Thursday, August 23, 2012

Early 19th century United States elections:
"Rousing the sluggish to exertion"

Brutal election ads are an old story; Andrew Jackson depicted as a jackass.

Since I work on mobilizing and turning out voters, I was delighted to encounter the phrase in this post's title, spoken by a party election operative, in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought. Howe's volume chronicles the beginning of the two-party system (then Democrats and Whigs) in U.S. politics, the populist eruption associated with the President Andrew Jackson, and the communications revolution that enabled mass democracy.

His picture of the expansion is not of a sterile or decorous politics. The Democracy, as contemporaries labeled the Jacksonians, could verge on acting like a mob.

The typical antebellum American polling place displayed many of the worst features of all-male society: rowdy behavior, heavy drinking, coarse language, and occasional violence. (This rude ambience, in fact, was one of the reasons offered for excluding women from voting.) Commonly, two or three weekdays would be set aside for each election and declared holidays so men could come to the polling place and vote.

…Voting was sometimes oral and seldom secret. Even where written ballots were used, they were printed by the rival parties, each on paper of a distinctive color to make it easy for poll-watchers to tell which one a voter placed in the ballot box. A ballot would only list the names of the candidates of the party that printed it. To cast anything other than a straight party vote, a man had to "scratch his ticket' -- line out a name and write in a different one.

… When some states proposed requiring voters to register in advance, the Democratic Party generally opposed it. The prevailing electoral practices encouraged a large turnout, party line voting, and various forms of partisan cheating, including vote buying and intimidation. Absence of secrecy encouraged most men in each community to vote the same way. …

We have made some progress in running elections so as to give at least an appearance of fairness. Yet these unruly assemblages were creating a set of democratic realities then unequaled in the world. For one thing, the new nation rapidly did away with the property qualifications that even revolutionary 18th century political men had thought necessary to an orderly state.

During the years after 1815, state after state abolished property requirements for voting; the actions of Massachusetts in 1820 and New York in 1821 attracted particular attention. Historically, such qualifications had been defended as ensuring that voters possessed enough economic independence to exercise independent political judgment. Now, voting increasingly came to be seen as the right of all adult males, at least if they were white. Reflecting the new attitude toward the suffrage, none of the states admitted after 1815 set property requirements. The change in opinion largely antedated industrialization and typically occurred before a significant population of white male wage-earners had appeared. …

They usually excluded free black men from the broadened suffrage. They did not realize that their new rules would enfranchise an industrial proletariat and the large influx of immigrants who would begin to arrive in the 1840s, for they did not foresee the appearance of either. As a result, suffrage liberalization occurred in many places with relatively little controversy. …The widespread change in the conception of the suffrage, from a privilege bestowed on an independent-minded elite to a right that should be possessed by all male citizens, reflected in part the success of the American Revolution and general acceptance of its natural-rights ideology. …

Practical as well as principled considerations operated to broaden the suffrage in the young republic. Eager to attract settlers (who boosted land values), the newer states saw no reason to put suffrage obstacles in their path. Some of them even allowed immigrants to vote before becoming citizens. This in turn put pressure on the older states, which worried about losing population through emigration westward.

The increasingly effective system of communications -- canals, turnpikes, the telegraph and the national postal system -- changed politics: naturally skilled political operatives quickly figured out how to exploit new means of spreading their messages.

Political pamphlets had been around for a long time, and there were also political books, for campaign biographies appeared of every presidential hopeful; but the most influential segment of the political media was the newspaper press. By 1836, both administration and opposition newspapers flourished in all parts of the country. So long as they exempted slavery from criticism, they enjoyed freedom of political expression everywhere. …

On occasion, the communications revolution could itself become the subject of partisan debate. In 1832, the Senate spent a week debating a measure to grant all newspapers free postage. Supporters argued that it would promote political awareness among the electorate and help unify the nation. Opponents complained that it would enable people in the countryside to subscribe to big-city newspapers and undercut the local markets of the small-town press. The proposal went down to a narrow defeat, 22 to 23, with all Jacksonian senators voting no. Then as now, those who defined themselves as outsiders distrusted the influence of metropolitan opinion-makers.

In this system, heading up the Post Office became an office akin to leading Fox News in our day. President Andrew Jackson appointed a member of his kitchen cabinet, Amos Kendall, to this vital post. Kendall proceeded to use his office to build up his party.

In his nurture of the Democratic Party, Kendall synthesized the power of the press over public opinion with the power of patronage to create a network of self-interest. Although the customs offices, land offices, and Indian agencies all provided federal jobs, the postal system dominated the patronage machine that made the national Democratic Party work. The expansion of the Post Office thus fostered both the communications revolution and the development of a modern party system. Even before becoming its formal head, Kendall largely controlled appointments to branch post offices.

Though the period saw the rise of a bumptious democracy, it certainly was not only a time of broad empowerment for some. The new nation's popular program included stealing Native American land (the contemporary language was "Indian Removal"), entrenching African-American slavery, an aggressive war of choice to grab half of Mexico, and denying the first sputtering assertions of women's rights. This was not democracy for everyone -- yet it inspired a level of participation we have a hard time equaling. "Rousing the sluggish to exertion" ...

by fair means or foul, the party leaders did their job effectively enough that voter turnouts increased to the point where they compare favorably with those of today, despite longer hours of work and the difficulties of getting from the family farm to the polling place.

1 comment:

joared said...

Glad I stopped by here. Really like this topic today. We think our government is so sophisticated and civilized. Maybe students would be more interested in studying history if some of this information was offered -- at least it wasn't when I was in school. Didn't encounter all this in various ways until years later.

I've been interested in the period when the political parties virtually reversed issue positions/ideologies. Just recall reading a bit on the subject years ago. I tend to think that in some ways a similar change has been happening in recent years -- especially with the Republican Party moving toward the extreme right.

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