During this year’s election cycle, the mainstream media has told us to believe that there is something shockingly nasty about the tone of this year’s contests.
CNBC typifies this line of thinking with an article titled “Trump v Clinton: Why this election could be the nastiest in history.”
For anyone with a working familiarity of past political rhetoric, this claim strikes one as rather implausible. After all, accusing someone of being likely to destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust, as Johnson clearly did of Goldwater in 1964, is a pretty “nasty” thing to do. Moreover, critics of Ronald Reagan were not exactly known for their reticence, with Reagan and his advisors being called racist, “feeble-minded,” “senile,” “demented,” and “hypocritical,” in both public and private comments by his detractors.
Things were far “nastier” in the 19th century, when voters often identified with a specific political party on an emotional level that far surpasses what people report today. Moreover, heavy-handed and emotional attacks on candidates were fueled by the country’s thousands of partisan newspapers which were like today’s blogs and constantly churned out emotionally charged content.
At the time, there was no attempt to claim impartiality or “professionalism” among journalists. The modern veneer of journalistic objectivity has always been a farce, of course, but in the 19th century, reporters were honest and open about their biases.
All of these factors led to a very robust, raucous, and even bawdy culture around elections and partisan politics that would strike many modern Americans as violent and barbaric today.
Unfortunately, detailed treatments of the culture behind 19th-century politics are relatively hard to come by, but in a new book by Jon Grinspan titled The Virgin Vote, readers can get a glimpse at what American politics looked like in an age when partisanship was far more intense than it is today, and in which the rhetoric was at least as apocalyptic.1
Politics and Youth Culture
Grinspan’s specific focus is on youth culture from the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 20th. During this period, voter participation soared to unprecedented levels never attained before or since. Among these many newly active voters were people in their early twenties (the voting age was 21 at the time). But, teenagers were also active as non-voters who assisted political parties in get-out-the-vote efforts, and in huge processions, rallies, and other political events which had become fixtures of American democracy at the time.
Nor was violence unheard-of at these events. Grinspan, for example, using the diaries of youths from the day, recounts knife fights that broke out at campaign rallies, and notes how political arguments broke out in school yards that ended in at least one student being choked “until he passed out.” As one observer mused at the time, visitors to schools might find “the great majority of children violent little partisans.”
In recent years, the term “low-information voter” has gained some widespread use, primarily among conservatives to allude to the fact that many voters are not exactly well-informed as to the details of the political issues on which they are presumably voting.
Any arguments that mattered were different in the past would have to rely on misplaced nostalgia, since at no time have we ever found the bulk of voters to be particularly well-informed. Certainly, the phrase “high-information voter” could hardly be applied to the average voter of the late 19th century.
Indeed, Grinspan’s examination of voter motivations from this period show the role of factors other than well-reasoned judgments about matters of public policy. In contrast, party affiliation and political participation was much more determined by family connections, personal ties to party operatives, and localized peer pressure. In an age when there was no secret ballot and one’s voting habits could be plainly observed, many were inclined to vote in ways that were more likely to advance themselves socially within the community. For example, being seen casting a vote for a Democrat in a district dominated by Whigs or Republicans was unlikely to do wonders for one’s social status.
Children were taught to favor the party of one’s parents, and social pressure was applied to ensure one voted properly. Indeed, as Richard Bensel has shown in his book The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,one sometimes faced ostracization from family, ethnic group, or social circles if one voted “incorrectly.”
Winning over citizens with sound logical arguments was hardly the best way to win large numbers of votes. In other words, identity politics is nothing new.
Consequently, with so much of one’s personal identity tied up in political campaigns, political rhetoric in this period was over-the-top. One critic of Grover Cleveland, for example, contended that Cleveland’s alleged moral shortcomings had led to “an epic of moral depravity such as no city in Christendom has ever witnessed.” Cleveland’s critics believed they could offer “still more proof of debaucheries too horrible to relate and too vile to be readily believed.”2
Some citizens lived in crippling fear of what might happen were their candidate to lose or, even worse, die. Grinspan recounts one boy who in 1841 was awoken by his parents in the middle of the night to be gravely told that William Henry Harrison had died. With his parents’ hero dead, the boy panicked and wondered “what is to become of us?”
Politics was no doubt a source of anxiety for the young, but, for young voters and young political activists, political party machines might provide the most readily-available means to attaining some social status within one’s community and gaining the attention of older adults who might help one in finding employment.
And, perhaps more importantly in the minds of many young people, political rallies and events were a good place to meet people of the opposite sex. Although women were denied the vote in this period, many young women were politically active through means other than voting, and many women understood how to spread their own views by influencing men in their own social circles.
As a result, young men who chose their political affiliations incorrectly might find themselves closed off from the affections of some women, as in the case of one twenty-year-old Indiana abolitionist who declared “there is [sic] no young men here except Copperheads, and they are beneath our notice.”
The Cultural and Quasi-Religious Function of Political Participation
One especially notable aspect of Grinspan’s analysis is his explanation of how political rituals filled a gap left in a society that was especially diverse in terms of religion, ethnicity, and origins. In the villages and cities of Europe, for example, the annual and daily rituals of everyday life were often dictated by often centuries-old customs that involved processions, religious services, festivals, and other social activities.
During the 19th century, however, American social life was marked by nearly continual upheaval and displacement brought on by a rapidly changing economy and large numbers of immigrants. During this period, relatively few young people were living and working in a place where they were born. Frontier areas, especially, lacked social institutions that edified domestic and family life. Women were often scarce.
As Grinspan notes, “American life transformed more radically during the 19th century than it ever had before. Between the 1830s and 1900, America’s population quintupled … at least 18 million immigrants arrived from Europe, more people than had lived in all of America in 1830.”
Such immense change and demographic upheaval left little room for social institutions that usually functioned to provide youths with guidance and structure that could be helpful to them. Consequently, many people, and especially the young, turned to political events and rituals as a way of finding common social ties with others.
One of the most notable of these rituals was the process of casting one’s “virgin vote” which was one’s first vote after attaining the age of 21.
While we may look with patronizing amusement at youths who get overly excited about voting nowadays, the process of getting an “I voted” sticker on one’s shirt today is nothing at all compared to the much ballyhooed virgin vote which was seen as a rite of passage into manhood at the time. As one young voter put it after voting “[today is] the proudest day of my life.”
In an age during which a torch-lit political rally, bonfire, or tumultuous saloon debate might be among the most memorable events of one’s youth, it’s not difficult to see how political rituals might serve as a stand-in for those rituals and customs that might have been practiced in a more settled society.
Eventually, the demographics in the US would become more stable, communities would become more permanent, and political reformers would take over, converting American elections into more genteel affairs that added a patina of “civil discourse” to replace the more emotional and active politics of the 19th century. Perhaps predictably, political participation then went into steep decline as political parties ceased to offer voters much of anything in return for their votes, and as young people began to enjoy options other than political activism for both entertainment and social advancement.
In light of today’s misplaced anxiety over a supposed lack of civility in modern politics, The Virgin Vote offers a reminder of how democratic institutions have really functioned in American history. While Americans of the 19th century were unusually literate in a global context, it is helpful to not become too enthusiastic in imagining a golden age of democratic politics in ages past. Were one to travel to the 19th century, one is likely to encounter many voters of all ideological bents who are likely to be just as disappointing as the modern voters many people imagine to be unprecedented in their ignorance and shortcomings.