The New Nation Votes Project's Visit to Campus
As part of our ongoing speaker series, the Kinder Forum brought members of the New Nation Votes project to the MU campus on April 15, 2015, to give a public talk on their work with what Walter Dean Burnham once referred to as “the lost Atlantis of nineteenth-century politics.” The life’s work of Dr. Philip Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society, the New Nation Votes digital database offers scholars and citizens access to local and national election returns from the early Republic era (1787-1825) that were not only previously unavailable but, in many cases, were assumed lost. As Prof. Andrew W. Robertson (City University of New York) pointed out in his introduction, the empirical data, impressive in its own right, has the potential to transform our understanding of early American political culture. Culled from sources ranging from partisan newspapers to deed books, the election returns, Prof. Robertson argued, tell the story of a body politic that was both more active and more diverse than traditional historical accounts of the young nation would lead us to believe. Continuing the discussion of what lies beneath the numbers, Dr. Lampi noted how New Nation Votes data sheds new light on the Federalist party’s place in early nineteenth-century politics. Rather than support the received narrative of a party that was on the brink of extinction, the data reveals how, particularly in the years surrounding the War of 1812, Federalists mounted active challenges to Republican politicians, often forcing them to alter the course of their policy platforms and, in this, providing the kind of “vibrant and loyal opposition” that is fundamental to a healthy democracy. George Mason University Prof. Rosemarie Zagarri concluded the lecture by presenting an example of the kind of scholarship that can emerge from mining the New Nation Votes website, discussing her own work with New Jersey’s “experiment in female suffrage” during the years 1776-1807. While many scholars attribute New Jersey’s disenfranchisement of women and free African Americans to voter fraud during an 1807 referendum on the location of the Essex County courthouse, Prof. Zagarri used NNV data to demonstrate how this kind of fraud and corruption was present throughout New Jersey’s early political history and was at the root of the 1807 state law that granted universal suffrage to all white males, while stripping women and free African Americans of what was then the privilege of enfranchisement.
In addition to the public lecture, New Nation Votes Project Coordinator Erik Beck led a workshop for Kinder Forum faculty and fellows and other interested parties from the University community on the ins and outs of the NNV website. For more information on A New Nation Votes, which is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives, visit the project website here.