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The “virgin vote”: a historian discovers why young Americans once actually voted

In the mid-1800s, politics were indispensable to making friends, becoming an adult, and even getting laid.

This 1863 painting, titled "Young America," shows American children speechifying. Political parties routinely used “boy orators” at their campaign events.
Courtesy of Jon Grinspan

In the spring of 1860, Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Clay was giving a speech in Hartford, Connecticut, when he was threatened by a pro-slavery Democrat. A young Republican bodyguard in his early 20s leaped forward and clobbered his assailant with his torch, defending Clay. The story quickly circulated, and the bodyguard and his friends in Connecticut used their newfound reputation to help build a new anti-slavery political group.

They called themselves the "Wide Awakes." They held late-night meetings in saloons to talk about the Republican causes of the day. Membership required attendance at local government meetings and spending several hours every week promoting the Republican ticket. Wide Awake crowds began showing up in the middle of the night at the homes of prominent lawmakers, often yelling and singing until the politician woke up and agreed to talk. The Wide Awakes threw wild parties and donned unmistakable uniforms: glimmering jet-black robes, long flowing capes, top hats, and 6-foot torches often emblazoned with their logo, an open eyeball.

By the summer of 1860, there were more than 100,000 Wide Awake members gathered into about 1,000 separate clubs across the country. Proportional to population, that would be equivalent to 1 million members today. That fall, the movement played a significant role in mobilizing voters and powering Abraham Lincoln's electoral victory.

The idea of such a swift and massive uprising of young people may seem unusual from our vantage point, but it was not unusual for the era. In a fascinating and timely recent book, The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, And Voting Popular, historian Jon Grinspan captures the soaring heights of youth involvement in American politics in the mid- to late 19th century — which he describes as a golden era of youthful popular politics. He makes clear just how far we've fallen since then.

Grinspan's central insight is that we've lost the social incentives that once made anything but near-constant political engagement unthinkable for millions of young people.

Politics, he argues, did not gain massive popularity among the young because of the thrill of high-minded policy discussions and reasoned, wonkish debate. Instead, it did so because the 20-somethings of the mid-1800s saw it as vital to fulfilling more fundamental longings — vital to maintaining a group of friends, to socializing, to entertainment, to building a career, even to getting laid. Grinspan says that leaving childhood to become a man — or a woman, in some cases, despite the lack of voting rights — depended on forging a political identity in a way that’s totally alien to us in 2017.

At its core, Grinspan’s book suggests that if we’re ever going to truly solve the long-running crisis of young people’s rejection of politics — one that contributed to Donald Trump’s win — the best bet lies in somehow rekindling those same motivations.

In the 1800s, elementary schools were breeding grounds for “violent little partisans”

They started young.

In the 19th century, schoolhouses — where they existed — served as a “petri dish for popular politics,” Grinspan writes. One popular chant, “Democrats eat dead rats!” was a favorite of Whig schoolboys in the South and Midwest. In unruly classrooms, boys chanted slogans taught by parents and older siblings, and they brawled with partisan rivals in the playground. (In 1876, one group of Republican 8-year-olds in Kansas choked a classmate with his Democratic scarf until he passed out.)

Teachers were expected to read the results of elections in the classrooms. Dozens of children’s diaries show that political arguments frequently dominated the classroom discussions, with academic lessons sometimes an afterthought.

Campaigners staged rallies explicitly to draw young children. They made a point of making sure floats featuring live raccoons, foxes, eagles, and bears appeared alongside the political candidate to make them appealing to kids. They offered leather balls to play with and set off fireworks — entertainment primarily for the children.

On Election Day, children as young as 6 became “errand boys” for campaigners, transporting vital messages and news. Some were tasked “with dragging the tipsy voters in town to the polls.”

All of this made politics look like a clear stepping stone to adulthood. “Campaign spectacle helped the wavering outline of a child’s nature form into a personal, political identity,” Grinspan writes.

Casting “the virgin vote”

Spectators at a Tammany Hall rally through NYC's Union Square toward the end of the bitterly contested 1884 presidential campaign.
Courtesy of Grinspan

Crossing the threshold from political boyhood to political adulthood was described in terms that sound very much like modern discussions of puberty.

In fact, that era’s contemporaries referred to one’s first vote as a “virgin vote” (the inspiration, obviously, for the book’s title). A “virgin vote” was a risk, a thrill, and a potential source of anxiety. Casting a vote for the “wrong” party, Grinspan writes, might be compared to choosing the wrong romantic partner and catching “a bad case of syphilis.”

The moment a young partisan cast his first ballot was seen as a bridge to adulthood, in a period in which Americans were deeply proud of their status as the world’s most egalitarian democracy (though, of course, one for white men only).

Many people believed that the first vote cast would be remembered for a lifetime. Older men were said to “refer to it in after years with pride and pleasure” (again, note the sexual overtones).

Campaigns promised to “wifeless young voters” that “all the handsome and intelligent young ladies” supported their party and would show up at rallies.

Historians don’t have reliable national numbers for voting patterns by age cohort in the 19th century. But we do know that new voters dominated the ballot box in this era, and that most of them were young. We also know that when overall voting rates crashed around the turn of the century, it was because new voters — the next generation — stopped showing up in such high numbers, Grinspan says. So it seems overwhelmingly likely that young people, like all people, voted in much higher numbers during this period. Today youth voter rates oscillate between 30 and 50 percent, though the pool of young voters is larger as a result of the 26th Amendment, which extended the franchise to 18-year-olds.

The era Grinspan writes about was no democratic paradise. The franchise had of course not been extended to African Americans or women, and it was even physically harder to vote —reaching a polling station often entailed arduous, and occasionally dangerous, journeys spanning dozens of miles.

Youth politics was also more tribal, more visceral, and more violent than today.

But it was also much more alive.

American politics are a generational war that young people keep losing

An 1880 campaign rally.
Courtesy of Grinspan

Grinspan’s reminder of this forgotten tradition of youth politics comes at a critical juncture. America’s government has become, if not quite a gerontocracy, then awfully close to one. And there are clear partisan implications for that trend.

Writing for Vox, the University of Chicago’s Harold Pollack observed just how old the politicians filling our old institutions really are: Donald Trump, 70, is the oldest president ever elected. Three leading Democratic contenders for 2020 — Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders — would be 71, 78, and 79, respectively, on Inauguration Day 2021. Grinspan says the average age for Cabinet members in the mid-1800s was about 45; at the start of Trump’s administration it was 62, according to Politico. As of March, when the Congressional Research Service profiled the 115th Congress, the average senator was 62 and the average House member 58, making the 115th "one of the oldest" in American history.

Millennials make up about 25 percent of our population, but — as of last year — less than 5 percent of our state legislatures. Perhaps seeing so few candidates like themselves is one reason for low youth voting rates: Voters ages 18 to 34 were recently less than a tenth as likely to cast a ballot in their local mayoral race, according to Portland University researchers.

Greenspan traces the death of the youth political culture, more than 100 years ago, to a revolution in youth culture. “During the age of popular politics, many young people embraced a vertical model of adulthood, using politics as a scaffolding to climb toward maturity,” he says. Politics served as a way for young friends to work together to pull themselves toward adulthood.

But afterward, particularly as Americans moved to the cities, young people began socializing almost entirely with those in their same age cohort. Going to vaudeville shows and dance halls reflected a youth culture that was about impressing your peers, rather than a means of moving up in the world, and that peer culture persists.

Polling makes clear the clear partisan ramifications of today’s lack of youth political involvement: Millennials are the least racist voters in the country, the most environmentally conscious, and the most economically progressive. Unsurprisingly, they broke for Hillary Clinton by a nearly 20-point margin this fall — but far fewer turned out for her than for Barack Obama, which helped doom her campaign.

What will it take to return to 1850s levels of youth politics excitement?

Grinspan knows the question is a difficult and complex one, but he does offer a few concrete suggestions: Get high school freshmen enrolled in political clubs, so they’re more likely to vote when they’re seniors. Make sure schools invite political discussion, even if doing so invites controversy. And above all, revive the idea that one truly becomes an adult only when one has voted.

This important book makes clear that we need a modern version of the Wide Awake movement.

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