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

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tags: politics, The Virgin Vote



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. 




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