As the American revolution clearly demonstrated, not all political traditions of the English were considered attractive by the Founders of the United States. Political parties, in particular, were thought to be the scourge of a nation's political life, the opposing factions creating and sustaining dissension and acrimony in the nation's political discourse. George Washington, like many of the nation's first generation of leaders bemoaned the rise of parties, observing that a party could put a broomstick up for office and get it elected if you called it a "Son of Liberty." Washington's pessimism reflected the corrosive rivalry between Jefferson's Republicans and Hamilton's Federalists. Yet the two party system which emerged from the acrimonious debate over the interpretation of the Constitution has become, today, one of the most revered concepts of American politics. Political rivalry and competition have been transformed over the course of the nation's history from threats to the body politic to constituent elements of the good health of the nation.
While our nation's first political leaders did not campaign, they were nevertheless shrewd in their measure of the nation's citizens. Image mattered as well as political ideology. Washington's reserve and reputation helped to distant the first president from "messy" intersection with the people while Jefferson's rhetoric of the yeoman farmer was shaped in part while living in the splendor of Monticello. But it wasn't until after the disruption of the War of 1812 and the end of the "Era of Good Feelings" that political contention became an accepted part of the electoral traditions of the country.
Candidates needed to be known, especially national candidates in a day when distance truly separated the people from their leaders. Catchy slogans, summarizing a candidate's exploits as a soldier or defining a characteristic of a candidate's personality, were necessary to communicate to a scattered electorate. The irascible Andrew Jackson was not only the "Hero of the Battle of New Orleans" but also tough "Old Hickory." William Henry Harrison's patrician roots were diminished by his supporter's emphasis upon his birth in a frontier log cabin as well as his victory at Tippecanoe (and Tyler, too!) Lincoln's strength of character was all too literally assured by the strength of his arms … and his back. Ironically, the "Rail Splitter" of Illinois came to the Executive Mansion because Democratic voters in 1860 had split their votes among three candidates.
As time progressed, technology allowed for the candidate's message to be summarized on any manner of object - flags and parasols, fans and handkerchiefs, paper hats and lapel pins - nearly any every day object was used to promote a candidate. A supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt could tell time by the FDR "Ship of State" clock on the mantle and put one's cigarette out in an FDR ashtray. "I Like Ike" Dixie cups were complimented by "I Like Ike" soap and "I Like Ike" cigarettes. "Nixon Now" matchbooks were complimented by Warholesque paper dresses. Such practical items opened the door to less practical and sometimes more mean-spirited items produced by one candidate in opposition to another. It should be clear that George McGovern toilet paper was not produced by the George McGovern campaign. And it beggars the imagination why the Clinton/Gore campaign found flyswatters a useful means of promoting the Democratic ticket in 1996 unless the campaign truly wanted to put the candidates into the hands of the people.
Presidential campaign memorabilia brought the mighty into the humblest of homes. It made a remote figure personable supporting the illusion that a great national leader (or even a modest figure seeking a great national office) was a man of the people. Trinkets, souvenirs, promotional item, clever advertisement - these objects produced by the campaigns tell much of how a candidate and his partisans understood themselves while also telling a nation how they should be understood. The most successful pieces of campaign memorabilia did not necessarily bring a candidate to his ultimate objective. Still, these reminders of political passion and political ambition instruct all of us, speaking to the messy vitality of a political way of proceeding which has endured for more than two centuries.
Cecelia and U.I. "Chick" Harris graciously donated this part of their extensive collection of presidential campaign memorabilia in 2007 with but one restriction: that the university make the collection available to our metropolitan St. Louis community during a presidential election year. It is meant first to encourage participation in the political life of the nation and to encourage interest in history and the remarkable imagination of the American people.
Generous supporters of the Historic Samuel Cupples House, the Harris' have been lifelong St. Louis residents. A gracious donation allowed the complete renovation of the conservatory of the mansion and included the installation of a lift as well as computer stations for patrons to enjoy various programs that highlight the Cupples House and the Cupples family. Cecelia passed away in June 2008, leaving Chick and many friends to mourn her. It was a privilege to have known Ceil and our thoughts and prayers are with the one who loved her most of all: her beloved husband and companion, Chick.
Persuasive Politics - Presidential Campaign Memorabilia is sponsored in part by:
AMERICAN POLITICAL ITEMS CONSERVATORS
American Political Items Collectors
A non-profit 501(c)3 corporation
"Politics as Usual" - Senator Thomas F. Eagleton writes about the Chick Harris Collection of Presidential Campaign Memorabilia
"Collecting Political Memorabilia" - an interview with Chick Harris about his collection
Listen to an interview with the Director and Curator of the exhibition on KWMU's Cityscape by clicking on the link below.