Mt Pleasant News
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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Jan 20, 2018

Politics hasn’t changed much over the centuries

By By Brooks Talyor, Mt. Pleasant News | Apr 07, 2017

Each Tuesday during the session of the Iowa Legislature, the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) produces a short article entitled “Pieces of Iowa’s Past.”

I enjoy history, moreso as I grow older. I am starting to think there is a correlation between age and enjoyment of history.

Recently, Pieces of Iowa’s Past featured an article on Frontier Politics, which included Mt. Pleasant’s James Harlan (more on that later). The excerpt was from The Story of Iowa by William J. Peterson and a chapter in his book entitled “Life Among the Pioneers.”

According to Peterson’s account, frontier politics had stark differences — and similarities — to today’s politics. One of the significant differences was that a “spade was called a spade” by newspapers with some of the verbiage bordering on libel and slander.

Politics, Peterson said, was of “the greatest concern” to all Iowa pioneers. “It was indeed both necessary as an activity and one of the most compelling and exciting of interests,” the author wrote. “Leading men of most communities attended political conventions as a duty and as a pleasure while candidates toured the state assiduously and were welcomed with delight by citizens everywhere, who flocked to hear what they had to say.

“A rousing good speaker,” Peterson continued, “provided a neighborhood with material for conversation and arguments for weeks after his speech.”

Unlike today, there were few, if any, independent voters. Instead, the electorate either belonged to the Whig or Democratic Party. Also, men did not vote for a candidate as much as they did for the party.

Personal abuse of candidates was common, Peterson said, but partisan editors — and they were all partisan (sounds like today’s national media) — then heaped their most vitriolic language upon the other parties.

Peterson questions whether the editors sat up nights finding adjectives with which to castigate their rival editors. “Charges of stupidity and downright insanity were mild,” the author remarked. “Often one editor would charge his rival with downright fabrication, corruption and whatever else he could think of as being derogatory — and interesting to his readers.

“Early Iowa editors were far from being bashful and their readers ate up every word and spend days between issues debating what each paper had said or argued,” added Peterson.

In the 1800s, the success of political speeches was determined not by substance but how vigorously the candidate expressed himself. Speeches had to be long, substantial and windy but also fiery.

The speeches and appearances were merely stage amusement, Peterson contends. It was not rare for rival candidates to travel together so as to stage joint debates. On the platform, they would abuse each other but in private they were good friends.

Each candidate boasted of his personal honesty and the integrity of his party, as opposed to the dishonesty of his opponent and his opponent’s party. Elections were frequently tumultuous and ballots were “lost” or miscounted (some things never change).

One of the accompanying articles to the March 22 Pieces of Iowa’s Past was from the Burlington Tri-Weekly endorsing Harlan for the U.S. Senate.

Harlan’s election for Senate, “has been prevented by traitors in the Whig camp, who under the guise of national Whiggery, are dallying with the Locofoco party,” the editorial began.

“When Mr. Harlan was put in nomination, the Locofocos nominated Mr. Cook of Davenport, and voted for him, with the exception of some seven or eight,” the editorial continued. “For some time past there has been manifested by the old fogies of both sides of the house, a disposition to fuse.”

The editorial said that Iowans didn’t want any traitors from the state to be sent to the senate.

Concluding, the editorial says Harlan is a gentleman of fine abilities, universally esteemed and respected in public and private life.

“There is not the least doubt that in sentiments and opinions he would represent the state as correctly as any man, who has or will be named, and his election would be as well received…We hope his name will be scrupulously adhered to until intrigue and dishonesty shall elect some other man, or render it certain that no election can be effected.”

Harlan, an Iowa Wesleyan president and longtime college trustee, did serve 14 years in the U.S. Senate and also was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Andrew Johnson. Harlan also was a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Harlan’s daughter, Mary, married Robert Todd Lincoln. The grandchildren of Harlan and Lincoln spent many of their summers with the elder Harlans in a house on West Broad Street, which now stands as a museum to the families and called the Harlan-Lincoln House.

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