America’s ‘Violent Little Partisans’ – The Atlantic

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There was one bright spot: party politics.

Though he was too young to vote, Foster looked forward to the 1848 presidential election, where he hoped to “advance a boy’s opinion” in favor of the new antislavery Free Soil Party. Nothing else in his stifled life drew “so much interest and excitement.” Foster considered party spirit to be one of the nation’s greatest gifts—“the cement of the union, America’s salvation.”

Parties drove political life in the 19th century. They published the newspapers, printed the ballots, and organized the campaigns that pushed voter turnout over 80 percent. And they blurred the line between political organizations, focused on governing, and cultural institutions, with distinct identities, ethnicities, and fashions. The British actress Fanny Kemble joked, in 1833, that for the average American, party identity was “as inseparable from him as his clothes.”

From children to 20-somethings, young people were considered the most wildly political Americans. The Newark Evening News declared the “great majority” of school-kids “violent little partisans,” who hollered nasty rhymes at rivals (“Democrats eat dead rats” was a favorite). Many youths joined political marching clubs—girls dressed as goddesses, boys in military uniforms, wielding torches, playing brass instruments, sometimes concealing bowie knives or revolvers. And so-called “virgin voters” turned out on Election Day, excited to cast their first ballots for their beloved parties.

These young people did not just happen to be Democrats or Republicans. It was often their most important, lifelong identity. Many inherited their politics as children, like the Ohioan who joked “I wuz born a Whig.” And over 90 percent stuck with their families’ party in each election. As one former slave in Arkansas told interviewers, well into the 20th century, “I am a Republican. I ain’t going to change. That’s my party till I dies.”

Young people needed these parties. America was expanding at an incredible rate, growing from 5 million to 75 million in a century, while the industrializing economy boomed and busted, hitting young workers the hardest. The emerging society had little interest in the old rites of passage that had ushered youths into adulthood in Europe or Africa. Instead, young people found themselves adrift between tradition and modernity, agriculture and industry, childhood and maturity.

Benjamin Brown Foster felt this. He struggled to win an apprenticeship, as low-skilled industrial labor disrupted that tradition of mentorship. He yearned for a romantic relationship, but had difficulty adapting to the widening world of 19th-century courtship, with so many more partners and a climbing marriage age. (The fact that he was, honestly, quite funny-looking did not help). He felt pushed by the progress-focused modern world, but moaned: “My life is already probably a quarter or a fifth gone and with what result?”

America’s ‘Violent Little Partisans’ – The Atlantic