1904 U.S. elections: Jewish kids stumping for candidates

When the 1904 presidential campaigns began, there were more than 1.5 million Jews in the U.S., most of whom had immigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe in the previous 25 years.

Politicians coveted the Jewish vote, and campaign materials had long since started to appear in Yiddish. Examples include this 1904 mini-biography of incumbent candidate Theodore Roosevelt, published in Chicago. (Photo from the June 1905 issue of the Jewish magazine New Era Illustrated.)


Booklet in Yiddish with a drawing of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback.


In the final month of the 1904 race, the same magazine ran the following article about young boys who were hired to stump for candidates on New York’s Lower East Side:

Boy Political Orators


New Era Illustrated, October 1904

ON LATE OCTOBER NIGHTS, in years when important elections are pending, New York’s East Side adds another queer sight to its already long list. Street corners, doorsteps and casual barrel-heads not infrequently present to the astonished stranger the spectacle of boys from ten to fifteen years old delivering with might and main speeches Democratic, Republican or Socialistic. Some of them should have been in bed hours ago, and in their waking moments should have concerned themselves with nothing more complex than the third reader and a baseball bat; yet there they stand, repeating like little parrots of phenomenal intelligence the stock phrases of their respective parties.

A group gathered around a boy orator.

An East Side street corner in campaign time.

They talk as if they understood the meaning of the words, and if cornered by the interruption of a bystander, they will often, with a quick reply, turn the laugh against their opponent ; but the whole business is more an effort of memory than an example of children of the poor, as they are, sons often of men whose brains have been sharpened to almost supernatural keenness by Talmudic subtleties, their childish feet are early entangled in the web of politics that immeshes all New York’s East Side. It is an amusing game to them ; it is fun to pit their eager little minds against those of older men. There is applause, excitement and a little money in it for them ; for the East Side there is considerable amusement ; for the politician there is the certainty of an audience. All are quite satisfied with the arrangement, and so this month has, as usual, its crop of boy politicians.

“Couldn’t you just as well speak for the Democrats ?” was asked of a Rooseveltian of eleven years.

“I could, maybe—but I wouldn’t. No, sir ! I’m a straight Republican and I won’t have anything to do with the Democrats.”

“The Democrats are all bad, arc they ?” was asked again.

“I believe,” said the politician, loftily, “that there are good men everywhere. It would be foolish to deny it. But I know that most of them are in the Republican party, so I am a Republican.”

This young hopeful has taken an active part in politics for the past year. He is perhaps rather younger than most of his class, but when boys get into the high schools or college they are very apt to seek to augment their slender incomes by putting their bright brains and quick tongues at the service of one or other of the great political parties.

There are two methods of going to work. Many boys do regular stump speaking, going about from place to place and addressing crowds in a prepared speech. Sometimes they have the glory of a cart to convey them, sometimes they merely utilize barrels, or avail themselves of the shoe-polishing stand which customarily adorns the sidewalk outside a saloon. Another class is even more picturesque—and to this set belonged the young man whose profound words have been quoted. They don’t make set speeches, but hang about political gathering places and draw men into argument. Their wits work quickly enough to enable them to put up a very respectable showing.

“I don’t see why I should vote for Roosevelt,” objected one man to the eleven-year-old logician. “There’s been nothing but strikes since he came in.”

“Parker could stop the strikes, you think ?” scornfully responded the child. “The strikes come from the way the workingmen feel—and if Parker told them I suppose they’d change their feelings?”

“Well, a vote for the Republicans is a vote for the trusts [monopolies], anyway.”

“The trusts! Now, that’s something everybody’s talking about, but the trusts have made things cheaper and it’s very bad, I tell you, to have all the business men trying to beat each other down. It upsets the country.”

So the ball goes back and forth amid the laughter of the street. Every bull’s-eye for the child is received with applause, and his arguments receive a more patient attention than would a grown man’s.

All this is bright and amusing for the passer-by and pleasant for the child, if somewhat overstimulating, but East Side [social] workers shake their heads over the matter. […]