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June 3, 1998
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v2.1 Reference

Washington County

Politics and Community in Antebellum America

In the 1850s, Washington County, Oregon, gathered together a broad cross-section of antebellum America. More than that, however, it left for historians a rare opportunity to explore political, social, and cultural trends in American history due to its unique practice of viva voce voting—announcing individual ballots publicly rather than recording them in secret. Paul Bourke and Donald DeBats tap into this remarkable resource to reveal how individual political identities developed and political choices were made.

About the Authors

Paul Bourke is professor of history in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University in Canberra. Donald DeBats is professor of American Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.


A study of the relationship between culture and political participation. Bourke and DeBats are able to take scholarly understanding beyond that gained from aggregate voting returns because of the happy survival of a near-complete set of pollbooks, the written records of votes given by voice in Washington County elections between 1855 and 1860.

- Dean L. May - Pacific Northwest Quarterly

A richly detailed and valuable portrait of an American community in the making... Few historians have been more diligent than Paul Bourke and Donald DeBats in reconstructing an American community by linking together a mass of data on its citizens, mapping its neighborhoods, and analyzing political life.

- American Historical Review

Bourke and DeBats weave data from a real treasure-trove... to produce one of the finest social histories of politics ever written... The authors explore the effects of a variety of social and economic variables upon voters' degrees of partisanship and depth of political participation. Any summary fails to do justice to the complexity of their findings... It is beautifully written, set up to be read in such a way that a conflict between two of the settlers which resulted in a murder trial can be viewed as an allegory for the county's political development. In short, it uniquely integrates electoral and social history. It will have widespread appeal, both to professional historians and laypeople.

- Register of the Kentucky Historical Societ

It is one of the significant contributions of this book that the research tool of viva voce voting permits the individual data from poll books to be linked to political behavior of various dimensions as well as to other measurable aspects of individual behavior, whether religion or economic status. The authors painstakingly develop these materials into a finely grained snapshot of Washington County... Throughout, Washington County scintillates with suggestive insights that make it an important contribution to American history.

- Reviews in American History


This is a major work of scholarship which, in closely looking at a single county on the distant Pacific coast, nevertheless poses some absolutely fundamental questions. It offers the closest and most satisfying analysis of individual partisanship in the mid-nineteenth century available. The larger implications of their conclusions are sure to be debated for some time to come.

- William E. Gienapp, Harvard University

Bourke and DeBats have identified a magnificent subject—together with wonderful sources—and they have developed an original interpretation that is splendidly suited to make the most of their material. Even more important, Washington County is sure to have a major influence upon the writing of nineteenth-century American social and political history, geography, and political science.

- Richard L. McCormick, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reconfiguring American Political History
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