Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



The Politics of Community: Migration and Politics in Antebellum Ohio. By

Kenneth J. Winkle. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. xiii +

239p.; notes, tables, bibliography, index. $32.50.)

This interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, book probes an apparent

contradiction in the findings of modern political and social historians of the

mid-nineteenth century. Studies of electoral behavior in various constituen-

cies, in Ohio and elsewhere, show an amazing stability in the proportion of the

aggregate vote given to each party from one election to the next; the new social

history reveals that the population was highly mobile and that the individuals

who made up the aggregate figures were not the same from one year to the

next. Dr. Winkle's most important contribution is to use some Ohio township

pollbooks to demonstrate that the annual turnover of population was even

greater than census material alone suggests: "After every election, up to

one-third of all voters might leave a community, only to be replaced before the

next election by as many or more new voters. Over an entire decade, the local

electorate might turn over almost completely" (p. 177). How then was it

possible for townships to continue preferring the same political party by

roughly the same proportion from one decade to the next?

The answer developed here is that each community was dominated by a core

of persisters, who may have been outnumbered by transient voters but who

held public office and commanded the electoral process. In particular, the core

community could exploit the law requiring each voter to prove his legal

residence in state, county and township, if challenged at the polls. The law was

slowly evolving until by 1878 a voter could vote in the township he chose, but

in the 1840s and 1850s the old concept of "consensual suffrage" still survived,

which allowed the local community to decide who was resident in its voting

district. Hence newcomers and migrant laborers could be excluded from voting

by local judges of elections, especially if the supremacy of the locally dominant

party was being challenged. The transient voter therefore was allowed to vote

only on sufferance.

The trouble with this appealing argument is that it gives a misleading

impression of antebellum elections. The main evidence presented of a long

history of wrangling over residence rules is based on poor-law cases, when

townships fought to avoid granting "settlement" to newly-arrived paupers;

yet refusal of residence for that purpose did not imply refusal for voting

(p. 195 n. 4). The author assumes that elections were originally meant to be

"meetings" of the community, though that had never been true in Ohio, except

in the case of the April township elections. There was much concern to ensure

that only locals voted in these latter elections since they could affect township

taxation, but Dr. Winkle concentrates entirely on the October elections for

national, state and county office when precise place of voting was rather less

important. The author makes splendid use of a disputed election in Wayne

County in 1846 which could determine the balance of power in the state senate,

but he does not see how unusual that election was; he is wrong to assume that

the sifting of voters on that occasion was "presumably commonplace" (p.

155). In the first decades of the century newcomers were eagerly welcomed,