18th Century Elections

With Election Day 2020 upon us, let’s take a look at British elections over two centuries ago.

In most of Great Britain and its growing empire, as well as in the rebel American colonies, the franchise, or right to vote, was very limited. In general, only white men over age 21 who also owned a specific amount of land (upon which they paid taxes) were allowed to vote. As a result, with few exceptions women, Native Americans, free and enslaved Black people, and the poor or anyone who did not own enough property were all excluded from voting. Catholics were also generally denied the right to vote. Election practices and timing also varied between Britain and the various American colonies.

William Hogarth, The Polling, 1758. William Hogarth cynically satirized the voting process in this view of a rural British election in 1758. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library

Despite the limits of the franchise, British citizens at home and abroad were well aware of the civil rights theoretically extended to all Britons, and acted accordingly to protect what they felt were their inalienable rights and privileges. These feelings were especially pronounced when dealing with the British army on election days. Many Britons viewed the small standing army with suspicion, believing it to be a potential agent of tyranny. As a result, in Britain and the American colonies, troops were usually sent away from polling locations, or out of towns and cities entirely, on election days. In some ways this was a merely practical matter, as voting often took place at roadside inns. In Britain, troops were also quartered in these inns, so sending them away during an election freed up space for voters. However, stationing troops near polling locations could quickly inflame the local population with accusations of voter intimidation, especially in the American colonies. In New York City in 1768, for instance, General Thomas Gage, who commanded all British forces in America, confined troops to their barracks and prohibited them from having “entirely any intercourse with the inhabitants during the said election.” A year later in Boston, troops were again restricted to their barracks during the May 1769 election, but voters still complained. They requested that the British commander completely remove his troops from the city so that voters “should be in the full enjoyment of their rights of British subjects upon this important occasion.” When the officer refused, colonial authorities claimed that “armed men, sent under the pretense indeed of aiding the civil authority” had in fact meddled with the election.[1]

People at Michilimackinac regularly discussed politics, even if their newspapers were out of date.

In Quebec, which included Michilimackinac after the colony was significantly expanded via the Quebec Act of 1774, there was no elected legislature as there was in other American colonies. Instead, a royally-appointed council comprised of civil, military, and church officials assisted the governor with colonial administration. However, that did not prevent Michilimackinac residents from remaining engaged with colonial and national politics, even following Parliamentary races in Britain. Although sometimes months out of date, newspapers and letters carried updates on developments in the Atlantic colonies and Great Britain. The political world in which Michilimackinac existed in the late 18th century was complex and evolving, reflecting the combined political and civil traditions of Britain and French Canada (many of which were carried over into the political theories and framework of the new United States). Although elections likely did not take place here, politics were just as much a part of daily life at Michilimackinac as they are today. Ask about 18th century politics next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and consider joining Mackinac Associates, which makes many of our programs and exhibits possible.

[1] John McCurdy, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, (Cornell University Press, 2019), 171, 185-86

Fact vs. Fiction: The Doctor’s Secret Journal

Since 1960, one of Mackinac State Historic Parks’ most popular publications has been The Doctor’s Secret Journal, an edited and annotated version of a dramatic journal kept by Surgeon’s Mate Daniel Morison between 1769 and 1772. Posted to Michilimackinac with the 60th (Royal American) Regiment, Morison recorded what he perceived as the regular verbal abuse, threats, and even physical violence directed at him and others by the officers of the garrison. According to Morison, his most frequent abuser was Ensign Robert Johnson (whose name Morison repeatedly misspelled as “Johnstone”). In the journal, Johnson comes off as petty, violent, and occasionally unhinged. But what was he really like? Was Johnson as awful a person as Morison claimed? (more…)

Forts Mackinac and Holmes in 1815

Forts Mackinac and Holmes in 1815

Captain Charles Gratiot, an American engineer officer, sketched both forts on Mackinac Island during the summer of 1814. Fort Holmes, here named Fort George by the British, was nearing completion when Gratiot made this sketch. National Archives

At Mackinac State Historic Parks, we are fortunate to have a huge variety of historic information available to help us protect, preserve, and present the resources under our care. Our archives and artifact collections contain numerous descriptions and depictions of the historic sites we manage, providing unique snapshots in time. A great example of these descriptive works is a report written by Lt. Col. Talbot Chambers in September 1815, soon after American troops returned to Mackinac Island following the War of 1812. (more…)