“This Momentous Day”: Presidential Elections & Process in 19th Century New York City
These last few weeks I’ve been reading George Templeton Strong’s diaries. The New York lawyer recorded a variety of topics in his extensive volumes; election days and politics often made the pages. Instead of getting into the details of each election, here’s a focused look at a little history of voter turn-out and reporting election results in mid-19th Century New York City.
It’s important to remember that Strong recorded his experience and doesn’t speak across the board on voter experience. Also, keep in mind that voters for the majority of the presidential elections he recorded were all white males aged 21 or older. Following the Civil War, African America men gained the right to vote through the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Women did not have the right to vote during Strong’s lifetime since the 19th Amendment was not ratified until 1920.
The first presidential election to appear in Strong’s journal? 1840. He started out with enthusiasm and said that city-wide election betting had resulted in “money enough staked on it to the consciences of nine-tenths of the politicians on both sides. On actual election day—November 2, 1840—Strong wrote: “Fearful election excitement all day. . . . Went this evening to the great Whig mass-meeting in front of National Hall and heard a rather good speech from Maxwell. There was a vast deal of fun and a little fighting. On the whole, things looked well. . . .”
However, on the following day, Strong sang a different tune: “Really, I’m beginning to wish this affair ended; the novelty of the thing is over and I’m tired of humbug, lying, spouting, swearing, O.K., and the Old Hero. Nothing but politics. The newspapers crowd out their advertisements for mendacious ‘returns’ that nobody believes, the walls are papered three deep with humbug, banners and inscriptions dangle over every street, mass-meetings are held in every groggery from National Hall down. If the North River were actually on fire, or if a live kraken were to sail into the harbor, or if the continent of Europe were to sink in the sea, the papers wouldn’t be able to find room for the news.” It took days for election returns to be officially decided—a typical circumstance before electronics.[i]
Four years later, Strong spent his election entry despairing that his Whig party was losing and dying. The “Whig Party is defunct, past all aid from warm blankets, galvanic batteries, and the Humane Society.”[ii] He did not record specifics on voter turn-out or how quickly the official election results appeared.
In the 1848 presidential election, Strong did not record any details, but by 1852, he began writing more about elections—possibly taking greater interest as he became more involved in the debates and process.
November 2 . The game is decided by this time, and the polls are closed, for it’s half-past six p.m., and they’ve begun counting votes in all the Eastern and Atlantic states. In California and perhaps in the Far West the battle is still raging, but the sun has set in states enough to settle the result, and tomorrow morning’s paper will tell it, by grace of the telegraph (which this storm may have deranged, by the by), unless it’s a much closer business than I expect. It rained all last night; the morning was lowering and damp. The sun shone out at noon and by about 3 o’clock the rain set in again, hard. I voted, and nearly had my coat pulled off my back in a desperate struggle to reach the polls. Votes in the city will turn out very light, I think. Many were kept off by the weather, and many were specially indifferent.”[iii]
The 1856 evidently had better weather and more enthusiasm, with queues stretching around the blocks. From his entry, it seems that Strong might have volunteered as a “poll worker” for a few hours.
November 4 , Tuesday . Four p.m. Voted after breakfast. Spent an hour or two at the polls of my election district at the corner of Twenty-second Street and Third Avenue. Went downtown to a Trust Company meeting, and then spent two or three hours more in political service. In spite of the foul weather, there is an immense vote; never larger in this city, I think. People form in queues, and so far as I’ve seen, everything is orderly and good natured; no crowding or confusion. Governor Fish told me he was two hours in line before he could get his vote in. Peter Cooper and Dr. Webster must have been still longer about it this afternoon. They were half an hour off when I left them. There has been some fighting in the First Ward and a couple of men killed; no other disturbance that I hear of. Indications are not discouraging. . . . So it seems, but ordinary inferences from the appearance of voters are not perfectly reliable this time. For example, a party of Irishmen came along this morning asking for Republican electoral tickets. They were going to vote the Democratic ticket in the Fifth Ward where they belonged, except for President, and they didn’t like to ask for a Republican ticket there. Fremont, I think, will run largely ahead of his ticket, and I don’t expect over 10,000 against him in this city. The signs from Pennsylvania are good as far as they go, and the feeling this morning is that Fremont may well be elected. It’s a momentous business; thank God, the responsibility of its decision doesn’t rest wholly on me. Either way, fearful disaster may come of this election. . . .
“11 P .M . Have been downtown exploring and enquiring; learned little that’s new and less that’s good. Nassau Street and the other streets round the great newspaper establishments [Tribune, Times, Herald, and Sun] pretty well crowded, in spite of sloppiness under foot and an occasional brisk shower. Bulletins put out from the windows as fast as returns came in and received with vociferations, the dissatisfied parties keeping silence as a general rule. . . .”[iv]
In both the 1860 and 1864 elections, Strong voted for Lincoln and here are his descriptions of the city on those decision days:
Tuesday, November 6, 1860. Clear and cool. Vote very large, probably far beyond that of 1856. Tried to vote this morning and found people in a queue extending a whole block from the polls. Abandoned the effort and went downtown. Life and Trust Company meeting. The magnates of that board showed no sign of fluster and seemed to expect no financial crisis. Uptown again at two, and got in my vote after only an hour’s detention. I voted for Lincoln. After dinner to the Trinity School Board at 762 Broadway. Thence downtown, looking for election returns. Great crowd about the newspapers of Fulton and Nassau Streets and Park Row. It was cold, and I was alone and tired and came home sooner than I intended.[v]
November 8,  Tuesday. So this momentous day is over, and the battle lost and won. We shall know more of the result tomorrow. Present signs are not unfavorable. Wet weather, which did not prevent a very heavy vote. I stood in queue nearly two hours waiting my turn. A little before me was Belmont, whose vote was challenged on the ground that he had betted on the election. The inspector rejected it unwillingly, and Belmont went off in a rage. Very few men would have been challenged on that ground, but this foreign money-dealer has made himself uncommonly odious, and the bystanders, mostly of the Union persuasion, chuckled over his discomfiture. . . . This election has been quiet beyond precedent. Few arrests, if any, have been made for disorderly conduct. There has been no military force visible. It is said that portions of the city militia regiments were on guard at their armories, and that some 6,000 United States troops were at Governor’s Island and other points outside the city, but no one could have guessed from the appearance of the streets. . . .[vi]
Following the Civil War, Strong continued to write about presidential elections. In 1868, he waited for results at the Union League Club, staying late. He was more descriptive about voter turn-out in 1872, perhaps since his son called a ballot for the first time:
November, 6 Tuesday. With John to our local Temple of Liberty (at 290 Third Avenue) where he deposited his maiden vote. Everything was serene. There are astringent precautions against fraud, and I think Commissioner Davenport’s vigorous action will be found to have kept from the polls not only actual repeaters but many others who are conscious that they might, could, would, or should have voted early and voted often but for these new obstacles, and who felt a vague guilty fear that somebody might do something to them if they came near a ballot box, and therefore did not vote at all. Comparatively few roughs were hanging about the polling places today, so far as I saw. The New York World scolds fearfully about these safeguards against fraud. . . .”[vii]
Strong’s last presidential vote was cast in 1872; he died three years later.
Through the presidential elections he recorded, we get a glimpse of the process in New York City and have a reminder that results have historically not always been known on election night and that for decades Americans have lined up for hours to make democracy work. Be encouraged and don’t forget to vote!
The Diary of George Templeton Strong, edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas; The MacMillan Company, New York, 1932. (Accessed online)
[i] Volume 1, Page 151
[ii] Volume 1, 248-249
[iii] Volume 2, Page 108
[iv] Volume 2, Page 307-308
[v] Volume 3, Page 59
[vi] Volume 3, Page 510
[vii] Volume 4, Page 451
1 Response to “This Momentous Day”: Presidential Elections & Process in 19th Century New York City
Very encouraging that none of this madness is new and history has always put up with the “humbug” during election season. Thank you for the reminder!