Republican Principles Versus the Corrupt Practice of Electioneering — 1788

An Elector: To the Free Electors of This Town

Boston, 1788

The theory of republican government took for granted a number of institutions and practices rarely written about, yet logical and important consequences of that theory. One of these was the view that electioneering was a corrupt practice. The virtuous man was to run for office sitting quietly in his house after offering himself. This brief essay discusses the practice and its rationale. It appeared in the Boston Gazette on April 28, 1788. The fact that even James Madison, when he first ran for the Virginia legislature in 1777, refused to campaign or solicit votes shows the strength of the practice. That Madison lost to a tavern keeper also illustrates why the practice was in serious decay by 1788.

It is a criterion of republican principles that they never induce their possessor to seek for an office—and however fashionable it may be, to make professions of gratitude for the suffrages of the people, such professions are alien from true republicanism. The Public Good is, or ought to be, the only object of pursuit to every servant of the public: “Offices should therefore seek for men, not men for offices.” The character of a Seeker should be detestable in the view of every free and independent Elector; such persons constantly exhibit themselves at every return of the present season—and the arts of electioneering are openly and shamelessly practised. Our papers for several years past, have been crouded with essays and declamations, graced with this corrupt borough term, Electioneering:—Yea, it is supposed that persons, whose characters have been emblazened as models of political virtue, have modestly employed their own pens to depict themselves, or prevailed on some dependent friend to do this immaculate business for them:—such persons must have a superlative opinion of their own merits, or a very contemptible one of the public discernment. Such, ought never to be the objects of our suffrages. The public good is a secondary consideration with candidates of this sort, and is never attended to as a matter of importance, any further than their own Individual interest can be promoted at the same time.

At the present day, there are many Candidates or Seekers; in bestowing our suffrages, let us not lose sight of real republican principles, and the great interests of the Commonwealth, from too eager a desire to promote a Friend, a Relation, or Connection; who may, perhaps, need a public employment. This principle has a very dangerous tendency, and may, finally introduce an influence fatal to the liberties of the people.

That Aristocracy, of which we have heard so much, may creep upon us through this medium; for in proportion to the Dependent and Straitened circumstances of men in public life, in the same proportion (generally speaking) is the probability of their sacrificing their sentiments, to coincide with the view of ambitious men, who have (experience verifies) always established their Influence and Power by the assistance of needy expectants.

The important choice of Representatives is now approaching—from that solicitude and concern which the citizens of this metropolis have discovered on this occasion, from year to year, there can be no doubt of their being equally attentive to characters, the ensuing election.

You will doubtless have many exhortations upon the subject, and many excellent qualifications will be treated of, as Essential Requisites. All that I have to say at present is, that so far as any of those persons who were the objects of your choice the last year, have discovered an attachment to the great principles of Federalism—they will doubtless obtain your suffrages the ensuing year.


Source: Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz, ed. American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805: Volume II; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983; pg. 705-706.

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