Presidential Elections — the early years…

Well, the big day is just a week away. Here at Clark House Historian I try and remain officially non-partisan. But as a researcher and writer, and as an American with long, deep, roots in this country, I have a passionate interest in our nation and its history, and a life-long desire to see us live up to our highest ideals and aspirations. (Of course, human nature being what it is, we have not always lived up to those ideals.)

So with the election approaching, today’s post takes a look at the political leanings of early Washington County and—after its establishment in 1853—Ozaukee County, with an emphasis on presidential elections from 1848 to 1880. Our main source today is the invaluable History of Washington and Ozaukee counties, Wisconsin […], published in Chicago in 1881. Let’s begin with some of the earliest results, following statehood in early 1848:

“Political Complexion” of the county, 1848 and 1849

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This first page presents Washington County election results—broken down by towns—for two important elections, the presidential contest of 1848, and the November, 1849, vote for state governor with a referendum on “Negro suffrage,” that is, whether Black [male] residents of the state should be allowed to vote.

As you’ll recall, until the creation of Ozaukee county in 1853, old Washington county comprised all the towns of the current Ozaukee and Washington counties. As the data shows, the “population was, from the first vote, strongly Democratic.” For modern readers, I can’t stress strongly enough that the platforms of the Democratic and Whig Parties—and the Whig’s successor party, the Republican party—have in many ways reversed themselves over the last 150 years, especially on matters of race. In pre-Civil War America, the Democratic Party was the party of Andrew Jackson and his successors and argued emphatically for slavery and the interests of the South.

The Whigs, Republicans and Democrats differed on many other hot-button issues of the day,1 including tariffs, federalism, the national bank, and land distribution policies. But given that Wisconsin entered the Union in 1848 as a free state, it is interesting to observe the high level of support for the Democratic party in Washington and Ozaukee counties in the early decades of statehood.

1848 and 1849 election results

In the 1848 presidential election, Washington county voters—by an overwhelming margin—chose Democrat Lewis Cass over Free Soil candidate Martin Van Buren and Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Taylor won the national election, but his victory was short-lived. After a bit more than one year in office, he died of an intestinal ailment believed to be due to the over-consumption of fruit and milk at a Washington, DC, ceremony.

As the book excerpt notes, in that 1848 election “in the towns of Erin, Richfield and Wayne, every vote cast was Democratic; while in the town of North Bend [i.e., Kewaskum], not a Democrat appears.” And the town of Hartford was notable for its heavy Free Soil vote.

The 1849 state referendum on “Negro suffrage” was part of an ongoing series of attempts to extend the vote to Black males in the new state:

The 1846 constitution would have allowed African Americans to vote in Wisconsin, but it was rejected when put before voters the next year. The 1848 constitution remained silent on this and other controversial issues, so following its ratification a special referendum was held in 1849. […] [D]espite a majority of voters approving Black suffrage in 1849, the right to vote was consistently denied until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie carried the issue to the state Supreme Court. Not until the Wisconsin legislature ratified the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1869 were the voting rights of African American men finally assured. Black women, like all women, were denied the right to vote until 1920.

Wisconsin Historical Society 2

You read that correctly. Suffrage for Black men in Wisconsin did receive a majority of votes cast statewide in 1849, but opponents of the proposal prevented its implementation. In Washington county, the Black suffrage proposal was opposed by a substantial majority of voters, although the results differed greatly from town to town, and many voters did not vote on the issue at all. The towns of Hartford, Grafton, Port Washington and Fredonia were strongly for Black suffrage; Germantown, Mequon, Cedarburg and Belgium strongly opposed.

1852 Presidential Results

If you’re not up to speed on the issues of the contentious national election of 1852, here’s a link to get oriented. The 1852 election was the last national election in which the Whigs served as the principal opponents of the Democrats. Once again, Washington county voted strongly Democratic, for Franklin Pierce.

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As in Washington county, in the national voting Pierce defeated Whig candidate Gen. Winfield Scott, the hero of the 1848 War with Mexico and commanding general of the U.S. Army from 1841-1861. Curiously, two Washington county towns, Germantown and Belgium, went for Scott. All the other towns supported Pierce, some much more avidly than others.

Ozaukee County votes, 1856 – 1880

Page 489 of the History of Washington and Ozaukee counties summarizes the presidential election results for Ozaukee county from the pivotal election of James Buchanan in 1856 through the victory of James. A. Garfield in 1880, seven elections in all:

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In each of those seven contests, Ozaukee county voted overwhelmingly Democratic, including massive local victories for Abraham Lincoln’s opponents Stephen A. Douglas (1860) and Gen. George B. McClellan (1864). Even Ulysses S. Grant, the general that won the Civil War and preserved the Union, lost the Ozaukee county vote to Democratic rivals Horatio Seymour (1868) and Horace Greeley (1872).

They voted. Now it’s your turn.

Whether you agree with their politics or not, our predecessors were vigorous participants in the political process and they voted—if they could. Originally denied the franchise, African Americans and women fought, suffered, and worked ceaselessly until they had legal access to the ballot.

Though we are in the midst of a once in a century pandemic, generations of Americans have struggled—and thousands have died—so that we can all make our voices heard on election day. So no excuses: Vote.

If you believe that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth,” then you must support free, fair, equal, safe and healthy access to the vote to all our fellow citizens—whatever their political persuasion.

And to those who promote—or simply tolerate—voter suppression, gerrymandering, or limiting access to convenient and healthy voting in this, or any, election: that is the path to one-party rule, autocracy, and the end of our representative democracy. Shame on you.3


  1. Anyone that has not been asleep for the last few decades will have noticed that various politicians have been quick to claim the mantle of various great predecessors—notably Abraham Lincoln—and have been equally quick to denigrate opposition candidates and parties by using historically incorrect comparisons to the previous, but no longer current, positions of those parties.

    It bears repeating: the political parties of today do not reflect many of the significant policies and positions of their 19th-century namesakes. Nineteenth-century American politics were complicated, passionate, mercurial and yet on some major issues so intransigent, that we ended up fighting a Civil War as a result. If you need clarification regarding which party stood for which policies in which decade, you could start with these Wikipedia links:

    The Democratic Party
    The Whig Party
    The Republican Party

    And don’t miss some of the shorter-lived but sometimes influential 19th-century parties, including the Free Soil, Anti-Masonic, Know-Nothing, and Locofoco parties.

    UPDATE: I should have also noted that the national Democratic party was divided on the issue of slavery and began to split into Northern and Southern factions in the 1850s, and officially split in 1860. Peter Turck—and, presumably, many of Wisconsin’s Democrats—appears to have been an anti-slavery Democrat from the late-1840s onwards. Once the Civil War began, I believe Peter Turck would have been considered a War Democrat, although the evidence is slim. It’s complicated. For an overview, start with these links:
    Northern Democrats, also Copperheads (aka Peace Democrats) and War Democrats
    Southern Democrats

  2. For more on the complicated issue of African-Americans in 19th-century Wisconsin and Black suffrage in the territory and state, see this timeline and list of links from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

  3. Here’s a thought: If you can’t win an election on the strength of your policies and candidates, maybe you should reconsider your policies and candidates.

UPDATED, October 28, 2020, to correct a few typos and other minor infelicities.

UPDATED, October 28, 2020 to clarify the division between Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats (see footnote #1)

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