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The Orphan Scholar

Without parents or a degree, Philip Lampi became the nation’s foremost expert on elections in the Republic’s early years.

By Katherine Mangu-Ward | HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 1

For a man whose claim to fame is an online database of election returns, Philip Lampi’s life story is rather picaresque. Born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1944, he grew up in foster homes “since there was a war on” and his divorced mother was unable care for him.

Eventually, he wound up at the Stetson Home for Boys, where he stumbled upon his first set of election returns in the 1959 World Almanac.

Lampi, blinking through glasses that make his eyes look huge, says those election returns “were arranged in a very strange fashion.” So he took it upon himself to reorganize them by state and fill in gaps with other sources, a project that absorbed him for the rest of high school. Lampi was left to his own devices in the library for days at a time: “I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. If I’d had parents they probably would have discouraged it.”

As his interest in election returns grew, Lampi noticed that all of the data stopped at 1825. He decided to find the missing facts and figures. The first set he uncovered was in the early Boston paper the Columbia Centinel. He copied them out by hand. And so began a lifelong quest, with Lampi crisscrossing the nation in search of state archives, historical societies, newspaper collections, compendia of letters, and biographies holding records of how Americans voted when the Constitution was still young.

That effort has now led to A New Nation Votes, a digital record of Lampi’s work sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, Tufts University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. To the delight of graduate students, professional historians, and dabblers alike, the site makes public and searchable what, until now, could only be found in Lampi’s loose-leaf notebooks: a comprehensive record of early American election returns from 1787 to 1825.

Turnout was high in early American elections, as high as 70 percent in places like New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Massachusetts in some years. It was also a time when suffrage was surprisingly generous. Voting wasn’t entirely restricted to white, landowning men. In ten of thirteen states, voting was not restricted by race. Women voted in New Jersey until 1807. Not until after the Civil War would the franchise be again this open.

The voting process itself, however, was chaotic by modern standards. In various states, Americans voted by voice, or by writing names on a slip of paper and dropping it into the box marked “Congress,” with a party slate in hand, or on open roll books. There was no Election Day—voting could happen any time from late October until early December, and nearly every year, depending on location—making research even more difficult. Finding election results wasn’t just a matter of opening archival newspapers to the proper Tuesday in November. Frequently, months of papers had to be paged through to find out when voting had taken place before aggregation of results could even begin.

To hunt down this elusive data, Lampi made many sacrifices. He lived in his car, on and off, from 1973 to 1988. He recounts a time when he spent the night in the back parking lot of the Georgia Historical Society in order to hit the archives first thing in the morning. He made an effort to stay at a motel every third or fourth night, “just to take a shower,” and on Saturdays, when no libraries would be open the next day for research. He ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly in those days, or “anything that was portable.” He caught odd jobs and small grants when he could. During one period, he worked as a night watchman at his old school, typing in the two-hour windows between his rounds. And he did all this without a college degree.

But one look at Lampi’s incredibly meticulous notebooks—filled with his careful, elegant handwriting and three-hole-punched Xeroxes of charts from old newspapers—reveals a sharp, exacting mind at work. “The simple fact is that Phil, in many ways, knows newspapers better than anyone because he has spent so much time digging through them,” says James Moran, spokesman for the American Antiquarian Society.

When the AAS was founded in 1812, it catered to the gentleman scholar, history not having yet become a profession. One wonders whether a club of this nature would have readily counted someone like the chronically impoverished Lampi as a member. But Lampi, in his odd way, is one of the last of this breed, an itinerant historian, who has at times worked on his own dime, beavering away at an arcane topic not to secure a position or to win tenure, but purely because of his belief in the historical value of the work.

Today, the AAS collection holds two-thirds of the surviving books and two million newspapers from pre-1820 America. The collection is the nation’s largest and most complete, a feat accomplished largely by dint of never having been burnt by the British, unlike other collections. Lampi is the keeper of those papers. He often works in the stacks, which are kept chilly to slow the disintegration of the old newsprint, relying on a ratty old red cardigan for warmth. The nook where he has a desk is lined with old notebooks and file boxes. A brick wall is painted a peculiar shade of yellow and festooned with exposed utility pipes. It might seem bleak except for the company of Krista Ferrante, on loan from Tufts, who labors, sweater-wrapped, in the stacks alongside Lampi as the project manager of the database.

One might guess that Lampi’s woes would include ill treatment or contemptuous dismissal by the historical professoriate—unconventional and uncredentialed as he is. On the contrary, he says, he was greatly encouraged by his contact with various professional historians over the years: “Many of them said to me ‘You have to keep doing this, because no one else will.’” One of his biggest boosters is Andrew W. Robinson, now a professor of history at the City University of New York. Robinson first encountered Lampi’s work as a graduate student at Brandeis where he worked under David Hackett Fischer. Fischer, who had suggested Robinson write a seminar paper using Lampi’s voting returns, also remains a Lampi booster.

University of Texas at Austin historian Walter Dean Burnham, author of “The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe,” a seminal essay on voter decline, refers to the period chronicled by Lampi as “the lost Atlantis of American politics.” Robinson takes up the metaphor, saying of the new database: “Having this available is a little bit like having an undersea expedition coming back with artifacts from Atlantis.” In fact, he says, the launch of the database is “the most exciting event in the study of voting behavior in at least two generations.”

Lampi was called in to comment on the incredibly close 2000 presidential race, an election remarkably like that of 1800, when the showdown between Jefferson and Adams was marred by contested ballots, fierce partisanship, and an indeterminate outcome. Though he calls himself a “political junkie” and has informed opinions on modern politics, Lampi is most firmly rooted in America’s past. Charmingly, he refers to the land west of the Mississippi as “the newer states.”

Ironically, the database born of Lampi’s work obviates the need for odd, difficult-to-classify characters like Lampi by making such information available without much digging. Rather than go for days without a shower to visit farflung archives, modern researchers can simply open up an Internet connection and search A New Nation Votes by keyword.

Lampi’s early fascination with election returns flourished in a world with very little adult supervision. Likewise, he says that the project would have been impossible with a family or any professional obligations. And without someone like Lampi, willing to forgo all the personal and material comforts of middle-class adulthood, it’s not clear that we’d have this trove of data today. “It hadn’t been done for two hundred years. There’s a good chance it might never have been done,” he says.

Calling his work a “labor of love,” Lampi says he has no regrets, except perhaps that he can’t be the one to extend the project to post-1825 elections: “It has literally taken all of my life to do this one thing.”

About the Author

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason and contributing editor at Doublethink.