About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix their Democracy, 1865–1915

Greetings from the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual author lecture with Jon Grinspan, author of The Age of Acrimony.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

Tonight at 7 p.m., Karen Tumulty will discuss Nancy Reagan’s role as partner to the President, which she profiles in her new book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan.

And on Tuesday, May 4, noted constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar will discuss his new book, The Words That Made Us—an account of how Americans wrestled with weighty constitution questions during the country’s first half century.

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Political campaigns in our lifetimes have been waged in large part through electronic media—first on television and later on digital media. In the 19th century, however, campaigning was a much more personal exercise. Partisans took to the streets for their candidates in what our guest author Jon Grinspan calls, “the loudest, closest, most violent elections in U.S. history.”

The Gilded Age has a reputation as an age of excess, and that applied to electioneering as well. Voters in great numbers performed their civic duty, but the path to the polls was hardly “civil.”


In the 20th century, elections moved away from the raucous confrontations of those days, but the aggressive partisanship of the political battles sounds more and more familiar. By looking at our past, as described in The Age of Acrimony, we hope to gain more understanding of our democracy today.

As Michael Barone wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal “…it’s hard not to see echoes of our current politics in historian John Grinspan’s chronicle of this rambunctious period.  The Age of Acrimony isn’t a detailed narrative of the era’s political struggles or a political-science thesis with table and graphs…Mr. Grinspan’s focus is on practical politics, which in this period meant mass politics—the highest rates of voter turnout and mass participation in the nation’s history.”


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Jon Grinspan, the Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, studies the deep history of American democracy, especially the wild partisan campaigns of the 1800s. As curator, he collects objects from current protests, conventions, elections, and riots for the Smithsonian to try to preserve our own heated moment for generations to come.

He frequently contributes to the New York Times, and his work has been featured in The New Yorker, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He has been interviewed on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” PBS’s “The Open Mind,” and other programs. Grinspan is a former National Endowment for Humanities Fellow, Massachusetts Historical Society Fellow, Smithsonian Institution Postdoctoral Fellow, and Jefferson Scholars Foundation Dissertation Fellow at the University of Virginia.

Now let’s hear from Jon Grinspan. Thank you for joining us today.