New Project Offers Exceptional Insight into Early American Elections

by Anne Reynolds

New Project Offers Exceptional Insight into Early American Elections

Voting in the 21st century is almost taken for granted. It is easy to forget that the system of elections that we have in the United States is the hard-won product of over two hundred years of trial and error. From the republic’s earliest elections, taking place from 1787 to 1825, an era known as the First Party System, the states established the framework for subsequent elections and put the country on the road to democracy.

In May 2019, a team from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and Mason’s Department of History and Art History released the Mapping Early American Elections (MEAE) website. The project, made possible with generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), offers visual representations of Congressional elections held from 1787 to 1825, including interactive maps, spatial data, and election results. A series of essays on the site provides historical context for the information and offers examples of the kinds of scholarly research that can be done using the information in the website. “What we’re trying to do is to provide the interpretive base that historians can use to work on this history of the early American republic,” explained Lincoln Mullen, faculty member in Mason’s Department of History and Art History and co-director of the project.

The project builds on the information contained in the New Nation Votes database. Before 1825, the federal government did not require states to provide detailed election returns, only the results of elections. Over a period of fifty years, information for these early elections has been painstakingly compiled from archives throughout the country. The American Antiquarian Society and Tufts University, also with NEH funding, produced the New Nation Votes website, which contains results for over 23,000 local, state, and federal elections for the period of the First Party System.

MEAE transforms the raw numbers from the election returns into a dataset that allows the material to be visualized in map form. These color-coded maps show how political party affiliation changed over time, with new parties emerging and old parties disappearing. The maps also show which candidates ran for office and the number of votes they received, and reflect historical changes as well. “We’ve built in the changes in the district and the county boundary lines … [and] changes in the election laws, which were very frequent at this time,” noted Rosemarie Zagarri, faculty member in the Department of History and Art History, and lead historian on the project.

The project was truly a team effort. Led by two project co-directors, Lincoln Mullen and Sheila Brennan, who is formerly of RRCHNM but now at the NEH, the team included lead historian Rosemarie Zagarri, a web designer and developer, a number of graduate research assistants, and an undergraduate research assistant. Two graduate research assistants, Greta Swain and Jordan Bratt, also contributed articles to illustrate the kinds of scholarly questions the project could answer.

The MEAE site is meant to appeal to a broad audience. Scholarly researchers, including historians and political scientists, can use the site to do original research on the political development of the period, including the emergence of political parties, turnover in congressional representation, and the growth of popular political participation. Others, including journalists, teachers, and students, will find the site useful for understanding the emergence of democracy and the growth of popular political participation. Even ordinary citizens who are interested in politics will find the site of interest. “We’re interested in democratizing history,” said Mullen. “Letting people learn the history but also letting people do some of the history for themselves … these are really resources that enable others to have a chance to do that kind of historical interpretation for themselves.”

The project received strong support from the NEH, as well as within the university, and is a great example of how an organization of a national scale can partner with experts at the university level to leverage each other’s expertise. “This kind of historical work, collaborative and painstaking, is really only possible because of public funders like the NEH,” said Mullen.

At a time when elections are in the news on a daily basis, understanding the origins of our political system is more important than ever. “People fought long and hard to gain the right to vote,” noted Zagarri. “It’s our responsibility but also our privilege to vote and you can see how the system actually developed in this early period.” The Mapping Early American Elections website opens up the knowledge of the early American political process to the entire public.