Photographic Firsts # 20 – The presidential campaign of 1896

Figure 1 - The first Lincoln Douglas debate in Ottawa, IL, 1858. From www.lib.niu.edu and in the public domain because of its age.

Figure 1 – The first Lincoln Douglas debate in Ottawa, IL, October 13,1858. From www.lib.niu.edu and in the public domain because of its age.

A while back I blogged about the first presidential campaign button.  In the US right now, we are election-obsessed, and I started wondering about early photographs of presidential campaigns. It is a bit of a quagmire. This is especially so because until fairly recently not all candidates actually campaigned for themselves or at least didn’t venture beyond their own front porches..

My initial research on the subject did unearth some pretty remarkable images. The first of these is the image of Figure 1, which shows the first of the Lincoln-Douglass debates in Ottawa, Illinois. These debates took place during the senatorial race of 1858 and the image was taken on October 13, 1858.

As for the question of the earliest photographs of an American presidential campaign, so far, the earliest that I can find appear to come from the campaigns of 1896. I am hopeful that some reader will point me towards earlier images. The Democratic candidate [and I want to emphasize for my Republican friends that it is the Democratic Party not the Democrat Party!] the “Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan took to the rails on an intense “whistle stop” tour of the United States. Figure 2 shows him in Wellsville, Ohio with his train behind him. McKinley chose to stay home or at least to stay in the home, ”The Campaign House” that he and his wife Ida had rented in Canton, OH for the occasion.  The crowds visiting the Republican candidate became so large that a special speakers’ platform had to be erected on the front lawn as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 2 _ William Jennings Bryan campaigning in 1896 in Wellsville, OH. From the Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain because of its age.

Figure 2 _ William Jennings Bryan campaigning in 1896 in Wellsville, OH. From the Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain because of its age.

The burning issue of the day was the gold vs.gold plus silver standard for United States currency. Bryan believed that bimetallism  a combined gold and silver standard would bring prosperity to the nation and in his “Cross of Gold Speech” he famously intoned”

“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

And nobody argued about the size of their hands.

Figure - McKinley campaigning in 1896 from the porch of his "Campaign House." From the US LOC and in the public doman because of its age.

Figure – McKinley campaigning in 1896 from the porch of his “Campaign House.” From the US LOC and in the public domain because of its age.

This entry was posted in History of Photography.