A Little Politicking – Then and Now

Listen to the Story

It is the time of the year when – in the words of the old rhyme – “the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder is in the shock.” And now the attention of most people above the age of consent has turned from getting flu shots and handing out Halloween candy to something presumably more serious – Election Day,

Americans – according to most foreign observers – are a people who really like to vote. Or it least that seems that way since they have elections more often for more diverse reasons than most other places on Earth. Perhaps that helps explain why voter turnout – until quite recently – was rather low and getting lower. We have so many elections to choose from that we simply vote only in the ones that really appeal to us.

Such must have been the case in last year’s presidential election that saw the highest turnout in many years. This year, voters in Ohio not only are choosing a variety of local candidates and determining the fate of schools and other local projects. They are also deciding a number of state issues dealing with subjects as diverse as veterans’ benefits, legalized gambling and animal husbandry. Perhaps all three could have been addressed by having casinos set aside a portion of their profits for the benefit of worthy veterans and livestock in need.

And then again – perhaps not.

In any case, while the issues change and candidates for public office come and go, certain aspects of our shared political heritage stay stubbornly the same.

Some cases in point from Columbus – Ohio’s capital – may be seen in the months preceding some off-year elections in the 1820′s and 1830′s. Columbus at this point had been the state capital for a little less than ten years. The stumps had been cleared out of the street in front of the capitol building and the town of about 1,000 people was the home of several churches and a passable newspaper or two.

Of course it should also be mentioned that the streets in question were still paved with mud and that the town had quite a few more taverns than churches.

In 1826 a local writer praised the form and style of local politics in central Ohio.

“We have always been free in Ohio from the husting speeches of England, or the stump speeches of Indiana and Kentucky; which are nothing more than a mass of egotism and empty declamation. These brilliant efforts of the candidates enlighten no man’s judgment. The feelings of the hearers are tried to be enlisted by a long farrago of what the speaker has done, which most likely the passing wind will float away, or what he shall do should he be elected.”

What then was the preferred method of hearing the views of the candidates? A newspaper advertisement from 1838 gives at least one answer. “Shooting Match – Come one come all. Charles Higgins of Prairie Township invites his friends from several townships of this county to attend a shooting match at his home He has consulted his friends of both political parties and both parties are requested to attend and address the people.”

Now this was a novel form of campaigning if ever there was one. Invite a large number of people to attend what promises to be a spirited – and probably well-lubricated – political debate —with loaded guns. The result of the match was not recorded – but perhaps that is just as well.

A bit more to the point was an observation about elections by Columbus resident Isaac Appleton Jewett in 1831 – “The fact is if the candidate for office does not humbly and anxiously beg for the support of the people, they immediately conclude he does not desire it, and will extend their aid to a more eager, not to say more obsequious candidate.”

Perhaps some things don’t change very much at all.

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