A century and a half before the Fourth of July had any particular significance, before Christmas was widely celebrated and long before Thanksgiving was a national holiday, there was Election Day.
From the earliest New England settlements, colonial elections were public feast days, when people put on their best clothes and paraded into town with neighbors and friends. These Puritans would sit for the Election Day sermon — among the most important religious events of the year, with prayers for elected leaders and warnings to the community to stay true to their values — before heading off for discussion, snacks, rounds at the tavern and a communal dinner.
Through the Revolutionary period, the Election Day tradition evolved into more lavish public affairs, at which voters could expect to be treated with barbecue, cake and rum punch. George Washington provided 158 gallons of alcohol to voters during one Virginia election.
Although Americans today are unaccustomed to debating political issues around open barrels of booze, other aspects of our long Election Day tradition should be revived, along with the passionate electoral engagement that accompanied it. American voter participation is abysmal compared with other established democracies, trailing behind countries such as France and Mexico that observe federal holidays for general elections — and also compared with Americans of the 19th century.
The far more robust voter turnouts of this earlier period, in which elections occasioned boisterous public festivities, reveal a civic culture that we’ve lost. That culture was not perfect; Election Day was not only a day of celebration but also of exclusion and, importantly, of resistance. We should should seize on this history — and learn from its blind spots — to imagine a public, social democracy in the United States today.