The Unruly Origins of American Democracy

Election day

George Mason University historian Rosemarie Zagarri explains what democracy looked like in early America.  Here is a taste of her post at Mapping Early American Elections:

Early American elections subvert conventional notions that portray the development of early American democracy as an orderly or systematic affair. In contrast to the well-organized procedures governing voting procedures today, elections during the first few decades of the new nation’s existence were often haphazard affairs. Everything from the location of the polls to the qualifications of the electors to the number of days the polls would be open varied from state to state, and often, from election to election. Sometimes going to polls could be injurious to one’s health, since they were occasionally the scene of riots. Democracy, then, evolved less by design and more from a constant push-and-pull between those seeking to cast their ballots and those who made the rules about when, where, and how the ballots were to be cast.

Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution gave state legislatures the power to determine “the Times, Places and Manner” of federal elections, along with the power they already possessed to determine rules for state elections. Suffrage requirement for the lower houses of their legislatures also determined requirements for the federal franchise. As a result, the variation in election rules and procedures makes the task of generalization very difficult—and made the process of running the newly established federal government even more challenging.

There was, for example, no uniformly established day on which to hold elections. In New England and New York, for example, elections tended to occur in the spring for legislative gatherings that would convene later in the year. In the Mid-Atlantic states and Upper South elections were often held in the late summer or the early fall. South Carolina and Georgia preferred late fall elections, although they were soon moved to October to accommodate Congress’s schedule.

Before the election, candidates tried to meet potential voters and get their name into circulation. At this time, however, they seldom made formal speeches or directly solicited votes. Instead, they might make their views known through letters to the local newspaper or rely on friends and allies to celebrate their patriotic virtues and sterling leadership qualities. At least until the second decade of the nineteenth century, “electioneering,” as it was called, was disdained. Candidates did, however, have other ways of persuading their potential constituents. Although officially prohibited, the custom of “treating,” especially prevalent in the South, meant that in the days prior to the election candidates might invite voters to picnics featuring generous servings of barbecue, washed down by copious amounts of liquor. Prior to the 1758 election for the Virginia House of Burgesses, George Washington reportedly served over 160 gallons of rum punch, wine, beer, and other spirits to potential voters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Washington triumphed over his opponent.

Read the rest here.

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