The Virgin Vote

How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

By Jon Grinspan

264 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, 1 figs., 4 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5474-4
    Published: August 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-2734-2
    Published: May 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2735-9
    Published: February 2016

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Awards & distinctions

2017 Smithsonian Secretary's Research Prize, Smithsonian Institution

There was a time when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. In the second half of the nineteenth century--as voter turnout reached unprecedented peaks--young people led the way, hollering, fighting, and flirting at massive midnight rallies. Parents trained their children to be “violent little partisans,” while politicians lobbied twenty-one-year-olds for their “virgin votes”—the first ballot cast upon reaching adulthood. In schoolhouses, saloons, and squares, young men and women proved that democracy is social and politics is personal, earning their adulthood by participating in public life.

Drawing on hundreds of diaries and letters of diverse young Americans--from barmaids to belles, sharecroppers to cowboys--this book explores how exuberant young people and scheming party bosses relied on each other from the 1840s to the turn of the twentieth century. It also explains why this era ended so dramatically and asks if aspects of that strange period might be useful today.

In a vivid evocation of this formative but forgotten world, Jon Grinspan recalls a time when struggling young citizens found identity and maturity in democracy.

About the Author

Jon Grinspan is a historian of American democracy, youth, and popular culture. He is a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.
For more information about Jon Grinspan, visit the Author Page.


"[A] period chronicled in vivid and loving detail. . . . Plunges readers into a pulsating political culture long vanished."--Wall Street Journal

"A useful historical look at how strong the youth demographic can be."--Kirkus Reviews

“Readers will learn about some of the forces that brought Abraham Lincoln to office and shaped the United States’ post-Civil War political scene.”--Civil War News

“Mining the diaries and letters of young Americans, the author creates revealing vignettes of 19th century politics and American youth. Recommended.”--CHOICE

"[A] pithy and thought-provoking work. . . . Offer[s] a sensitive and illuminating overview of the vital role of young voters in America's nascent political party system."--Civil War Book Review

“Provid[es] new insight into the history of politics and that of youth. . . . Engagingly written, peopled with varied archival voices, and would work well in classrooms at the undergraduate or graduate level.”--Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era