What is the Most Important Election in U.S. History?
“We have had many important elections, but never one so important as that now approaching…. The republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history.”
You might think that I copied and pasted this quote from an article or essay written yesterday by some political pundit.
If so, you would be wrong.
This quote was taken from an editorial in the New York Times written in 1864.
It was written when Abraham Lincoln was running for a second term against the challenger George B. McClellan.
I have heard this phrase, or some variation of it, in every presidential election that has occurred in my life (I'm 53, so my earliest clear memories of an American presidential election are memories of the 1980 contest between Carter and Reagan when I was 13 years old).
Because the phrase is popping up again during this current election cycle, my curiosity got the best of me. I wondered how long the phrase had been occurring in American politics. I did a little digging, and in addition to the 1864 editorial, I ran across a number of other instances in which this phrase was used. Here are just a few examples:
In 1888, The New York Times ran a piece claiming, "The Republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history." This was the contest between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.
In 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was running against John W. Davis, one prominent politician wrote, “I look upon the coming election as the most important in the history of this country since the Civil War.”
In 1952, Harry Truman told the American people, I believe, my friends, that we are faced with the most important election in the history of the country." He was talking about the contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.
In 1976, Gerald Ford said that the upcoming election was "one of the most vital in the history of America." This was the contest between Ford and Jimmy Carter. Carter defeated Ford.
In 1980, Nancy Reagan said of the upcoming contest between her husband and the incumbent Jimmy Carter, "This is the most important election of my life.” Reagan won.
In 1984, in the contest between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, Reagan said, it is “the most important choice in modern times.” Mondale agreed, saying, it is "the most important election of our lives." Reagan won again.
In 1988, George Bush explained to the American people that the upcoming election is “the most important choice in a generation.” Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in this election.
In 1992, Bill Clinton said that the upcoming election is “the most important election in a generation.” Clinton defeated Bush (and Ross Perot).
in 1996, the director of the Christian Coalition said that the upcoming election is “the most important election of our lifetime.” Clinton defeated Bob Dole (and Ross Perot . . . again).
In 2000, Rush Limbaugh was emphatic: "No question about it. This is the most important election in our history." Charlton Heston said it is "the most important election since the Civil War." George W. Bush defeated Al Gore.
In 2004, John Kerry declared: "My fellow Americans, this is the most important election of our lifetime." Bush defeated Mr. Kerry.
In 2008, Joe Biden was clear: "So when people say 'this is the single most important election in my lifetime,' they're exactly right." Barack Obama defeated John McCain.
In 2012, Dennis Prager wrote: “The usual description of presidential elections – ‘the most important election of our lifetime’ – is true this time. In fact, it may be the most important election since the Civil War, and possibly since America’s founding.” Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney.
In 2016, Mike Huckabee explained: “We say every four years, “The is the most important election in our lifetime.” This truly is!” Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton.
All of this indicates that we should take hyperbolic political language with a grain of salt. Every election is important, but when we use this phrase to describe all of them, the language begins to lose all force for any who have lived long enough to have heard it used so regularly. Hyperbole is meant to be used for emphasis, but IF YOU EMPHASIZE EVERYTHING, YOU EMPHASIZE NOTHING.
It does raise an interesting question, however. What, in fact, was the most important presidential election in U.S. History? I can think of several candidates for the top prize.
The 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson. Look up "The Revolution of 1800."
The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. In response, South Carolina seceded. Other states followed, and we know what happened next.
The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt would end up serving for 12 years, and his policies and programs reshaped the country.