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Posters and Election Propaganda

A blog dedicated to the examination of communications in election campaigns, with a focus on posters

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Posted by Steven Seidman at 10:50AM   |  1 comment
“Hon. Abraham Lincoln” (Currier & Ives, 1860) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZC62-2594)

This Friday is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Lincoln, who was born 201 years ago in Kentucky, was ranked recently as the greatest U.S. president (albeit in a poll conducted by the Times of London).

In 1860, with the nation divided, the Republican Party promoted its candidate, Lincoln, as a common man of integrity and worth—the rail-splitting frontiersman. A poster for the ticket of Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin that year, titled “The Union Must and Shall be Preserved,” included a rail fence and it took care to show laborers on either side of a shield that declared “Protection to American Industry,” as well as the customary eagle, cornucopias, and flags. The motto “Free Speech, Free Homes, Free Territory” referred to the party’s platform positions on the elimination of slavery in federal territories, support of the Homestead Act, and freedom to voice anti-slavery views. The overriding issue was slavery expansion, which had finally reached the crisis stage, after decades of agitation by abolitionists and pro-slavery expansionists.

The parades, rallies, campaign newspapers and songs, and free food and drink that had been used in the past continued to be employed by all parties, of which there were four: (1) the Republicans, headed by Lincoln; (2) the regular Democrats, whose presidential nominee was Stephen Douglas; (3) the National Democrats, headed by John Breckenridge, who supported the federal government’s protection of slavery in the territories; and (4) the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated Bell and, as its paper banner proclaimed, was in favor of “The Union, the Constitution and the Enforcement of the Laws.” Placards and posters, as well as refreshments (such as barbecued meats, crackers, and bread), were essential ingredients at the rallies—attended by as many as 30,000 people.

Lincoln’s supporters published two weekly newspapers, both called the Rail Splitter, which not only propagated his stands on issues, but also raised funds. Numerous portrait prints of the candidates were produced for rallies and parades, or simply distributed to potential voters—a practice that had occurred for some time. Many copies of Mathew Brady’s photographs of Lincoln were distributed, as were lithographic portrait posters of Lincoln, Bell, and Douglas. Lithographic portraits of Lincoln by Currier & Ives, idealized from Brady photographs, were sold for twenty cents each. Some of the lithographic prints were hand-colored: a portrait of Lincoln, for example, used during his first presidential campaign, had only red added to his lips and the background curtains.

In 1860, the Republicans’ presidential ticket was not even on the ballot in ten states in the South, but Lincoln won the election overwhelmingly in the North and West, with a popular vote north of the 41st parallel greater than 60 percent (for an easy electoral victory), and garnered about 40 percent overall. Despite Lincoln’s attempts to reassure the South, his election led to its secession and the bitter Civil War that ensued.

For more on the momentous 1860 campaign—as well as an account of the 1864 campaign to re-elect Lincoln—and the printed propaganda used, see my book, Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.


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