As regular readers of this column know, I have a crush on history. 

I write about it in my book, "The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol"; I read it--"American Mafia," by Thomas Reppetto, is the present occupant of my nightstand; and, in these days--when the news is bursting with analysis of the New Hampshire primary and with speculation about the seven primaries next Tuesday--I reflect on past elections with a certain relief. Things were simpler then. And, at least in retrospect, funnier.

Take the 1758 race for a seat in the Virginia Assembly from Frederick County. There were important issues facing the electorate that year: relations with neighboring native Americans, relations with England, and the fall of Fort Duquesne (search) and its consequences, to name a few. 

But did the candidates bore their constituents with speeches on these matters?  They did not. 

Did they take out ads criticizing their opponents for being unqualified to deal with these matters?  They did not.

Instead, they plied the voters with alcohol. This was especially true of the winner in that 1758 race, who ordered his election agent (campaign manager, in modern terms) to get his hands on as much liquor as he could and to pour it into vats at the polls and to make sure the voters drank heartily before casting their ballots and---most important---to make sure the voters knew who had sprung for the refreshment.

It worked. The gentleman in question, whose name was George Washington, not only won election to the Virginia Assembly, but went on to a career of some distinction in American politics. Analyzing the results of the campaign more than 200 years later, the historian W.J. Rorabaugh (search) writes: “For his 144 gallons of refreshment, Washington received 307 votes, a return on his investment of better than two voters per gallon.”

Not only was politics more “spirited” in the past than it is today; it was more physical. In the 1838 race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from downstate Illinois, John Stuart and Stephen Douglas (search) “fought like wildcats in the rear of Herndon’s store over a floor drenched with slops.” Later in the campaign, Douglas bit Stuart so hard that he “bore the imprint” of the attack for the rest of his life.

Where was passion like this in the Iowa caucuses?

Where were the teeth marks in the New Hampshire primary?

Even the dirty tricks were more original in ages past.

A favored 19th century technique for spicing up a campaign went as follows: An office-seeker walked along a country road and saw a farmer plowing his field so far in the distance that the two men could barely make each other out. “Halloa,” the candidate shouted, “I’m John Smith, I’m running for mayor. Vote for me. That’s a good fellow.” Then he waved to the farmer and kept on walking.

Except it wasn’t John Smith; it was his opponent, Tom Brown. Later in the day, Brown came by again, this time identifying himself correctly, and heading into the field to help the farmer with his plowing. The farmer reacted predictably, admiring Brown for his work ethic while cursing the idler Smith, for whom he would not now vote under any circumstances.

And then there were the linguistic dirty tricks of the 1950 U.S. Senate race in Florida. George Smathers (search) criticized his opponent, Claude Pepper, because Pepper’s sister, according to Smathers, was a “thespian.” Not only that, Smathers said, Pepper’s brother was “a practicing Homo sapiens.” Further, Smathers charged that Pepper himself had gone to college and openly “matriculated.”

Smathers won the election.

The race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 is an important one, and surely Brit Hume and Chris Wallace and their mates are pleased to be covering it. But I cannot help believe that they would be even more pleased if they could take a few minutes away from the present and report on the past.

 

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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