With Election Day fast approaching, I cannot help but think about
the emergence of the United States’ two-party system and the wonderful
niche within history and numismatics that it helped create: the 19th
century campaign token. If you ask any of my students what my favorite
part of American history is, most would say the presidents after
looking around my classroom, which is adorned with campaign posters.
With my use of numismatics in the classroom at regular intervals, how
can I resist merging my two favorite things within my own classroom —
campaign history and tokens?
Presidentially speaking, political support tokens stretch back as
far as George Washington in the United States, though most of these
early pieces were issued as commemoratives. The first truly contested
election complete with some heated campaigning was in 1800 between
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but no tokens were used to show
support for either one during the campaign. It was not until the
election of 1824 with the primary candidate being Andrew Jackson
staked against John Quincy Adams that the marriage between
presidential campaigns and tokens would occur.
The environment that gave rise to the campaign token resulted in
part from two things: the re-emergence of a new, strong two-party
system in 1824, after nearly 24 years of the prior parties’ steady
decline, and the fact that the United States was finally
industrialized and specialized enough to have diesinkers to actually
produce private tokens. The lack of the necessary infrastructure is
why, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most American-related
tokens came from England.
The first true presidential campaign tokens — pieces designed to
attract voters to a candidate — are often acknowledged as being the
Andrew Jackson tokens with his likeness on the obverse and the HERO OF
NEW ORLEANS or some such inscription on the reverse issued for the
1824 presidential campaign. These tokens connect the candidate to his
victory during the War of 1812 at the aforesaid battle in 1815. This
practice of using tokens of the early Jacksonian Democrats
revolutionized the American campaign scene for the rest of history.
To balance the strength those tokens were providing to the
Democrats, the Whig Party, established in 1833 to contest everything
Jackson represented, started to issue slanderous tokens against
Jackson, thus giving rise to the exciting field of political Hard
Times tokens from 1833 to 1843.
Following suit, nearly all political parties founded to nominate a
presidential candidate from 1828 to 1896 would create supportive or
slanderous tokens to further their political messages. In the fashion
of a walking billboard, many people would have the tokens holed and
hung from their lapels to show support for their candidate.
So where has the practice of using these tokens gone? Well, by
1900 most had disappeared, to give way to celluloid pins. However,
pre-1900 tokens are plentiful and a person can learn lots from these
tokens about the candidates, the political parties and the citizens
who voted for them during these periods of time by considering various
questions: How have the general concerns within our nation changed
over time, evident from the campaign slogans? How did values and
patterns within society and the economy shape the constituencies of
the political parties? Who did these candidates really represent?
Just as we look back on previous elections, how will the citizens
of tomorrow view our choices we make during this election? These are
all entertaining and relevant questions for ourselves and our students
to reflect upon as the election draws near.
Nathan Zang is a United States History teacher at Matoaca High
School in Chesterfield, Va.