Election of 1840: Voter Turnout

Frances Wright. By: John Chester Buttre.

The Election of 1840 is one that stands out in history. That is for principally one reason: voter turnout.

An astounding 80.2% of the qualified electorate voted in the Election of 1840, which pitted incumbent Democratic President Martin Van Buren against the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 576.

Just four years previous, in the Election of 1836, voter turnout was 57.2%. See id. The Election of 1840 was one of the three highest turnouts for a presidential election. Id. The other two were 1860 and 1876, with 81.2% turnout and 81.8% turnout respectively. Id.

Much of the high turnout can be credited to the Whigs’ efforts “to get out the vote as well as the high state of public interest in politics.” Id. The English visitor, Frances Wright, observed: “The spirit of the age [was] to be a little fanatical.” Id. quoting Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Cleveland, 1969), 63.

Encouraging voter turnout were the many newspapers, fueled by their Whig and Democratic supporters. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 577. There was certainly energy to get out and vote as the American “public was not yet jaded then, and fewer rival sources of mass entertainment diverted popular attention and loyalty away from the political parties.” Id. citing Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 2000); Mark Neely, American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, 2005).

For modern Americans, 80.2% turnout in any election should be nothing less than a surprise. At least partially, the emergence of the Whig Party and the rethinking of the Democratic ideals made a difference on voter turnout. It is difficult to imagine that either William Henry Harrison or Martin Van Buren, or the two candidates pitted against each other was what fueled such a high turnout.

There was a culture of political participation that does not seem to exist in the same manner in modern America. Modern Americans should consider making political participation a more central focus in life, rather than putting their energy into less important, less consequential diversions.

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