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Beyond the Book

264 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, 1 figs., 4 tables, notes, bibl., index

ISBN  978-1-4696-2734-2
Published: May 2016

The Virgin Vote

How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

By Jon Grinspan

There was a time when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. In the second half of the nineteenth century--as voter turnout reached unprecedented peaks--young people led the way, hollering, fighting, and flirting at massive midnight rallies. Parents trained their children to be “violent little partisans,” while politicians lobbied twenty-one-year-olds for their “virgin votes”—the first ballot cast upon reaching adulthood. In schoolhouses, saloons, and squares, young men and women proved that democracy is social and politics is personal, earning their adulthood by participating in public life.

Drawing on hundreds of diaries and letters of diverse young Americans--from barmaids to belles, sharecroppers to cowboys--this book explores how exuberant young people and scheming party bosses relied on each other from the 1840s to the turn of the twentieth century. It also explains why this era ended so dramatically and asks if aspects of that strange period might be useful today.

In a vivid evocation of this formative but forgotten world, Jon Grinspan recalls a time when struggling young citizens found identity and maturity in democracy.

About the Author

Jon Grinspan is a historian of American democracy, youth, and popular culture. He is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.


"A useful historical look at how strong the youth demographic can be."
--Kirkus Reviews

“In an age when politics often seems remote from the lives and concerns of young people, Jon Grinspan recovers a lost world of youthful engagement with American public life. His colorful and energetic prose captures the spirit of the half century when young men and young women from all classes and ethnicities cared passionately about politics. Grinspan tells the story without nostalgia but with affection and respect for these young Americans.”
--Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America

“A captivating book that illumines an unexamined dimension of American political history. Grinspan sheds light on the meaning of voting for young people in the nineteenth century and the diverse ways--social, psychological, and political--in which youth were drawn to the ballot box and to activism in an era when politics was a popular sport. The details are rich, and the contrasts to the present are striking.”
--Alexander Keyssar, author of The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States

“Vividly written and persuasively argued, The Virgin Vote illuminates the parallel development of nineteenth-century political parties on a national scale with the recruitment of eager young people as essential political actors. Eloquent and insightful, Jon Grinspan recovers a lost world of political engagement as popular entertainment, which inspired voters and sustained democracy.”—Alan Taylor, author of The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832

"The Virgin Vote vividly captures just how immersive politics could be in the wide-open nineteenth century, especially for the young people who constituted such a large and noisy part of the electorate. In our era of rising indifference to big-money politics, it is bracing to be reminded how deep the passions ran when democracy was close to a contact sport."
--Ted Widmer, author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City and editor of Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation

"This sprightly, well-researched book is a delight to read and notably thought-provoking. By recasting what has been called the golden age of American democracy in terms of youth or age rather than partisanship itself, The Virgin Vote tells a story about youth that is not just about a single cohort or a cultural moment, but captures a wide array of cultural and political phenomena from 1840 to 1900. It’s Piaget meets political history, and it seems long overdue."
--David Waldstreicher, City University of New York

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