Jon Grinspan

The Virgin Vote

Air Date: April 9, 2016

Smithsonian Institution historian Jon Grinspan talks about how youth activism of the 19th century resonates today


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today, Smithsonian historian Jon Grinspan, explores a subject dear to my heart as an ongoing chronicler of the youth vote on the American political scene. Grinspan is not speaking of Gen Z, the Millennial generation, or Baby Boomers. Rather, his inaugural book, The Virgin Vote, considers how young Americans made democracy popular in the 19th century. “Politicians knew how difficult it was to change the mind of a regular party man,” Grinspan writes, “So instead, they focused on harvesting the large crop of new voters turning 21 every year. First time voters paid special heed to the campaign before their initial national election. Win their Virgin Vote and they would support your party for decades.”

Grinspan’s history of young voters from the Antebellum to post war United States is the first of its kind, impeccably sourced, insightful and wholly relevant to today’s political discourse. It’s my pleasure to welcome Jon today, to discuss The Virgin Vote, then and now.

GRINSPAN: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: So why don’t you tell us about the origin of this book?

GRINSPAN: I wanted to challenge the cliché that young people just don’t vote. It’s so easy to kind of act as if that’s an inevitable law of democracy, that young people aren’t interested in politics, and as they get older they become more committed. And I wanted to look back and show that when American democracy was loudest and most popular and turnouts were the highest, young people were actually the fuel driving the whole system – as, as you mentioned as virgin voters – but also as activists and campaigners on the ground. And that that political world encompassed voting, but also social influence. So people who weren’t allowed to vote – for instance, women, underage men, African Americans in many places – could still have a large political impact.

HEFFNER: As we analyze it then and now, let’s, uh, differentiate between the pool that was voting. You couldn’t vote if you were a woman. You couldn’t vote in, in most cases, if you were anything other than white. But you didn’t have to be a land owner…

GRINSPAN: No, that’s the big change is property requirements. Throughout most of history, class and property have some bearing on who decides how the government works. There are very few democracies, and most have large, uh, populations that cannot vote. In the early 19th century, voting laws removed property requirements, in most states. And so young men who could never afford to vote before streamed into the system. And often we look back and enumerate who couldn’t vote back then, and it’s important to keep that in mind. But it’s also important to read history moving forward and see how many people were voting for the first time and how actively they were engaging.

HEFFNER: So do you tie this change in law to the emerging relevance of this youthful cohort? And what was the political consequence, starting from the inception, the formation of this new demographic?

GRINSPAN: Very few people set out to say, “We want young people more involved in politics.” This is a hierarchical society, where in which young people are still looked down upon. But it’s… There is an almost a convenient alliance, in which there are many young people who in many ways live uncertain, difficult lives in the 19th century and want something to gravitate towards. And then there were political campaigns that really need to bring in new blood. And so a society with very few independent voters, so winning over people at 21 is – or younger – is the best way to get them involved. So there is kind of a, a symbiotic relationship between young people and campaigners that builds and increases over the century.

HEFFNER: And qualitatively, how was their impact felt in terms of ideology, in terms of progress, in terms of governance?

GRINSPAN: It’s a complicated question, because most of these young people are engaging as individuals. There is very few movements to improve the status of young people in society, collectively. So it’s not a mass movement for youth liberation or strengthening young people. Young people were using politics very personally. And so very often they are voting the way they want to vote, the way their family votes. They are very rarely trying to improve their status. So there are millions of young people streaming into the system, but they are acting as individuals as opposed to some kind of mass movement, often.

HEFFNER: What were those… We think of pocketbook issues as motivating voters today. We think of “Don’t tread on me,” reproductive rights for women. We think of eminent domain now as an issue, “Don’t tread on my land.” Um, what was the political character, collectively, uh, of all these portraits… When you synopsize it, what can you say about these personal decisions within families that were motivating these young people?

GRINSPAN: I think you just hit the nail on the head: It’s deeply personal. There is, there is a host of issues that matter in 19th century democracy in terms of money and banks and slavery and immigration. Very often, when you really dig down into these young people’s diaries and into their letters, these ideologies surface and they have deeper personal motivations. They were living in a very uncertain time. It’s very hard to go from youth to adulthood in the 19th century. And they are using the political system to assert themselves, to meet mentors, to meet bosses, to court and flirt in public, so to become active in their communities. So very often the issue itself doesn’t matter as much as what the young person needs to get out of political involvement.

HEFFNER: You write here, “Children of politically divided households often found themselves drawn into adults’ disagreements,” which is not really an anomaly. Frankly, it, it parallels the contemporary experience, wouldn’t you say?

GRINSPAN: Yeah. Oh yeah.

HEFFNER: And then you continue, “In the 1840s, young peoples’ political interest looked more like a momentary burst of enthusiasm than the beginning of a six-decade long plateau. More first time voters participated in 1840 than in any other election in U.S. history; nearly 40 percent of voters were new that year.” Wow, 40 percent.


HEFFNER: So you have to draw some assumption about the collective will of the political establishment. And I am thinking about this unconventional 2016 presidential campaign in which, in the Republican primaries, young people are flooding to vote for Donald Trump. How…? What…? To what do you attribute that moment where nearly 40 percent of voters were new?

GRINSPAN: There are a number of political and social pressures. First of all, as we mentioned, property requirements are going down, so more and more young people can vote. At the same time, the political system – in ways similar to today – is increasingly heated up, heating up in partisan ways. That Andrew Jackson had been president in the 1830s, and there is a host of really hot political fights over money, over banks, over the place of Native Americans and in the American continent. There is all these… Politics is getting more, more public, more open to non elites and much more bare knuckle. So there are all these young people – at the same time – who have a great need for politics in their life. It’s hard to be a young person in 19th century America. There is un, uncertainty and instability in terms of how to get a job, how to become an adult, how to move forward in your life. And so they need politics right as the political system is hot and needs them. And it takes off in 1840, with this log cider, uh, “log cabin and hard cider” election. And it, it builds from there. It, it sustained over 60 years, which… There are two striking stories here: One is new voters turning out in mass, and that’s new and unique and we have to study that. And then it’s the sustainability of this democratic culture that passes it down to young people, to 12 year olds and 14 year olds, consistently for 60 years. We often focus on, uh, turnout, and we don’t think as much about how do you make a political system sustainable? How do you keep incorporating young people?

HEFFNER: Uh, it sounded to me, from reading this, like Back to the Future a little bit, because of the exploitation of, uh, the worker…you know, a feeling of economic unease… Um, and you write here, “While American democracy haltered agenda and racial boundaries, it left over class divisions.” The formation of this electoral block, well, was dictating any new policy, or was it largely a demographic change simply in who was voting?

GRINSPAN: It’s both. It’s more of the, the latter than the former. Because young people are still the lowest ranks of political organizations. They are not nominating the actual candidates. They are not writing the platforms. And what they are doing is they are providing the massive votes that win elections, and they are providing all the labor. That campaigning in 19th century America – a time before mass communications – is incredibly labor intensive. It means hanging out in saloons and talking people into changing their vote, or going to these massive midnight rallies and marching in the middle of the street with a torch. Well, it means rioting, it means political violence often, it means hanging out at the polls and pressuring people to change their vote – intimidating people to change their vote. And young people are useful as this labor. So they are not necessarily deciding who the next candidate will be, or what the next issue will be; they are operating in a different way: as the, uh, the foot soldiers of political campaign.

HEFFNER: They are volunteering, they are canvassing. They, as you describe, are the “animals.” They have the “animalistic, uh, ferocity of, um, politics that is infecting them and their peers and their families.” Um, it, it’s…

GRINSPAN: Yeah. And at the same time, they need this. Not only are they useful to these campaigners because they are free labor, they need political activism. They need… They have… It’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to hold onto a job. It’s hard to meet a spouse. People move around. The whole social world in 19th century America is being shaken. Young people have need and they have a lot of ambitions. And the political involvement is a reliable way to assert those ambitions.

HEFFNER: Well, help us understand that word “need.” Because today, there is an absence of that “need,” seemingly. And one might attribute it to the lack or demise of retail politics. But how did they need politics in a way we don’t need politics today? Or the assumption is, we… that politics is dysfunctional. We need to… We need to unburden ourselves from politics.

GRINSPAN: I would, I would say that we have that same need today. We are not necessarily using it the same way, but there is a lot of communities in which political activism is a great way to get engagement. That if you look… You might say that democracy is social. And, and people are engaged because their society leads them to be engaged, or not be engaged. And there are many people – especially lower income people in American society – who would really benefit from having the community involvement of politics. Whether we have given them the opportunity, whether we have made it an option for them, is not the question. But I think it would, it would benefit them a lot.

HEFFNER: Another aspect of this transformation was the development of the city, the American metropolis. What did that mean then? And how do you view it through the prism of today, which is largely an urban society?

GRINSPAN: Density. of, populations into cities changes everything. On the one hand, it makes life much more challenging in many ways. As people urbanize in the 19th century, they are cut off from the communities they have come from, from rural American communities – or, if they are immigrants, from European communities. Mostly they are shaken up and they are thrown into these mass kind of roiling populations, where disease is more prevalent, where work is often less safe. And, um, they, uh, they need those communities… They need to reform a community. 19th century cities are shaken, unstable environments, and parties offer a great way to find some stability: That if you live in New York…that if you live in, um, uh, the Fifth Ward of, uh… If you live somewhere in, uh, in New York City in 19th century America, you don’t have connections necessarily to the church that your ancestors belonged to or the religious movement, and you don’t have connections to the fraternal organizations or the cultural organizations – but there are political parades that come down Broadway and circle Union Square, that you can join in those and kind of form affiliations. And one of the things about city life – then and now – is the struggle, the struggle to form those affiliations. And political involvement is a great way on a social level – not just, uh, in terms of benefiting the democracy – of meeting people and getting engaged in one’s community.

HEFFNER: So why don’t you continue the story for us? As the youth vote evolves, what happened?

GRINSPAN: Well, it really happens around 1900. We love to blame young people today and it’s easy to do. But the real crash is a century ago. And there is this period when voter turnout throughout most of the 19th century is very high – 70, 80 percent of voters in most national campaigns. And then in 1900, it craters; and within a generation, it’s down to less than half of eligible voters go to the polls. What happens is new voters don’t turn out. Those who were voting continue to vote; but the 21 year old who wants to get involved in a previous era, doesn’t want to get involved, and the question is why? And there is kind of a convergence again: Young people need the political system less. There is this whole youth culture being created around 1900 in, um… And you see it in movie going; in going to, uh, to the beach; and, and music; and automobiles eventually. They create a youth culture that isn’t focused around marching at midnight to support a presidential candidate. They don’t want the political system as much. At the same time, political campaigners, they don’t do as good a job reaching out to young people, and they lose track of what was motivating young people all along, which was that these young people wanted to get something out of politics. Not something money necessarily, but they wanted adulthood out of politics. And so, campaigners became much more formalized. They remove the mixed institutions that were driving 19th century politics. So you had youth and entertainment is over here, and politics is over here. And by separating those out, young people don’t need politics anymore. It’s not benefiting them in any way. So voter turnout craters among young people. And it’s remained low for the last century. In fact, we often complain about Millennials; it’s gotten better recently. The distance between the rates at which young people vote and the rates at which older people vote were often worse with Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers, and there is a, more of a convergence lately. So things are, in a way, getting better in terms of youth involvement.

HEFFNER: Why did that happen at the dawn of the progressive era? It would seemingly reinforce the idea of participatory politics, reforming the system, some of the rhetoric we hear on the campaign trail today…

GRINSPAN: You would think so. And it, it’s a shame it didn’t work [LAUGHS] that way, but…

HEFFNER: But why didn’t it work that way?

GRINSPAN: Oh, a lot of it comes down to class. The progressive era is really an era in which a urban, upper middle class reformers try to make society more “rational,” in many ways. And one of the problems they – as they see it, with politics back then – is it’s very working class. Your average voter, your average campaigner, your average person marching in the street or hanging out in the saloon is not the type of person that these upper middle class reformers want guiding the democracy. They don’t want these construction workers and dock workers driving the democracy. And so they contrive a number of ways of cutting off poor people and working class people from politics. And that really hurts the young, and they… At the same time, they talk a lot about how much they want young, and they talk about… Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, is a symbol of, of the young president. But he is not 18, he is in his forties, and he is from one of the most elite families in New York. So they, they pay lip service to the idea of “youth in politics.” But they are cutting off the classes that were driving politics.

HEFFNER: What are those specific technical barriers that you allude to?

GRINSPAN: Um, they closed down the saloons, which hurts. When you close down the saloons on Election Day, that means…

HEFFNER: You mean… Well, I mean, more in terms of segregating the population…

GRINSPAN: In 19th century campaigning, yes, you are working for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the Whig Party. But really, it’s a grass-roots political movement, in that you get together people you know, you form an organization and you get some uniforms and you go have a parade. As the parties grow in power and become taken over more and more by these kind of upper middle-class reformers, they take hold of the operations of campaigning and they say, for instance, “We don’t really need demonstrations. We can hand out educational literature instead.” Or they form these elite political clubs that can stand in very well for this grass roots public campaigning. And they do things that really were earnest, well intentioned reforms that improve the structure of democracy, but hurt turnout at the same time. Voting reforms and in… When you voted in 19th century America, you would go to the polls and somebody would give you a ballot and you’d try to cast that ballot. And you could be tricked into casting the wrong ballot, or intimidated from voting… They introduced the secret ballot in the 1880s and 1890s, in which the government prints ballots and you vote with them. It makes it a much cleaner process. It makes it much easier to vote, uh, your conscience. But it removes a social atmosphere of an election and it makes it kind of drier and more about duty. And it cuts off illiterate people too. If you don’t know how to read, I can give you a ticket and say “Vote this ticket,” and you vote for the party. If you go into a booth and there is a government document that’s three pages long with lists and, uh… It’s a way of cutting off the illiterate from voting – even though it’s well intentioned.

HEFFNER: I think that TR, Teddy Roosevelt, I think of him as a champion of a progressive movement, but I also think of him as a personality, and someone who would have galvanized even some of the disenfranchised elements within the political establishment. And you are saying there were barriers to that. And you write that, “Young people, as they continued to grow into the American society, they quickly distance themselves from the old popular political culture.”

And I want to fast forward a bit, now that you have tried to explain the source for that “great reckoning,” why young people did not continue in spades to vote. So how do you look at this Millennial cohort and its relationship to a candidate like Donald Trump?

GRINSPAN: Well, I think part of the problem with engaging youth today is we focus on the politics of personality too much. That our model for how young people get involved in politics – and as you, you listed a number of candidates who played on this model – is you get… There is a, a charismatic figure – who, be it Teddy Roosevelt or Barack Obama or whoever – young people get excited for that candidate, they turn out in droves to vote for that candidate, and then what happens? No matter who that candidate is, they are never gonna be able to live up to the expectations put upon them. And as they fail to live up to those expectations, those young people who had so much staked on that candidate, lose interest in the entire political system. And they might vote in one election for that candidate; they might vote to re-elect that candidate; but they are not built into the political system in the same way they could be, if we focus more on the voter and less on the candidate. 19th century democracy worked so well at engaging young people because often they don’t even know who is running. “And these guys? Is Millard Fillmore the President? And who is…?” They don’t really know about the identity of these people and they are not really focused on them, and they are much more internally focused about what they are gonna get out of politics; what engagement means for them. And I think that’s a much more, uh, stronger, long term model for politics. I think the model of “youth get all fired up for somebody” is a very brittle model – that it breaks really easily – and it doesn’t build long-term, sustainable involvement.

HEFFNER: Young people still are the engine of political campaigns. They are canvassing. They are phone banking. They are licking the envelopes and sending the mailers out…

GRINSPAN: Uh-huh, yeah.

HEFFNER: So what’s different? It’s still personal, in that they are that “engine…”

GRINSPAN: They are not valued the same way though, as…

HEFFNER: How? How?

GRINSPAN: Well, “the virgin vote” back in the 19th century is this ritual. When those who were eligible to vote, go and vote for the first time… This is a centerpiece of American democracy, and this is celebrated, people dress up to go do it… And they are really the focus much more than who, who they are going to be voting for. It’s much more internally focused. And politics is much more personal. I think about the expression, “The personal is political.” And we have, for several decades now, talked about that. We have gotten very good at seeing the ways in which “personal identity” affects their politics. We don’t really flip it that often and see how the political is personal, and how political involvement at age 18 or 21 or whatever, can really be a self-assertion for people and really be more important even than who their candidate is or what they care about as an issue. It could really mean something for them. And another part of the problem is that we only really tend to reach out to youth – for the most part – in an election year. And it’s mostly campaigns doing it. So they have a very short term need for these young people. We need to build these more sustainable engagements.

HEFFNER: But the personal today tends to be uglier, uh, in terms of what these young people want. I mean, I mean, certainly you could take a whole bandwagon of these Trump volunteers and ask them questions that might get to the, the crux of, of their concerns more than “Make America Great Again.” But the… What they want out of the political system seems to be a ban on Muslims. Seems to… You know, it seems to be a set of policies that are driven by hatred, uh, but… And, and, and self preservation. Maybe more self preservation than hatred. But that seems to… When they have a need… You talk about having a “need,” that seems to be that cohort’s need.

GRINSPAN: Uh-huh. And often throughout history, the causes that have been riling up young people and getting them engaged are not necessarily ones we would support today. That secession was widely supported by young Southerners… The KKK was supported by young, uh, Confederate veterans… Um, throughout… Nativism, the Know Nothing movement… Anti immigrant sentiment has actually been, uh, a frequent view of young people, because they see – often see immigrants as a threat, you know, at the point where they are unstable in their own lives. So I am not saying this is going to make democracy “better” in terms of the issues. And “bigger engagement” might bring to the surface issues that we would rather be suppressed. Often, often it comes down to – when you look back at our history – the question of “engaged participation,” or “clean politics.” But as “engaged participation” increases, politics gets a little less clean. So there is a tradeoff with everything. And these aren’t necessarily going to bring forth the best issues; it’s a question of bringing in more people.

HEFFNER: In the few minutes we have remaining, let’s turn to the more, uh, democratic liberal agenda and side. Um, uh, Bernie Sanders – while he preaches this message of “high voter turnout,” specifically on college campuses – in the primaries and caucuses to date, there hasn’t been an outpouring of support that matches President Obama’s then, uh, run in 2008. He, he says… His message seems to be at odds with the reality on the ground right now…

GRINSPAN: Well, these are primaries and caucuses… Uh, it’s still early… I don’t actually know the numbers for Obama’s primaries and early caucuses… Um, it’s hard… It’s too early for me to say either way.

HEFFNER: To the extent that people have described Sanders and Trump channeling the same populist, blue-collar frustration. Uh, is there, is there any historical parallel – as we, as we finish here, Jon – that, that informs how you look at these candidacies? Any campaigners of the 19th century, or ideologues of the 19th century, who you kind of get your inspiration from when you think about how we should understand what’s happening today? And, and really, you know, are the tectonic plates being shifted, or is this just kind of the musical chairs of American politics or the pendulum swinging back and forth.

GRINSPAN: The one thing I can say – rather than pointing to particular people – is that when it comes to engaging young people, historically it only really works when you think long term. When you focus on the next campaign, or the next six months, usually you build very brittle, very fragile politics. If you engage young people at all, that don’t last very long. That what… Well, young people… What society was really good at in the 19th century was engaging children at age 10, and youths and adolescents at age 12 or 14 or whatever, and building a really layered, uh, political engagement that’s really strong and lasts for a long time. If we just focus on a campaign or a primary state, we are really building the kind of politics where people burn out and lose interest very easily.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s really important, Jon, because you… Just, uh, finally. You point out that the nature of “inter family relations” was different. There was a constant engagement from Ma to Pa, and Pa to children. That what, fostered a kind of political education that is absent today with daycare and with nannies and with impoverished people living in, in homeless shelters and not being able to read the news…

GRINSPAN: Yeah. The number one thing that gets young people voting – back then, and statistically it’s been found today – is social engagement by the people around them. And we… Adults and older people, we sit on the sidelines and say, “Young people just don’t vote,” and don’t talk to their children or their grandchildren about politics and don’t engage them and make it something that they are going to do – are really letting those young people down. That we train people in society to be employees or parents or spouses. We spend very little time training people to be voters and citizens, and that’s really what built such engagement in the 19th century and it… I think if we really want young people voting in larger numbers today, all of society – not just young people – needs to think more about how we talk about politics, and when we talk about politics, and how we engage 10 year olds, 12 year olds, 15 year olds in the political process – and not just say, “Go,” at age 18.

Jon, thanks for coming here to talk about The Virgin Vote with us today.

GRINSPAN: Well, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.