Have Presidential Campaigns Changed Since the 18th Century?

From a Rare Jefferson and Adams Handbill to the Present

A rare handbill from the 1796 election sheds light on campaigning as we know it today.

01/21/2022     News and Film, Books and Manuscripts

From rallies to robocalls, television ads to lawn signs, and prime time debates to smear campaigns, American citizens are all too familiar with the campaigning used on them when choosing their candidate. Though the technologies used to appeal to the voting masses seem to advance every four years, their origins, and partisan uses and abuses, are as old as the nation itself.

This remarkable and extremely rare handbill from the 1796 election, in which Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went head to head for the position of Commander in Chief, charts the beginnings of this history of its attendant partisan rancor. This significant artefact of American history is on offer in Freeman’s February 17 Books and Manuscripts auction at an estimate of $15,000-25,000 (Lot 18).


Jefferson Handbill

Lot 18 | Handbill from the 1796 United States presidential election, $15,000-25,000


The Nation’s first two presidential elections (1788 and 1792) saw George Washington elected without competition, and with his decision to forego a third term, the 1796 election was the first to test the young republic’s presidential succession system, and the first to feature political parties in an embryonic form. In the lead up to the 1796 election, United States citizens were beginning to identify as partisans and party-aligned voters, primarily within the two dominant groups that emerged at this time: the New England–based Federalists, who by and large supported Washington’s foreign and domestic policies, and the largely Southern–based Democratic-Republicans, who opposed much of his administration’s work.

This pro-Jefferson text poses ten questions to its reader and provides ten answers in turn, taking a catechistic format that would have been familiar to most lay readers of the time. Important political issues are highlighted using inflammatory language familiar to contemporary audiences: “Will not the same miscreants who now abuse Thomas Jefferson for his Resignation of the Office of Secretary—by and by abuse the President for quitting the Government?” The handbill’s ready answer: “Yea, when it answers their purpose.”

This call-and-response format was in many ways the ideal structure to help foster the nation’s nascent partisan consciousness. In clear, straightforward, yes-or-no questions, it condenses huge, complex political flashpoints—the Declaration of Pillnitz, the Genêt Affair, the place of monarchy and hereditary government in the United States—into tightly packaged language. This handbill—the only known surviving example of its kind—was reprinted in various newspapers, from Charleston to Philadelphia, but particularly in Maryland, an important battleground state in this election, and the site of this handbill’s discovery.

The rhetorical tactics of posing questions to a general public and answering them by denigrating the personal and political character of the opposing candidate has its roots in the 1796 election, and is the key mechanism that makes this handbill so effective. One hundred and seventy-two years later we see this very method used in a 1968 Richard Nixon television ad aimed at his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, which asked, “How can a party that can’t unite itself unite the nation? How can a party that can’t keep order in its backyard hope to keep order in our fifty states?” Forty years after that, a similar ad, run by the John McCain campaign, asked of Barack Obama, “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world—but is he ready to lead?”

Although the candidates, issues, technologies, and contexts have changed, the core strategies animating our local and national elections have remained remarkably similar in the 226 years since this important handbill was penned. While it’s difficult to measure how handbills—and this one specifically—influenced the results of the 1796 election, their existence reveals the very beginnings of a media strategy that took hold in the young nation and never quite left.



View the rest of our February 17 Books and Manuscripts auction.