The Presidential Fringe: Questing and Jesting for the Oval Office

The Presidential Fringe: Questing and Jesting for the Oval Office

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This offbeat slice of American history places the story of our great republic beneath an unexpected lens: that of fringe candidates for president of the United States. Mark Stein explores how their quest for our nation’s highest office helped to amplify voices otherwise quashed during their day. His careening tour through elections past includes the efforts of true pioneers in the quest for social equality in our country: the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull in 1872; the first African American to run for president, George E. Taylor in 1904; and the first openly gay cross-dressing candidate for president, Joan Jett Blakk in 1992.

But The Presidential Fringe also takes a look at those who would jest their way into the Oval Office, from comedians such as Will Rogers and Gracie Allen to Pat Paulsen and Stephen Colbert. Along the way, Stein shows how even seemingly zany candidates, such as “Live Forever” Jones, Vegetarian Party candidate John Maxwell, Flying Saucer Party candidate Gabriel Green, or, most recently, Vermin Supreme, provide extraordinary insights of clarity into who we were when they ran for president and how we became who we are today. Ultimately, Stein’s examination reveals that it was often precisely these fringe candidates who planted the seeds from which mainstream candidates later harvested genuine, positive change.

Written in Stein’s direct and witty style, The Presidential Fringe surveys and portrays an American landscape rife with the unlikely, unassuming, unexpected, and (in a few cases) unbalanced presidential hopefuls who, in their own way, have contributed to this nation’s founding quest to form a more perfect Union.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781094082271
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 02/01/2020
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 5.70(h) x (d)

About the Author

Mark Stein is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. He is the author of several books, including Vice Capades: Sex, Drugs, and Bowling from the Pilgrims to the Present (Potomac Books, 2017); How the States Got Their Shapes, a New York Times best seller and the basis for the eponymous History Channel series; and American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why. For more information about the author, visit

Read an Excerpt


The First Fringe Candidates

"Scattered" and "Other"

* * *

WHEN ANDREW JACKSON RAN AGAINST JOHN QUINCY ADAMS in 1828, 4,568 of the 1,148,018 votes were cast for, in the language of that era's news reports, "Scattering." No record remains of who composed that category, but an absence of information can in itself be information. One reason for the absence of information about fringe candidates is that voting in the early years of the United States was conducted very differently than today; back then there was no equivalent of a Federal Election Commission. Nor, in the earliest years of the republic, did states have procedures for office seekers getting their names on the ballot. In many jurisdictions eligible voters (also very differently from today) simply gathered at an appointed time and place and voted by voice or holding up a hand. It is very likely that when, for example, John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson in 1796, local election officials simply ignored any isolated voices calling out for Yankee Doodle or the town drunk. American democracy soon took a step forward by providing greater privacy. In an increasing number of jurisdictions in the early nineteenth century, voters came to the polls with the names of their chosen candidates already written down on their personal ballots, which they placed in a box. A remnant of this system remains in today's prepared ballots via the write-in option, as does the news media's reporting of isolated votes under a category such as "Other" or some equivalent to "Scattering."

One can well imagine, however, that with the birth of the United States, some number of quirky candidates availed themselves of this new democracy. But in fact they precede the creation of the United States. Just as democracy was evolving in monarchical England, so too its embryo existed in colonial America. While England's monarchs appointed and empowered colonial governors, colonists elected representatives to legislatures that exercised limited home rule. And among those seeking to be elected there already were, evidently, fringe candidates. How else to explain the first stage comedy to be written by an American, The Candidates, by Robert Munford?

Munford wrote the play in or around 1770, when what would become the American Revolution was starting to bubble up in that year's Boston Massacre and in violence erupting in New York between British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty. Writing in the stylized traditions of Restoration Comedy, Munford named the mainstream candidates Mr. Wou'dbe and Mr. Worthy. The fringe candidates seeking office — unsuccessfully but, if you're into his kind of writing, hilariously — were Sir John Toddy, a drunk; Mr. Strutabout, an egomaniac; and Mr. Smallhopes, a single-issue candidate issue was horsemanship.

Although these characters were fictional, Munford did not create them out of thin air. Indeed he was sufficiently concerned that the actual likes of such candidates might take action against him that he put an eighteenth-century version of today's disclaimer — Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental — in the play's prologue. Which, in his words, was this:

While some may make malicious explanations, And know them all still living in the nation ... I boldly answer, how could he mean you, Who, when he wrote, about you nothing knew?

As it turned out, Munford need not have worried. Being the first American known to have written a comedy did not mean his writing was good. Assessed as, at best, an amateur effort with amusing moments, The Candidates was never produced.


John Donkey

America's First Cartoon Candidate

* * *

On April 22, 1848, John Donkey, at the urging of many and against his will (or so he claimed), declared his candidacy for president of the United States. Mr. Donkey's name was initially mentioned (or, one might argue, self-mentioned) as a candidate months earlier, when it was speculated in the pages of a national magazine called The John-Donkey, an American periodical that sought to replicate England's widely admired satiric magazine, Punch. According to The John-Donkey, "The free and independent citizens of Ann Arbor, Michigan ... have unanimously nominated our venerable and beloved patron, the great and good john donkey, for the Vice Presidency." Not the presidency. But being, by design, a political ass, he responded only to the part he wanted to answer when he replied, "If I am elected President ..." And soon after, he was off and running.

"Off and running" resonates with the significance of the fact that John Donkey ran for president in 1848. After the Revolution the United States was a new nation and, more important, a new democracy — indeed the first of its kind since the Roman Republic and Ancient Greece. Consequently the oratory of politicians seeking the presidency was now also being newly developed. Clearly, however, by 1848 Americans had begun to recognize patterns in such political rhetoric, as for example: "The various and conflicting reports which my friends have at various times, constantly against my will, caused to be circulated in regard to my intentions with respect [to] the approaching canvass in relation to the next presidency, appear to me to furnish a proper occasion for a full, free, frank, and explicit exposition of my feelings, sensations, emotions, desires, hopes, wishes, views and expectations on that subject."

John Donkey? Daniel Webster? Or Stephen A. Douglas?

Whichever one you answered answers the question, since one could correctly say oratorical hot air now wafted over the political landscape. And in so saying one would have used an idiom, "hot air," which the Oxford English Dictionary identifies as a term originating in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

The quote, for the record, was from John Donkey.

He may have been a joke candidate, but it was no joke that John Donkey's candidacy resonated with and amplified realizations and attitudes easily overlooked in this era of American history.

Not all of John Donkey's presidential campaign was aimed at ridiculing politicians. Nor was his humor entirely benign. In replying to his "supporters" in Ann Arbor — whose unanimous vote, according to The John-Donkey, was reported in "the B'hoy's Eagle" — the reluctant candidate stated, "In regard to the ... great questions of national interest, I have never had time to form an opinion, being for the most part engaged in chasing up the cockneys with blood-hounds and the dunces of my own country." Back in the day, "b'hoy" was a derogatory term for an Irish male, though it came to be embraced by a variety of urban toughs. His mention of the "cockneys" he'd been engaged in chasing was a similarly derogatory reference to lower-class British immigrants. Ann Arbor, Michigan, arising at the time as a regional railway hub, was home to a great many immigrants, particularly among the Irish fleeing starvation resulting from that nation's potato famine in the 1840s. Not true, however, was the occurrence of any such convention in Ann Arbor, nor the existence of a newspaper called the B'hoy's Eagle. Both creations, with their whacks at the Irish, were just for laughs.

Laughter, however, is serious business. And good for business — a fact borne out by the number of newspapers that sought to boost readership by reprinting John Donkey's declaration of his candidacy. Other newspapers capitalized on his candidacy with their own tongue-in-cheek articles and editorials. "Must be [that] John Donkey ... has seen our advertisement for a candidate to be run on the Federal Republican Democratic Whig Taylor ticket," boasted a column in Missouri's Democratic Banner. The "Federal Republican Democratic Whig Party" was this article's satiric amalgam of that era's political parties, through which the paper poked fun at Whig nominee Zachary Taylor's avowal not to hew to any party line. A number of the nation's more staid newspapers glommed on by reporting his candidacy poker-faced, as in the June 1, 1848, Indiana State Sentinel:


The Democrats having made their nominations, the candidates in the field may be summed up as follows: Whigs — Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John McLean, General Scott, Tom Corwin. Abolition — John P. Hale, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, and Abby Kelly. Independent Whigs — General Taylor, John Donkey, James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Lawson.

John Donkey did not, of course, simply spring from a pot of ink. He was the creation of his magazine's editors, George G. Foster and Thomas Dunn English. They were as oddball a publishing partnership as John Donkey was a candidate. English commenced his career as a physician, trained at the University of Pennsylvania. But his father did not view medicine as a worthy occupation and urged his son to learn carpentry. He did, but while doing so he also studied law on the side, and not long after was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. All these endeavors were sidelined, however, during an illness in which, to keep occupied, he took up writing, penning a play that was produced by one of that era's preeminent actor-managers, Junius Booth (whose son John would grow up to become the nation's preeminent assassin). Despite The John-Donkey's mockery of politicians, English later ran successfully for the New Jersey legislature and afterward was elected to Congress. Throughout he continued to write plays, poetry, nonfiction, and literary criticism — including criticism of Edgar Allen Poe that led to their having a lengthy literary snowball fight and one fist fight, which, alas, predated iPhone videos. Poe claimed to have given the cocreator of John Donkey "a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death," which English not only didn't remember but denied.

English's coeditor, Foster, was described in his New York Times obituary as a "remarkable example of a brilliant talent unguided by moral purpose or a decent regard for the conventions and proprieties of civilized society." And to think that's putting it respectfully. Like English, he too was a playwright and author of nonfiction, but with some differences. Foster's nonfiction explored the underbelly of urban life in ways (also in the words of his obituary) "to exclude them from the hands of [fastidious] readers." His work in the theater differed as well from that of English in Foster's additionally having been an actor, musician, and forger of a wealthy actor-manager's signature — for which he spent a year in the clink.

In the 1848 election Zachary Taylor received upward of 47 percent of the 2,876,818 votes, edging out his two major competitors, Democrat Lewis Cass and former president Martin Van Buren, who ran as a candidate for the antislavery Free Soil Party. As for John Donkey, it is not known how many of that year's 121 write-in votes he received. But 121 votes, taken together, represented just over 0 percent of the voters — a fact that is significant when, in later elections, a far larger percentage of Americans voted for particular fringe candidates.


Joseph Smith

Cult Candidate?

* * *

Joseph Smith was no John Donkey. He was the founder and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. Nevertheless when he ran for president in 1844, he contributed to John Donkey's 1848 campaign, which satirically amplified the nation's discontent with political b.s.

In announcing his candidacy Smith declared, "I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office ... but for the general good of mankind." Compare that statement to the b.s. (or d.s.?) in John Donkey's declaration, "With a strong disinclination to the use of my name in connection with that office (which my past life has so strikingly illustrated) ... my friends, seeing the direction in which my inclinations pointed, have represented to me ... that I was the only hope of the country."

At the time Smith ran for president, the Mormons were widely viewed as a cult. Today the leadership of this far more widely respected religion is centered in Salt Lake City, Utah, the place to which Mormons fled to escape mob violence in Nauvoo, Illinois, a town founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith, whom Mormons view as one of God's prophets. Many Americans, however, viewed that view of Smith as laughable. The Baton Rouge Gazette, for example, quipped in regard to the two leading presidential contenders in the 1844 election, "[Henry] Clay and [Martin] Van Buren may now hide their diminished heads, for a prophet is now come up for judgement before the people." But Smith was not running as a prophet. Indeed had there been bumper stickers back then, his could have read, "Pick Your Own Prophet — Smith for President," since he was campaigning for religious freedom.

Whether or not he was truly a prophet, Smith was truly intelligent — profoundly so. In the run-up to the 1844 election, he spotted an opportunity for a campaign that could begin on the edge of the stage but had the possibility of moving to the spotlight. Henry Clay faced little opposition in the Whig Party, but among the Democrats, President John Tyler faced reelection challenges from former president Martin Van Buren, Secretary of War Lewis Cass, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Senator James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. An impressive array. Unable to agree, the Democrats opted instead for a peripheral member of their party, a former congressman who went on to serve one term as governor of Tennessee before losing reelection, James K. Polk. The idea was that he'd never get elected, so the major players could take another shot four years later. And if by some fluke he did win, Polk had to promise not to run again. Which he did — win, and not run again.

During this scrum among Democrats as they headed (and elbowed and kneed) their way toward their nominating convention, Smith perceived, as few others did — including those who nominated Polk — the degree to which the presidency could be up for grabs. In January of that year he shared this perception with his inner circle and sought their view on throwing his hat in the ring. He made clear to them what the task ahead would entail if they approved and joined this effort to turn a fringe candidacy into one by a genuinely contending third party: "If you attempt to accomplish this, you must send every man in the city who is able to speak in public through the land to electioneer and ... have General Conferences all over the nation, and I will attend as many as convenient. Tell the people we have had Whig and Democratic Presidents long enough; we want a President of the United States. If I ever get into the presidential chair, I will protect [all] the people in their rights and liberties." The members of his inner circle agreed to give it a go.

At the outset the press reflected the nation's widespread derision of Mormons. "On mature deliberation," one newspaper wisecracked by its winking reference to maturity, "the Mormons do not intend to cast their votes either for Van Buren or Clay, but for General Joe Smith." One of the few newspapers to devote more than a smirk in reporting the announcement of his candidacy was the Washington (dc) Globe, though its coverage began by condescendingly stating, "We have cast our eye hastily over General Smith's (Mormon Joe) 'Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.'" In addition to religious freedom, Smith's platform addressed all the major issues of the day. In response to his proposals the editorialist clowned around, using derision to hide the fact that he actually agreed with Smith. For example, Smith stated his views on the hot-button topic of monetary policy in regard to a national bank, the equivalent of which would become the Federal Reserve. Sarcastically calling him the "great financier," the author wrote, "We think Joe's plan has decided advantages over those of Messrs. Clay and Webster." Quite a compliment, even as that newspaper, or any other, would never have referred to Messrs. Clay or Webster as Hank or Dan. Smith also supported the annexation of Texas and the nation's expansion to the Pacific coast, but added the stipulation "when we have the red man's consent." And he stepped up to the plate on slavery, calling for its abolition but compensating slave owners to minimize their economic loss. This last plank the Globe opted not to mention. Being published in a city where slavery was allowed, its editors may have feared the issue too hot handle. Even the article's conclusion, which expressed admiration for Smith, snidely italicized a word to hide (perhaps even from themselves) how seriously it meant: "We will do General Smith the justice to state that we think ... his views more honest and his scheme more feasible than those of the hypocrites and quacks who, supported by a great party, have fleeced the country."


Excerpted from "The Presidential Fringe"
by .
Copyright © 2020 Mark Stein.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Before We Begin—Political Tickets, Please
Part 1. Fringe Candidates in the Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries
The First Fringe Candidates: “Scattered” and “Other”
John Donkey: America’s First Cartoon Candidate
Joseph Smith: Cult Candidate?
Leonard “Live Forever” Jones: High Moral Party
George Francis Train: “Spread-Eagleism”
Victoria Woodhull: First Woman to Run for President
James B. Walker: From Mainstream to Fringe—Anti-Masonic Party
Mark Twain: First Celebrity Candidate
George Edwin Taylor: First African American Candidate
Part 2. Running onto the New Field of Radio and Television
Will Rogers: Anti-Bunk Party
Gracie Allen: Surprise Party
John Maxwell: Vegetarian Party
Homer Tomlinson: “King of the World” Candidate
Gabriel Green: Universal Flying Saucer Party
Part 3. The Earthquake of 1968 and Its Aftershocks
Louis Abolafia: World Love Party
Pat Paulsen: TV Comedian—STAG Party
Eldridge Cleaver: Black Panther—Peace and Freedom Party
Dick Gregory: TV Comedian—Freedom and Peace Party
Pigasus: Yippie Candidate
Aftershocks: Nobody for President
Joan Jett Blakk: Queer Nation Candidate
Part 4. Clowns and Quixotes Stampede the Internet and Cable TV
Vermin Supreme: “Why Not the Worst?”
Jonathon “The Impaler” Sharkey: Vampires Witches and Pagans Party
Stephen Colbert: “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”
Frank Moore: Just Makes Sense Party
Keith Russell Judd: Federal Inmate 11593-051
Roseanne Barr: First Female Serious Comedian Candidate
Jimmy McMillan: Rent Is Too Damn High Party
Naked Cowboy: Independent in Underpants
Deez Nuts: Games with Balls Candidate
Andrew Basiago: Time Travel Candidate
Zoltan Istvan: Transhumanist Party
In Exiting—Watch Your Step

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