Family politics not always a straight line

These days we seem to have never-ending election cycles.  Do you know your ancestors’ political leanings?

Genealogists may assume their family was always Republican or Democrat.  This isn’t true. These parties came into being at the advent of the Civil War.  Republicans favored the fight for the Union. Democrats, also known at the time as Copperheads, opposed the war.  There were entire areas in Maine where Republican draft officers didn’t dare go.

Our earliest founders sincerely wanted political divisions or parties never to form.  It was a vain hope right from the beginning. From the earliest days of our country there were sharp political divisions.  Prior to the Civil War there was a mishmash of parties but the major ones were Whigs and Federalists.

So, how do you find out how your ancestors may or may not have viewed the political situation?  Remember, until 1920 only men could vote except in rare instances. Look for obvious clues such as campaign buttons or campaign materials among your family artifacts.  That may show your ancestor favored a particular candidate though keep in mind that doesn’t mean he was a member of a party. Also, voting lists still exist in some towns and historical societies and they may help you figure out your ancestor’s preferences.   

You may also find a stack of newspapers or journals in the attic that lean in one political direction or another.  Often these newspapers will list members of a party or news about people who belonged to it. When you’re researching newspapers keep an eye on local political news, you may spot an ancestor listed among candidates or supporters.  Keep in mind many of these publications were short-lived but they can be valuable in exploring how your ancestor thought.

Also, names can give you a clue.  There were a lot of George Washington namesakes but believe it or not our first president was viciously attacked politically and only became revered after he refused to run for a third term and retired from politics. I have a John Quincy Adams Woodman as a collateral ancestor.  That tells me his father wasn’t a supporter of Andrew Jackson, Adams’ rival, and his populist leanings. Adams, like his father before him, was a Federalist who believed only the elite and educated should have the vote.

Don’t be surprised to find ancestral political loyalties changed between generations and within them. That’s quite common.  My maternal grandfather was in one party, my parents another and their siblings often on the other side politically. .

With all of the political divisiveness today you may also be comforted to learn it isn’t anything new though it has new wrinkles.   It seems we will never all agree on candidates or issues which just goes to show that history repeats itself more often than we may like.  Good luck in tracing your ancestors’ political views. You may never get inside an ancestral mind but you may be able to identify basic beliefs.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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