"Democracy in the Age of Jefferson": Inaugural Distinguished Research Fellow Lecture


It was fitting that CUNY-Graduate Center and Lehman College Professor Andrew W. Robertson began his inaugural Distinguished Research Fellow lecture with an homage to someone over 1,200 miles away: Dr. Philip Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society, whose tireless efforts to collect local, state, and national election returns from the ages of Adams and Jefferson—returns once thought lost to history—are responsible for the source material for the book that Prof. Robertson was at work on while at the Kinder Institute.

As he described over the course of his May 9 talk, the 500,000-plus individual voting records that Dr. Lampi has un-earthed and digitized on the New Nation Votes website since embarking on his search allow us to push back against the once commonly-held belief that the parties, elections, and voting behaviors of the founding era and early republic were simply embryonic versions of Jacksonian politics. Dr. Lampi’s discovery of “The Lost Atlantis of American Politics” thus enables us, Prof. Robertson continued, to minimize the role that teleology plays in discussions about democracy in the age of Jefferson and more dutifully attend to the idiosyncrasies that characterize pre-1824 elections.

In working toward the larger conclusions that we can begin to draw from studying the particularity or peculiarity of Jeffersonian-era politics, Prof. Robertson first identified four defining traits of elections during the period: that they were heavily issue-driven and marked by consistently high voter turnout; and that they exhibited both strong party competition and a sustained sense of party identification among citizens. As a result of these traits, he explained, early 19th-century electoral maps are patchworked along a variety of lines—pre-existing colonial rivalries, economic divisions, and party solidarity rooted not only in domestic issues but also in transatlantic modes of political affiliation.

And especially when it comes to cracking the puzzle of high voter turnout, the Lampi data adds new and de-mystifying layers of nuance to the process of thinking through the relationship between the extension of suffrage to all white males and what Prof. Robertson termed the “high tide” of Jeffersonian democracy. Specifically, and contrary to popular assumption, looking at peak turnout data vs. suffrage extension dates reveals no timely correlation between the two but instead underscores the idiosyncratic narrative of political participation in the early Untied States and the importance of considering the variety of factors that drove it. For example, Prof. Robertson cited how upward trends in northeastern turnout might be traced back at least in part to the rise of a new deliberative regime—regional newspapers that gave a more aggressive voice and typography to electoral culture (a voice, he added, that we neither “hear” nor see reflected in voting data south of the Potomac).

In addition, and as he explored in closing his talk, the New Nation Votes data sheds light on an electoral story rarely told in American history textbooks. Using the example of New Jersey to contextualize the consequences of a shift in the state from a Lockean, property-based notion of voting rights toward an Athenian, ascriptive notion, Prof. Robertson showed how the Republican-encouraged extension of suffrage to all white males actually narrowed the franchise. Why? Because it excluded propertied women and free blacks who, up until that point, had access to the polls in New Jersey (and who made up a reliable Federalist voting bloc). And so, he concluded, as democracy expanded on one axis, it contracted on another, a peculiarity that speaks to how the redemptive promise of the new political system was continually compromised by the nation’s original sin.

Andrew W. Robertson teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman College, CUNY.  He received his D.Phil. from Oxford University. His research and teaching interests include political, cultural, and intellectual history in the early American republic. He has written about political language, electioneering, and voting and violence, and how they relate to political history, broadly defined. He has also sought to define political history in a transnational context, including through scholarship on political language in Britain and the U.S. as well as on contentious elections in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Argentina and Chile in the nineteenth century. He is the author of The Language of Democracy: Political Rhetoric in the United States and Britain, 1790-1900, and he is the co-editor, with Jeffrey Pasley and David Waldstreicher, of Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to Political History in the Early American Republic. He is presently at work on a new book, Democracy in the Early Republic: America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution,’ 1776-1860. He is also the co-editor, with Eduardo Posada-Carbó, of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Revolutionary Elections in the Americas, 1800-1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

His recent research includes extensive collaboration on voting behavior with Philip Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society and the New Nation Votes website, which features the most extensive collection of early national voting records, and attempts to explore “the Lost Atlantis of American Politics”: the era of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century political culture that is unfamiliar to many scholars and to most of the public at large.

At the CUNY Graduate Center, Robertson teaches a seminar on public history for PhD students.  This seminar intends to orient the next generation of research scholars to think of their careers in history not only as scholars and teachers in the academy but also as writers, lecturers and curators for a larger public audience.  Professor Robertson has also offered more than a score of seminars through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, including a summer seminar for teachers on the American Revolution and an M.A. course on Democracy in the Early American Republic.