Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Afterword: Reconceptualizing Jeffersonian Democracy

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Afterword: Reconceptualizing Jeffersonian Democracy

Article excerpt

In the 1950s, two fairly recent PhDs, from Penn and Princeton, Richard P. McCormick and J. R. Pole, challenged the received wisdom that the United States became a democracy in the Jacksonian era, when property restrictions on suffrage were lifted and the majority of adult white male citizens began to vote. Pole and McCormick recovered some presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional election data that contradicted this interpretation. Their work revealed that in the two decades before the election of Old Hickory more than 70 percent of the adult free male inhabitants were voting in states such as New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina. Moreover, they discovered that peak turnout at the polls in the age of Jefferson was often unsurpassed in the era of Jackson; in some states Jeffersonian turnout remained unsurpassed until after the Civil War.1

Not long after, a graduate student in political science at Harvard, Walter Dean Burnham, undertook another ambitious empirical study of voting data, assembling a nearly complete record of presidential election returns for the years 1836 to 1972. This would come to be the basis of Burnham's magisterial work, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. With his extraordinary command of this sweep of American history, Burnham tested and enhanced the political realignment theory of his mentor V. O. Key. Realignment theory maintained that critical elections and political realignments occur in roughly 28- to 36-year cycles.2

Unfortunately, these sweeping attempts to interpret voting behavior in the nineteenth century never engaged each other because they were never in sync. Burnham's empirical study began in the Jacksonian period, while Pole's and McCormick's work on turnout focused on the Jeffersonian era. For the years after 1828, Burnham could describe these party systems in considerable detail: the competitive and uncompetitive regions, the shifting blocs of voters that affiliated and then drifted away from party loyalty. He could show the consistency of party voting from the presidential to the local level and the evidence of ticket-splitting in regimes ranging from the Age of Jackson to the era of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But there was no available collection of voting records at the local level for the first party system. These data - for state legislatures and local government - had never been systematically collected. Although state governments had been charged with keeping accurate election records after 1828, only one state, Massachusetts, had systematically archived voting records since the 1780s. Little wonder that for Burnham the first party system remained tantalizingly out of reach. Burnham was fascinated by the fact that the first party system seemed to have very high rates of participation but the data for this period were, in his estimation, unrecoverable, a "lost Atlantis of nineteenth-century politics."3

Just as Burnham was completing his ambitious project, a young amateur scholar was launched an even more audacious enterprise. In the early 1970s, Philip J. Lampi, a part-time night watchman at the Stetson Home for Boys in Barre, Massachusetts, became fascinated with election returns. He corresponded on the subject of election records with eminent scholars in history and political science and decided he would try to collect the voting data that Burnham believed could never be recovered: the local, state, and federal election returns for all twenty-four states for the thirty-six years from 1788 to 1824. This was a herculean task; the many decades of research required to complete it meant that no professional historian or political scientist could realistically attempt it. It would require a lifetime of uncompensated labor in obscure settings - state archives, local historical societies, and newspaper offices. For two decades, Lampi supported himself in this research, first as a night watchman, later as a microfilmer for Readex Corporation, then as a Fellow and finally as a full-time employee of the American Antiquarian Society. …

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