Power  /  Retrieval

Elections in Colonial America Were Huge, Booze-Fueled Parties

From rum to cakes to rowdy parades, election day was a time for gathering and celebration.

Voters for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 had their choice of candidates. And one of them—a wealthy planter who had made his name in the French and Indian War—gave them their choice of alcohol, too. Candidate George Washington plied potential voters with 47 gallons of beer, 35 gallons of wine, 2 gallons of cider, 3 1/2 pints of brandy and a whopping 70 gallons of rum punch. He carried the election with 310 votes.

The future president wasn’t the only candidate who knew how to grease the wheels of the colonial electorate—and his voters weren’t the only colonists who knew how to party on election day. In the days before the American Revolution, colonial elections were festive, even rowdy occasions. Elections were a chance to weigh in on important business, but they were also an opportunity to let loose and party.

Political Campaigns and Voting All Happened in Person

Colonists didn’t have as much leeway to choose their elected officials as U.S. citizens do today. But those who could vote—wealthy, landholding Protestant men, for the most part—did so in a much more intimate fashion than modern voters. Voting happened in person, and didn’t always involve a ballot. Rather, men would travel from near and far to participate in voice votes affirming candidates for town and city governments, colonial legislatures and, in some colonies, governors.

It was a time before campaign finance as we know it, and campaigns happened in person or by letter. Rich, landed voters might receive individual visits from the rich, landed men who could afford to run for office.

For less wealthy voters, though, the action was on election day itself. “Prospective officeholders were expected to be at the polls on election day and made a point to greet all voters. Failure to appear or to be civil to all could be disastrous,” writes Ed Crews.

Election Day Parties and Parades

In New York, for example, candidates and their supporters rented out taverns and held huge, boozy parties. Often, candidates would take care of transportation, too—and the trips toward the polling place often took on the trappings of a rowdy parade complete with brawls, taunts and delighted onlookers.

The parades were impromptu affairs that reflected the nature of colonial life. Colonial assembly elections brought men from near and far, but also attracted family members, who traveled with them to the colonial capital to see the festivities. As they moved, the parades became jocular and increasingly spirited affairs that were egged on by onlookers eager to greet their far-flung friends, get the latest news and watch the election itself.