- The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Grinspan
The Virgin Vote is a noteworthy addition to the ongoing debate about why nineteenth-century popular politics were so vastly different than those of our current era. Jon Grinspan's book examines "how young Americans stepped further into public life as they aged" (13). Grinspan analyzes how Americans related to politics from childhood through adulthood between 1840 and 1900. Grinspan pays particular attention to how young Americans used politics to address personal ambitions, including career, love, and reputation. During this period, to get ahead, young Americans became active in politics. The country was changing so rapidly—culturally, economically, geographically—that politics seemed to open doors to new opportunities most effectively. It was through participating in politics that young men developed professional networks, conceived of themselves as men, and gained status in their communities. [End Page 425]
The most significant part of this book is Grinspan's argument that between 1840 and 1900, "young people fueled American politics" (5). The subsequent chapters prove that political parties sought the "virgin votes" of young American men in order to shore up power in an era that saw marginal slivers deciding political contests. Because most Americans stayed loyal to the same party their whole voting life, it became clear to political leaders that only by gaining the support of the youth—the virgin vote being the one point when some people switched party affiliation from their family—could they make the difference in coming elections.
The "virgin vote," intuitively, refers to the first time a young man voted. This particular moment was important because it "marked a beginning and an end, a commencement and a commitment" (8). Grinspan linked this moment to the achievement of manhood, and he takes time to explore the gendered implications of the term. More so than age, voting represented "the ceiling of youth and the floorboards of manhood" (61). While men could cross the threshold created by this milestone of voting, women were left behind. Grinspan contends that many women, despite their inability to vote, "refused to wait on the sidelines of the thrilling political culture" that politics drove in that period but admits that their role was largely one of trying to influence the men in their lives (8). Notably, Grinspan found that "some daughters received better political instruction than their brothers" from the father of the family, in hopes that he could ward off any potential political influence by a spouse later in life (22).
The topics of the first four chapters span thematically from childhood to adulthood, demonstrating the way America's youth were taught about politics and how they experienced it through different phases of their lives. Grinspan's descriptions of the rallies, parades, and parties that characterized election politics in that era require some imagination to picture. They do not seem to have a corollary in politics today. Giant bonfires, with bands and all sorts of foods, drink, and interplay between the sexes make it clear that politics in the late nineteenth century served as a prominent socializing tool in many communities. In the fifth chapter, the narrative shifts to a more chronological approach to show how the political system itself changed over time and therefore interacted with the various stages of youth engagement with voting. The chronological overview might have been more beneficial at the outset, but it was largely necessary to explain first why youth interest in voting came to such a crashing halt at the turn of the century.
For Civil War historians, Grinspan's insights into how the war's memory affected youth voting are the most relevant part of this book—and indeed insightful and fascinating. He argues that by the 1870s, young Americans looked at Civil War veterans who controlled politics as "rotten old hulks who monopolize the offices and dwell upon the past...