Living Columns & Blogs

Get into the spirit of election season with a look back in US presidential history

With the 2012 election fast approaching, this is an appropriate time to look back on a few intriguing presidential elections in history and offer reading suggestions. Personally, I've enjoyed reading "Guide to U.S. Elections, Fifth Edition, Vols. I & II.")


If you think recent presidential campaigns have been full of rancor, sleaze and controversy, wait until you read about the election of 1800. You had two heavyweight candidates: Thomas Jefferson of the Republican Party and the incumbent John Adams of the Federalist Party.

One of the big issues in the campaign was the role and size of the federal government. Sound familiar? To learn more, read "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign," by Edward Larson and "Adams vs Jefferson," by John Ferling.


This election took place with the Civil War looming. There were four contenders: Stephen Douglas, a Democrat from Illinois; John Breckenridge, a Democrat from Kentucky; John Bell, Constitutional Union Party nominee from Tennessee; and Abraham Lincoln, Republican from Illinois. ("Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Doris Kearns Goodwin; "Lincoln," by David Herbert Donald).

How Lincoln became the Republican nominee at all is itself a fascinating story. ("The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination," by Gary Ecelbarger)

Another is the calamitous period between Lincoln's victory in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861. ("Lincoln: President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter," 1860-1861 by Harold Holzer)


One of the most interesting presidential elections in American history occurred in 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt (Bull Moose), incumbent President William Howard Taft (Republican), Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) and Eugene Debs (Socialist) competed in the November 1912 election. At one time, Roosevelt and Taft were both Republicans and the best of friends. Things changed during Taft's term. Read about it in "1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -- The Election that Changed the Country," by James Chace.


These days, there are a plethora of polls that come out before elections. Are they accurate? Do they really reflect the mood of the country? In 1948, pundits and polls predicted that Thomas Dewey, Republican governor of New York, would defeat President Truman. Dewey may have been over-confident, as was the Chicago Daily Tribune, which ran the front-page headline "Dewey defeats Truman." See "The Upset That Wasn't: Harry S. Truman and the Crucial Election of 1948," by Harold Gullan; and "1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America's Role in the World," by David Pietrusza.