Democratic-Republican party, led by Thomas Jefferson, had ousted the Federalists, who had ruled for twelve years under Washington and Adams. The Federalists controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives before 1800. 1800 initiated the fall of the Federalists, and set a precedent of peaceful transition of power between opposing factions. 

In 1896, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan made a substantial innovation to the campaign process: he made a nationwide speaking tour, addressing crowds personally across the country. Giving hundreds of speeches while traveling the nation, Bryan changed the way presidential candidates campaigned. While he lost, the campaign that Bryan ran changed every campaign that followed. Before the 1896 election, candidates did not “run” for president. They simply stood for office, presenting their policies and plans, relied on surrogates to speak on their behalf, and let the voting play out. Bryan’s innovations–tactics adopted by almost every presidential candidate who followed him–lived on even though he ended up being defeated by Republican nominee William McKinley.

These elections have impacted and will continue to impact the landscape of our elections for a long time. It is important to see when our country evolved into the power it is today. This helps appreciate how our policies take time to become an integral part of our society, and how the past informs the future. And that can be a lesson for us all.

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