As historians work to set this election season into historical context, it’s worth looking back into the Journal of American History’s archives to think about how historians have written about presidential elections and politics. Over the course of its history, the JAH has seen the elections of 17 U.S. presidents, stretching back to Woodrow Wilson’s reelection bid in 1916. Over the course of a century, American historians have amassed an impressive body of commentary on presidential elections.
16 years ago, in the aftermath of another highly controversial election, the JAH featured a special round table on “Elections, Conflict, and Democracy.” Five responses sought to set the 2000 election in historical context. Joyce Appleby took readers back to the election of 1800, as another example of partisanship affecting the electoral process. Arnaldo Testi focused on the origins of electoral institutions—such as the Electoral College. Mark Wahlgren Summers looked at vote manipulation in the late nineteenth century. Mary Frances Berry focused on voting rights and the Supreme Court. And finally, Daniel T. Rodgers considered the political narratives that observers brought to bear on the 2000 Florida recount compared to the language of democratic deliberation that was commonplace during earlier periods in American politics.
A March 2012 JAH article by Matthew Avery Sutton, provocatively titled “Was FDR the Antichrist?,” discussed fundamentalists’ reaction to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. Some of that moment’s apocalyptic rhetoric may sound familiar in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Just after the election of 1932, Dallas Theological Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote “I am greatly concerned over the turn of the election yesterday and feel we shall see much harder times before we see any relief.” He viewed Roosevelt’s victory as a step toward Armageddon: “As these dark days grow darker, we are feeling the certainty of His soon return.” A Hollywood pastor named Stewart MacLennan concurred: “The results of the past election in our beloved country tend to confirm the conviction that we are living in the end days of human government in the earth… Surely the Lord must be at hand!” When Roosevelt prevailed in 1932 and again four years later, fundamentalist leaders despaired. It seemed clear that “All that is going on in the United States is in full swing with the predicted end of our age.” In addition to this article, you can also check out our JAH podcast with Sutton.
James H. Meriwether’s December 2008 JAH article, “‘Worth a Lot of Negro Votes’: Black Voters, Africa, and the 1960 Presidential Campaign,” focused on the racial dynamics of the 1960 presidential campaign. As Meriwether writes, both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon “sought the black vote, and both worried about alienating white southern voters.” One way that JFK attempted solve this problem, Meriwether argues, was to express sympathy for Africa and its anticolonial liberation struggles. Meriwether writes,
Witnessing the powerful draw of Africa and the deep desire to improve lives there, during the campaign Kennedy referred to Africa hundreds of times—far more than he did to civil rights. For Kennedy, Africa was the newest frontier, one where he could burnish his Cold War credentials by enrolling newly independent states on the side of the West while making himself known as a candidate sympathetic to black Americans.
A number of JAH articles from throughout the twentieth century focused on elections in ways that continue to be eerily resonate today: marriage and morals in the 1828 election; Russia and the election of 1948; immigration and the election of 1916; and interparty conflict and the election of 1910.
The OAH Distinguished Lecturer program provides lecturers on Presidents and Elections, on topics such as “Electing Abraham Lincoln: The Revolution of 1860,” “Why America Has Never Had a Woman President” and “The People’s Will Denied? Backroom Politics and the Election of 1824.”
As we think about the historic consequences of the 2016 election, we would do well to remember its place in a larger stream of American electoral politics. While history never quite repeats itself, we would do well to remember that the past can always be an instructive guide for an uncertain present.