Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?

PrintPrintEmailEmailIf you look at the decline in voter turnout since 1960 or the steady decrease in young people’s interest in electoral politics, it is easy to get the idea that America’s democratic experiment stands on increasingly shaky ground. Voter turnout fell from 63 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 1996. In national surveys 58 percent of college freshmen in 1966 said they considered it important to keep abreast of political affairs; by 1996 only 29 percent felt that way. Has our era broken trust with a great heritage? In fact, history has a more complicated, more surprising, and in the end more hopeful story to tell.

Imagine yourself a voter in the world of colonial Virginia, where George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson learned their politics. As a matter of law, you must be a white male owning at least a modest amount of property. Your journey to vote may take several hours, since there is probably only one polling place in the district. As you approach the courthouse, which is more likely to be a common tavern than a fine example of Georgian architecture, you see the sheriff supervising the election. Beside him stand two candidates for the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislative assembly. Both of them are members of prominent local families. Ahead of you the most prominent members of the community, the leading landowner and clergyman, approach the sheriff and announce their votes in loud, clear voices. When your turn comes, you do the same. Then you step over to the candidate for whom you have voted, and he treats you to a glass of rum punch.

That was Election Day, colonial style. Voting was an act of assent, restating and reaffirming the social hierarchy of the community. No one but a local notable would think of standing for office, voting was conducted entirely in public view, and voters were ritually rewarded by the gentlemen they favored.

Colonial voting was different from voting today not because our Founding Fathers were inept at achieving a world that protected the individuality, rationality, and privacy of voters in a voting booth but because they hadn’t thought of such a thing. They held to very different ideals of what civic participation was all about. The history of American voting is only in part the story we have long prided ourselves on, the progressive extension of the franchise to once excluded groups. It is also a tale of radically changing ideals of what voting means and what a good citizen should be.

It is easy to find among the Founders great praise for the education of citizens and the diffusion of ideas. In colonial America, as in Britain, education was mainly for gentlemen, not for the general populace. Property was much more widely distributed in the colonies than in Britain, and there was a looser understanding of who counted as a gentleman, but still, colonial education aimed to instill religious virtue, not to encourage competent citizenship. Schooling and reading were understood to be instruments of inducting citizens more firmly into the established order. When people praised public enlightenment, this is what they usually had in mind.


Even the most broad-minded of the Founders had only limited ideas about public education. Jefferson’s never-enacted “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” in Virginia, sought only to create leaders. The idea was to make elementary education generally available so as to cast as wide a net as possible to discover those of “genius and virtue.” But these leaders would be a “natural aristocracy,” not ordinary citizens.

As for the latter, their civic obligation was to recognize virtue. Voters should be able to discern the character of candidates so they could turn back the ambitious and self-seeking at the polls, but they were not to question candidates about public issues, since they were not themselves qualified to evaluate them. That was what representatives were for. When the framers established the Constitution, they believed that not parties, not interest groups, not news- papers, and not citizens in the streets but Congress—and Congress alone—should deliberate and decide the public questions of the day.

Indeed, the founders established a system of government with surprisingly little room for direct or regular citizen involvement apart from elections. The Federalists actively discouraged political interest and activity. Congress could govern better than the people could themselves, even were it possible to assemble them all, James Madison argued. In the tenth of the Federalist papers, he held that the people would choose their betters for representatives. The experience of the colonists was that only social notables had the local prominence and the leisure to serve in public office, and Madison believed that these people would generally be wise, virtuous, and competent.