Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Big Brains and the Solid South: Newspaper Coverage of the Election of 1880
Katrina J. Quinn

Last modified: 2018-01-29


While President James A. Garfield is best remembered for his assassination just months into executive office, the election of 1880 which put him there was perceived at the time as a moment of ideological reckoning. It was the first presidential election since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Would the nation choose the candidate who would aggravate lingering sectional antagonism? Or would it choose the candidate who would move the country toward shared prosperity and national unity? An experienced and intelligent Republican Congressman from Ohio, Garfield was the obvious choice to move the nation forward, according to the Republican press. But the Democratic press disagreed, endorsing Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock, a political novice, but a Union hero of Gettysburg with an impeccable reputation, northern roots, and the support of southern Democrats.

This research seeks to understand the role of the press in structuring the election of 1880 as an ideological battlefield. It examines both the Republican-leaning press, which positioned Garfield as the unity candidate and Hancock as a southern puppet, as well as the Democratic-leaning press, largely but not entirely in the South, which hailed Hancock as a national choice and Garfield as the reactionary. The research finds that the election was broadly seen—by both sides—as a referendum on the “solid South,” a rhetorical construct, either approbative or disparaging depending on the source, with resonance in issues of sectional identity, racial realignment, and economic and political self-determination. At the end of the day, the research shows, the Republican victory was articulated by the sympathetic press as a massive ideological triumph for the North more than a win for the candidate himself.

Beginning with the June nominating elections and continuing through the end of November, this study investigates how the press framed the debates surrounding sectionalism and national unity. With primary source materials acquired from the Chronicling America Archive housed at the Library of Congress as well as the American Periodicals database provided by ProQuest, the study will be of interest to scholars of journalism and communication history as it contributes to our understanding of the active role of the press in ideologically mapping U.S. elections, constructing candidates, and articulating the meaning of victory.

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