The American Political Nation, 1838-1893

By Joel H. Silbey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Shrine of Party

FROM THE 1840's ONWARD, a vibrant, noisy, and thoroughly partisan political world existed in the United States. Everywhere one turned politics had taken hold, with "the implacable forces of party" dominating the scene. 1 As a writer in the New York Evening Post said of a campaign rally in Illinois in 1858:

It is astonishing how deep an interest in politics this people take. Over long weary miles of hot and dusty prairie, the procession of eager partisans come -- on foot, on horseback, in wagons drawn by horses or mule, men, women, and children. . . settling down at the town where the meeting is, with hardly a chance for sitting, and even less opportunity for eating, waiting in anxious groups for hours at the places of speaking, talking, discussing, litigious, vociferous, while the roar of artillery, the music of bands, the waving of banners, the huzzas of the crowds, as delegation after delegation appears; the cry of peddlers, vending all sorts of wares. . . combine to render the occasion one scene of confusion and commotion. 2

That commotion was everywhere, certainly since the "hurrah" campaign of 1840. Reports of similar meetings recur repeatedly in the contemporary press and in the letters and memoirs of the many participants. The less public party meetings, the caucuses and conventions held at every level, had their own share of involvement, excitement, and intensity. Part of the fervent interest stemmed from the fact that election campaigns served as a major medium of popular entertainment in American life in the half century after 1840. The exaggerated pageantry on display, the inflated drama of the average political speech, the rituals and theatrics of electoral confrontation, drew people into the political orbit. 3 But there was more to the popular commitment than that.

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