Before Tinder, before shopping malls, drive-ins, or speak-easies, young people searched for a place to meet and flirt. In 19th century America, wild political rallies offered the perfect opportunity. Courting young people mixed national campaigns with personal romances, shaping American democracy in their search for love.
In the 1800s, political parties held massive midnight campaign rallies, promising booze, bonfires, and barbecue. America was a new nation without its own popular culture, so democracy stood in as the chief form of entertainment. And in a country that brimmed with bawdy young people (the average age was about 18), flirting at political rallies became, in the words of one Massachusetts school-teacher, “quite the thing here for ladies to do.”
From prostitutes to presidents, Americans often looked to their democracy for “fun and frolic.” Newspapers frequently reported on the “young couples making love” (by which they meant flirting and cuddling) at party events. Some young people used partisan rallies to meet new partners, while many young women, denied the ballot, expressed their politics through their courtships. Parties looking for votes catered to young people looking for love. Together they built a reciprocal relationship, blending the most public and private aspects of life.
To understand all this, we need to abandon our image of courting Victorians, demurely sipping lemonade, surrounded by chaperones. People in the past did (almost) everything we do today, though they talked about it far less. Yet their diaries and letters—many of them now available online, to be searched for suggestive keywords—contain thrilling hints. Friends speculated about how long a woman would be “obliged to squeal” on her wedding night. A young wife asked her new husband how his previous belle felt about the impressive size of “your old long Tom!!” The best letters always end with: “(Please burn this…).”
The unprecedented question, in shaken 19th century, was how to meet someone. As millions emigrated from overseas, or moved west, or to cities, Americans left behind old traditions. Young people lost track of how to find a spouse. They had far more options, often courting a dozen people, but the marriage age kept rising.
Many identified with the 25-year-old Union army soldier, who wrote home wondering: “Do you think I will be married before I am thirty?”
Victorian culture responded to these new challenges with its iconic prudery. In an age when a young man, upon hearing that his girl was pregnant, could simply hop a locomotive and disappear, middle-class Americans compensated by preaching purity. The sexism this produced put women in a particularly difficult bind: picking a husband might be the most important choice of her life, but she was expected to seem passive while working so hard at it.
America’s big public events offered a democratically sanctioned way to meet. Rallies and parades were the largest gatherings in the mostly rural society, helping to push eligible voter turnout to record highs, often over 80 percent. And though women were banned from voting, many still enjoyed drunken hoopla in the town square.
Young men and women filled their diaries with political flirtations. Annie Youmans, a curly-haired, 20-year-old New Yorker, kept one of the most charming. Annie was both an active courter and a committed Republican. She liked to debate politics with young men, placing flirtatious wagers on upcoming elections. But she only seemed to talk politics with men she found attractive. In 1868 Annie bet for Ulysses S. Grant with a young man with “splendid dark eyes,” and playfully teased another partisan, while privately noting: “by the by this young man is very handsome.”
And then there was Oscar. The lean, handsome 19-year-old was already doing quite well with the young ladies in his corner of south-central Ohio—drinking, dancing, playing a popular “kissing game.” But he won more attention when he began making anti-Slave Power stump speeches for Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860. Young ladies flocked to hear his orations, and even offered to stand around his soapbox, to protect him from the Democratic rivals who threatened to kill him.
Oscar gushed, in his diary, about all of this attention from “very good-looking young ladies.” It was enough to “tickle the vanity and rouse the ambition of anyone my age.” Although Oscar and Annie both cared deeply about politics, “vanity” and “ambition” were clearly at stake as well. Both Annie and Oscar used political involvement as what Annie called “a pretense,” to flirt and tease and show-off.
And the parties encouraged this, because it all meant more attention, more enthusiasm, and more new voters. Republicans and Democrats were equally sleazy in reaching out to “wife-less young voters,” promising, in the words of a Republican newspaper in Iowa, that supporting their movement would help them attract “all the handsome and intelligent young ladies.”
They went further, introducing the strange idea of “the virgin vote,” suggesting that a young man’s first ballot was like a sexual initiation. First-timers “sleeked up” for the occasion, preparing to lose their political virginity to the Republicans or Democrats or Whigs or Populists. Once they had, new voters were supposed to become monogamous partisans, as protective of their “maiden votes” as, wrote a Chicago Democrat, “a good wife is of her virtue.”
While young men cast their virgin votes, young women, denied that right, used their courtships to express their politics. Many turned down marriage proposals from men of the wrong party, especially black women during Reconstruction who scorned any freed slave who supported the hated Democrats. As one young abolitionist, complaining about the pro-Confederate “Copperheads” in her Indiana town, put it: “there is no young men here except Copperheads and they are beneath our notice.”
Many young women went further, pressuring men to vote for them. Mattie Thomas’s letters to her fiancé provide a good example. The 24 year old Sunday school teacher was never subtle, pushing her man, who was traveling: “Do not say you are not comeing [sic] home to vote… I would feel real vexed if you would not.” Mattie walked a line, making sure that her fiancé would “not get offended,” but nonetheless she used all of her influence to affect his vote. Her fiancé came home, voted, and then married her.
American politics in the 19th century created this sloppy blend of courtship and partisanship, highlighting the simple fact that democracy is social. There was no firewall between public and private life, and the needs of courting young people and vote-hungry political parties caused this unusual symbiotic relationship. In our own era, as the path towards romance changes dramatically, perhaps politics can play an unexpected role in romance yet again.
Jon Grinspan is a historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, in the Division of Political History. He is the author of the new book The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century.