Thursday, March 11, 2021

Van Gosse's "The First Reconstruction"

Van Gosse is professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Rather than single-party dominance, therefore, a two-and-a-half (and sometimes three) party system operated in Pennsylvania.

Accounts of statewide partisan rivalries obscure local differences. In the early 1800s, feuding Republicans in Philadelphia created parallel ward-based structures which prefigured modern urban politics. A few landholders still dominated many rural counties, however, especially in the west where Ulster emigrants had claimed large tracts before the Revolution, and functioned as Republican agents. Their networks of relatives, tenants, and former slaves exerted considerable electoral weight. An 1817 “letter to the editor” from Franklin County detailed how these networks functioned. The writer boasted that his side had beaten (gubernatorial candidate William) “Findlay’s whole connexion,” even though it counted “twenty-three families, amounting from thirty-seven to forty voters, amongst whom are from ten to fifteen judges, generals, magistrates, militia captains, &c., who, with from thirty to thirty-five negroes, voted in solid column for Findlay.”

Besides innovations in party organization, Pennsylvania anticipated the performative mass partisanship of the “Age of Jackson.” The franchise was nearly universal; adult men qualified by paying a tax as little as twenty-five cents. The electoral calendar was nearly continuous, with annual elections for state representatives and county officers. Every fall included two election days in October, with the general election preceded by voting for inspectors and judges of election, crucial since control of those offices meant one could apply a strict standard to exclude an opponents’ backers and a looser one to admit one’s own. Presidential elections doubled the number of election days to four, since congressional and state balloting was held weeks before the presidential vote.

From late summer, each party deployed committees of vigilance to publicize its local tickets, bring voters to the polls, and serve as “broad political bases for disseminating ideas among the people of the townships.” The poll itself was very different from today’s. Each county’s “high sheriff” published a “public notice, to the electors of the said county,” typically that “a general election will be held on the second Tuesday of October next, at the several election districts to wit—The electors of Washington district, to meet at the court house….The electors of Somerset district to meet at the house of George McIlvaine.” In rural areas, private homes usually served as polling places. Men assessed six months previously and therefore entitled to vote handed in ballots for each office (hand-written or printed by a party), at a window. Sometimes access was fought over, as in an 1837 Bucks County case between rival newspaper publishers. A Democrat charged that “the political party to which [the Whig] Hodgson belonged, were purposely obstructing the window at which the votes were taken in, in order to prevent the Democratic…
This passage reflects a main emphasis of my book—how African Americans fit into the larger political system in ways specific to particular locales (in this case, Pennsylvania during the so-called “era of good feelings” the 1810s). It also does another piece of work for me, which is to convey exactly how voting worked; minus that, accounts of how black men lined up at the polls, or were excluded, will mean little.

The question becomes: do you think “politics” is a general term for whatever people do to assert or defend themselves, to express their individual and collective agency? Or do you understand it as specific structures (“orders,” if you want) of power? If you agree with the latter, then the mechanics and nuances of those structures matter a great deal. This excerpt is my attempt to show one of them in the very decentered federal union, at a time when black men were voting in most of Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia.
Visit Van Gosse's website.

--Marshal Zeringue