Noah Feldman’s superb new book, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, is filled with fascinating insights relevant to contemporary American law and politics.
One anecdote particularly stood out for me, and it involves James Madison’s first effort to win elective office. The story of Madison’s inaugural political campaign illustrates that the problem of money in politics is not a new development. It dates to the very origins of our republic.
The 1777 Virginia Assembly Race
In April 1777, less than a year after the Declaration of Independence, the Commonwealth of Virginia held its first republican elections. James Madison looked like a shoo-in to win a seat in the new Virginia House of Delegates. A 26-year-old Princeton graduate from a prominent local family, he already had experience in public office. In 1776 he served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, where he made a mark as a thoughtful and devoted public servant. When Virginia held its first republican elections in 1777, Madison put his hat in the ring for a seat in the House of Delegates.
But there was just one problem: Madison refused to buy booze for the electorate.
As Professor Feldman explains, Madison’s refusal flew in the face of long-standing custom. Since the earliest days of colonial politics, American voters expected candidates for elective office to provide free alcohol at the polling places on Election Day. The practice continued for decades after the Revolution. By “treating” voters to vast quantities of beer, rum and whiskey, candidates demonstrated both their affluence and public-spiritedness. In his groundbreaking social history, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, the historian W.J. Rorabaugh explains that “[t]he most important facet of treating was never the dispensing of strong drink, which was expected as a matter of course, but the manner and style of dispensing it. The candidate had to demonstrate his generosity and hospitality without a hint of stinginess or parsimony.”
Young Madison, however, would have none of it. On principled grounds, the novice candidate refused to treat the voters to alcohol. As Professor Feldman explains, “To Madison, buying liquor for the voters was tantamount to buying their votes.”
Despite the honorable nature of Madison’s decision, which was consistent with the theoretical underpinnings of republican ideology (especially its emphasis on public virtue), it did not go over well with the electorate. Madison lost the election to Charles Porter, a local tavern owner whose occupation well-positioned him to meet voters’ Election Day expectations.
The painful lessons of this first defeat were not lost on Madison. “Never again,” Feldman writes, “would Madison fail to liquor up the voters when he ran for office.” Thus was born one of the great political careers in American history.
Washington's First Race
To be sure, the boozy spectacle of 18th century polling places falls far short of romanticized versions of the country’s democratic origins. But the practice of “treating” the voters to free alcohol was an entrenched feature of early American political life.
Indeed, the young George Washington had an experience almost identical to Madison’s. In 1755 Washington mounted his first campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature. Like Madison, Washington refused to incur the expense of treating the voters to free alcohol.
Unlike Madison, however, Washington’s refusal had nothing to do with republican principles. Instead, the decision reflected his extremely stingy approach to money. Although the scion of a distinguished family, Washington grew up with little inheritance of his own. A deep sense of financial insecurity haunted him, which was only allayed when he married Martha Custis, the richest widow in Virginia. But in 1755, Washington’s marriage to Martha was still four years away. As a novice candidate with far fewer personal assets than it appeared on the surface, he had no intention of buying alcohol for voters with his own funds.
Financially responsible though it may have been, the decision backfired badly. Washington went down to a surprising defeat in his first election, and he spent the next three years fighting in the French and Indian War.
Like Madison, though, Washington would learn from his political mistakes. In the 1758 race for the House of Burgesses, he bought and had distributed on Election Day 144 gallons of alcohol (some historians even place the amount at 160 gallons), including everything from rum to wine, an amount so generous he hoped it would persuade voters to forget his rookie mistake three years before. As Washington explained in a letter to James Wood, his de facto campaign manager, “my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”
Washington need not have worried. The huge campaign expenditure worked wonders, just as Washington had hoped it would. He received over 300 votes, a tally sufficient to win the legislative seat. As Professor Rorabaugh points out, “For his 144 gallons of refreshment he received 307 votes, a return on his investment of better than 2 votes per gallon.”
The Deep Roots of Money in Politics
These stories represent more than just humorous anecdotes of young politicians learning the ropes of 18th century politics. They reveal the surprisingly expensive nature of politics during America’s founding era. By requiring candidates to incur significant financial costs to prove their commitment to the ordinary voter, the practice of treating the voters weeded out those who lacked the funds or inclination to make the customary expenditures.
The idea that only wealthy candidates should hold public office almost became enshrined in the Constitution. Early in the proceedings at Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Constitution prohibit executive officers from receiving a salary, and other delegates advocated extending the salary ban to at least the Senate if not the House too.
The proposals failed. In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the historian Gordon Wood explained that the defeat of such proposals signaled that Americans had begun the process of abandoning “the age-old tradition that public office was the responsibility of a leisured patriciate. It became increasingly clear that society could no longer expect men to sacrifice their time and money—their private interests—for the sake of the public.”
But even when American politics became much more democratic during the Jacksonian era of the 1820s and 1830s, a candidate’s access to campaign funds remained a critical factor in elections. President Andrew Jackson and, especially, his Vice President Martin Van Buren built highly professional political machines (the direct antecedents of modern campaign organizations) that were specifically designed to raise money from a large number of politically-interested donors. For example, Jackson’s notorious “spoils system” required each person who received a patronage appointment to pay a percentage of their salaries to the Democratic Party for use in future campaigns.
The Big Money Politics of Lincoln and Roosevelt
The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, adopted the same practice with a vengeance. The Republican Party spent at least $100,000 on Lincoln’s behalf in 1860, and it was clear to all concerned that the 1864 election would cost far more. To fund his 1864 reelection campaign, Lincoln took advantage of all the powers of incumbency by imposing a political assessment of 3 to 10% on the salaries of customs officers, federal workers, war contractors, and even Cabinet officials.
The money went primarily to campaign literature, the 30-second television ad of its day. The Lincoln campaign circulated millions of political pamphlets advocating his reelection, achieving a readership far beyond that of his Democratic opponent, George McClellan. The Republican campaign expenditures were funded not only by political assessments but also by northern business interests. In his history of the Republican Party, Malcolm Moos pointed out that one metals company alone contributed $3,000 to Lincoln’s campaign, an amazingly large amount for a single donor in 1864.
When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles privately condemned the high-pressure fundraising tactics of Henry Raymond, Lincoln’s campaign manager, the president was dismissive of Welles’s naivete. According to David Herbert Donald in his classic book Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, Welles was summoned to the White House to meet with Raymond and Lincoln. As Donald explains, the president’s campaign manager “gave the Secretary a little lecture on the political facts of life, with Lincoln silently approving each word.”
When civil service reforms, such as the 1883 Pendleton Act, brought a gradual end to the era of political assessments, parties and candidates increasingly relied on private sources of campaign funds, especially from corporations and the super rich. In 1896, for instance, the Republican campaign of William McKinley raised $3 million from business interests and oligarchs.
This frustrating pattern of campaign finance reform leading to unintended consequences and bitter disappointment continued in the twentieth century. For example, the public revelation that corporations contributed over $1 million to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 reelection campaign created a national uproar, leading to a series of new federal campaign finance laws.
But the underlying dynamics of money in politics hardly changed at all. In 1912 the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, self-righteously condemned the political influence of corporations and the rich on the campaign trail, but he secretly received huge influxes of cash from wealthy donors with strong ties to corporate America. A Chicago plumbing tycoon, for example, gave the Wilson campaign $40,000. As the historian John Milton Cooper, Jr. pointedly observed in his outstanding 2009 biography of the 28th president, “this champion of progressivism took money from the kind of people he was denouncing on the hustings.”
The Modern Era
In 1925 Congress adopted the toughest federal campaign finance regulations in history, including both contribution and expenditure limits, but the new laws were almost completely ignored by both parties.
For instance, in his book Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, the historian James McGregor Burns described how big money poured into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign from “financiers, merchants, and industrialists.” Despite the federal laws that ostensibly restricted campaign contributions and expenditures, both parties routinely accepted large campaign contributions and exceeded spending limits from the 1930s through the early 1970s. In addition, independent committees emerged in the 1940s as a major vehicle for unregulated campaign spending. As the historian Robert Mutch notes in his book, Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform, “[i]ndependent spending has been a political and legal headache for lawmakers ever since.”
In a 1967 speech President Lyndon Johnson frankly admitted that campaign finance laws were “[m]ore loophole than law, they invite evasion and circumvention.” The late 1960s saw both the size of individual contributions and the amount of total spending soar. Indeed, according to the political scientist Herbert Alexander, during the 1968 campaign Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy each received contributions of $500,000 or more from individual donors.
When Congress adopted sweeping new campaign finance laws following Watergate, supporters promised the reforms would take money out of politics once and for all. In a 1974 speech Senator Hubert Humphrey declared, “Big money, large private contributions, and the amount of money a politician can raise should not be permitted to continue as a key to election day success.”
But in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court struck down the new law’s expenditure limits, while upholding its low contribution limits. In a prescient dissent, Justice Byron White warned that the Court’s ruling would give rise to an incoherent campaign finance system, one in which federal candidates would have to constantly raise unlimited amounts in small dollar increments. He predicted that the Buckley decision would consign candidates to a relentless fundraising “treadmill.”
As Justice White warned, campaign spending has only increased since the Watergate reforms of the 1970s, even though the size of individual contributions to federal candidates fell dramatically from pre-Watergate levels. Between 1984 and 2012, a period of low contribution limits (the limit was $1,000 per donor per candidate from 1974 to 2002, and was raised to $2,000 and indexed to inflation in 2003), congressional campaign costs increased by 550%, according to Federal Election Commission data. This year’s elections will likely be the most expensive congressional races in history. The 2014 midterms cost $3.8 billion and the 2016 congressional elections cost $4 billion, figures that the 2018 races could easily surpass. According to the FEC, congressional candidates, PACs, and party committees raised over $2.8 billion in 2017 alone.
Whatever one’s views of federal campaign finance law, it is undeniable that the high cost of running for office—and the extraordinary amount of time candidates must devote to fundraising—drive many good people out of politics and discourage others from running in the first place.
So perhaps Madison and Washington should have considered themselves fortunate. Although they bemoaned the obligatory campaign expenditures of the 18th century political world, they at least did not have to bear the high cost of filming and airing 30-second television attack ads.
Feldman on CSPAN
The 1777 campaign is just a tiny part of Prof. Feldman’s book, which covers in incisive and engaging fashion the long sweep of Madison’s remarkably eventful and influential career in public life. For an overview of the book, I recommend Brian Lamb’s interview of Noah Feldman on CSPAN’s Q & A program, the video of which is available here.