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Response to Review of The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

I am honored to respond to such a thoughtful review. It’s a thrill to see that my intentions have made sense to (and may have even entertained) a careful reader. Even Mark Power Smith’s central criticism, that my book could have carried on into the 20th century, is an encouraging endorsement.

More than anything else, the review questions the periodization of the book. Though accepting the idea that an age of popular politics began around 1840, Mr. Power-Smith challenges the ending around 1900. This stopping point grew primarily out of the sources: from political bosses and reformers, to Connecticut mechanics and Alabama sharecroppers, a wide array of diarists and memoirists agreed that something changed dramatically with the dawning of the new century. As the Tammany Hall ward boss George Washington Plunkitt put it, in 1905, ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’.

What changed was not simply the shift in political culture, or in youth culture, but the reciprocal relationship between the two. Throughout the book, I argue that young Americans and political parties enjoyed an accidental symbiosis. Mid-to-late-19th-century American youths lived with incredible social and economic uncertainty, while their political parties experienced huge demands for new votes and free labor. The result was an extended moment when young people used the political system, while the political system used young people. Scholars of American political history (Joel Sibley, Michael McGerr, Morton Keller) have long pointed to an extended political era lasting from 1840 to the 1890s, while the budding field of youth history sees an age of uncertainty running from the 1830s through the 1880s (Steven Mintz, Paula Fass, Joe Kett). Because of the delay in youth political socialization (it takes time for politicized youths to legally vote), these two periods sync up perfectly.

Power-Smith asks why not continue the story into the Progressive era. Certainly young people still found personal meaning in public political life after the 1900. One of the challenges of studying youth is that it is universal constant; young people never go away. Nearly any book on youth could trace its story further forward or backward. But there is a noticeable decline in the sheer numbers of young Americans gravitating towards electoral politics after 1900. While Power-Smith notes that ‘scores of young middle class women’ worked for Progressive causes, those scores cannot outweigh the millions of children, youths, and young adults who voted for, marched for, and sometimes fought for the Democratic, Republican, or Whig parties. These parties were 19th-century America’s largest institutions, and for 60 years they relied on winning the support of new, young voters. Then, quite dramatically after 1900, parties reduced their running debate about how to best appeal to young voters, while young people’s engagement in public politics withered, even if it did not entirely die.

Finally, Power-Smith broaches the very legitimate question about what variations occurred within youth participation during this era. This question teased me throughout this project, each of the 15 presidential elections covered tells a fascinating story. I chose, however, to trace young people’s political maturation across their childhoods rather than follow a chronological arc. This age-based evolution was more determinative of young American’s experience – a 12-year-old in 1840 had more in common, as a political actor, with a 12-year-old in 1860 or 1880, than they did with a 60-year-old in 1840. This narrative also allowed the book to avoid muddling age groups – moving chronologically would have meant mixing the experiences of 11-year-olds and 21-year-olds in an election. Perhaps most important, young people’s growing political consciousness provided a fresher story than the often retold evolution of American campaign techniques across the century.

Ultimately, I hoped this book would help challenge the conversation about American political history, especially in public discourse, that so often relies on a ‘game changer narrative’. In its popular retelling, every campaign is a disruption. But what struck me most about 19th-century America’s high-participation campaign culture was its very sustainability, the unlikely staying power of political behaviors that relied on unmoored young men and women struggling in a tumultuous era. I hope this book challenges readers to see this history as the brilliant comic persona Mr. Dooley did when he joked: ‘I see gr-reat changes takin’ place ivry day, but no change at all ivry fifty years’.