Politicking and Emergent Media: US Presidential Elections of the 1890s

Politicking and Emergent Media: US Presidential Elections of the 1890s

by Charles Musser

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Presidential campaigns of the twenty-first century were not the first to mobilize an array of new media forms in efforts to gain electoral victory. In Politicking and Emergent Media, distinguished historian Charles Musser looks at four US presidential campaigns during the long 1890s (1888–1900) as Republicans and Democrats deployed a variety of media forms to promote their candidates and platforms. New York—the crucial swing state as well as the home of Wall Street, Tammany Hall, and prominent media industries—became the site of intense struggle as candidates argued over trade issues, currency standards, and a new overseas empire. If the city’s leading daily newspapers were mostly Democratic as the decade began, Republicans eagerly exploited alternative media opportunities. Using the stereopticon (a modernized magic lantern), they developed the first campaign documentaries. Soon they were exploiting motion pictures, the phonograph, and telephone in surprising and often successful ways. Brimming with rich historical details, Musser’s remarkable tale reveals the political forces driving the emergence of modern media.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292734
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Charles Musser is Professor of American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 and producer of the documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch.

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Politicking and Emergent Media

US Presidential Elections of the 1890s

By Charles Musser


Copyright © 2016 Charles Musser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96612-3


The Stereopticon, The Tariff Illustrated, and the 1892 Election

The 1892 US presidential election was a rematch that pitted former President Grover Cleveland against President Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland was a conservative or "Bourbon Democrat" who had been elected governor of New York State in 1882 by a landslide. In 1884 he became the first Democratic president since the Civil War, defeating former Senator James Blaine, a Maine Republican, by the thinnest of margins. His victory depended on winning his home state, which he did by 1,047 votes out of the 1,171,312 that were cast. His strongest supporter — the one most responsible for his success — was the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer, a longtime Democrat and owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had purchased the World in 1883. Barely a year later he was working hard on behalf of Cleveland's nomination for president. During the actual campaign the World savagely attacked his Republican opponent for corruption and for his sweetheart deals with the railroads. Pulitzer's World was particularly effective during the final days of the campaign. For the first time, and with some justice, Republicans could blame the liberal media for their loss of the White House, where they had enjoyed a twenty-eight-year occupancy. Mass-circulation daily newspapers had proved themselves to be a dominant political force, and Pulitzer had become a kingmaker.

Four years later, Cleveland's Republican challenger was former Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the ninth US president, William Henry Harrison. His running mate was former New York Congressman and Minister to France, Levi Morton. Although Cleveland won the popular vote, Harrison took New York State by 15,000 votes and so won the election. Republicans had seemingly found the means to counter the Democrats' newspaper advantage (more on this later). In the resulting 1892 redo, Harrison chose a new vice presidential running mate — another New Yorker, Whitelaw Reid. Not only did Reid provide geographic balance, but he was the publisher of the nation's preeminent Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune. The Democratic Party chose Adlai Stevenson, a former two-term congressman from Illinois, to be Cleveland's running mate. Stevenson's positions were more Populist than Cleveland's, and it was seen as a purposeful slap at the nominee.

Republicans and Democrats faced a serious third-party insurgency. Various farm alliances combined with labor and reform groups to organize the People's Party in 1892. Under the banner "Equal Rights to All, Special Privileges to None," these Populists became a potent force in the West, where they would win the states of Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas as well as a delegate in North Dakota. In fact, Cleveland did not appear on the ballot in these states — nor in Wyoming, which the Republicans won by a narrow margin. In the South the Populists would take votes away from the Republicans: in Alabama, the People's Party received more than 36 percent of the vote while Republicans were reduced to less than 4 percent. The Populists favored women's suffrage, and for the first time some women could cast ballots for the nation's highest office: they resided in Wyoming, the least populous state, which had been admitted into the union on July 10, 1890. The Populists, however, were much less of a factor in the East and the Midwest, receiving less than 1 percent of the vote in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland; less than 2 percent of the vote in Ohio and New York; less than 3 percent in Illinois and Wisconsin; and less than 5 percent in Indiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Iowa. For the Northeast and Midwest, where the election would be largely won or lost, the familiar two-party system remained very much intact. In this regard the political steadfastness of the prominent daily newspapers was undoubtedly important.

Many assumed that this 1892 contest would be a vicious grudge match, but such was not the case. As the New York Herald observed, it "had been marked by an obvious calmness" — a comment echoed by Cleveland in the closing days of the campaign. Harrison and Cleveland had each faced major, even treacherous rivalries from within their own party in order to secure their nominations. Now, for the first time in history, two American presidents (one former, one current) faced each other. Perhaps they were just being "presidential," but Harrison stayed by the side of his seriously ill wife, while Cleveland refused to take advantage of his opponent's misfortune. In any case, it was an election in which the candidates and their campaign methods were equally familiar to voters. In a nation that had seen a brutal Civil War, economic panics, and civil unrest, candidates and their politicking offered a degree of ritual comfort and reassurance.

The principal issue dividing Republicans and Democrats was the tariff — a tax on goods imported into the United States. During his first term in office President Cleveland had been a strong advocate for reducing the tariff as a way to make goods more affordable. In contrast, the Republicans demanded a strong tariff to foster and protect American businesses. Joanne Reitano argues, "The year 1888 was unique in American history because it was so singularly dedicated to the discussion of ideas. A decade of ferment over economic theory among academics and reformers culminated in the adoption of the tariff issue by the president, Congress, the two major parties, and the press as a cause célèbre." Following Harrison's 1888 victory the Republicans passed the Tariff Act of 1890. The higher tariff proved unpopular: along with an economic setback, it helped the Democrats win the 1890 midterm elections by a robust margin. The stage was thus set for an electoral contest in which the tariff would once again be the paramount issue. As in the past, the key to electoral victory was New York State, with Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut seen as other potential swing states.


The public sphere remained a vital force in New York City, as numerous political gatherings and public demonstrations remained a central feature of the 1892 presidential election. Although political oratory was crucial to this era's media formation, the actual candidates were remarkably parsimonious in making public appearances and speechifying. Perhaps the most notable exception was an "unprecedented" moment in July when Cleveland, joined by vice presidential candidate Stevenson, departed from his home in Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts, and arrived by steamer to accept his party's nomination at New York's Madison Square Garden before a crowd of 20,000 people. Traditionally the nominating committee left the party's convention and visited the candidate at his home and offered a modest if formal notification. Cleveland's appearance was an effort to unify and energize the badly fractured Democratic Party in New York State (the entire New York delegation at the Democratic convention had declared that he could not carry the state and so would lose the election). With this goal in mind, ex-President Cleveland expressed tried-and-true Democratic sentiments: "No plan of tariff legislation shall be tolerated which has for its object and purpose a forced contribution from the earnings and incomes of the mass of our citizens to swell directly the accumulation of a favored few." Cleveland declared himself to be the people's candidate who would defend the interests of ordinary Americans against the high-tariff Republicans who were seeking to line the pockets of a few Wall Street capitalists. Indeed, in informing Cleveland of his nomination as the Democrats' standard bearer, Colonel William L. Wilson noted that the Democratic Party was engaged in "a never-ending warfare with the strongest and most enduring force of human nature — the lust of power and the lust of greed" as represented (of course) by the Republicans. Democratic newspapers wrote enthusiastically of the event, and following this grand gesture, Cleveland returned to Buzzard's Bay where he remained, except for two additional brief visits to New York City for political consultations, until the second week of October.

Even after Cleveland moved to his Manhattan home for the last four weeks of the campaign, he gave only a handful of speeches in New York. Most were brief, with two notable exceptions: he addressed a large assembly of German Americans at Cooper Union on October 27 and a crowd of 4,000 people gathered under the auspices of the Businessmen's Democratic Association at the Lenox Lyceum on November 1. Since Democratic vice presidential candidate Stevenson had been born in Kentucky, he actively campaigned throughout the South in a successful effort to make sure those states did not leave the Democratic Party for the Populists. As a sitting president, Benjamin Harrison did not campaign at all (he might have broken with this custom except for his ill wife). A New Yorker, Republican vice presidential candidate Whitelaw Reid campaigned actively in his home state. He, too, spoke to an overflowing crowd of German Americans at Cooper Union on November 3, complimenting this ethnic group for its commitment to honesty and integrity. On the Saturday before the election he spoke to a huge crowd in Mamaroneck, New York, and then was whisked by train to nearby Port Chester for another event. Both candidates were represented by numerous surrogates, who gave speeches throughout the city: Governor William McKinley of Ohio played a particularly prominent role in support of Harrison. Political clubs, composed of members who shared work-related interests such as the Wholesale Dry Goods Republican Club or the Democratic New York Stock Exchange Club, organized many of these events.

There was an interactive feedback loop between the two political parties and the media — that is, the daily press — when it came to carefully orchestrated political demonstrations. As Paul Starr has noted, American newspapers both "helped their readers to act as competent citizens and enabled them to organize for political purposes. The channel that the press provided for communication between parties and the electorate raised levels of voting participation." New York City's major newspapers were closely aligned with either the Democrats or the Republicans: they covered both sides — though hardly evenhandedly. They also played an organizational role by communicating information to the public for their respective parties. The New York Press used prime space on its editorial page to promote "another great Republican demonstration" at the Cooper Union in which ex-Governor Foraker of Ohio would speak: "No Republican who can go to Cooper Union on Tuesday night can afford to stay away," it added. The Republican Brooklyn Standard Union kept a full "Republican Calendar" on its editorial page. For Monday, October 17, it listed seven gatherings in the Brooklyn area, including a "rally and mass meeting" of the Harrison and Reid Campaign Club of College Point, a Third Assembly District Republican Convention at the Town Hall in Jamaica, and regular weekly meetings of the Harrison and Reid Tippecanoe Club of the Seventh Ward and similar clubs.

New York newspapers would then report on activities they had been promoting, using an appropriately enthusiastic tone and giving front-page coverage to the most important events. When nearly a dozen local Republican clubs organized an evening parade in Harlem, which culminated in a reception for vice presidential candidate Whitelaw Reid, the New York Tribune devoted a column and a half to describing the event: "All along the line hundreds of Republicans cheered the parade. The sidewalks were crowded and all Harlem seemed alive with political activity. Many loyal Republicans who lived along the line of march had decorated their houses, and fireworks were discharged in great profusion as the clubs went by." The several thousand club members ambled through Harlem's streets for almost an hour and a half before reaching Reid at the reviewing stand, where the persistence of the marchers forced him to make a brief speech in which he "hoped that he would be able to rejoice with them a few weeks hence in a common victory."

Through editorials and investigative articles, these newspapers made arguments for or against the high tariffs advocated by the Republicans. The pro-Democratic New York Herald, for instance, asserted that Republican tariffs would suck in cheap labor from abroad, undercutting wages. The Republican New York Tribune, in contrast, claimed that tariffs made possible the high standard of living enjoyed by working people in comparison to the conditions they endured in Europe. On the same page as its "Republican Calendar," the Brooklyn Standard Union ran a lengthy column reporting the speech of President John Rooney of the Kings County Protective League, which he had delivered to the Second Ward Republicans. He asserted that more than $450,000,000 in goods were imported duty free, more than twice the amount in 1884: "The goods imported free of duty were goods that are not produced in this country, so that the people obtain the kinds of goods they do not produce themselves at the lowest possible price." The Republicans, he argued, were looking out for the average American.

The preeminence of the press at this moment is evident through two men. Before becoming the Republican candidate for vice president, Whitelaw Reid was (and continued to be) the owner of the New York Tribune — the foremost Republican newspaper in New York City and so in the nation. On the Democratic side, Pulitzer was no longer Cleveland's champion. Rather there was Henry Villard, the owner of the Democratic New York Evening Post and The Nation. Villard claimed chief responsibility for engineering Cleveland's presidential nomination in 1892. He soon became a constant presence at the Democratic national headquarters in New York City, raised money for Cleveland, and supported his campaign in other ways as well.

Given New York State's pivotal position, it is worth noting the loyalties of its various newspapers. The Republicans had notable advantages outside the large cities; but in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the balance of forces favored the Democrats. The New York Tribune, the New York Press, the New York Mail and Express, and the Brooklyn Standard Union — as well as Harper's Weekly and Judge magazine — were solidly Republican. As it had been in 1884 and 1888, the New York Times was pro-Cleveland. So too was Villard's New York Evening Post, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, St. Clair McKelway's Brooklyn Daily Eagle, James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald (along with its afternoon counterpart, the New York Evening Telegram), and Joseph Keppler's Puck magazine. Charles Dana's New York Sun had traditionally been a Democratic newspaper but refused to back Cleveland in 1884 and 1888 for largely personal reasons. In 1892 Dana's Sun supported the Democratic ticket even though his endorsement of Cleveland was at best lukewarm. These newspapers not only detailed the success of their party's choreographed events, they tried to stoke factionalism and despair among their political rivals. Typically the New York Tribune compared the meetings of German Republicans and German Democrats at the Cooper Union, finding the Republicans to be filled with mirth and joy while the Democrats suffered in a state of despondency under the shadow of the nation's great prosperity, largely credited to Republican governance.

The political parties looked for spectacle and arresting visuals to balance speeches and the written word. Many newspapers complemented their accounts with elaborate illustrations of the most notable events. Ephemera such as campaign buttons were common on both sides. The Cleveland and Stevenson campaign had the Red Bandana. Harrison and Reid had blue bandanas and white campaign top hats. (The switch in colors associated with each party occurred relatively recently.) Both sets of candidates had colorful broadsides with portraits of their respective candidates. Cleveland Democrats had silver-colored tokens with portraits of Cleveland and maxims such as "Democracy. The Party of the People 1892." The Harrison camp favored gold-colored tokens featuring portraits of the Republican candidates. Banners and other decorations were displayed wherever possible.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 The Stereopticon, The Tariff Illustrated, and the 1892, Election 23

Political Oratory, Partisan Pageantry, and the Public Sphere 26

Judge Wheeler, The Tariff Illustrated, and the 1888 Presidential Election 33

A Tale of Two Screens: The Democratic Party's Use of the Stereopticon in 1888 37

The Stereopticon and the 1892 Election 41

Watching the Election Returns 49

2 The Stereopticon: Platform or New Media Form? 52

A Lexicon of the Screen 56

From Magic Lantern to Stereopticon: A Brief History 62

The Stereopticon and Presidential Politics, 1872-1884 75

3 Cinema, McKinley at Home, and the 1896 Election 80

The Nation's Media Formation 85

The Stereopticon and Illustrated Lecture in the 1896 Campaign 88

The American Mutoscope Company and the McKinley Campaign 91

Campaign-Related Films at the Edison Manufacturing Company 105

Phonograph/Telephone/Bicycle 109

A Celebration of Novelty and Tradition, Spectacle and Power 121

Watching the Election Returns 123

An Assessment 130

4 Cinema as a Media Form 132

When Did Cinema Become Cinema? 133

Politicking and the Media After the 1896 Presidential Campaign 145

The Illustrated Lecture, Imperialism, and the Elections of 1898 and 1900 154

5 Coda 170

Electoral Politics and the Media 171

From Early Cinema to Media Archaeology? 180

Appendix: Referenced Documents 191

Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Newspapers 215

Notes 217

Bibliography 249

Index 259

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