- The American Ballot Box in the Mid–Nineteenth Century
"The American polling place was . . . a kind of sorcerer's workshop in which the minions of opposing parties turned money into whisky and whisky into votes. This alchemy transformed the great political economic interests of the nation, commanded by those with money, into the prevailing currency of the democratic masses. Whisky, it seems, brought as many, and perhaps far more, votes than the planks in party platforms" (295). This disillusioning appraisal of nineteenth-century democracy might have come right out of the mouth of a dyspeptic late nineteenth-century advocate of restricting the franchise or from the fiery pamphlet of an ardent temperance reformer. That it constitutes the well-considered conclusion about nineteenth-century democracy [End Page 220] reached by a leading twenty-first-century political scientist should certainly get the attention of modern political historians.
It is almost as surprising to find that The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century does not offer what historians have come to expect from political science—quantified evidence, theory, models, and elaborate analysis. What readers will find instead is mostly description, and highly anecdotal description at that.
What Bensel describes in unlovely detail are incidents in contested congressional elections from the antebellum and Civil War eras. To do so he quotes very substantial chunks of testimony from the congressional investigations of these elections, printed in House of Representatives reports that form part of the government serial set. I was particularly interested, for example, in the section of the book, from pages 227-40, on the Seventh Congressional district in Missouri during the Civil War. Forty-seven percent of that section was quoted from original sources. Other sections of the book quote less lavishly, but readers will find that this study can be used almost as a sourcebook for contemporary eyewitness testimony on election fraud in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The American Ballot Box systematically and richly describes the practices to be found at the polling places. After an initial careful description of election laws and the customary set-up at a polling place, Bensel then divides the remainder of the book into four sections, one each telling us how elections worked in representative environments: eastern rural, urban, frontier, and Civil War. By design, Southern elections during Reconstruction are excluded, and most attention focuses on Northern states.
The lore of the ballot box is unforgettable. Bensel's rendering of it provides an excellent lesson in precision of description and, most important, it provides a picture we have unavailable in any other book I know of. The varieties of experience are wide. The Americans (Know Nothings) of Baltimore lived up to that city's reputation for bare-knuckled politics, with gangs controlling the tougher polling places and even kidnapping voters, holding them in makeshift dungeons until election day, and driving them to various polls to vote illegally. In Utah Territory, Bensel says, Mormon voters did not themselves cast their votes, but had them cast for them, after announcing their presence at the poll, by an official of the Church presiding over the ballot box (but whisky, it should be noted, was not a factor in Utah). There are many other interesting and vivid examples of electoral practices involving force and fraud, but, as Bensel points out convincingly, there is essentially no evidence of discussion or argument over ideology, issues, and party platforms at the polls. [End Page 221]
Still, there were only 48 contested House elections between 1850 and 1868. If we take as a very rough measure the number of representatives present at the beginning of the special session of Congress called for July 1861, there were 157 members of the House in the secession-decimated Congress. There was only one contested election from the cohort elected in 1860. There were more investigations in other years, but only 14 in the whole antebellum period and 5.33 investigations on average for any House in the period. The...