A debut book of American history about how the youth culture and first-time voters influenced the political landscape from 1840 to 1900.
During that period, voter turnout in presidential elections was 70-80 percent, higher than any other period. In 1840, a man’s first vote was a rite of passage, and in that year, 40 percent of voters were new. Property requirements for voting were removed, and exploding population, rising immigration, economic growth, and the opening of the West brought mobility and new jobs. Ballots were printed and passed out by party supporters, and everyone knew whom you voted for, which encouraged bribery and other evils. The young knew more about the political races than older adults, and they used their votes to become a public force. More importantly, adults actually listened to them, argued with them, and supported their views. Grinspan, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, points to a sociological difference between 19th-century “youth,” who required action, and 20th-century “adolescents.” The author cites many journals showing teenage angst but also strong enthusiasm for political views. Politics was a tool to cope with the social, economic, and romantic uncertainties of their lives, and it gave them a chance to establish an identity and achieve something meaningful. Rallies, parades, clubs, and barbecues were important places to meet people, for both men and women, and the political networks supported men in their “wander year” between school and career. These virgin votes were equally important to the party leadership. Most adults committed to a party for life, so leaders were anxious for new blood. The shrewdest politicos realized young people’s worth and put them to work. Probably the best part of the book is Grinspan’s discussion of how this enthusiasm died. Gentlemen decided it was acceptable to vote and formed their own restricted clubs, and the secret ballot, baseball, and even the bicycle played a part in the decline.
A useful historical look at how strong the youth demographic can be.