Election 2024 in Perspective: John J. Beckley and the Dawn of Political Campaigning in America

As the 60th Presidential Election in the United States appears on the horizon, both American and international audiences are set to witness again the unique intensity that accompanies an American presidential election.

As the 60th Presidential Election in the United States appears on the horizon, both American and international audiences are set to witness again the unique intensity that accompanies an American presidential election with all the polarization, controversy, and fanfare. Often overlooked and forgotten by the public of this climax of the four-year election cycle in the world’s most powerful democracy, are the innovations, adaptations, and revolutions happening, especially in the field of political campaigning.

In many election cycles, one aspect of that year’s election often stands out as an important innovation that reshapes our understanding of how a campaign should be run, whether it’s the utilization of new technology or a revolutionary change in campaign tactics. Examples include the 1840 campaign that revolutionized American Presidential campaigning, the use of radio in the 1924 and 1932 Presidential Elections, television in the 1960 Presidential Election (some critics credit television for John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon), social media use in the 2008 elections, and online disinformation in the 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

To put these innovations into context, it’s important to look back at the beginning: the time, the methods, and the man who changed presidential elections forever. And why, despite the critical role he played in shaping early American politics, his contributions have often been overlooked or underappreciated.

Campaigning before the Nineteenth Century

The fact that the first campaign manager in the United States—a nation now renowned for its advanced cadre of political consultants and campaign advisors, and for revolutionizing the business of assessing, handling and molding public opinion in democratic societies—was a clerk may sound astounding out of context. However, when you trace the history of political communication and public relations in America, it becomes more understandable.

George Washington, the revered first President of the United States, played a pivotal role in shaping the executive branch’s position in the newly formed republic. Interestingly, despite his monumental influence, he was a staunch opponent of political parties. His belief was rooted in the idea that political parties could lead to factionalism and conflict, potentially undermining the unity and stability of the nation, a unity and stability he had devoted his life to and for which he had become a symbol for.  This aspect of Washington’s philosophy offers a fascinating insight into the early political landscape of the United States. In his farewell address, President Washington warned that “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Unlike the prestigious profession it is today, with its associated political power and reputation, political campaigning in eighteenth-century American society was treated very differently. Instead, it was perceived quite differently. During this era, active involvement in politics was often frowned upon by the American populace.

This disdain for aggressive political campaign activity was exacerbated by the fact that political power in the early days of the republic was concentrated in the hands of an aristocracy. Members of this aristocracy viewed it as beneath the dignity of public officials or aspiring candidates to openly campaign for office. As reflected in their writings, they were also deeply suspicious and indignant at the prospect of non-members of the aristocracy gaining political power through such campaigning or “electioneering” efforts.

Interestingly however, this antipathy didn’t apply the same to the similar, yet distinct, field of propaganda, as seen by the fact that Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams were the two most prominent propagandists in the war of independence period. It could be that the founding fathers recognized the value of propaganda, even as they looked down upon the more personal, public-facing aspects of political campaigning. An alternate explanation might be that they considered the employment of persuasive strategies (in this case, propaganda) as acceptable when confronting an external adversary (the British). However, they disapproved of utilizing the same strategies for influencing a domestic audience for political ends.

In any case, the aversion held by the American public, as well as by the founding fathers and leading figures in the political establishment at the time, for partisanship and public political campaigning was reflected in the less than favorable social reception of individuals who engaged in such activities. This explains, at least to an extent, the cold or non-existent reception individuals such as Beckley has received from both their contemporaries and modern audiences. Despite their undeniable significance and the high regard in which they were held by those they advocated and campaigned for (as was the case with Thomas Jefferson in Beckley’s instance), they were perceived as outsiders trespassing on hallowed territory, and even tainting it in the eyes of some.

John Beckley’s contributions to presidential campaigns had a lasting impact on the political landscape, but his influence did not immediately transform this political culture. For instance, the tradition that presidential candidates should not directly campaign on the campaign trail persisted until the 1840 election, when the Harrison-Tyler Campaign broke this convention.

John J Beckley: The Jeffersonian Crusader

Though his name is not widely recognized today, it is not wrong to say that Beckley’s pioneering efforts in political organization laid the foundation for grassroots campaigning for modern political parties in the United States.

During Beckley’s time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the American political landscape was characterized by the emergence of the first political parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists, led by figures like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, advocated for a strong central government, commercial interests, and close ties with Britain. In contrast, the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, championed states’ rights, agrarianism, and a pro-French stance in foreign policy.

Serving as the first ever Clerk of the House of Representatives from 1789 to 1997 and again from 1801 to 1807, Beckley also served as the first Librarian of Congress from 1802 to 1807. Despite the seemingly non-political nature of these roles, Beckley was far from being a passive observer in the political arena. In fact, he was so actively involved that historians now credit him as the United States’ first-ever campaign manager for his campaigning for Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 Presidential Election.

Beckley, as an ardent Democratic-Republican or Jeffersonian, played a crucial role in organizing and mobilizing support for Jefferson and his party, contributing significantly to their political successes. His political activities starting from the 1790s helped immensely towards building this party into a coherent political force. In the 1796 election, he took it upon himself to lead the republican campaign in Pennsylvania, distributing tens of thousands of leaflets and other material throughout the campaign and organizing his contacts to organize an effective canvassing strategy; “In a few days a select republican friend from the City will call upon you with a parcel of tickets to be distributed in your County. Any assistance and advice you can furnish him with, as to suitable districts & characters, will I am sure be rendered. He is one of two republican friends, who have undertaken to ride thro’ all the middle & lower counties on this business, and bring with them 6 or 8 thousand tickets.”

Interestingly, Beckley’s non-political positions played a significant role in bolstering his political activities. The benefits and resources he gained from these roles greatly amplified his effectiveness in the political sphere. As the clerk of the House, Beckley had the advantage of closely observing every move in Congress, more so than most elected members. He had access to documents that few others saw and regularly had the chance to overhear conversations intended to remain private and confidential.

As a fervent opponent of the arch-Federalist of the time Alexander Hamilton, he viewed Hamilton as morally corrupt and spread accusations that he was trying to undermine and destroy Thomas Jefferson’s character. Beckley was an expert in gathering information from all sorts of sources, utilizing his networks of political allies as well as contacts of civil servants like clerks, printers, writers and workers. Showcasing early signs of future political campaigning tactics, he used this information not only to engage in negative attack campaigns but also to monitor and expose his opponents’ strategies.

Another pioneering aspect of Beckley’s campaigning strategies was targeting. During the 1976 campaign in Pennsylvania, he tailored messages based on location and selectively distributed election materials, such as pamphlets, to specific audiences. By next post I will endeavour to send you some handbills, by way of address to the people of Pennsylvania, shewing the strong reasons there is for this States having a Southern, rather than an Eastern president.

John Beckley’s innovative strategies and tireless efforts laid the groundwork for modern political campaigning in the United States. His ability to gather and utilize information, coupled with his pioneering tactics in targeting and grassroots mobilization, set the stage for the sophisticated and highly strategic campaigns we witness today. Despite being a largely overlooked figure, Beckley’s contributions have had a lasting impact on American politics, underscoring the critical role of campaign managers in shaping political outcomes and the evolution of democratic processes. His legacy is a testament to the enduring importance of strategic political communication and organization in the pursuit of electoral success.

Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna is an independent researcher and writer talking about propaganda and its history, evolutions, and utilization. He currently works at the Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership and Public Policy. You can contact him through Dahamj[at]balpp.com