Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

Before Opinion Polling: Tracking Public Sentiment in Civil War-Era Politics

For better or for worse, public opinion polls are deeply embedded in American politics. Proponents argue that polls keep elected officials connected to their constituents, make the government more responsive to popular demands, and dispel “myths and stereotypes that might otherwise mislead public discourse.”[1] Critics argue that strict obedience to even the most accurate polls enables politicians to shirk the responsibilities of leadership, while misleading ones can damage the policymaking process and skew elections. Ever since George Gallup correctly projected Franklin Roosevelt’s victory over Alf Landon in 1936, however, serious politicians have relied on polls to help them manage campaigns and make crucial decisions.

But what about the generations of politicians who won, lost, and governed without the benefit of scientific polling? How, for instance, did Civil War-era politicians keep a pulse on public opinion? And how can historians recover their efforts to do so?

Nineteenth-century politicians had several tools for measuring the public mood. Like their constituents, politicians were voracious newspaper readers. While most Civil War-era papers were openly partisan, their news columns and editorials provided valuable information about what journalists were thinking and what voters were reading. Determining what any given politician read can be tricky, but traces turn up in a variety of sources, including congressional records, which reveal which newspapers were purchased for individual senators and representatives. The contingent expense report for the 35th Congress (1857-1859), for example, shows that eight members of the House of Representatives subscribed to the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, including both Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, later an infamous “Copperhead” Democrat, and Francis Preston Blair, Jr., a Missouri Republican and future Union general.

“Contingent Expenses – House of Representatives,” Letter from the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Communicating His Annual Report of the Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives, House Documents, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., Misc. Doc. No. 25 (n.p.: n.p. [1860]), 117.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives kept careful track of the newspapers that were purchased for and delivered to their members. Although somewhat obscure, these records reveal much about how Civil War-era politicians kept up with national and local opinion.

Mingling directly with constituents was another option, of course, and some officeholders reserved time for regular face-to-face contact. Abraham Lincoln famously held biweekly receptions to allow any and all visitors to speak with him in the White House. Although taxing—and potentially dangerous—these “public-opinion baths,” as Lincoln called them, yielded vital political intelligence. “I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way,” Lincoln explained, and the receptions gave him “a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage” to which he was responsible.[2] These were far from scientific polls, of course, and they were necessarily limited to those able to visit Washington, D.C., but the ritual reflected both the humanity and the shrewdness of a man who believed that “public sentiment is everything” in American politics.[3]

Private correspondence was another valuable source of information, particularly for occupants of state or national offices who had to relocate to state capitals or Washington for extended periods of time. Thus, archival collections of politicians’ papers can illuminate crucial intelligence-sharing networks. Some statesmen relied on family members for the latest news on public sentiment. Lucy Lambert Hale, for instance, maintained a politically candid correspondence with her husband, New Hampshire senator John Parker Hale, while he was away at Washington. In December 1848, she reported on a sermon delivered by a local minister who warned against making any degrading compromises on slavery, and in other letters detailed the extent of antislavery sentiment in their hometown of Dover.[4] For all their insight, however, Hale’s letters are limited in scope because it would have been considered unseemly for her to mingle in many of the spaces, like courthouses or taverns, where so much of nineteenth-century politicking took place.

Most politicians also received piles of constituent correspondence, which typically consisted of fulsome praise, angry recrimination, and, above all, urgent requests for patronage, ranging from pensions to postmasterships. Careful readers could glean nuggets of political intelligence from these letters, but the authors were prone to irrational exuberance or despondency, particularly right after elections. Many were also laden with self-serving flattery; a constituent seeking a plum government job, after all, would hardly be inclined to downplay the recipient’s popularity at home.

Not surprisingly, many powerful statesmen relied on one type of correspondent: the local agent who may or may not have held office, but served as the politician’s eyes and ears within a particular community. Careful study of rich archival collections shows that many of these pen pals supplied politicians with vital local updates over extended periods of time. One example is the unheralded but politically astute Samuel Ashton, who for several turbulent years provided Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas with timely and candid appraisals of public opinion in Chicago. Douglas had called Chicago home since 1847 but spent much of the year in Washington while the Senate was in session. As a register at the local land office and, from 1854 to 1856, an alderman from Chicago’s eighth ward, Ashton was well-positioned to keep tabs on developments in a city that had once been a base of Douglas’s strength but, by the 1850s, was beginning to turn against him.[5]

“Chicago, As It Was.” Currier & Ives, ca. 1856-1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The bustling Lake Michigan port city of Chicago had been a core element of Stephen A. Douglas’s political strength since his first bid for a congressional seat in 1838. As his political support in Chicago waxed and waned in the 1850s, updates from local operatives like Samuel Ashton provided a vital link between Douglas and his home city.

Ashton wrote to Douglas less frequently than some of the senator’s other operatives, like Indianapolis postmaster William W. Wick or Springfield resident Isaac R. Diller, but he offered inside information at critical moments. As the backlash against Douglas’s pending Kansas-Nebraska bill intensified in early 1854, for instance, Ashton penned a detailed account of a protest meeting held at North Market Hall (now Court House Place).[6] Two years later, Ashton sent a much more buoyant report shortly after Chicago Democrats endorsed Douglas for the presidential nomination.[7] Ashton’s commentary was colored by his partisanship—he denounced the anti-Nebraska meeting as the work of “violent whigs and abolitionists, assisted by a number of broken down politicians and disappointed office seekers”—but he shared an informed perspective on local affairs when Douglas was away from home for months at a time.[8] And because Ashton was politically prominent without being a rival for Douglas’s power in the Illinois Democratic Party, he was an ideal source of news.

Douglas clearly appreciated Ashton’s insights because in 1855 he sought to repay the shrewd Chicagoan in the expected nineteenth-century style: by securing him a patronage appointment. In the spring of 1855, Douglas recommended Ashton for a captaincy in one of the U.S. Army’s new regiments. The nomination provoked a prickly exchange of letters with the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and ultimately Ashton—and Douglas—came away empty-handed when the commission went to another applicant.[9]

The Ashton episode seems trivial in comparison with the weighty decisions and quotable speeches that made Civil War-era politics so dramatic. But tracing the networks of family, friends, and allies which kept politicians apprised of developments back home, helps to reveal the inner workings of a nineteenth-century political world in which information was, as it always is, a vital source of power.


[1] Quoted in Matthew J. Streb and Michael A. Genovese, “Polling and the Dilemmas of Democracy,” in Polls and Politics: The Dilemmas of Democracy, eds. Michael A. Genovese and Matthew J. Streb (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004), 2.

[2] Charles G. Halpine recollection in Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, comp. and ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 194.

[3] Quoted in Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 493.

[4] Lucy Lambert Hale to John P. Hale, December 3, 1848, Box 1A, Folder 5, John Parker Hale Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire.

[5] M.L. Ahern, The Political History of Chicago (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1886), 105-106; Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 166.

[6] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

[7] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 5, 1856, Box 4, Folder 21, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[8] Samuel Ashton to Stephen A. Douglas, March 18, 1854, Box 4, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

[9] Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, March 15, 1854, Box 42, Folder 5, Stephen A. Douglas Papers; James Shields and Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 23, 1854, in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), II, 450; Stephen A. Douglas to Jefferson Davis, March 30, 1855, in The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, ed. Robert W. Johannsen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 336; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, April 5, 1855, in Rowland, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, II, 448-450; Jefferson Davis to Stephen A. Douglas, February 10, 16, 1857, Box 42, Folder 6, Stephen A. Douglas Papers.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

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