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They marched with torches: Getting out the vote, 1840–1900

During the 19th century, politics were central to social life, to the point where affiliation with a political party included actual parties—the kind with drinking and dancing. For many young people, politics was the best way to be seen and interact with people their own age, even if they were too young to vote. As we dive into election season, I spoke with Associate Curator and Jefferson Fellow Jon Grinspan about this phenomenon.

Grinspan's work deals with the primary sources that relate to young people during the 19th century. These sources range from slave narratives to letters between fiancés. They provide the modern reader with personal interactions involving politics, an answer to the "why?" of how 80% of the country came to the polls in the mid-19th century.

Chart showing turnout of eligible voters from 1800s-200s. Turnout was highest before 1900.

The voter numbers between 1832 and 1896 rarely dip below 70%, a number that modern voters barely scratch these days. There was evidence that voting mattered: around 1,000 voters decided the presidential election in 1884, for example. Even people who were just under the legal voting age were deeply involved in the political process, and that’s where Grinspan focuses his research. Generally, these political participants were young men.

Black and white illustration showing six young men wearing matching hats and uniforms (which include very draped capes and long sleeves and pants) and marching in the street with signs that say "Lincoln Hamilton" "Honest Old Abe" and "Wide Awake." One holds an american flag. One holds what appears to be a sword.

This photograph of a Republican club in Detroit contains the best markers of political engagement of the time: matching uniforms, lanterns, and a readiness to march for their party. The uniforms, stern expressions, and lanterns suggests a kind of militarism that can be found in the multitude of clubs springing up all around the United States during the time of the Civil War.

Black and white photo of seven men. Each carries a lander with a circular handle and wears a matching hat and cape-like uniform in shiny fabric. They face the camera.

The Wide Awakes were one of the most well-known clubs and their militarism is obvious. A pro-Lincoln club for young men numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they wore dark uniforms and proclaimed themselves to always be watching. The group was created by two men, a 22-year-old zealot for the cause and a uniform maker who sold 20,000 Wide Awake uniforms during the same period.

Today, wearing a uniform for a political party probably seems laughable. But imagine seeing hundreds of young men march down boulevards with lit torches on Election Day—it must have been a powerful sight.

Black and white illustration. Four men on a balcony peer down to watch a massive parade taking place on the street below. Tall buildings and fireworks in the background. Hundreds of people march in orderly formation holding signs and flags that are not clearly readable from this angle. Many more people watch the parade. They march past a park and what appears to be a tent or bandstand.

Color photo of illuminated torches, about eight of them. Variety of shapes: eagles, top hat, lantern, dinner pail.

So what drove upwards of 80% of American voters to the polls in the mid-19th century? In addition to caring about the issues, they probably also desired to be a part of a political party, an active part of the American republican machine. Marching, carrying torches, lighting bonfires, and making a show of political force was just as important, if not more important, than getting to the polls.

Illustration in red ink of man (from shoulders up) holding a torch with smoke billowing out of it.

Today, the issues surrounding elections captivate most more than the idea of marching in the street, as cities such as San Francisco as well as Takoma Park, Maryland, and Hyattsville, Maryland, lower their voting ages to 16. But the desire to be part of the democratic process—in some way, even if it doesn't involve flambeaus—still remains.

Thomas Plank is an intern in the Office of Education and Public Engagement and a senior at Stanford University studying American Studies. Jon Grinspan’s book The Virgin Vote will be available soon.