American presidential history is filled with “firsts”. First president? George Washington. First president to die in office? William Henry Harrison. First president to serve two non-consecutive terms? That would be Grover Cleveland, who won the 1884 election, lost the 1888 election, then won again in 1892. Cleveland is both the 22nd and 24th President and the only Commander-in-Chief to hold this honor. doubtful.
But there are other “firsts” in the history of presidential elections that mark the nation’s change. Not all of them involve the major parties of their time. For a long time, third parties were the only way anyone who wasn’t a white man could pitch a bid for the White House. Below are seven key examples of “firsts” in presidential (and vice-presidential) history.
WATCH: The Ultimate Presidents Guide to HISTORY Vault
First woman to receive a presidential nomination
The first woman to run for president was Victoria Woodhull, the Equal Rights Party candidate in 1872. The party appointed Frederick Douglass as Woodhull’s running mate, technically making her the first black candidate for vice-president. However, Douglas did not accept the nomination and he delivered sharp speeches for incumbent Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, who won that election.
Like many white suffragists, Woodhull was unhappy that black men won the vote before white women and made racist appeals to white men when advocating for white women to vote. This likely influenced Douglass’ decision to endorse Grant.
READ MORE: How early suffragists exhausted black women
First black American to receive a presidential nomination
Douglass himself was a minor presidential candidate at a few conventions: he received one vote at the Freedom Party convention in 1848 and one at the Republican Party convention in 1888 (the candidate in 1888 was Benjamin Harrison, who became president). However, the first black American to receive a presidential nomination was George Edwin Taylor in 1904.
Taylor, the son of a former slave, was a journalist and politician who had been deputy general delegate to the Republican National Convention of 1892. In 1904, Taylor won the presidential nomination at the convention of the National Negro Liberty Party, also known as the National Liberty Party. The party was skeptical of incumbent Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s loyalty to black Americans. This skepticism was justified – Roosevelt later sold his black Republican allies in the 1912 election.
READ MORE: How political conventions started – and changed
First Catholic President
Anti-Catholicism was rampant among white Protestants in the early 20th century. The ban on alcohol along with Prohibition was linked to prejudices against Catholic immigrants, fueling Ku Klux Klan terrorism against them in the 1920s. The first Catholic to receive the presidential nomination of a major party was the New York Governor Al Smith, an anti-Prohibition Democrat who lost the 1928 election to Republican Herbert Hoover.
When Catholic Senator John F. Kennedy ran for the Democratic presidential primaries of 1960, party leaders were skeptical about his possibility of winning the general election. Many Protestants believed that Catholics had a “double loyalty” to the Vatican and the United States and that, if elected, a Catholic president would follow the pope’s orders (for example, some feared that Kennedy would ban control of the births).
But after winning West Virginia in the primaries, party leaders gained more confidence in Kennedy, and he won the nomination and presidency, becoming the first Catholic president.
READ MORE: How John F. Kennedy Overcome Anti-Catholic Bias To Win Presidency
First black American woman to seek Democratic nomination
The year Nixon won her first presidential election, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to win a seat in Congress. Four years later, the New York representative entered the Democratic primaries, making her the first black American and the first woman to seek the party nomination (Frederick Douglass and Margaret Chase Smith were candidates for Republican national conventions in 1888 and 1964, respectively).
Chisholm lost the nomination to Senator George McGovern, who then lost in a historic landslide against Nixon. While she knew she probably wouldn’t win, she also understood that her pioneering presidential campaign would open the door for other black Americans and women to run for office in the future.
READ MORE: ‘Unbought and Unbumped’: Why Shirley Chisholm Ran for President
First black president
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The first black American to win the presidential nomination of a major party was also the first black American to become president: Barack Obama. As a Democratic candidate, he defeated white opponents in the 2008 and 2012 elections, serving two terms as the 44th US president.
His candidacy (and his presidency) was a historic milestone for the United States, but it also sparked a backlash. One campaign, for example, promoted the unsubstantiated “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States.
First woman to receive the presidential nomination of the big party
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to campaign for the presidency on a major party ticket. The former first lady, New York senator and Obama secretary of state ran as a Democratic candidate against Republican Donald Trump. Clinton’s historic campaign ended with a victory for his opponent, Trump.
READ MORE: The 2016 US Presidential Election
First black and South Asian American to be nominated as major party vice president
In August 2020, at the Democratic Party’s first “remote” national convention, Kamala Harris accepted the party’s nomination to run for vice-president alongside presidential candidate Joe Biden. Harris, whose mother immigrated to the United States from India and whose father immigrated from Jamaica, is the first person of African or Asian descent to run for vice-president of a major party.
She is also the third woman to receive the nomination of a major party. The first was Geraldine Ferraro, who ran with Walter Mondale on the 1984 Democratic ticket, losing to incumbent Republican Ronald Reagan and Vice President George HW Bush. The second was Sarah Palin, who ran with John McCain on the Republican ticket in 2008, the year of Obama’s historic victory.
READ MORE: 5 Vice Presidential Candidates Who Made an Impact