From the Political History Today forum in the May 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
Revisiting the Early American Republic: The New Nation Votes Database Enables a New Political History
Rosemarie Zagarri, May 2011
In the 1960s and 1970s, the quantitative turn in the field of history created a whole new set of possibilities for scholars studying early American political history. By collecting and aggregating data on early American elections, scholars were able to acquire systematic, empirical evidence for assertions involving the American political process that had hitherto been based primarily on isolated, qualitative, or anecdotal examples. Borrowing methodologies from the social sciences, this approach energized the field, producing important works that examined structural and institutional factors in the emergence of American democracy, including the growth of universal male suffrage, the rise of the earliest political parties, and the rotation in political offices among a variety of contenders.
Yet these studies were hampered by evidentiary problems. For large numbers of elections, information was either missing, incomplete, or unavailable. Before 1825, no uniform, official standards for reporting elections existed in the United States. Results appeared in local newspapers, in private letters, and in a variety of published or unpublished government records. As a result, the number, kind, and quality of election data varied immensely from state to state, election to election, and locale to locale. The previously best-known source of election data, the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) database at the University of Michigan, contained only about 40 percent of the existing information on elections prior to 1825 and was available only through paid subscription.
As political history fell out of fashion, these evidentiary problems seemed less pressing. Yet in the last decade or so, a new generation of scholars, informed by an approach to politics that has been invigorated by social and cultural history has found a novel resource that will allow a comprehensive reassessment of early American political history. This resource is the New Nation Votes (NNV) database. Available free and online at http://elections.lib.tufts.edu/aas_portal/index.xq, the database provides over 50,000 records from 30,000 presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and state elections for the period 1787 to 1825. Compiled over the past four decades by Philip Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society, the information was found through Lampi's exhaustive research in newspapers, public records, private letters, and state archives scattered across the country.1 Since 2005, the New Nation Votes project has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities which has enabled the collection to go online. Staffers from the American Antiquarian Society have been working in collaboration with data entry personnel from the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives in order to organize, transcribe, and digitize the records. About half of the collection is now online and is freely accessible. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2014.
The New Nation Votes database has already started to alter our factual knowledge concerning early American politics. Newly discovered evidence on candidates' party affiliations (always a tricky issue to determine in this period of American history) has led to the revision of certain entries in the Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress. Other information has come to light about hitherto unknown elections that occurred outside the normal electoral cycle, including a special election in which Henry Clay was elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Kentucky. Perhaps most intriguing, newly uncovered election returns for the 1824 presidential election reveal a precursor to the Florida "hanging-chad" phenomenon of the 2000 presidential election: some voters who had intended to vote for John Quincy Adams inadvertently cast their ballots for Andrew Jackson. Had they been cast correctly, the gap between the popular vote for Jackson and for Adams would have been narrower than the margin reported at the time. Since neither candidate received a majority in the Electoral College, the election still would have had to be decided by the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, Jackson's subsequent claim that Adams had been chosen president because of a corrupt bargain would have had less credibility. In light of this new information, historians, at least, can revise the accepted interpretation of this highly controversial event.
More in-depth scholarship utilizing the New Nation Votes database is also beginning to appear. Unlike an older generation of scholars, many recent historians of early American political history define "politics" in a much broader fashion than their forebears. Influenced by cultural and social approaches to the study of the past, they have moved beyond a narrow definition of politics which refers primarily or exclusively to voting or holding public office and have expanded the concept to include the informal norms, rituals, practices, and procedures that shape the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Accordingly, "politics" in this sense includes not only propertied white males but also unenfranchised white men, white women, and African Americans, many of whom participated in politics out-of-doors or in the streets, or exerted indirect influence in shaping early American policies, laws, and government.
This broader definition of politics is deployed in many new and forthcoming scholarly works that make use of information derived from the New Nation Votes database. Jeffrey Pasley, for example, analyzes the relationship between popular political mobilization and the growth of print culture, especially newspapers, in the presidential election of 1800, which pit the incumbent president, Federalist John Adams, against his adversary, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Fresh numbers on voter turnout provided by the NNV allow Pasley to argue that a dramatic upsurge in political participation developed much earlier than has hitherto been understood: during the Age of Jefferson rather than the Age of Jackson.2 Similarly, John Brooke's recent book, Columbia Rising, examines the development of citizenship, civil society, and party politics in the Hudson River Valley from the time of the American Revolution through 1828. Using Jürgen Habermas's theory of the public sphere to frame his argument, Brooke situates electoral data from the NNV project within the context of his larger claims about the changing meaning of consent in a republican government and a redrawing of the boundaries between those who were included and those who were excluded in the new political order. Democratization, he suggests, was not simply a political process but a messy social transformation that sometimes produced unexpected results for society as well as government.3
Other studies using the NNV database challenge certain aspects of the standard narrative of early American political development. One forthcoming article disputes claims that the Federalist party went into a period of inevitable decline after the election of 1800. Yet another revises depictions of the "Era of Good Feelings" as a period of voter apathy.4 Other works, including those by current graduate students, bring the NNV data to bear on the role of women and African Americans in the political process. One study has examined the impact of male voter fraud on the effort to disenfranchise women in 1807 in New Jersey, when the state's brief 30-year experiment in female suffrage came to an end.5 Another examines the participation of African Americans in New York state elections between 1809 and 1821, when many elections were decided by just a few hundred votes. Despite their small numbers, African American voters in early New York apparently exerted political power far out of proportion to their numbers.6
The New Nation Votes database thus provides a prime opportunity for scholars to revisit and reimagine early American political history. Unlike an earlier generation of quantitative historians who took democratization as a given, the current generation of political historians treats the process of democratization itself as a question. According to historian Andrew Robertson, an active proponent of the NNV database, the development of American democracy did not emerge in a linear fashion. Rather, as information from the NNV database suggests, democracy developed in an erratic fashion, on a" tortuous trajectory" toward the greater inclusion of larger and larger segments of the population.7 By facilitating these studies, the New Nation Votes database makes possible a more fruitful, and more empirically grounded, dialogue between the American past and present.
Rosemarie Zagarri is professor of history at George Mason University and is a member of the New Nation Votes Advisory Board. Her most recent publication is Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007).
1. For more information on Lampi's incredible research efforts, undertaken largely on his own initiative, see Jill Lepore, "Party Time: Smear Tactics, Skullduggery, and the Debut of American Democracy," New Yorker, September 17, 2007.
2. Jeffrey Pasley, "1800 as a Revolution in Political Culture: Newspapers, Celebration, Voting and Democratization in the Early Republic," in James P. Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf eds., The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic (Charlottesville, Va.: 2002), 121–52.
5. Rosemarie Zagarri, "Were Early American Elections for White Men Only?," Common-Place, Oct. 28, 2008, www.common-place.org/pasley/?p=792.