We the Teachers

Bare-knuckle Politics: The Election of 1824

Is this scene as confrontational as it seems when viewed in the light of the 1824 campaign?

History teachers could not help but chuckle when they saw this picture from the second presidential debate during the 2012 campaign.  In it, the incumbent Obama and the challenger Romney seemed to be sparring aggressively.  As confrontational as this picture seems, though, history teachers cannot help but laugh when they compare this relatively mild scene to the Election of 1824.

The Election of 1824 spelled the end of the Era of Good Feelings.  During the Monroe administration, it seemed to many Americans that partisan politics has eased significantly.  With the death of the Federalist Party as a formal body, there only appeared to be one political party in operation, that being the party of the Jeffersonian Republicans.  However, partisanship returned in full force when the followers of the two major candidates, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, began spewing vile at each other.  The Adams’ camp leveled charges of adultery, illiteracy, and homicidal violence at the feet of Jackson, whilst the Jacksonites claimed that Adams wore silk underwear, gambled, and had served as a “pimp” for the Russian czar. Indeed, both parties continued to duke it out even after the election, as charges were leveled that Adams had won because of a Corrupt Bargain.

Edsitement is a wonderful resource for teachers.  It includes a digital library full of lesson plans.  Here is one lesson that helps students understand the issues behind the Election of 1824.  Perhaps this lesson can help students have some context for truly partisan campaigns to compare to this current one.

Politics of Fear in Presidential Elections: 1984

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear."

Almost every modern presidential campaign has used fear and other emotive tactics to attempt to persuade voters.  The last post on this blog highlighted the fear-mongering of the LBJ camp against Goldwater in the 1964 election.  Democrats are not solely guilty of utilizing this method, however.  Republicans have used fear in political advertisements as well, as seen in the Reagan campaign of 1984.

Reagan’s campaign slogan for 1984 was “Morning in America.”  Most of the televised campaign ads endorsed by the Republicans were upbeat, optimistic, detailing a strong economy and gains on the Cold War front.  One ad, however, was noted for its exploitation of American fear of the Soviets.  The ad was simply called “Bear” and can be viewed here.  The ad opens with a calm, serene narrator speaking about a bear in the woods.  As the commercial progresses, it becomes obvious, through the usage of ominous music and a loud heart-beat sound recording, that the bear is a threat.  Most Americans came to the conclusion that the threat the bear symbolized was the USSR, although the ad never directly stated this.

This ad has been analyzed for its subliminal affect on viewers.  The ominous music coupled with close-up shots of the beast evokes a sense of dread.  Additionally, the heart-beat sound works to intensify feelings of fear.  Notice, as you watch the commercial again and again, how your own heart beat begins to mimic the sound-over.  Further, the fact that the viewer would almost inevitably conclude that the bear symbolizes the Soviets, despite the fact that this only indirectly implied by the commercial, effectively manipulates a person’s ability to jump to his/her own conclusions via inductive reasoning.  Reagan’s landslide victory may not be directly attributable to his lone ad.  However, it demonstrated how masterfully he and his advisers were able to use television to persuade.

Politics of Fear in Presidential Elections: 1964

1964 LBJ Campaign Ad, Peace Little Girl

For teachers who enjoy analyzing media influences on presidential elections, The Living Room Candidate is a very useful site to employ in class.

Presidential campaign ads are often intended to evoke emotive responses from the intended audience.  These televised spots are usually devoid of substance, instead using fear as an agent of persuasion rather than speaking to issues.

In 1964, the Johnson campaign utilized this tactic masterfully.  Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater represented the conservative backlash against civil rights agitation, against the War on Poverty, and against stalemate in Vietnam.  His campaign slogan was, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”  Ads like this one–Peace Little Girl–attempted to paint Goldwater as a war-monger, who would be quick to pull the nuclear trigger in order to win the conflict in Southeast Asia.  As the ad shows, Johnson played on fears that a nuclear strike against American enemies would lead to massive retaliation and nuclear devastation in America.  Indeed, liberals turned Goldwater’s slogan around, saying instead, “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”  Ads like these helped contribute to Johnson’s landslide victory.

The American Presidency Project: Presidential Approval Ratings

Is it not amazing how a president can be very popular during his time and yet be evaluated downwards in subsequent years, as some have said of Eisenhower?  Is it not equally amazing that some have been so pitifully unpopular that they decide to not run for reelection, as in the case of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968?

Similarly, sometimes approval ratings mean nothing, electorally speaking, as Truman proved in 1948.

Presidential approval ratings have been tracked since 1941.  The American Presidency Project from UC-Santa Barbara has compiled thorough listings of these statistics since FDR.  The general index can be accessed here.  To view each president’s ratings, simply click on their name in the drop-down box.

Additional statistics for job approval ratings can also be found through other links:

  1. Initial job approval ratings
  2. Approval ratings following the First 100 Days
  3. Final approval ratings

The American Presidency Project: Electoral College and Popular Vote Data

The American Presidency Project is a very detailed web resource for all manners of subjects related to the presidency.  Put on by the University of California at Santa Barbara, this digital library covers topics ranging from presidential approval ratings to party platforms to White House staff budgets.

The upcoming election provides social studies teachers many opportunities for linking the present to the past.  The American Presidency Project offers a detailed set of statistics for past presidential elections.  By visiting this site, teachers and students can glean, compare, contrast, and analyze past presidential election electoral and popular vote tallies.  Additionally, teachers and students can determine which way their own state went in that election, as each election year link has not only whether the state went red or blue that year, but it also has a break-down by state of how many electoral and popular votes went to each candidate.

1892 Electoral College Map

Ashbrook Center: The Importance of Midterm Elections

LBJ Making His "Great Society" Speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1964)

For teachers looking for more content depth when teaching about the Great Society, Professor Andrew Busch’s essay on the midterm elections of 1958 and 1962 provide poignant insight.  The Great Society was the largest expansion by the federal government into the social and economic welfare arenas of America since the New Deal.  While most midterm elections go unnoticed by history teachers, these deserve at least a passing mention, as they saw many liberals elected who would eventually become the cornerstone of the Great Society voting bloc.  This is just one of six essay that Dr. Busch provided concerning midterm elections.  These can be found on the site of Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center.

The College Board: Elections and the Jackson Era

Stump Speaking (1854) by George Caleb Bingham

The common person did not always hold the electoral clout the he does today. Political parties were dominated more by party elites in the Early National era.  One example: the term “King Caucus” refers to the system in which party elites would choose nominees for major national offices.  The common person had little input for nominations.  Additionally, the common man had less of a say in the choice of President.  Electoral College delegates were not required to follow the popular vote tallies–that is, in times and places where the people at large were even permitted to say any role in the choosing of the President.

The Jacksonian Era saw a major shift in the role that the common person played in political campaigns.  Primaries were introduced in this era and participation in them were broaden to include more than just elites.  Thus, “King Caucus” died.  Further, Electoral College delegates were increasingly chosen by the common person.  The common man began, during this time, to be courted for his partisan support.  Political activity increased exponentially, as the people were increasingly engaged at all political levels.  Certainly, by 1840, a more modern system emerged in which two political parties mobilized the masses in order to win political office.

Teachers of Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) are familiar with the document-based question (DBQ).  The College Board, which operates the myriad AP programs, has a website that allows teachers access to many helpful resources concerning the DBQ.

A previous APUSH exam had students analyze the rise of political participation during the Jacksonian Era.  Even if you do not teach APUSH, this website can be a tremendous boon to adding critical thinking into the classroom.  Teachers can give this document set to students to introduce the the question of the rise of political participation during the Jackson Era.

Teachers could then have students analyze the documents using this DBQ Analysis Sheet from APUSH guru Warren Hierl, or can have students write an essay answer to the DBQ.

Additionally, in helping prep students for the DBQ essay, teachers can print these analysis aides for interpreting the documents.  This link also includes a long list of specifically factual information terms that could be useful in providing a breadth of content.  There is also a scoring rubric given.

Finally, this site provides teachers with sample student responses.  Scroll down to the end of this PDF in order to view them.

Reading Like an Historian: Populism and the Election of 1896

The Cross of Gold Speech, with Democrat/Populist champion William Jennings Bryan

The history of third parties is a very interesting study.  Typically, their electoral success is minimal-to-none.  However, some ideas of their platforms are often absorbed by the major parties.  In essence, their legacies are found in some of the policies enacted by administrations of subsequent mainstream politicians.

The Populists were no different.  The late 1800s represented their heyday.  They achieved some success at the state levels through such legislation as Granger laws and by electing some governors.  At the national level, Congress even seated members from their ranks.  They were unable to achieve electoral success in the presidency, however.  Their best chance in this realm came in 1896, when the Democrats nominated a champion of many Populist ideals in trumpet-voiced William Jennings Bryan.  He, however, was defeated soundly by Ohio Republican William McKinley.

Stanford University has a wonderful department in their education school called Stanford History Education Group (SHEG).  SHEG has produced a series of lesson plans, called Reading Like an Historian, that utilizes primary sources as the driving factor behind achieving student interaction with the past.  These inquiry-based lessons are posted on their website.

SHEG’s lesson plan for Populism and the Election of 1896 can be found here.   Accompanying the lesson is also a link to a PowerPoint and a set of primary sources that align with the topic.

Additional lessons from the Gilded Age are also posted on the Reading Like an Historian website.

The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Candidates’ Religion

This election season has seen the issue of religion surface again and again.  The Romney campaign has labeled President Obama as an attacker of religion.  Romney’s own faith has been a subject of debate as well.

But this is not a new development.  Religion has played a role in presidential campaigns for over 150 years.  John C. Fremont’s possible Catholicism was questioned in 1856 by Democrats: if he was elected, would the Pope rule the U.S.?   Al Smith suffered similar attacks in 1928.  Neither candidate was elected; their links to the Catholic Church were part of the reason for this.  The trend in America politics seems to have been (and may still be) one of fear of and discomfort with the religiously unfamiliar.

The Living Room Candidate can help teachers provide students with a more-recent look at this trend.  Kennedy’s Catholicism was also scrutinized in 1960.  For teachers interested in this topic, and for teachers interested in the history of presidential campaign television commercials, this website provides a poignant video.  This video depicts Kennedy defending his ability to lead the nation as a Catholic while honoring the doctrine of separation of church and state.  Allaying the deeply-embedded (and absurd) fears of Protestant America that the Pope would sail up the Potomac as a crowned monarch upon his election was one of the many reasons why Kennedy won in 1960.  This made him the first Catholic president in United States’ history.

JFK and Pope Paul VI, 1963

The Living Room Candidate: Historical Presidential Campaign Commercials

What is a social studies teacher to do with television being dominated by presidential campaign advertisements?  It is very tempting to be cynical and decry the commercialization of politics in our culture.  An alternative pedagogical route would be to provide the historical background of presidential commercials.

The thirteenth edition of The American Pageant provides a critical analysis of the 1952 presidential campaign.   This campaign marked a major change over time, as it represented the first time in which presidential candidates used heavy doses of television ads in order to gain votes.  Bailey, et al, on page 887 of that edition, critiques the Eisenhower camp’s political ads, stating that they were “tightly scripted,” “devoid of substance,” and that they “vastly oversimplified complicated economic and social issues.”  All of this, the historians claim, “foreshadowed the future of political advertising.”

Are these claims true?  One website that may help a teacher answer this question and provide historical insight to presidential commercials for students.  The Living Room Candidate is a treasure trove of many of the most influential presidential campaign advertisements from the television age.  By going to their 1952 campaign site, a teacher can get students to critically evaluate the claims of American Pageant.

Were Ike’s commercials “tightly scripted“?

Were Ike’s commercials “devoid of substance“?

Did they “oversimplify complicated economic issues“?

Of course, teachers should not overlook the Adlai Stevenson campaign either.  Why would your students make of these ads?

Adlai to You


Platform Double Talk


Be sure also to note the very helpful tabs that provide context to the campaign under the headings “1952,” “Eisenhower,” “Stevenson,” and “Results.”

"Selling the President like toothpaste" --The American Pageant

The Miller Center: Presidential Campaign Debates

Carter v. Reagan Debates

The 2012 presidential debates are approaching.  Many social studies teachers may incorporate the Obama-Romney debates into their classroom.  The Miller Center is an excellent resource for teachers who would like to provide opportunities for students to compare/contrast this election with past ones.

The surface similarities the 1980 Carter-Reagan campaign with this current one are myriad.  The incumbent Democrat, facing a difficult economy, was seen in Carter as well as presently seen in Obama.  The Republican challenger in both cases either asked or is asking Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

But getting past the surface takes a little more research.  If a teacher was interested in pursuing the similarities and differences, on a deeper level, between the 1980 and the 2012 elections, the Miller Center’s site on the Campaigns and Elections of Jimmy Carter would be very helpful.

Teachers will find both the 1976 and 1980 elections summarized here.  Additionally, videos are posted that include clips of the presidential debates from each election.  Hopefully, these resources can help teachers find ways to make past elections and debates relevant to the current election and debates.


Riding the Tiger: Election Season Blog

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” --Harry S. Truman

With election season in high gear, many social studies teachers may be looking for ways to incorporate the campaigns into their classrooms.  The University of Virginia’s Miller Center is an highly informative, nonpartisan resource that is very useful for analyzing presidential history.

The Miller Center contains its own blog on elections.  Dubbed “Riding the Tiger,” this blog contains informative articles concerning past elections and this current one.  It helps provide historical context for issues surfacing in 2012.  From the Miller Center blog itself:

Riding the Tiger looks at contemporary events through the lens of history. It frames the 2012 race by providing scholarly insight into policy and politics and featuring historical resources from the Miller Center’s digital archive.”

There are a couple links within this blog that are especially relevant and interesting.  One site is called: “Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions Since the Progressive Era.”  A useful companion for teachers wishing to engage in compare/contrast activities would be: Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions.

Religion in 18th Century America Lesson Plan

Many APUSH classes are beginning their study of the reasons that Colonial America sought  separation from Great Britain. One of the many significant undercurrents of this era was the First Great Awakening. TAH has a fabulous curriculum unit that, through the use of primary documents, introduce students to the First Great Awakening, as well as to the ways in which religious-based arguments were used both in support of and against the American Revolution. These lessons can be found here.

Inspired to Make a Difference after 9/11

Tomorrow marks the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation serves to honor the victims, survivors, and rescuers involved in the 2001 and 1993 attacks upon the World Trade Center.

At their website, 911memorial.org, the Foundation offers a wealth of resources useful for teachers and others who wish to discuss the events and their aftermath.  In particular, check out the Teaching Guide entitled Inspired to Make a Difference after 9/11, which chronicles the acts of volunteerism by people around the world in the wake of the attacks.

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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