J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Election Day in Early America

It’s an Election Day in the city where I live, so I’m linking to Rosemarie Zagarri’s essay “What Did Democracy Look Like? Voting in Early America” at Mapping Early American Elections, a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Zagarri writes:
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. . . .

Whenever they occurred, elections did not necessarily take place over the course of a single day. The sheriff, or other local election official, could if he so wished either extend or shorten the amount of time in which the polls were open. If, for example, excessive rains and flooding made it difficult for voters from an outlying area to reach the polling site, the clerk might keep the poll open for two-to-three days—or in some cases, even a week, so that anyone who wanted to vote might do so. A corrupt official, on the other hand, might choose to prematurely close the polls to prevent certain voters from reaching the site in time.

Elections were communal affairs, sometimes with celebratory overtones, sometimes with more ominous overtones. Elections could be held at almost any public venue—from a town hall to a courthouse to a church or tavern. Arriving at the site, electors often confronted a “tumultuous assemblage of men,” as Richard Henry Lee put it, where people milled about—talking, arguing, and sometimes, drinking. In the North, where elections were more sober affairs, women and children might be present, bringing with them “election cakes,” baked especially for the occasion.

Actually casting the ballot was a kind of public performance. By 1800, most states, with the exception of Virginia and Kentucky, had moved from oral voting (viva voce) to the secret, written ballot. Nonetheless, electors often found themselves at the center of public attention. When they cast their ballots, voters moved one-by-one to the front of a line, under the close scrutiny of other members of the community. They sometimes had to mount a number of steps to reach an elevated dais. There they would place their folded ballot in a slot in a wooden ballot box. Many individuals, including their creditors, patrons, or other powerful individuals, looked on as they did so.

During the colonial period, most colonies, like Great Britain, had required that electors possess property—typically either a fifty-acre freehold or land worth fifty shillings. Although voting qualifications varied from state-to-state, by 1800 a majority of states had lowered, or even dropped, property requirements for voting. Throughout the country, perhaps 80% of all adult white males were eligible to vote. In New Jersey from 1776 to 1807, women were actually allowed to vote on the same terms as men. Only three states—Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia—explicitly confined the vote to white males. There were no voter registration rolls. Electors simply declared that they had met the suffrage requirements for that state. If someone doubted the voter’s eligibility, they would declare their objections to the officials. The individual’s ballot would be set aside, for further investigation. Though not overt, then, the pressure to vote for a certain candidate was often unmistakable.
(The picture above is John Lewis Krimmell’s “Election Day at the [Philadelphia] State House” from 1815.

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