Last week, the two major party candidates for president participated in the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a fundraiser for Catholic charities hosted by the New York Archbishop. Since the 1960s, the Al Smith dinner has become an important election ritual, featuring short joke-laden speeches from the candidates delivered to members of New York’s elite (tickets to the 2016 dinner cost $3,000 individually or up to $150,000 for a table). In the recent past, the evening also has been a respite from the contentious campaign season, with candidates poking fun at themselves rather than their opponents. (In 2008, Barack Obama joked about his middle name while in 2000, George W. Bush famously told the wealthy audience: “This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”)
The 2016 dinner, however, proved icier than previous events, as both candidates seemed to abandon the self-deprecating tone of the evening. Attendees were particularly disconcerted by Donald Trump’s speech, even booing the Republican Party candidate for repeating some of his standard stump lines about Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton. As the audience indicated, Trump’s stiff remarks broke with the spirit of this election-year social custom.
Although Trump’s performance at the Al Smith dinner is unlikely to alter the presidential race, the event itself is an example of a longstanding American tradition: political events designed as bipartisan social gatherings. In the nineteenth century, candidates did not personally campaign either for a party’s nomination or for the presidency itself. But they did participate in a variety of social events similar to the Al Smith dinner that had important political consequences. During congressional sessions and campaign seasons, experienced politicians spent their evenings paying respects to federal colleagues and the nation’s elite at dinners, parties, receptions, and other social mixers.
Partisan or sectional conflict was no excuse for ducking out of the nineteenth-century social world. In the 1840s and 1850s, the country’s political and social elite expected men from rival political parties and regions to participate in these social customs with regularity and good humor. In the tension-filled months leading up to secession and war during the winter of 1860-1861, federal politicians continued to socialize at White House receptions, city balls, and society dinners. Even during the Civil War itself such events continued, as congressmen flocked to President Abraham Lincoln’s receptions and dinners and mingled with the city’s elite. In essence, social demands of the twenty-first century are not new; being a good politician in the nineteenth century also required successfully navigating social life in Washington, D.C. and other American cities.
Among other events, nineteenth-century social politics included a regular round of receptions hosted alternately by the President and members of his Cabinet; balls and galas organized by charity organizations or prominent female residents of Washington; dinners thrown by diplomats or wealthy city socialites; and more casual gatherings at the homes of powerful congressmen. Lawmakers who were so inclined could spend every night of the week at one of these political gatherings designed as socializing. Most of these events required politicians to interact across ideological divides, and, like the Al Smith dinner, many were even explicitly bipartisan. For example, during the congressional season, lawmakers gussied themselves up for at least three political balls called the “Washington Assemblies,” which were sponsored by congressmen and other city socialites from across the political spectrum.
At many of these events, alcohol flowed freely and the company was often boisterous. One of the more coveted invitations in the years before the Civil War was dinner at the home of wealthy financier William W. Corcoran, who was known to provide up to twelve courses and some of the finest wine in Washington to men from across the political spectrum. At Corcoran’s table, inebriated congressmen from rival parties often talked politics until two or three in the morning, laughing together as they stumbled home. The intersection of alcohol and political rivalry also could have some amusing consequences. In one example from the 1840s, a group of congressional rivals from northern and southern states held a contest to see which region had the best bottle of wine. Fourteen bottles later, the members declared South Carolina the winner. Alcohol also helped lubricate otherwise strained political relationships; it sometimes took a couple of bottles before congressional rivals could discuss pressing topics, as one member put it, amid “a great flow of wit, some disclosure of information, and some smut.”
Social events were more than simply good fun among political rivals, however. For Washington lawmakers, political respect was closely linked to social graces and a poor showing at bipartisan social events could have serious implications. If a lawmaker couldn’t handle his alcohol at a dinner party, he was in danger of making a consequential political gaffe. For example, in 1860, Republican Speaker of the House William Pennington had a reputation for such loose and impolitic talk after a few drinks that one colleague noted it was “out of the question, to feel respect for a man who has no bridle on his tongue after a couple of glasses of wine stimulate his absurdities.” Even sober, a stuffy congressman could find himself the butt of repeated jokes at social gatherings—and without an invitation to the next event. Worse, lawmakers tended to work around a colleague who couldn’t laugh at himself or enjoy the city’s social niceties. A politician who remained aloof from social engagements was “generally punished for it,” according to one nineteenth-century Democrat, putting him at a “great disadvantage” politically.
Presidents who struggled to fulfill social obligations were particularly problematic in the Civil War era. Washington politicians were flabbergasted by President Zachary Taylor’s social ineptitude in the late 1840s, for example; congressmen complained that he had poor social graces, could barely carry on a conversation at White House receptions, and was “unskilled in the power of entertaining.” Taylor’s incompetence had political consequences as well; few lawmakers were willing to entertain his political ideas since, as one Senator put it, if he was a lousy host, “I do not see how President Taylor can command the respect of any body.” Taylor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, was much better liked among the city’s political and social elite. Fillmore, who served for many years in Congress before becoming president, understood how important it was to be a good entertainer, and thereby “shone conspicuously in the society of the time,” according to one member of Washington society.
As Taylor and Fillmore illustrate, the ability to engage socially was an important character trait—one that lawmakers and socialites believed was essential to good politicking in the nineteenth century. And while social politics did not necessarily have consequences for elections or constituent demand then, the business of federal governance relied on politicians maintaining good humor and collegiality while partying and dining with Washington’s elite. Twenty-first century social politics may look a little bit different—and involve large-scale media coverage—but the expectations for politicians’ social grace remain high. As a result, the 2016 candidates’ inability to check partisanship at the door of the Al Smith dinner made for an unfunny, awkward night.