Find political context online

The adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same” has never been truer than in today’s political climate.

The division, the unrest, the protests, the threats, the name calling — it’s all old hat in the context of American political history.

But many people today don’t know that.

For a country that invented the internet and then populated it with a bazillion bytes of historical data, we have a remarkably short historical attention span or desire to look it up online. Yet, there are numerous websites available that serve as repositories for digitized newspapers. Some are free, some are not; but all offer a chance to survey the front pages of history going back to the 1600s.

And, because most of these archives are searchable, you can quickly home in on information in seconds that, prior to the internet, would have taken numerous trips to a public or college library and hours slogging through rolls of microfilm or microfiche.

A little online research can help give context to the 2016 presidential election when measured against history.

For example, many are saying Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton surely stands as one of the greatest political upsets in history. But that really depends on how far back your sense of history goes.

In the 1948 presidential election, Democrat Harry Truman scored the “Most Amazing Upset In U.S. History” over Republican Thomas Dewey, according to the headline in the Harrisburg (Pa.) Telegraph.

Read a few more papers of the time, and you’ll discover nearly all the polls pointed to a victory by Dewey. Election pundits were certain, even on Election Day, that Truman would lose — and lose big. But the American public voted otherwise.

Sound familiar?

It’s also worth noting that, after those “shocking results,” Dewey supporters did not stage numerous protests across America chanting “Not my president,” or shouting “Impeach Truman,” or beating and burning effigies of Truman.

Another common observation of the 2016 election is that the close results reflect a deep divide among Americans, something that hasn’t been seen in recent times — except in the 1960 presidential election.

Democrat John Kennedy defeated Republican challenger Richard Nixon by about 300,000 votes in what was then the closest election in American history.

The newspapers of the time talked about the deep divide in America as reflected by the nearly even results. The candidates were aware of the split as well.

So, when Kennedy emerged the winner, challenger Richard Nixon “urged all Americans to unite behind their next president, John F. Kennedy,” according to The Pittsburgh Press on Nov. 9, 1960.

Again, sound familiar?

Many also have called the 2016 presidential campaign one of the nastiest in history.

Perhaps, but a search of the online newspaper archives suggests, if anything, 2016 was no different from many, many previous campaigns, including those in 2012 and 2008.

In fact, in 1998, according to various editions of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, that year’s presidential election campaign was the nastiest in history.

So were the 1978 presidential race, the 1928 campaign and the 1912 election, when Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate for the job he’d held just a few years earlier.

And media bias? Heck, what happened in 2016 is nothing compared to the wicked partisanship shown by newspapers during Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaigns in 1860 and 1864.

Northern papers painted him as no less than God’s right-hand man, while Southern papers depicted him as the spawn of Satan — and those were the moderate publications.

The more you look back on past elections, the more you realize how little has changed over the centuries. That we happened to have a few decades here and there of moderate campaign civility is more an aberration than the norm.

Presidential campaigns have always been “the worst in history.” It’s just that many of us don’t remember — or care to.

But the internet and newspaper archives can help us remember.

Here are a few of the best digitized newspaper repository sites worth visiting:

Chronicling America —

Free digitized collection of newspapers from across America ranging in years from 1789 to 1922.

Small Town Papers —

A free collection of 250 newspapers nationwide with digitized versions dating back to 1846.

New York Times Archive —

A free, online, text only archive of The New York Times’ articles from 1851 to the present. —

A pay service, features a very deep and well indexed collection of major and minor papers from around the nation dating back to the 1700s.

Newspaper Archive —

Another pay service featuring a deep and well-indexed catalog of newspapers going back to the 1700s.

Keith Darnay is the Tribune’s online manager and has worked in the online world for more than two decades. His site is at


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