The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

There was a time when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. In the second half of the nineteenth century--as voter turnout reached unprecedented peaks--young people led the way, hollering, fighting, and flirting at massive midnight rallies. Parents trained their children to be "violent little partisans," while politicians lobbied twenty-one-year-olds for their "virgin votes"--the first ballot cast upon reaching adulthood. In schoolhouses, saloons, and squares, young men and women proved that democracy is social and politics is personal, earning their adulthood by participating in public life.

Drawing on hundreds of diaries and letters of diverse young Americans--from barmaids to belles, sharecroppers to cowboys--this book explores how exuberant young people and scheming party bosses relied on each other from the 1840s to the turn of the twentieth century. It also explains why this era ended so dramatically and asks if aspects of that strange period might be useful today.

In a vivid evocation of this formative but forgotten world, Jon Grinspan recalls a time when struggling young citizens found identity and maturity in democracy.

Excerpt

The night before he turned twenty, Oscar gave his first big speech.

His friends called him up before the rural Ohio meetinghouse. Oscar climbed the stairs, pocket watch ticking in his vest, Adam’s apple strained against his collar. He stared out at the packed pews, crowded with slackjawed boys, respectable ladies, and old farmers. He felt embarrassed by the attention.

Someone smiled. A stranger cheered. Friends hooted nicknames. Warmed by the support, Oscar launched into his talk on the coming election. He stomped the low stage, endorsing Abe Lincoln and mocking the Democratic Party. His handsome face—with its falcon nose, inquiring eyes, and frame of floppy brown hair—lit as he gathered momentum. When the skinny nineteen-year-old schoolteacher was finally through, the applause felt deafening.

Before his speech, Oscar was pretty ordinary. He stood 5’8” and weighed 135 pounds, typical for a man of his generation. He lived in south-central Ohio, at the dead center of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. And he was nineteen years old, going on twenty, exactly average for an American in 1860.

Oscar meandered into political life. He left home in his teens, packing a carpetbag with a diary, a Bible, and a bowie knife and setting off on an aimless “wander year.” He tramped across Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, lodging with strangers, drinking and dancing, and making note of which towns had the prettiest young ladies.

Oscar finally settled in Hocking County, Ohio, where he found work teaching school. Someone invited him to join a debating society in town. Soon he was there almost every night, considering the “Women’s Rights Question” or arguing about whether George Washington went to hell for owning slaves. Oscar loved these debates, joining in with a sometimes entertaining, sometimes irritating faith in his own unbending logic. He . . .

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