Corrupt from day one?
July 16, 2006 5:01 PM   Subscribe

How were early American political campaigns funded?

Obviously George Washington was a war hero, and I know Thomas Jefferson was pretty wealthy. But how did the average person pay for campaigning? What about all the small races for the House of Representatives? Who paid for the stage coaches to speaking events or the campaign posters? Were there major ethics violations that had politicians pilloried in the press during the America's first century? Moreover, how did the founders -think- about this question? Other than accepting Montesquieu's notion of the commercial republic, how did they think businessmen and politicians would get on without favoring each other?

I'm just getting started investigating this question, and I'd appreciate any larger resources (case studies or biographies that dwell on these questions) that might point me in the right direction. But if the answer is simple, and anyone just knows it, I'll take that too.
posted by anotherpanacea to Law & Government (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, for one thing, they only had to worry about the white male landowners, so the number of votes they needed wasn't as high. That's probably not the whole answer, though.
posted by oaf at 5:13 PM on July 16, 2006

The same way they're funded now: a combination of self-funding, money from businessmen and special interest seeking preferential regulation and government funding, and money from the idealistic rich.
posted by MattD at 5:25 PM on July 16, 2006

Response by poster: Government funding? I think not. I'm looking for something a bit more concrete... statistics, maybe ledgers, or at least a historian who'd read them.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:04 PM on July 16, 2006

Best answer: This book might be of some use. The title (Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform) makes it seem somewhat biased, but the excerpt on Amazon (Chapter 2) seems to give a good overview. It seems the evolution was something like: At first, there weren't many voters, so you bought everybody a beer, and nobody really cared because even small offices were often unopposed. A little later, political parties developed, and people like Jefferson might start a newspaper or something to support their guys. Still not many voters, so no need to break the bank.

Then you get to the Jackson-Van Buren era, when non-landowners got the vote, and so the parties had to start spending like crazy. This is the age of people traveling around and giving speeches that you alluded to. From the sound of it, fundraising was much like it is now: (proto-)lobbyists and rich guys. As we moved closer to the Civil War, the spoils system had a greater effect, with government officers expected to contribute to campaigns to keep their jobs. The book says that by 1878, as much as 90% of contributions came from this crowd.

Anyway, hope this helps. Sounds like this book might at least be a starting point for one perspective on things.
posted by SuperNova at 7:34 PM on July 16, 2006

Best answer: First, there were not political campaigns in anything like the modern sense until the 1830s. In the days of Jefferson and Washington and for a generation thereafter, men did not campaign for office. Seeming to desire the office reeked of self-interest, the cardinal sin. So instead Jefferson let it be known to a few close friends that he would accept, say, the governor's office if it were offered. The friends then wrote letters to other friends, and so on. As Oaf writes, not that many folks could vote, so word-of-mouth was fairly effective. Not much money was required.

Another part of early campaigns were the newspapers. The friends of Jefferson--or maybe Jefferson himself--would hire a few newspapers to serve as partisan megaphones. This would be paid for out of pocket by either the candidate or his friends.

Finally there were the office seekers. Folks would campaign for their candidates with the expectation that they would be rewarded with a government job when their guy won. In a sense these people subsidized the campaign with loans of their time. Eventually this became the patronage or spoils system. It was not dominant in the early republic because their were not that many government jobs to serve as rewards, but it was definitely present.
posted by LarryC at 10:30 PM on July 16, 2006

Best answer: "Moreover, how did the founders -think- about this question?"
"On November 8, 1775, The American Continental Congress authorized franking privileges to its members as a means of informing their constituents. The first U.S. Congress enacted a franking law in 1789. The franking privilege has remained a necessary and valuable tool of our representative government for more than 200 years."-Committee on House Administration
In general, I think you're going to have severe scholarship challenges in arriving at definitive answers to most of your questions, simply because the way we denizens of the 21st century think about politics, and how it "must" have been conducted in the 18th century. In fact, those times were not only far different, but were based on the far different expectations people of that time had about communications and government. But you might start with recent works by people such as Peter H. Lindert a professor of economics at UC Davis, who has an interest in historical trends in social growth and spending, such as:
• Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. Two volumes. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Growing Public has been awarded the 2005 Allan Sharlin Prize for best book in social science history published in 2004 and is also a co-winner of the Gyorgy Ranki Prize for the best book in European Economic History in 2003-2004.

• "Three Centuries of Inequality in Britain and America," in A.B. Atkinson and F. Bourguignon, Handbook of Income Distribution, Elsevier 2000.
For one thing, "media," as a concept, was only beginning to be possible, and only a very few far sighted personages such as Ben Franklin perceived the power of a press empire, and moved to establish and use one. So, much of the very nature of political discourse that is now run on commercial "media" necessitating enormous amounts of money, simply didn't exist. Generally, there were newspapers, magazines and books, delivered physically by boat, horse or wagon, along with private mail. National political advertising, by all accounts, was pretty limited until the age of the telegraph made the timely transmission and reprint of speeches and political news a routine enough matter that there was some point in politically interested parties paying for space in papers to dispute items carried as news. In general, the editorial voice of newspapers meant much more in political terms than it has since the election of Harry Truman demonstrated that on a national level, people were no longer heavily influenced to voting for endorsed candidates.

And frankly, candidates didn't do nearly as much travelling and stumping as you might imagine. There were a lot of reasons for this, but before the major railroad expansion of the post Civil War period, travel was generally a rough and ready business, even back along the east coast, when a journey by horseback or coach from Boston to Philadelphia was shunned whenever possible for boat passage. Travel inland, where only horse or wagon was practical, was so difficult and time consuming as to be pointless for such things as national political campaigns. In place of the heavy travel schedule and personal appearance concentration modern air and motor travel have made possible, much of the national campaigning done in the early 19th century was by letters from candidates (or their supporters, or detractors) published in newspapers, which were then reprinted (with profit to the publisher) and circulated as broadsides. Such public exchanges in the papers of the day were hugely entertaining to the public, and were frequently the reason for big circulation boosts in newspapers of the time.

Finally, because of the lag and expense of communications and travel, the real power and money in American politics until well after the Civil War was definitely in local and state politics. Tammany Hall annual patronage was worth many, many times the total value of spoils handed out each year in Washington, D.C. until early in the 20th century. Even Presidents as rapacious with patronage as Andrew Jackson had trouble keeping their supporters happy, and it was only after the considerable increase in Federal spending brought on by the Civil War that Federal offices became worth much more than they paid in annual salary.

But the real driver in American political campaign spending has been recent, and it is patently television. And the tremendous increase in the cost of elections for Federal office, down to spending tens of millions of dollars on House seat campaigns, where the job pays $165,200/yr for 2 years, can be traced, I think, to the demise in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine.

Because the last thing American politicians want is fair elections, as evidenced by their grant of the considerable tactical advantage of the franking privilege for incumbents, at their first opportunity. And that has been a constant theme of American politics, since before the British gave up on us.
posted by paulsc at 10:52 PM on July 16, 2006

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