Eastern Shore Road Trips: 27 One-Day Adventures on DelmarvaElection day is coming up on Tuesday, and folks seem to be pretty excited and upset on both sides of the aisle. It was like that back during the Know Nothing election of 1855, too.

John Sergeant Wise was a child then, living along Onancock Creek on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He would have been 11 or 12 during that gubernatorial election campaign, which pitted his father, the Democrat Henry A. Wise, against Thomas S. Flourney of the American Party, which is better known in history books as that “Know Nothing” party.

This reminiscence of election day that year is from a memoir the younger Wise wrote in 1899, titled The End of an Era. The different way voting was handled back then is fascinating. Can you imagine walking up and announcing to both candidates which one you were going to vote for? Perhaps you, too will find interesting similarities between the way those old political “crazes” worked long ago and the way they they work now.

Anyway … here goes:

John Sergeant Wise of Virginia

John Sergeant Wise

In American politics, we have recurring periods of political “crazes.” Of late years we have witnessed several such. The Greenback craze, the Granger craze, the Silver craze, have each in its turn arisen, and, for the time being, made whole communities drunk with excitement.

Friends of many years are estranged by these ephemeral issues. They are carried into business, into church, into the household, everywhere, until entire commonwealths are so wrought up that even women and children take part until election day, and after that we hear no more about them. Such commotions are like brushfires, which, igniting instantly, burn and crackle and fill the whole heavens with smoke, as if the world was on fire, and then die out as suddenly as they sprung up.

The Know ­Nothing craze of 1855 was just such an excitement. Our community was divided into factions. Everybody took sides. Men who had never been known to show an active interest in politics became intense partisans, and political discussion went on everywhere. One of the first results experienced by me was a black eye and a bloody nose, received in a hard fight with the son of the village blacksmith. Exactly how the row began, neither of us could clearly explain; but we were on opposite sides, and that was sufficient.

… In the little village of Onancock, the rival organizations found vent for their enthusiasm by building and flying two immense kites, with the names of their respective party candidates emblazoned on them conspicuously. Many an evening, after school was dismissed, I saw half of the villagers of the place out on the green flying their Know­ Nothing and Democratic kites, as if the result depended upon which flew the highest.

In due course came election day. In those days, voting was done openly, or viva voce, as it was called, and not by ballot. The election judges, who were magistrates, sat upon a bench with their clerks before them. Where practicable, it was customary for the candidate to be present in person, and to occupy a seat at the side of the judges. Father being absent [on this day], the young cousin above referred to represented him at the polling­ place, and took me with him.

Polling Place in the 1850s

As the voter appeared, his name was called out in a loud voice. The judges inquired, “John Jones (or Bill Smith), for whom do you vote?” ­ for governor, or for whatever was the office to be filled. He replied by proclaiming the name of his favorite. Then the clerks enrolled the vote, and the judges announced it as enrolled. The representative of the candidate for whom he voted arose, bowed, and thanked him aloud; and his partisans often applauded.

All day long I sat upon my cousin’s knee, or played about the platform. Nobody smiled more broadly, or applauded more vigorously, at votes cast for father; and nobody was more silent or haughty when votes were cast against him. At sundown, the polls were closed, and, to my infinite mortification, the majority at the precinct was announced as in favor of the Know­ Nothings.

The craze had simply taken possession of the place and run away with it. … For the first time in his life, father was defeated [in his home precinct]. I thought we were done for. When we were safely bundled in the vehicle, and headed for home, I felt like crying, and the Know­ Nothing cheers still rung in my ears most depressingly.

What mortified me most of all was the fact that I knew of a bantering compact between the owners of the rival kites that the victorious party should own the kite of the vanquished, with the privilege of flying it tail-less and upside down. The thought of seeing our beloved kite in such ignominious plight nearly prostrated me.

Henry Wise

As a matter of fact, the result at this precinct had been fully anticipated by the grown folks, and gave them no serious concern as to the general [statewide] result. … Seeing how I was cast down, my cousin, holding me between his legs in the one-seated buggy, endeavored to explain that there was no cause for alarm. Long before he finished, he discovered that, worn out by the fatigue and disappointment of the day, I was fast asleep, and in that condition he bore me into the house in his arms, laid me on the broad settee in the hall, and covered me with the lap­ robe.

More cheering news from other places came thick and fast in the next few days, and it was not long before I was delightedly watching the Know­ Nothing kite sailed tail-less and upside down by father’s friends.

If you are curious to hear more of what Wise has to say about the last half of the 1800s, you can read or download his Wise’s memoir here.

–posted by by Jim Duffy on Nov. 2, 2018

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