The problem inherent in generational politics is that young people grow up. This is what makes winning their votes so difficult, and so unlike appealing to other demographics. There is little time to build networks, develop ideologies, or select leaders. With so much turnover, once a young generation gets organized politically, it’s not young anymore.
In the 19th century, older Americans worked to impart their views to younger friends, relatives, and voters. As hundreds of diaries, thousands of letters, and tens of thousands of articles in archives across the country show, politicians agreed with Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that campaigns were won by “riling up the shrewd wild boys,” and courted young people from schoolhouses to saloons. Parents raised their kids to be “born a Whig,” or feel “I am a Democrat because my father is one.”
This training began at home. Because women tended to space their pregnancies over decades, many children had much older siblings who introduced them to their preferred party. Susan Bradford, a 14-year-old Florida belle, filled her diary with tales of the multi-generational debates that shook her family’s dinner table in the 1860 election. Even her 9-year-old cousin Mattie, a budding young Whig, “shakes her golden curls and turns up her pretty little nose” in protest when her relatives sang Democratic songs.
Partisan age mixing played the greatest role in the lives of poorer young people. In Gilded Age Boston’s notorious eighth ward, scrappy Irish and Jewish kids hung around “One-Arm Pete’s” smoky tobacco shop, learning “practical politics” from their elders. For half a century, successive waves of immigrant youths inherited control of Boston’s Democratic Party through these apprenticeships.
America’s institutions forced generations to mingle. In one-room schoolhouses, 8-year-old boys and 14-year-old girls overheard 20-something students hollering partisan slogans. Such mixing, wrote an Illinois schoolteacher in 1860, proved “the genius of a republican government in which every member, male and female, large or small, feels a keen, personal interest.”
Political clubs helped blend the ages as well. These bombastic organizations stomped through America’s town squares after midnight, waving torches, hollering slogans, and riling up voters (and sometimes rioters). Most club members were in their teens and 20s, but a few veteran partisans were always hanging out, drinking ale, and discussing the best way to knock down the opposition’s marchers.
The more the ages mingled and socialized, the more politically involved the young became. For all the failures of 19th-century democracy, it did an incredible job passing down this engaged political culture.
Yet in the final years of the century, a new movement of psychologists, educators, and reformers taught that generations “should be isolated.” As families had fewer kids, and clustered pregnancies more closely together, clear generations began to emerge. Age-graded schools, reductions in child labor, and a galaxy of youth-focused entertainment—from bicycles to nickelodeons and dance-halls—allowed young people to clump together tidy groupings of their peers. Even language became more age-focused. Around 1900, Americans’ use of the terms “young” and “old” peaked in their books, newspapers, and other publications.