We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign here in the U.S., and once again commentators, politicians, and reporters are bemoaning the apathy and disengagement of young Americans.
But there was a time in American history when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy.
Nope, the 1860s.
My guest today on the podcast has just published a book about nineteenth century politics, the energy that young voters brought to the process, and how young people, particularly young men in the nineteenth century, looked to politics for a sense of adult identity and even a sense manhood during a time of economic and social upheaval.
His name is Jon Grinspan, and his book is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. On today’s episode Jon and I discuss why politics was an essential part of male identity in the nineteenth century, and how a man’s first vote used to be an important rite of passage into manhood. We also get into the atmosphere of campaigns in nineteenth century America. If you think this current election cycle is unprecedented in its violence, nastiness, and general circus-like environment, wait until you hear about the booze-laden, torch-lit, late-night-BBQ-filled campaigns of old, and the shankings and brawls that happened at the polls during the 1800s.
- How politics was America’s first popular form of entertainment [04:50]
- The boozing and partying that went on during 19th century political campaigns [05:00]
- What Europeans thought of the raucous American democracy [06:00]
- Why young people were the driving force of American democracy in the 19th century [07:00]
- Why teenagers got involved in politics even before they could actually vote [08:00]
- How a 17-year-old kid became a popular and influential political stump speaker during the 19th century [09:00]
- Why young people in the 19th century felt just as lost and stilted in their path to adulthood as today’s twenty-somethings [11:00]
- How politics provided young men a path to manhood that they weren’t finding in traditional places like church, family, or work [15:00]
- What 19th century Americans thought “manliness” meant [17:50]
- What the “virgin vote” was [22:30]
- How 19th century balloting made the voting act all the more significant [25:00]
- The brawls and fights that happened at the polls during the 19th century [26:40]
- The political clubs young men formed during the 19th century [30:00]
- Why young people stopped voting in the 20th century (hint: baseball, amusement parks, and high school) [37:00]
- How political reforms in the 20th century tamed the passion of American democracy [39:00]
- Lessons from the 19th century to infuse more passion in 21st century politics [44:00]
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Campaign barbecues
- Plato’s view on democracy
- The 19th century idea of American manhood as being cool and stable
- 19th century voting ballots
- The Wide Awakes
- Chart of voter turnout in the U.S. in the 19th century
- The Australian Ballot
- The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood by Steven Mintz and my podcast with the author
The Virgin Vote is a fascinating read that provides not only an interesting window into the politics and youth culture of the 19th century, but also some much needed perspective on this year’s presidential campaign.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign here in the U.S., and once again commentators, politicians, reporters, they’re bemoaning the apathy and disengagement of young Americans, but there was a time in American history when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. No, it wasn’t the 1960’s. It was the 1860s.
My guest today on the podcast has just published a book about nineteenth century politics, and the energy that young voters brought to the process, and how young people, particularly young men in the nineteenth century, looked to politics for a sense of manhood and adult identity, during a time of economic and social upheaval.
His name is Jon Grinspan, and his book is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. On today’s episode Jon and I discuss why politics was an essential part of male identity in the nineteenth century, and how a man’s first vote was an important rite of passage into manhood during this time. We also get into the atmosphere of campaigns in the nineteenth century America. If you think this current election cycle is unprecedented in its violence, nastiness, and general circus-like environment, wait until you hear about the booze laden, torch lit, midnight campaign barbecues, and the shankings and brawls that happened at the polls during the nineteenth Century, some pretty crazy stuff.
After the show make sure you check out the show notes at AOM.IS/VirginVote, where you’ll find links to resources, things we mentioned, so you can delve deeper into this topic.
Jon Grinspan welcome to the show.
Jon Grinspan: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You’ve got a new book out about a part of American history that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s called the Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year so far, because it gets into a part of the American history that I love is the nineteenth century up until about the early twentieth century, and it’s about politics, which is pertinent, because we’re in an election year. My first question is a lot of people have been saying about this current presidential election that it’s unprecedented in its violence, its nastiness, and it’s general circus-like atmosphere.
As someone who has studied and written a book on the politics of the past, is this true? Have we devolved from a time when elections were sober and upright, and very Greek column-esque? What were elections like during the nineteenth century?
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I think people say that about this election, and this is certainly a weird one, but that’s only because we are used to the credibly quiet, boring, political culture of twentieth century America, but if you go back and you look at nineteenth century America, politics is the biggest, loudest, most important thing that’s going on. Political events and campaigns are the center, not just of political culture, deciding who governs a country, but at the center of entertainment culture, that drive these big campaigns, these midnight rallies with torches, these bonfires.
There’s a good side and a bad side to this. On the one hand, they do a great job getting many, many people involved, many more than today. Turnout was often over 80%, and many of those people are young, unlike today, but it, also, brings out a lot of stupidness and violence, and people get stabbed and shot at every election in the nineteenth century, and there are riots in there, people who don’t understand the issues they’re voting for and vote the wrong ways, and that kind of thing, too. It was a very different world back then.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean you painted this picture, and it just sounded like a big party, like campaigns and election day was just a big party, because not only were there torch lit marches in the street at night, the parties would put out these big barbecues. That was a tradition, where they would roast a pig. Alcohol, giving out alcohol. That was part of the election or campaign process.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I mean you have to remember these campaigns are doing two jobs at the same time. On the one hand, they’re trying to win power basically, and so these parties give out whatever they can to win. They often buy votes for two or five dollars, but it’s cheaper just to get voters medium drunk. You don’t want to get them so drunk that they forget to vote, but you want to get them two drinks, three drinks, a couple glasses of whiskey, a couple glasses to beer to get them to vote on your side.
At the same time, politics is American entertainment and American popular culture. This is a new country. This is a very shaken up country. There are a lot of people migrating from Europe and from different parts of America, and there’s no central culture that ties everything together, except for the basically federal political campaigns. America is a world nation that doesn’t have that much entertainment back then, and so if it’s September or October of an election year and the party is going to have a rally in town, you go to that and you hang out all night, and you drink, and you shout, and maybe you throw some bricks at the other side, maybe you don’t, but it’s really the center of popular culture at the time.
Brett McKay: Right. You even talk about in the book when there would be Europeans that would come over and see this, I mean their response was like, “Yeah, Plato was right. Democracy just brings out the worst in people.”
Jon Grinspan: Yes. People are shocked, and they’re shocked by two things. One, they’re shocked by how wild and crazy American politics is, and a lot of them see it as a sign that democracy just doesn’t work, and the other is they’re shocked by American young people, because American culture is, also, in many ways, more democratic on the ground, and there’s a lot less … There are still hierarchies. We would be surprised today by the distinctions, but compared to Europe back then, there’s a lot more kind of freedom of action of young people, and so at every level of political campaigns in society, you see children, young adults, youths, twenty somethings, are involved really actively. The idea that children were to be seen and not heard if a fiction. Young people are the loudest part in these political campaigns.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s the main premise of your book is talking about how young people were really the driving force of this democratic ethos or fire that hit America during the nineteenth century, and, as you said, voting was about 80% voter turnout. A lot of it was young people, but, as you just said, this political activism or this involvement in politics, began in young people even before they could vote. What were young people who were seven or eight or even seventeen, what were they doing to get involved in the political process, even though they weren’t old enough to vote, because, at the time, it was twenty-one years old, right?
Jon Grinspan: Yes, and obviously many Americans, the majority, weren’t allowed to vote, but there are still ways that if you’re a woman, if you’re African American in a place where African Americans can’t vote, and if you’re under age, you can still be really involved, because politics is so social, and that starts at a really young age. As you said, people raise their children from birth to identify with the political party of their family, and to really see it as the institution they belong to, almost the way we raise kids with sports teams today. Just as people are Eagles fans or Cowboys fans today, people were Whigs, or Democrats, or Republicans back then, and it builds over time.
One of the reasons they get young people so involved and they get such great turnouts, is because they belabor this interest in politics over many years. Kids are taught to go to celebrations and to rallies, and they chant slogans in school, and then they become errand boys and run errands for the political campaigns. They give out ballots on election day, or they bring liquor to the campaign headquarters, and from a very young age, they get involved in politics, so that, by the time they’re twenty-one, they are veterans. They’ve been in politics for years and years and years, whether they can vote or not.
Brett McKay: You talk about in the book that you’d even have young people, as young as seventeen, doing speeches at political rallies, rallying up the voters, even though they couldn’t vote. They were really supremely invested in this, to the point where they persuading even adults who could vote.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. There was this tradition of boy oritors, and you have to remember, America back then is a speechifying nation. People loved giving speeches and hearing speeches. There’s obviously no TV or radio, and it’s really seen as an art, and so kids are raised to give speeches to each other and to adults, and it’s not uncommon in an election campaign to go to a town square and see fifty, sixty, seventy year olds standing around listening to a twelve or a fifteen year old give a speech on the political issues of the day. They get this great training that connects them to politics, and it, also, gives them something to do in a sense of agency and involvement. There’s nothing that, as they say, tickles the vanity of a young man more than giving a big public speech with adults listening.
In the years after the Civil War during the South during reconstruction, young African American who were born as slaves get really into speech making for the Republican party, and it’s an amazing culture, that people who were born in slavery are within a few years making speeches and being listened to as candidates by adults.
Brett McKay: One of the arguments you make in the book, one of the reasons kid got involved, because there was this culture there and it was fun, right? You could go to these campaign parties, these rallies, eat some food, meet with people, because, again, like you said, America was a rural country at this time, so this was the one time people got together, and you can actually meet other kids your age, and have some fun in the process.
But you, also, argue that, besides the fun, young people in America, and one of the reasons why they got so heavily involved in politics, is that politics offered them something, like a way to advance themselves personally. Can you explain a little bit what you mean by that? How was it that politics could help fulfill personal ambitions of young people during the nineteenth century?
Jon Grinspan: I think it goes back to the predicament that young people find themselves in in the nineteenth century. This is a period when it’s really hard, especially to go from childhood to adulthood. The nineteenth century is this great shaken up period in American history. At the beginning of this era, there are five million people in America. At the end, there’s seventy-five million. It goes from agriculture to industry, and from country to city, and millions of immigrants are pouring in, and it booms and busts all the time. There are depressions that hit young people particularly hard.
It’s really hard to find the path to maturity for these young people. They have trouble finding jobs. They have trouble finding mentors. The marriage age is rising, so they have trouble finding husbands or wives. They move around a lot, so they feel very unstable. There’s a lot of uncertainty for fifteen, or eighteen, or twenty-two year olds, for men and for women, and it gravitates the political system as the source of ambition, and identity, and involvement. Maybe they can’t get a job, but they can give a speech for the party, or they can march, or they can organize an event. It’s this kind of artificial sense of adulthood, when everything else in their life seemed blocked.
Brett McKay: That part, in particular, was really interesting, because we often have this idea that kids these days, these twenty somethings or these millennials, they don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. They’re still living at home with your parents. They just need to get on with their lives. You read millennial blog posts, which is like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Maybe I’ll intern at a publisher and find my calling.” We often think that people back then in the nineteenth century, they had it all figured out. They had a sense of steadiness about them, but the picture you paint that, like you just said, these young people in their late teens, early twenties, they were filled with as much existential angst as twenty somethings today.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah, absolutely. You really see the parallels when you read their diaries and their journals, and a lot of them kept diaries and journals. The literacy rate is very high, so we have all these great documents from young men and young women, who just moan in their diaries about how they can’t figure out how to become adults. The whole world their parents grew up in has crumbled. You can’t grow up the way that Europeans had grown up, or earlier Americans, or kind of rural, stable people had found their into adulthood, but there are none of the institutions of the twentieth and twenty-first century. There isn’t a good school system. There aren’t unions. There isn’t a clear way to get a job, or find a spouse, or settle down, and so these young people really cast about, and some of them do really well. The booms and busts, they get the booms and it really benefits them, and some of them, essentially the equivalent of graduating into a recession. They really struggle to find themselves. But what they all share is uncertainty. No one knows how to become an adult. The old way is kind of crumbled, and the new way hasn’t been established yet.
I think we see echoes of that today. In many ways it seems as if in the twentieth century there was a stable path into adulthood. I’m a millennial. I think you count as a millennial, too, right?
Brett McKay: Right, yeah, barely.
Jon Grinspan: Me, too, barely. But we’ve seen this shaking in the last couple decades. That makes it harder to become an adult. A lot of people struggle with this, and it’s not unprecedented. This has happened before.
Brett McKay: I’m curious. You said there’s journal and diary entries. I don’t know if you have one at hand. Is there an excerpt from a journal from a young person?
Jon Grinspan: Yeah, sure.
Brett McKay: That you have that you could share with us?
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. Let me pull that up. I’m going to read it. If it’s too long, I can …
Brett McKay: No, that’s fine.
Jon Grinspan: I’m going to read one part of it. This is a diary from this guy, Ben Foster, who lives in Maine. He’s about sixteen years old. He can’t get an apprenticeship. He can’t get a belle or a girlfriend. He’s having trouble meeting women. He’s having trouble getting a job. He really feels stuck, and he keeps this great diary, and he writes: “My life is probably a quarter or a fifth gone, and with what result? Leaving me ignorant, poor, fickle, wavering, without brilliance, talent, wealth, or influential friends. A shuttering discontent that crawls over me when I reflect that I am learning nothing, earning nothing, doing nothing. I shrink to think of a time when I am twenty-one and shall have no home to fall back upon in case of disappointment, when I must do or die.”
He seems particularly depressed or worried, but it’s really common. There are so many anxious, ambitious, striving young people, who the culture is pushing them to succeed more and more. There is this kind of belief in progress that earlier generations didn’t have. There’s no clear route to it, so they feel like they’re failing individually, and they’re looking for something to help them feel more like they have that agency and like they have that progress, even if they can’t get a job or find a wife or whatever.
Brett McKay: Right. They couldn’t find the path to adulthood in the marketplace, because there were in a transition in the economy, so it was tough, much like we are today. I guess some of the traditional … Like the family part maybe was falling apart a little bit, because people were becoming more mobile. I guess politics was the outlet. They could find a path to adulthood by taking an active part in politics.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I think there’s a slightly later quote … I don’t want to quote too much, but from the same guy. He’s moaning. He’s whining, and then he goes out to a political rally, and he talks to people about politics at this upcoming election, the 1848 election. He goes home and writes in this diary: “I can say that nothing in some years, not intimately concerning myself, have I felt so much intense interest and excitement as the pending presidential election. I have talked and argued with men. I have endeavored to advance a boy’s opinion with a boy’s modesty. Oh, I wish that for one year on this one topic, I was a man, a voter.”
Before, when he’s looking at his life, he’s saying, “Oh, I can’t imagine when I’m going to be twenty-one, and I’m an adult. I have no idea what I’m going to do.” He’s terrified about it, and then a couple diary entries later, he’s out at this rally, and he’s wishing that he’s a man and a voter, because politics seems like it offers him some kind of agency in his life that he doesn’t see in any other world.
Brett McKay: Right. Dovetailing off that, this idea of becoming a man, you argue in the book, make the case that politics wasn’t just tied up with adulthood, but it was really tied up because men were the only ones that could vote at the time, which tied up with notions of manhood and masculinity in the nineteenth century. This Ben, he wasn’t making a lot of progress in becoming a man, and I’m guessing … Besides just like the sense of agency, what did politics offer young men in terms of their conception of masculinity that they weren’t getting from say their families, or their church, for example?
Jon Grinspan: The idea of masculinity back then is rooted in this idea of being stable. That the vision of men … You see this a lot in books for young men on how to grow up, and in comics, and in novels. The idea for young men is that they should be stable and self-controlled. That’s what masculinity is all about. It’s not necessarily physical strength. It’s a father, a boss, somebody who is stable, has both feet on the ground, and has control over their instincts. They’re not violent. They’re not aggressive. They’re completely in control of themselves.
This is very hard for an eighteen year old to do in that economy. One of the ways they can do that is having a stable connection to a political party. They might not have other identities. They might not have the job or the family, but they can be a Democrat or a Republican. They can be a voter and a citizen of the nation, and that’s the great artificial way for them to feel that identity and stability that they associate with manhood.
At the same time, this political culture denies women that same sense, so there are lot of women that are deeply interested in politics, but they’re always unstable, because who can never actually act. They can never vote. They can be very interested and they are, and they can talk to their husbands, and their children, and their father about politics, and they can play a role, but because they can’t vote, they’re always somewhat unstable. They’re never full citizens or adults in the eyes of the country in many ways.
Brett McKay: Were these young men and getting involved in politics, was it just the act of getting involved in politics that gave them a sense that they were becoming a man, or did a lot of them have aspirations to work their way up through the party ranks and actually become part of the political machine in a way, and find status or a sense of identity within the actual political party?
Jon Grinspan: I think for a lot of these young guys it’s temporary. There are people who want to make their lives in politics, and become bosses, and make money in a career in it, but a lot of them, they just need politics for a couple of years. We know that young men in their late teens and early twenties are the most engaged in politics, and they can do things like … If you’re Ben Foster, if you’re this unstable kid in Maine, one thing you can do is you can join a political club, and then you’re in this organization with twenty, thirty, a hundred like minded young people of the same party, who are your age, or a couple years older, or a couple years younger, and you meet on week nights or weekends, and you drink and you smoke cigars, and you put on uniforms. You march down the middle of the town square, and you have a camaraderie. It’s a little bit like something along the lines of a fraternity or a gang, or some sense that here are other men and we are all part of this club together. That’s one way they get it.
Another is through voting, and that act of casting a ballet when they turn twenty-one is seen a gateway to real manhood and adulthood.
Brett McKay: Your book is called the Virgin Vote, and that’s what they called … It was referred to as a man’s first vote and the virgin vote. Why was it such an important event in a young man’s life?
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. They used that phrase, the virgin vote. I was seeing that in diaries for years, and it just stuck in my head. It just says so much about how they saw politics, that a man’s first vote is his virgin vote or his maiden vote. The idea is that he’s losing his political virginity, and he’s supposed to be courted by a political party before that, and once he votes for that party, he’s supposed to stay monogamous for life for that party. You cast your first vote, your virgin vote. Not only does it make you a man, but it makes you a Democrat, or a Republican, or a Whig, or what have you, and you stick with that party for life.
Young men really treat this as the event, the rite of passage into adulthood. The younger kids look forward to it, and talk about when they become voters. Virgin voters went on the days before their election. A lot of times they’d try to grow out a beard, or a mustache, or some facial hair, and they tried to dress up and look adult. Once they cast that vote, these guys talk about it for the rest of their life. You read their diaries, you read their memoirs when they’re eighty years old, you read their obituaries, and it always mentions who they cast their first vote for.
Brett McKay: That’s fascinating. This is going back to the idea that American society, American culture was in flux, and rites of passages that may have existed before, were no longer there, so young men used the political process, the act of making a vote as that new rite of passage.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. If you think about it culturally, America is an overwhelmingly white place at this time, and most of those white people come from the British Isles or Germany. They’ve given up on the old European traditions. African Americans have been separated from whatever traditions go back to Africa. Most cultures have some rites of passage, but America is this place in flux, where hundred year old traditional rites of passage are being forgotten, and nobody remembers how you became a man in Germany or whatever, so they need something new, and the one thing they all share throughout the country is the political process, and so American democracy becomes popular culture, and offers this rite of passage to a nation that’s forgotten its old ways to become an adult.
Brett McKay: How did the balloting system in the nineteenth century make amends, first, to vote all the more significant, because I think a lot of people think now, “Oh, why is that so significant?” You get this scantron, and you just fill in the arrow, and then you give it, but was the way they did balloting back then, did that add to the significance of the vote in any way?
Jon Grinspan: It’s a great question. We’ve made the act of voting so clean, and safe, and dull that it’s hard to imagine what it was like in the nineteenth century. The government didn’t used to print ballots. Parties would print ballots, and what would happen is the men in a community would gather on election day in the town square, or in a saloon, or in a warehouse, and there would be somebody at the front with a ballot box accepting ballots, and so these party activists would try to foist ballots on whoever they could for their party, and they’d line up, and they’d try to vote.
But the problem is once you got to the front of the line, there’s no registration system, but there are challengers, which are party operatives from both parties, who are trying to challenge people’s votes from the other side. If I’m a Democrat, then I might try to pick out who looks like a Republican based on what I know about the people in my community, his clothes, his accent, his race, his background, all of these things to try to figure out who is going to vote the way I don’t want them to, and I might challenge them on legal grounds. I might try to intimidate them. I might stab them. They used to stab people with awls, with the shoemaker’s spike, because you could subtly poke somebody with that and it would hurt them, and threaten them without becoming a big thing.
Because it’s so contested, because there are fights on election days, and everyone has gathered, and there’s music and drunk people, it makes this act of voting even more of an important rite of passage. All the men in your community will see you vote, and they’ll see you go up to the front of the line and cast your ballot, and all the women in your community will hear about it and know that you’ve done this thing that supposedly makes you a man back then. Because voting was so different, and because it was so contested, it makes the act that much more important.
Brett McKay: Right. Going back to they didn’t have official IDs … A lot of people didn’t even know their actual birthday. That’s one of the reasons why these young guys would start trying to grow a mustache and beards, because one of the ways that they were challenged was, “You’re not old enough to vote,” and so they try to look older. By the act of voting, it was a way for the community to say, “Yeah, you are a man. You look old enough to be a man. We accept you as a man.”
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. Because who knows, this world is so shaken up that you might be twenty-one, but your mother died of cholera, so she can’t tell anybody how old you are. Maybe you were born in Pennsylvania and moved to Oklahoma, so no one remembers where you were born. You might not even know how old you are. Most people don’t, and you certainly can’t prove it even if you do, so you need to prove it through … You can grow a beard, so I guess you can vote. You can get somebody to vouch for you. If you’ve done an impressive manly deed in some communities, you could get the vote. If you lived in kind of a pioneer community in Nebraska or Colorado or California, often you could vote under age just because they thought, “You got to California. You can vote.” Soldiers could often vote at eighteen or seventeen, just because they were a good soldier during the Civil War.
Because nobody really knows how old you are, and because it’s so hard to enforce, it makes the act of voting that much more important and that much more meaningful about adulthood and manliness, as well as politics.
Brett McKay: Right. Then you, also, talk about … With African Americans, the newly freed African American slaves, who were voting for the Republican party, there’s a lot of voter intimidation, so black men in the community, they get together as a group, and make sure they had revolvers, make sure they had knives, and they go together to vote to avoid that intimidation, and sometimes things came to a blow.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. It reminds me not to be too light about all this political violence, because it seems like it was so far away, and it sounds interesting, and exciting, and kind of exotic, but you have to remember, these elections turned into race riots and massacres, and these are the bloodiest elections in American history in the South in the years after the Civil War. There’s a huge number of African Americans who are voting for the first time, and they’re deciding elections. Ulysses S. Grant is elected in 1868, because he has the black vote on this side. These become really contested places. They are organizations like the Union League, which is a club of African Americans, especially in Mississippi and Alabama, who they all go to vote together and bring revolvers, whether obviously or hidden, and often they need them.
Yeah. This political violence really affects who gets to vote and what voting means. It’s true for other minorities, too. It’s especially true for Irish Catholics in northern cities, where there’s a Protestant majority who really doesn’t want Catholics voting, and so they often have to fight their way through the polls, too.
Brett McKay: Right. Then going back to there’s a lot of club formation. This wasn’t just unique to politics. Just young people at the time were just forming clubs about everything, but you talk about within the individual parties, there were these sub-clubs of young party supporters, and think one you mentioned that I was really fascinated by was the wide awakes. It was actually kind of scary. They would get in these uniforms, and kind of like knights almost, and they would carry torches at night. I guess the reason why they were called wide awakes, they’d go to people’s houses in the middle of the night and bang pots or pans or things.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. When we think of Abraham Lincoln’s election, we think of upstanding, honest Abe, and we imagine this honest, tall, earnest statesman. Abe Lincoln’s election is organized by this movement called the wide awakes, which comes out of Connecticut. The leader of the whole national movement is twenty-three years old, and what they do were they were young men who dress up in really military uniforms: black capes and black hats, and they march in the street, and they basically take over the North. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them from Maine to San Francisco and into some southern states, and for northern Republicans who support Abe Lincoln, they’re seen as this God send, that the north is finally going to stand up for their rights. If you’re a southerner who doesn’t like Abe Lincoln, this looks like the beginning of a political war. It looks like a paramilitary movement. This movement actually affects the beginning of the Civil War, because it seems so threatening. These young men in uniform marching at night, well, that doesn’t seem so great if you’re not on their side.
Because politics are so competitive, because the races are so neck and neck, everybody steals everybody’s idea, so the wide awakes are created and almost immediately Lincoln’s opponents all have similar organizations with different names. No party ever really has an edge for very long, because as soon as one group of eighteen year olds tries something, their opponents across town try the same thing, or if they’re doing it in Maine, someone in South Carolina comes up with something similar. Because politics is so close and so contested back then, and Lincoln only won that election with 39% of the popular vote, people really rip off each other’s ideas.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Thinking about the adults who were actually running for these offices that these young people were campaigning for, what do these adults think of these ardent young people? I guess do they leverage them, at the same time, disdain them?
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. It’s a hierarchical society still then. Adults think they are better, and wiser, and smarter than young people, but, no matter how great they think they are, the parties need young people. Because elections are so close and because there are so few independents, because most people who pick a party, their virgin vote, stick with a party, the only way to gain any ground is to bring in new members, and new members are young members.
These parties realize pretty quickly that they really need to bring in twenty-one year olds, so they organize events to be entertaining for young voters. They reach out to children and youths, because they know that if they win over a fifteen year old, maybe in six years that fifteen year old will vote for their party, and they focus a ton of time and money on entertaining and reaching out to and recruiting young men and young women, because they know young women have an influence on the young men in their lives.
While governing in Washington or in state capitals is done by these sixty year old guys, campaigning is done by eighteen, twenty, twenty-two year olds, and the party knows that, and they know it’s their best shot at victory.
Brett McKay: I guess at the same time though … It seems like a lot of the politicians you describe in the book, they kept a distance from actual campaigning, because they didn’t want to sully themselves. They left it to these young men to do it for them.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I think there are two attitudes towards young voters, then and now honestly, and we see this throughout American history. On the one hand, there are some people who look down at young people and see them as self-involved. They’re flighty, and not committed, and not knowledgeable, and kind of disdain young people. Then there are those who think that young people are purer, smarter, somehow going to to uplift the democracy and solve all the problems, and obviously both are exaggerations. But, yeah, you see people go back and forth. Some people see young voters as the way to destroy the other party, or clean up politics when it’s very, very dirty in the late nineteenth century, and others say they’ll accept young people’s votes, but they’re not going to listen to them in terms of party platforms, or nominations, or anything like that.
Brett McKay: In the book, a lot of the focus is on men, obviously, because they’re the ones who could vote, but you argue that women, also, used the political culture of the nineteenth century to advance personal goals or personal ambitions. How were they able to do that when they weren’t allowed to vote?
Jon Grinspan: For women’s politics back then, they have to be social. Democracy is social, and women’s influence has to depend on connections to men, because they obviously can’t vote themselves. That works both ways. On the one hand, they are women with really deeply held political beliefs, and what they can do is they can pressure their fiance to go vote for their political beliefs. They can push their siblings and the men in their lives to vote, and they do. Then there are women who use politics as a tool, just as men are using politics as tools, so it’s a great way to court. If you want to meet some young guy, you go out to a political rally. If you want to get the attention of someone who is in a political club, if you talk with him about the party he supports, that’s a great way to engage with him.
Politics gives these Victorian women cover to court in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Where else in nineteenth century America could a Victorian lady go out at midnight and hang out with a bunch of drunk people, and maybe get drunk herself, and wave a torch and everything, because it offers some kind of cover for that. Women get more directly involved. They organize women’s clubs, and they march dressed as goddesses, or dressed as the different states. There are lot of ways women can play a role socially, even though they’re denied the right to vote.
Brett McKay: The period you cover was about I guess 1840 till about the early … I mean 1905, and it seems like there was this precipitous drop. That was something that amazed me. Can you describe the drop in I guess voter turnout from the peak it was there in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. It really crashes. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, roughly 80% of eligible voters will turn out in an election, a presidential election. Sometimes it’s lower. Sometimes it’s higher, but there’s this really sustained period of really high levels of involvement, and then something happens in 1900, and those numbers tumble in almost every presidential election, until, by the 1920s, fewer than half of eligible voters are going to the poll. There’s this political culture that exists in the nineteenth century that just dies within a generation in the twentieth century.
We’ve known this as historians for a while, but I think the answer to why this happened lies with young people. There’s a new generation of young people who don’t engage in politics, and look at politics in the same ways as their parents or their grandparents had, and they don’t join. People who cast their virgin vote in 1876, they’ll keep turning out for the rest of their lives, but the people who could vote for Teddy Roosevelt or Taft don’t care as much, and they don’t bother to.
Brett McKay: What changed in American culture where young people, they weren’t looking to politics anymore for personal fulfillment or a sense of identity?
Jon Grinspan: I’d say there’s a change with young people, and there’s a change with politics. With young people, life is easier for a lot of these people in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. There are more institutions that stabilize their world. They have a full school system until they’re eighteen. They have unions. They have cities where they know more people. They have all these other options. They have an entertainment cultures. They’re teenagers in the twentieth century, and they have movies, and radio, and dance halls, and cars, and all these other entertainment forms, so, in many ways, they don’t have the same need for politics and political clubs that they did before.
They still have their challenges, and life is still difficult for many of them. I don’t want to exaggerate with this. The death rate goes down. Young people are living longer and they’re healthier. They have less need, so there are fewer of them turning to politics.
At the same time, the political parties, there’s a real revolution in who runs the parties. In the nineteenth century, campaigning is run by working class men. They might run a saloon or a butcher shop, and they organize campaigning. There’s a switch in the end of this period, where these upper middle class reformers take over politics, and the one thing they really don’t like is these crowds of drunk working class men in the street, so one thing they try to do is they try to shut down this public campaigning that attracts so many young people.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The culture change where there was more outlets. I guess America became more of a peer culture. Young people looking to their peers, instead of … I guess some of the political parties, the political process, they’re looking up to older people and ushering them into adulthood as these outlets … You talk about sports. You talk about the amusement park. You talk about high schools, where you have the same kids who are your age. They start turning to them for their identity and sense of fulfillment, instead of older people to give that to them.
Jon Grinspan: I think that’s really important, that we forget how mixed life used to be in terms of age groups, and that if you went into a saloon in nineteenth century America, there would be fifteen year olds, and there would be twelve year olds, and there would be thirty year olds, and there would be eighty year olds. Society mixed more in churches, in political organizations, and work. They just spent more time with other age groups.
In the twentieth century, the age groups separate out a lot more. Political parties still have youth organizations, but there’s an age limit on them. No one over twenty-one joins the youth organizations anymore. These young people who want to meet adults who can benefit their career, or give them a sense of manhood, or whatever, they don’t meet these people anymore. They’re isolated with their own age group, and there’s not really the same selling point. If politics is removed from personal ambition, why should young people care?
Brett McKay: Right. Then going back to the change in the political process, you make the case that the introduction of the Australian ballot, where it was a state sponsored ballet, like the kind we have today, took away some of the significance of the virgin vote or that first time vote that young people in the nineteenth century had and that we really don’t have anymore.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. Voting machines are a physical example of what happened. When there’s a ballot box, everyone stands around the ballot box and tries to put the ballot in the box, and there’s conflicts over that. When it’s a voting machine and you go off by yourself behind a curtain, and you vote with this electric device or mechanical device, it’s a really different culture. It says politics isn’t social. Politics is private, and that’s one of the big changes. This public political culture goes away, and politics becomes something you’re not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. That really saps the interest. It doesn’t really benefit young people, and they’re cut off from it in a way after that.
Brett McKay: Right. There were benefits. There were reasons why they made these reforms, avoid corruption, voter fraud, but, yeah, in the process, you lose something. With any reform you make, you lose something.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. There’s a trade off between big, loud, popular democracy and smaller, quieter, cleaner democracy, and there’s a huge amount of corruption and a huge amount of problems with nineteenth century democracy. This is not in any way a golden age, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have to vote back then, but there’s a trade off. As they clean it up, they lose some of the popularity.
Brett McKay: But do you see with this current election, I mean I guess maybe the rise of social media and people spout their political opinions on social media, are we seeing the reemergence of bringing back that sociability into politics again?
Jon Grinspan: Well, yeah, for good and for bad. I see some of that. One of the things that powered nineteenth century politics are newspapers and the thousands of newspapers in the country, and people cut out articles, and they reprint them, almost the way we do with links and sharing things today. There’s this idea that it is a social conversation about an election, which we have again today, as opposed to the twentieth century when there are a couple media outlets who control it.
Brett McKay: I’m curious. A lot of people give this idea … Because I have John L. Sullivan. I have this retro vibe on the Art of Manliness where I’m like fetishizing the past. Then I want to go back to the nineteenth century or something, but I don’t, but I’m always curious. There’s always things you could probably learn from the past. I’m curious is there’s anything we can learn from this period in American history where political activity was high that maybe we could bring back in some way or another.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I completely agree with you. We don’t want to bring back everything.
Brett McKay: I don’t want to get shanked when I go to make a vote.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah. I completely agree, and we want everybody being allowed to vote. But there are some things they are really good at, and they’re really good at engaging people, particularly young people, and I think they do that through two ways we could think about today.
One is that the way they view politics, they view the political as personal. Voting isn’t just about issues. It’s not just about civic duty. It’s not just about the better good, the greater good. It’s about young people, the personal engagement with politics, and voting means so much to them as individuals, and they use it in their lives. They’re not just voting because of the issues, but they’re voting because the need politics in their lives, so they make the political personal that way.
The other thing is this idea that democracy is social. You just don’t vote because of your own individual views, but you vote because of the world you’ve grown up in and the society we’ve grown up in, and we see this today. Political scientists have shown that people who grow up around voters are more likely to vote. People who grow up in the households where people talk politics are more likely to vote. You don’t just decide on your own whether you’re going to be engaged or not or how you’re going to be engaged. It’s really promoted by your role models and the world around you, and I think that’s something we could think about again. I think there’s a tendency to shake your finger at young people and say, “Oh, they don’t vote. Why don’t they care,” but every young person who is not voting is the result of the adults in their life not introducing them to politics.
Brett McKay: Jon Grinspan, it’s been a really fascinating discussion.
Jon Grinspan: Thank you.
Brett McKay: Like I said, this was really one of the most fascinating books I’ve read so far this year, just so interesting to read this part of American history
Jon Grinspan: Thank you.
Brett McKay: Jon Grinspan, thank you so much for your time. This has been an absolute pleasure.
Jon Grinspan: Yeah, Brett. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Jon Grinspan. He’s the author of the book, The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century, and it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Be sure to check out the show notes at AOM.IS/VirginVote for links to resources we mentioned, so you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com, and if you enjoyed this podcast and have gotten something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Help spread the word about the show.
As always, I appreciate your continued support, and, until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017