Election Day in the 1700s

It’s Election Day! From early morning until after dark, voters in Virginia and across the United States are walking into libraries, schools, firehouses, community centers, city halls and, occasionally, even private homes. Once inside, they are given a paper ballot, punch card or, though still relatively rare, may be directed to a touch screen. The voter steps up to or into a voting booth walled off with some type of barrier. There is an atmosphere of quiet deliberateness.  The individual voter alone marks the candidates of their choice. When finished, they place their ballot into a secure ballot box. The ballot requires no signature nor is the voter required to make a public declaration revealing who they are support.  White propertied men of the 18th century like Fielding Lewis, Augustine Washington, and George Washington would be surprised by our 21st century voting process.

In early America, Election Day was an intensely public affair and often times an excuse for everyone, whether allowed to vote or not, to travel to the county seat for the election but also to visit neighbors, conduct business, and simply have a good time.  There was a holiday atmosphere that could get quite uproarious!

the-polling-by-william-hogarth

“The Polling” by William Hogarth (1755), scene 3 in his Humours of an Election series. While Hogarth’s goal is to mercilessly satire English politics, his painting also hints at the festive atmosphere of an actual 18th century Election Day. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Project / Wikipedia.

The festival atmosphere was fueled by a common, though technically illegal, vote-getting technique: alcohol.  The law said that candidates could not provide drinks to votes from the time the election was announced until after votes were cast on Election Day.  To work around this restriction, candidates simply enlisted spouses, family, friends, or servants to distribute the spirits.

George Washington first ran for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1757. Each county sent two representatives to the house.  In this first election, Washington came in third in a field of three and garnered only 40 votes.  The next year, he stood again.  He won with 310 votes – the most of the four candidates.  While certainly not the sole reason for his victory, in 1758, Washington reimbursed friends £39 for 34 gallons of rum, 3 pints of brandy, 13 gallons of beer, 8 quarts of cider, and 40 gallons of rum punch served to voters.[1]  He wrote one of these friends, James Wood, saying “I am extreme thankly [sic] to you & my other friends for entertaining the Freeholders in my name—I hope no exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated and all had enough it is what I much desird [sic]—my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”

an-election-entertainment-by-william-hogarth

“An Election Entertainment” (1755) by William Hogarth, scene 1 in his Humours of an Election series. The painting is a critical depiction of a candidate hosting a dinner for voters at a tavern. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Project / Wikipedia.

Although 18th century candidates couldn’t directly supply alcohol to voters, they were expected to be present during voting and were also expected to warmly greet all voters.  Today, in most states, there are restrictions against candidates or a candidate’s supporters from campaigning at or near a polling place while voting is taking place.  The candidate was present, in part, so that he could thank the voter for their vote.

Voting in the 1700s was not secret. There were no ballots. Virginians practiced the long English tradition of a public voice vote. Before family, friends, neighbors, and the candidates themselves, a freeholder – a propertied white man allowed to vote – “came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote.  The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference.”  The freeholder’s name was recorded in the poll book in a column under the name of his choice.  “The candidate for whom he had voted, arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.”

While the secret ballot is sacred today, public voice votes of the 18th century and the poll books in which the votes were recorded provide historians with valuable knowledge about the elections of the time and about who voted for whom.  They also hint at personal connections within communities.  For example, we know that Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, voted for William Fairfax, Esqr and Colonel James Colvill for Prince William County’s two seats in the House of Burgesses in 1741.  We know that Fairfax won one seat with 246 votes and Colvill won the other seat with 175 votes.[2]  While we should be cautious about reading too much into Augustine’s support for Fairfax, George would go on to cultivate connections with William and other Fairfax family members.  After Augustine’s death, George aspired to be like William’s cousin Thomas Lord Fairfax, “socially prominent, well-connected, and involved in important affairs.”

prince-william-county-polling-book

Portion of a page from “The Poll for Election of Burgesses for the County of Prince William…” in 1741.

Americans have been voting for an exceptionally long time. We were voting even before a United States of America existed.  The methods have changed over four centuries and although we no longer literally voice our vote, your vote is still your voice. Be heard today. Go vote!

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010: 88.

[2] Poll for Election of Burgesses in Prince William County, 1741, Deed Book E, pg. 524, Prince William County, Va.

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