Written by James Lewis. Edited by Anushka Minshull.
There is a lot of talk that those who are attending university or recent graduates (of which I am a part) are the most politically apathetic generation. Unfortunately, and it pains me greatly to write this, it is true. Statistics from the British Election Study indicate that in every General Election since 1964 the age group 18-24 years old represents the lowest turnout rate. Furthermore until the last General Election this turnout was of a decreasing trend, culminating in the election of 2005 where only 38.2%, only just over a third.
Understanding this is not the remit of this article, although I would sure like a definitive answer as to why my generation does not go to the voting booth. One often cited explanation for this disfranchisement is the mistrust or dislike the people have towards politicians. And it is the idea of ‘mistrust’ that I wish to focus upon here. Think back to the expenses scandal, or accusations of William Hague’s sexuality, or, perhaps the biggest of them all, the Liberal Democrats surrender of many of their manifesto policies at the onset of the coalition government. A certain mistrust would be no means be unexpected.
The question becomes if politicians are levelling some kind of great deceit, or even simply bending the truth, what can historians learn from this? Could this be a valuable gateway into the time in question?
In 1853 over four hundred of Massachusetts’s most influential men gathered in Boston to discuss potential amendments to the State Constitution. It had been over thirty years since the last Convention, and since then America had changed dramatically. President Jackson had redefined the power of the Presidency; the issue of slavery had grown to frightening levels and had seemingly remitted; and thousands of immigrants had flooded into the cities upon the East Coast, to name but a few of the developments that were sweeping the nation. In seven years the Union would be ripped apart by the election by the sectional President Lincoln – a man who only gained electoral votes North of the Mason Dixon line. For historians of American history, not just the 19th Century, the 1850s is a gold mine.
The Convention lasted months. On the agenda were a plethora of issues, some focusing upon judicial practice – Proposition Five for example governed whether people could be imprisoned for being indebted – to the political – the restructuring of how Senate seats were distributed through the State. Furthermore only once practical issues such as pay for attendants and even where the convention such take place and what time each day it should conclude were resolved could the business of running the country actually take place. Quite frankly it was surprising that the lunch menu was not discussed.
Interestingly the Convention as a source – which can be accessed online – can be used in a number of different ways, depending upon the historians focus. Here we are looking at politicians and what can be learned from their public words. In this case the source should be used largely in isolation, something which may not necessarily be taught to history students across the country. However, if one is to gain an accurate appreciation of what the Convention proceedings can tell us about politicians at the time, and indeed wider Massachusetts and American society, then a focused study should be conducted.
Through this frame of reference the Convention becomes an incredibly valuable source. Politicians from across the political parties – in summary, the anti-slavery expansion Free Soil Party, the anti-immigration Know Nothings, the Whigs and the Democrats – were desperate to secure not just dominance for their respective party, but even their individual political future. The language that they use betrays their desperation in this regard as accusations, counter-accusations and bartering litter the Convention proceedings. Often episodes from a politician’s past are brought up to discredit opposing arguments, rather than relying upon logic and reason (supposedly enshrined in the political process in the Declaration of Independence).
But why did politicians feel so threatened? The answer lies in the sweeping tides of progress I have previously outlined that were afflicting Massachusetts in 1853. Politicians from the East were battling the consequences of immigration, whilst were fearful of the rise of large Industrial centres in the middle of the state. The same fear plagued the farmers of the West, setting up a sectional conflict that afflicted the Convention proceedings throughout. Furthermore both of the previously dominant political parties (the Whigs and the Democrats) were attempting though any means to limit how much power could be gained by third parties, mirroring how strong anti-Irish and anti-slavery expansion movements were becoming in the state. Ultimately it was the battle of the established political elites against the tide of progress, and what they were willing to do in such a conflict. Their efforts would eventually prove fruitless.
So next time you find what a politician says difficult to believe, or a lie is uncovered, train yourself to ask: What has informed this deception and what can we learn about politicians and the state of society?