The right to vote
October 31, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
A serving dish made by James and Ralph Clews, Staffordshire, England, 1819-1836. The "States Design" depicts 15 states in loops of ribbon separated by stars with George Washington and a blindfolded America on the left, Independence kneeling on the right. Excavated from a privy, 130 No. Royal Street. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Collection.
The presidential election of 1996 is rapidly approaching. Only recently have campaign signs begun to pop up on main streets and in front yards. The public and the press discuss their disinterest in the candidates; political analysts point out the pros and cons of the candidates’ in terms of form, not content. The Washington Post on October 25th reported statistics documenting the low American voter turn out compared to other countries. People in countries recently receiving the right to vote appear to turn out to the polls in dramatically high numbers.
How many Alexandrians will vote next week? In some ways, our citizens have a greater reason to vote than many others. It is true that many people here are federal employees; and thus economically affected. But I was thinking about a philosophical reason, not bread-and-butter needs. Did you know that Alexandrians have been disenfranchised 13 times from voting in presidential elections? There have been 52 elections, and Alexandrians missed 25 percent of these. This fascinating fact was brought to light by Michael Miller’s 1984 election analysis for Alexandria’s entire history, which can be found at the Alexandria Library, Lloyd House.
We did not vote for president in the eleven elections spanning from 1804 to 1844, since the town was part of the District of Columbia. Alexandrians watched eight men-Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and James Polk- assume the presidency without a right to vote. This disenfranchisement was one of several factors leading to the citizens’ demand for retrocession to Virginia in 1847.
Unfortunately, the city’s return to Virginia resulted in Alexandrians’ loss of the presidential vote after the Civil War. Virginia was not readmitted to the United States until 1870, and our citizens could not participate in the election of 1864 (Abraham Lincoln) and 1868 (Ulysses S. Grant).
Even during their disenfranchisement, Alexandrians enthusiastically supported their candidates. Large parades, bonfires, illuminations, music and food created a festive mood. The town’s spirit for elections began with the very first vote for president in 1789. Of course, Alexandrians supported their hero and neighbor, George Washington. He even came to Alexandria to vote in this election. Once again, the town’s electorate voted in favor of Washington’s reelection in 1792.
Far more discord occurred in Alexandria in the next election of 1796--200 hundred years ago. Christopher Blanchard’s analysis "Republican Voices in a Federalist Town" published in the Fireside Sentinel in 1995 outlines the controversy. As Chris points out, this election was the first to be waged through political parties. Unlike today, the candidates Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not actually campaign for themselves. But their supporters’ statements appear in the local newspaper, Columbian Mirror and Alexandria Gazette. Republicans supporting Jefferson wrote scathing accounts against Adams and the local candidates attempting to label them monarchists, rich and well-born; the Federalists called Republicans anarchists and atheists. The Republicans won in the district, but Alexandrians voted 185 to 171 in favor of the local Federalist. You will note, that the total number of voters in town was 356. The number is indicative of another form of disenfranchisement based upon race, gender and property. Only white males owning property had the right to vote. Two hundred years later in 1996 far more of us are able to vote; will we exercise this right that was denied to so many over the years?