Count on it: Philip J. Lampi

Life’s work preserves history of elections
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

SUNDAY TELEGRAM
2007

Philip J. Lampi has spent nearly a half-century immersed in the fusty archives of early American voting records. Now all the effort has paid off, and Mr. Lampi, who never went to college, is being credited with opening a whole new area of historical study.

His odyssey began at an orphanage in Barre, where he lived as a youngster. He was a good student and particularly liked American history. Communal living had gotten tiresome, and he was seeking something no one else could claim. One day he took note of election returns for 1852 in a World Almanac.

“I busied myself arranging them in a chart form,” Mr. Lampi said. “It was my own little thing.”

Over time, something that started as a distraction became a mission. Mr. Lampi committed himself to compiling election returns from the nation’s first four decades, a period when official records generally were not kept. He pored over old newspapers, diaries, letters and polling records, sometimes sleeping in his car when the quest took him on the road.

Along the way, Mr. Lampi has become a recognized expert in early American political culture, and lofty institutions of higher learning now seek him out. He has been a guest lecturer at Harvard University and made presentations at Brown University, Cambridge University and Oxford University.

“He will answer questions that very senior historians pay attention to,” said Andrew W. Robertson, a political historian. “He doesn’t shy away.”

Mr. Lampi said that contributing to scholarly discussion has been an honor. But his ultimate reward has been the creation of a searchable online database, “A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787-1825.” The site, http://elections.lib.tufts.edu/aas_portal/index.xq, has been developed by the American Antiquarian Society and Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. About 15,000 elections, representing a third of those for which Mr. Lampi has accumulated information, are now online, and the work continues, said Krista Ferrante, an archivist who is the project coordinator.

“It’s a huge project because it’s Phil’s life’s work,” Ms. Ferrante said. “I feel like I’m coming in on the end of an epic journey I didn’t even know I was embarking on.”

Having access to the information will revitalize the study of the period, said Rosemarie Zagarri, a professor of history at George Mason University. Historians will be able to re-examine the formation of parties and how the country was democratized. All sorts of new approaches to political, social and cultural history will be possible.

“If you understand that political issues go back a long time, you have a better understanding of what goes on today,” Ms. Zagarri said.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Lampi, 63, was seated at his workspace, which is nestled in the antiquarian society’s newspaper archives. Rows of red, blue and yellow three-ring binders filled with 11,000 pages of tabulations stood on shelves on either side of him. Stacked on the floor were 16 banker-size boxes holding photocopies of newspapers and original polling books, as well as Mr. Lampi’s first drafts of tabulations. Another nine boxes, along with reams of microfilm, were at Tufts, where the data entry is being done. Mr. Lampi spends part of his time working on the project and the balance as the antiquarian society’s assistant to the curator of newspapers, a position he has held since 1998.

“I spent my whole life doing this,” Mr. Lampi said in his quiet, deliberate manner. “It’s so much a part of my life.” He said he takes great satisfaction that the material will be available. “It’s going to be a tremendous tool for people who like American history.”

The detailed voting records will shed light on just when the United States truly became democratic, according to Mr. Robertson, a professor at Lehman College and at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. After property restrictions in some states were eliminated in 1800, roughly 70 percent of eligible voters headed to the polls – some of the highest rates ever, he said.

The interest in voting was connected to a communications revolution – the rapid growth in the number of newspapers, Mr. Robertson said. Politics became a national obsession, much like today’s interest in sports.

“Politics defines life in the early 19th century,” he said. “Whether rich or poor, North or South, white or black, all free people define themselves in terms of the great political contests. You can’t understand American culture or the social change that is going on without understanding this political transformation. It’s a period like 1960 to 1980.”

Elections of one kind or another were held every few months. People walked or rode horses to the polls.

“They did it out of public service, as did those who served,” Mr. Lampi said. “They had a sense of duty. One guy’s wife dies while he’s in Congress. Another had a son who died, and he couldn’t make it back in time for the funeral. The wives took on tremendous responsibility.”

After graduating from Barre High School, Mr. Lampi moved to Florida, where he worked in a factory and as a messenger. All the while, he was gathering election returns. In 1973, he headed back to Massachusetts. He had noticed that newspapers kept at the antiquarian society often were cited as sources, and he was eager to get a look at the voluminous collection. On his way north, he scoured records in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. “I ate peanut butter. I lost 20 pounds,” he said with a chuckle.

In those days, access to the society’s archives was limited to people engaged in what were deemed to be worthwhile projects. Historian John B. Hench, a vice president, immediately recognized the value of Mr. Lampi’s undertaking and put him in touch with David Hackett Fischer, a luminary in the field. Mr. Fischer had written “The Revolution of American Conservatism,” in which he had divided the country into regions and examined how the Federalists had fared.

“What a fantastic book,” Mr. Lampi declared, his pale blue eyes lighting up behind wire-rimmed glasses. “David Hackett Fischer said numerous times I had to continue, no matter what.”

Things began to jell. The antiquarian society awarded Mr. Lampi a fellowship.

“It was a big morale booster,” he said, smiling. “Up until then, I was struggling with any recognition or financial support.”

He settled in and took a job as a night watchman at Stetson School in Barre, where he had once lived as a ward of the state, when the facility was an orphanage. He was able to type up tabulations in his free time. Eventually, he got a part-time position at the antiquarian society, checking microfilm and keeping records updated.

“They had microfilmed all sorts of newspapers from all over the country,” Mr. Lampi said. “It was great.”

In 1994, Mr. Robertson entered the picture and landed a National Science Foundation grant to digitize Mr. Lampi’s tabulations. Another grant, this one from the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowed Mr. Lampi to collect data from the 24 states that made up the nation by 1825. Technology had not advanced to the point at which the voting records could be put online.

By 2004, the technology was up to speed, and the antiquarian society won its current National Endowment for the Humanities grant. “A New Nation Votes” went online in October.

“I feel very pleased that it’s happened. It’s long, long overdue,” Mr. Robertson said.

At Tufts, Ms. Ferrante, the project coordinator, oversees a retired police officer, an adjunct professor and several graduate students, who spend a total of 90 hours a week entering the data. Mr. Lampi responds to two to 10 questions daily on topics such as geography or conflicting numbers.

When the job is done, the results of 60,000 elections will be available. Many historians had previously considered the records lost for all time. “The profession owes Phil a debt,” Ms. Zagarri said. “And he’s such a wonderful person, too.”