The best books about early U.S. presidential campaigning

Mark R. Cheathem Author Of The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson
By Mark R. Cheathem

Who am I?

As a historian of the U.S. presidency, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which aspirants for the White House energize and harness popular support for their candidacy. Tracing the development of electioneering practices from the early 1800s to today has been fascinating. Is there a connection between the hickory sprigs worn by Andrew Jackson’s supporters and the MAGA hats worn by Donald Trump’s supporters? Between the political rallies of William Henry Harrison and those of every modern presidential candidate? Between the derision leveled at politically active women in the 1830s and that directed at Sarah Palin and Hilary Rodham Clinton in the twenty-first century? You betcha!


I wrote...

The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson

By Mark R. Cheathem,

Book cover of The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson

What is my book about?

In The Coming of Democracy, Mark R. Cheathem examines the evolution of presidential campaigning from 1824 to 1840. Addressing the roots of early republic cultural politics―from campaign biographies to songs, political cartoons, and public correspondence between candidates and voters―Cheathem asks the reader to consider why such informal political expressions increased so dramatically during the Jacksonian period. What sounded and looked like mere entertainment, he argues, held important political meaning. The extraordinary voter participation rate―over 80 percent―in the 1840 presidential election indicated that both substantive issues and cultural politics drew Americans into the presidential selection process.

The books I picked & why

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Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic

By Jeffrey L. Pasley (editor), Andrew W. Robertson (editor), David Waldstreicher (editor)

Book cover of Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic

Why this book?

This collection set me on the road of thinking about how politics consisted of more than just voting and holding office. Essays by Nancy Isenberg (on Aaron Burr and sexual politics), Jeff Pasley (on Thomas Jefferson and blocks of cheese), Andrew Robertson (on electioneering rituals), and Rosemarie Zagarri (on women and political parties) have been particularly influential in shaping my thinking about the interaction between traditional politics and cultural politics.

Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic

By Jeffrey L. Pasley (editor), Andrew W. Robertson (editor), David Waldstreicher (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beyond the Founders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In pursuit of a more sophisticated and inclusive American history, the contributors to Beyond the Founders propose new directions for the study of the political history of the republic before 1830. In ways formal and informal, symbolic and tactile, this political world encompassed blacks, women, entrepreneurs, and Native Americans, as well as the Adamses, Jeffersons, and Jacksons, all struggling in their own ways to shape the new nation and express their ideas of American democracy. Taking inspiration from the new cultural and social histories, these political historians show that the early history of the United States was not just the…

The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852

By M. J. Heale,

Book cover of The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852

Why this book?

Heale’s book is a classic look at how Early Republic presidential candidates and presidents curated their public image. Reading it made me realize how much political mythology was deliberately crafted during the early decades of the U.S. presidency, an obvious point in hindsight and a particularly important one in thinking about the contemporary relevancy. I gain new insights every time I read it.  

The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852

By M. J. Heale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Presidential Quest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

By Elizabeth R. Varon,

Book cover of We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Why this book?

Varon’s book is another classic study. She examines not only the role of women in supporting traditionally male political activities but also in broadening the definition of what constituted political activity. While Varon focuses on Virginia, evidence of her argument can be seen in other parts of the United States, as I found in my own research.

We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

By Elizabeth R. Varon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Mean to Be Counted as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the past two decades, historians have successfully disputed the notion that American women remained wholly outside the realm of politics until the early twentieth century. Still, a consensus has prevailed that, unlike their Northern counterparts, women of the antebellum South were largely excluded from public life. With this book, Elizabeth Varon effectively challenges such historical assumptions. Using a wide array of sources, she demonstrates that throughout the antebellum period, white Southern women of the slaveholding class were important actors in the public drama of politics. Through their voluntary associations, legislative petitions, presence at political meetings and rallies, and published…

The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

By Jon Grinspan,

Book cover of The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

Why this book?

This book has been one of the most interesting and enjoyable ones I have read recently. Grinspan looks at how political parties tried to cement voters’ loyalty for a lifetime by courting their first (or virgin) vote. He also discusses the importance of voting and political parties in shaping the lives of young people. Young people are often overlooked in traditional historical scholarship, but Grinspan treats them seriously.  

The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

By Jon Grinspan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Virgin Vote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There was a time when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. In the second half of the nineteenth century--as voter turnout reached unprecedented peaks--young people led the way, hollering, fighting, and flirting at massive midnight rallies. Parents trained their children to be "violent little partisans," while politicians lobbied twenty-one-year-olds for their "virgin votes"-the first ballot cast upon reaching adulthood. In schoolhouses, saloons, and squares, young men and women proved that democracy is social and politics is personal, earning their adulthood by participating in public life.

Drawing on hundreds of diaries and letters of diverse young Americans--from…

Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865

By Billy Coleman,

Book cover of Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865

Why this book?

The connection between music and contemporary politics is obvious, but it is easy to forget that before Woody Guthrie, the protest songs of the 1960s, Green Day, and Keke Palmer, music was an integral part of national politics. Coleman unsurprisingly contends that political music in the early U.S. was collective and participatory, but he goes on to argue that elites used it to enforce conformity, an interesting twist on how we traditionally think of political music as challenging the status quo. 

Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865

By Billy Coleman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harnessing Harmony as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Following the creation of the United States, profound disagreements remained over how to secure the survival of the republic and unite its diverse population. In this pathbreaking account, Billy Coleman uses the history of American music to illuminate the relationship between elite power and the people from the early national period to the Civil War. Based on deep archival research in sources such as music periodicals, songbooks, and manuals for musical instruction, Coleman argues that a particular ideal of musical power provided conservative elites with an attractive road map for producing the harmonious union they desired. He reassesses the logic…

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