Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?


Political parties in these early years not only ran elections but directly or indirectly controlled many of the newspapers. They also operated the most visible agencies of the federal government—post offices and customhouses—as employment bureaus for their loyal members. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter , describes his experience as a customhouse clerk, a job he won in return for loyal support of the Democratic party.) In the rapidly growing cities, parties also controlled government contracts and services.

In this party-dominated world, picture a scene of voting, about 1850 or ’60, a bustling event with the area around the polling place crowded with the banners of rival parties. Election Day by then was not a convivial respite but the culmination of a campaign of several months and many barbecues, torchlight processions, and “monster meetings.” If you (still a white male) were not active in the campaign, you might be roused on Election Day by a party worker to escort you to the polls on foot or by carriage. On the road you might encounter clubs or groups from rival parties, and fisticuffs or even guns might possibly dissuade you from casting a ballot after all.

As you proceeded to the ballot box, you might step more lively with the encouragement of a dollar or two from your party, less a bribe than an acknowledgment that voting was a service to the party. A party worker would hand you a printed ballot bearing the names of the party’s candidates. You did not have to mark this “ticket” or even read it; there was no need for you to be literate. You had only to deposit it in the ballot box.

You generally voted not out of a strong sense that your party offered better public policies, for the parties tended to be more devoted to distributing offices than to advocating policies. During most of the nineteenth century, parties were loose aggregations of state organizations, focused on local or regional concerns. A presidential candidate was not usually linked to issues close to home, but voter loyalty was related more to comradeship than to policy, something like contemporary loyalty to a high school or a college and its teams. Voting was not a matter of assent but a statement of affiliation. Drink, dollars, and drama brought people to the polls.

Only with reform efforts, by the Mugwumps in the 1880s to make elections “educational” and by the Progressives in the 1890s and early 1900s to shield voters from the distorting enthusiasms of party, did the ideal of the informed citizen come into its own. In the 1880s political campaigning began to shift from parades to pamphlets and so put a premium on literacy. In the 1890s the government-printed ballot, listing the candidates of all parties, swept the nation, and because of this, literacy became a prerequisite for voting for the first time in American history. In the early 1900s nonpartisan municipal elections, presidential primaries, and ballot initiatives and referendums all emerged, giving prospective voters harder work than ever before. These changes enshrined “the informed citizenry,” incidentally providing a new mechanism and a new rationale for disenfranchising African-Americans and immigrants, as well as inaugurating our enduring tradition of handwringing over popular political ignorance.

What happened between 1880 and 1910 was that the most basic understandings of American politics were challenged and reformed. Much of this change came about in an assault on the power of political parties. Mugwump reformers were not keen on wild and woolly party democracy, with its elevation of the election to a collective, carnivalesque ritual. Carnival was not their style. What some observers called a “political Protestantism in American life” produced a series of attacks against overzealous partisanship, against corruption in campaign financing and practices, and even against the very idea of parties, on the grounds that they usurped the direct connection between citizens and their governmental representatives.


Political patronage, the heart of nineteenth-century political life, also came under fire. Every President from Lincoln to the turn of the century complained of the plague of “office seekers.” President Garfield, astonished by the “inundation,” cried, “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?” Chester A. Arthur met with office seekers “only” three days a week.

The nineteenth-century parties raised money by requiring their candidates to make substantial contributions and by taking part of the salaries of government workers they had placed, usually 3 percent of their gross pay. Amid this domination of government by parties and of parties by patronage, with what amounted to an extortionate party-run income tax on government workers and candidates for office, civil service reform came into its own.