The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview
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"To the Polls": The Voter Decides

Let every true citizen . . . vote early, deliberately, and intelligently.

-- New York Courier and Enquirer, Nov. 3, 1857

AMERICAN VOTERS FROM 1838 into the 1890's were stable partisans in most elections. As each of them distilled the reality of a busy political world, and sought guides to the best way to provide their own security and happiness, the political parties successfully responded, mobilized them into their ranks, and usually kept them there thereafter. The parties were able to do so because they effectively articulated perspectives that reinforced powerful, divisive elements present in American life and demonstrated their relevance as Democrats, Whigs, or Republicans to the political concerns of the electorate. Voters took sides in the electoral wars in nineteenthcentury America for a wide variety of individual and group reasons, in reaction to the political stances taken by others, either hostile or friendly to themselves, as well as in response to the way the parties expressed their general orientation toward government power, or, most often, the way each party's rhetoric and behavior defined the kind of society it wished to establish in America.

Contemporary explanations of why people became Whigs or Democrats were plentiful. Horace Greeley, editor of the Whig party's flagship newspaper, the New York Tribune, was always convinced, in print, that if elections were fought strictly on the grounds of economic self-interest, the Whig party would do very well. But he saw Whig success thwarted time and time again by the electorate's stubborn tendency to vote on other grounds -- religious, cultural, local, and personal -- for heroes and for demagogues, and because of misunderstanding, delusion, deception, or orneriness. Greeley recognized the power of these tendencies even as he deprecated them. "Everything depends," he wrote in 1852, "on the fixing of the public attention on Principles rather than Names -- on the living questions of to-day rather than the blind, traditional prejudices engendered by the


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