Philip J. Lampi

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Philip Lampi an honorary degree during the University's 157th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 19, 2013.

Photo by Emily Zilm, University PhotographyHistory may be the greatest teacher, but we can only learn from what is accurately preserved and analyzed. Your compilation of the most complete election records from the founding years of our nation has earned you recognition as one of the most influential historians of early America. Your singular determination to resurrect what one historian has called “the lost Atlantis of American politics” has not only broadened our understanding of our own past, but serves as a valuable resource for emerging democracies around the world. Your own journey, like our nation’s, has not been easy, and you conducted pathbreaking research outside the usual structures of institutional support. You have given us not only rescued history, but an example of how a passion can be pursued in any field if the will is great enough. Your personal sacrifice is our national gain. We take for granted abundant information on the elections of our own time; it is thanks to you that we have the information needed to put them in historical context. Tufts is honored to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

 

PHILIP J. LAMPI is a man who has gone to extremes in pursuit of his passion. Working over a span of decades entirely on his own dime, he scoured the cities and towns of the United States to hunt down and painstakingly assemble the single most complete historical accounting of election records generated during the earliest days of the republic, the period from 1787 to 1825. Lampi never went to college. He had neither institutional nor family support backing him. But what he came away with at the end of his solitary labors amounted to a national treasure that the University of Texas historian Walter Dean Burnham has called “the lost Atlantis of American politics.”

The source material that Lampi sought was poorly organized and loosely kept, consisting of records scattered among state and county archives, newspaper collections, assorted historical societies, and batches of private letters. Although turnout was high in early American elections, reaching seventy percent in places like New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, the voting process itself was elastic by modern standards. 

There was no Election Day as such—more like a voting season. Citizens could vote at any time from March through early December, and the exact methods varied from state to state. Some Americans voted by voice; others by writing names on a piece of paper dropped into boxes marked “Congress,” “Governor,” and so on; others still by noting their preferences in open poll books. Frequently, the fragmented nature of the original record keeping made Lampi’s job of summing up election results a study in exasperation. He might have to page through months of vintage newspapers before he could determine when, exactly, the voting in a given town or city had occurred. Then the task of meticulous transcription into written notes could begin. Once compiled, his detailed historic record offered a gold mine of data for historians, enabling them to analyze the demographic and geographic electoral trends of a fledgling nation.

Lampi was well-suited to working on his own. Born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1944, to a divorced mother who held two jobs and couldn’t spare the time to care for him, he grew up in a series of foster homes. His longest residence was at the Stetson Home for Boys in Barre, Massachusetts, where, while still a teenager, some anomalies in accounts of U.S. presidential elections from 1824 to 1956 in various World Almanacs caught his eye; he devoted many subsequent hours to assessing, arranging, and organizing the data from these elections. Eventually Lampi’s research became focused on the years of the early republic, where there was virtually no national election data available.

Once he decided to take his obsession on the road, Lampi lived meagerly, subsisting mainly on a diet of bananas and peanut butter sandwiches and often sleeping in his car. He worked at a series of menial jobs, including a stint as a night watchman back at the Stetson School, to fund the intensive series of research jaunts he undertook between 1973 and 1988.

Now recognized as ranking among the most influential historians of early America, Philip Lampi has found a home at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he lends his passion and expertise to the New Nation Votes Project, an ongoing effort to convert his extensive files into a readily accessible online database. The project is a collaborative venture between the AAS and Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Last year, in a ceremony at the American Antiquarian Society, the NEH awarded Lampi its first-ever Chairman’s Commendation, citing his “diligence in collecting, collating, and preserving the most basic records of American democracy.”

Tufts will award Lampi an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.