Mapping Early American Elections

Democracy and the Importance of Voter Turnout

Andrew Robertson (2019)

The House of Representatives (1822) by Samuel F.B. Morse (National Gallery of Art). The image depicts the members of the Seventeenth Congress as a sober group of gentlemen who politely debated the issues of the day. In reality, political conflict and turmoil were as commonplace as rational deliberation. Pawnee Indian Chief Petalasharo sits in the Visitors’ Gallery (upper right), presumably to witness discussions over Indian affairs. Morse hoped that this portrait would make the law-making process more vivid for the many Americans who would never be able to travel to Washington, DC, themselves.

When did the United States become a democracy? One of the best measures of democracy—of democratic practice in politics—is the number and proportion of eligible voters who cast ballots in a given election. Changes in turnout—an increase or decrease in voter participation—also provides a good indicator of the voters’ degree of engagement with their representative government. Due to the lack of comprehensive voter returns for the period before 1825, it has been difficult for historians to determine with accuracy the levels of voter turnout in the decades immediately following the ratification of the US Constitution. The Mapping Early American Elections (MEAE) project contains the data that makes it possible to depict visualizations of turnout.

Contrary to the prevailing myth, a large proportion of the white male population in colonial British North America was actually eligible to vote, even before the American Revolution. Despite the existence of property qualifications for voting in all the colonies, the widespread availability of land meant that most white males could own enough land to meet the franchise requirements. The American Revolution accelerated the trend toward universal male suffrage by lowering or removing property qualifications for voting. In addition, some states enfranchised free black men. In one state, New Jersey, single women who owned property (i.e. widows and spinsters) could vote from 1776 until 1807.

Possessing the ability to vote, however, is different from actually exercising the franchise. Studies have shown that in the colonial era, levels of voter participation tended to remain fairly low. Turnout tended to increase only in elections where major issues were at stake or the candidates presented sharply different political alternatives. In general, however, voters tended to defer to the elite members of society in matters of governance.

The MEAE project presents evidence that challenges the conventional narrative of early American history: that “democratic” elections only really began with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Until the emergence of the so-called “Second Party System,” it has been said that voter participation levels remained relatively low. Evidence from the New Nation Votes project suggests otherwise. Voter turnout actually increased dramatically during the era of the First Party System. In fact, the highest turnout levels in the age of Federalists and Democratic Republicans often equaled or even exceeded Jacksonian voter participation. A quarter century before Jackson’s election, voter turnout frequently reached 50 to 70 percent of the total free male population in many states. In those states which explicitly restricted the votes to whites, turnout is measured as the total vote divided by the total number of white adult male inhabitants.

In the late 1790s, a variety of factors sharply boosted voter turnout. Both the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans vigorously contested elections from the late 1790s until after the War of 1812. A burgeoning network of partisan newspapers helped to frame the news for readers who strongly identified with their political party. Finally, substantive issues galvanized voters, propelling them to the polls.

Turnout surged in states which had a competitive party environment, including New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts (including Maine), Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina. Each party had an interest in mobilizing every single voter and getting him (or in New Jersey, him and her) to the polls. In the late 1790s, the Democratic Republicans created a more democratic form of political rhetoric and new techniques of voter mobilization. In the years after 1800 the Federalist party likewise refashioned itself with a more popular style of rhetoric and new mobilization practices.

As party newspapers spread, editors put issues in a partisan framework, thus reinforcing electors’ party identification and their motivation to vote. In states which had intense party competition and a network of party newspapers, turnout in many congressional races rose above 50 percent of the adult free male population.

In the age of Jefferson and Madison, critical issues also helped drive voters to the polls. The greatest surge in turnout occurred after the passage of the Embargo Act in 1807. Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans advocated American withdrawal from foreign trade until the British and/or French respected American neutral rights. As the Embargo distressed the commercial centers of New England and the Middle Atlantic, the Federalists enjoyed a dramatic revival.

After 1808, turnout surged in the five northeastern states that had near-universal male suffrage and competitive parties—New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Turnout increased to seventy percent in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in gubernatorial elections. In the western states of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, gubernatorial turnout sometimes exceeded seventy percent of adult white male inhabitants even though these states lacked two-party competition.

After 1808, many congressional races exhibited a sharp rise in turnout. Maryland, for example, had very competitive and closely balanced parties. Maryland also had an extensive network of important Republican and Federalist newspapers, more than any other southern state. Moreover, Baltimore and Philadelphia party newspapers had wide circulation in adjacent areas of Maryland. The Embargo and the War of 1812 were also important issues in Maryland. All of these contributed to the increased voter turnout in that state. (These were census years that provide accurate counts of the adult male population. For more specific results using the New Nation Votes data, see the table in figure 2 which shows the turnout in Maryland congressional elections in 1808, 1810 and 1812.)

Voter turnout in Maryland Congressional elections as a percentage of adult males. See the maps for Maryland elections to the 11th Congress (1808), 12th Congress(1810), and 13th Congress (1812).
COUNTY 1808 1810 1812
St. Mary’s 54 31 40
Calvert 100 44 47
Charles 67 39 74
Anne Arundel 58 49 75
Prince George’s 92 51 100
Montgomery 77 16 77
Frederick 84 ** 88
Washington 75 21 81
Allegany 72 24 80
Baltimore County 77 32 100
Baltimore Town 47 48 44
Harford 66 39 55
Cecil 90 40 41
Kent 93 29 47
Queen Anne’s 81 28 68
Talbot 81 37 90
Caroline 78 54 88
Worcester 60 71 80
Dorchester 52 34 93
Somerset 52 26 79

In the congressional elections of 1808, all nineteen counties in Maryland registered turnout of fifty percent or more of all adult white male inhabitants. (Maryland, which originally allowed free men of color to vote on the same basis as whites, eliminated free black suffrage in 1801.) Only Baltimore Town registered less than fifty percent turnout. In 1810, however, no compelling issues came before the electorate. Only three congressional districts (five counties and Baltimore Town) had contested Congressional elections and turnout plummeted. In 1812, the two parties fielded opposing candidates in six of the eight congressional districts. Fifteen of the nineteen counties had turnout over fifty percent.

Using MEAE maps and tables of congressional turnout, we can see a critically important difference between the first party system of Federalists and Democratic Republicans and the later Jacksonian parties. Issues played a critical role in driving voters to the polls in the first party system. When critical issues came before the Maryland voters, as in 1808 and 1812, turnout was very high. On the other hand, when election issues were less compelling as in 1810, fewer elections were contested, parties were less competitive, and fewer voters turned out to the polls. The first party system was unique in that its voters seem to have been driven more by issues than by loyalty to a party organization.

By analyzing voter turnout from 1788 to 1824 we can learn a great deal about the extent of democratic practice in those years. We can see that the democratic revolution in voting began in the late 1790s and continued until 1817. After 1808, only five states still had consistently low turnout, thanks to remaining property restrictions. But even as voting was expanding for unpropertied white men, it was contracting for free men of color. New Jersey had allowed woman suffrage for thirty-one years but even as it allowed unpropertied white men to vote in 1807, the state eliminated votes for women. In the Jacksonian era, suffrage laws further narrowed the rights of free black men to vote. Thus in the early American republic even as democracy expanded for some, it continued to exclude others. Democracy was a promise as well as a process—one whose promise had not yet been fully realized.

Mapping Early American Elections is generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

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