The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
"To the Polls": The Structure of Popular Voting Behavior, 1838-1892

Shut up your shops and stores of every description, Whigs! and go to the Polls. The presence of every man is necessary.

Richmond Whig, Nov. 7, 1848

VOTERS IN NEW YORK STATE went to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, 1838, to elect a governor, congressmen, and state legislators. In the early morning of that day, Democratic and Whig party workers were already at work at the many voting sites throughout the state, preparing for the busy day that lay ahead. The American political nation relied heavily on parties not only to present the issues at stake and mobilize the electorate, but also to provide much of the administrative capability to make the elections possible. Unfortunately, on that particular Tuesday, there were torrents of rain, and polls became crowded "with loiterers" escaping the downpour. Between the weather and the crowded conditions, only 16,460 votes were cast in New York City, down over 2,000 from the municipal elections of the previous April. "The fact, however, that over 16,000 votes were polled in such a rainy, foggy, muddy, uncomfortable day as yesterday," the editor of the Journal of Commerce noted, "proves that our population is thoroughly roused." 1 And so it was, not only that gloomy November day, but on all but a very few of the many election days in mid-nineteenth-centuryAmerica.

The Americans who went to the polls in all kinds of weather and conditions believed that voting, and all its attendant activities, had great importance and imposed significant responsibilities on them. Casting a ballot at each election, one southern editor argued, was "no unmeaning task," but "the freeman's highest political privilege" and noblest political duty." Consequently, no American who was entitled to participate had "the right to withhold" his vote. 2 But voting was more than civics. Election campaigns raised the temperature of the country and focused what was at stake. They were serious events in the life of the country, and polling day was the moment toward which all of the efforts and energies of the political nation were directed. It was when all of the arguments made, organizational efforts under

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