Philip Lampi - The Itinerant Historian Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Philip Lampi - The Itinerant Historian

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When the United States of America was a young nation, she did not yet have the bureaucracy and red tape that characterises a truly great country. Exotic pets went unlicensed, business unregulated and there was a truly barbaric dearth of forms. The American Revolution having just concluded, citizens of the country were eager to retain their personal liberties; among other things, this meant that they wanted to vote when and how they damned well pleased. In most states, there wasn't a set election day - only a broad period over the course of several months when people were allowed to come and cast their ballots. There were usually several election periods per year. A sort of election 'season' commenced in March and lasted through November, during which there might be a separate election every month.

The voting methods were varied by state, county, city and personal preference. Some people voted by voice, others with traditional ballots and some used party slates. The process was chaotic and varied; as a result, no official records of the elections returns existed. They were lucky just to figure out who had won the election - never mind the statistics. The important pieces of numerical data (for example, James Demint's margin of victory in the 1803 election for the position of Fence Viewer in Greene County, Ohio1) from before 1825 seemed lost to the past. Many people recognized how useful such figures could be in analysing demographic, electoral and geographic trends throughout the post-Revolutionary period of American history. They could tell historians about the growth of parties in early American political culture, for instance. However, the information seemed inaccessible, and a glaring gap in Almanacs and Encyclopaedias persisted for the better part of two centuries.

Florida Morning

The sun rose up in Gainesville, Florida and bothered Philip Lampi into consciousness. He had been fast asleep in his car, parked facing the west, towards the Gulf, to give him a few more minutes of sleep that morning. In his bleary haze, he brushed the crumbs from a peanut butter sandwich from his chest and tried to readjust for a few more minutes of shut-eye. But the sun was too strong and the inside of his eyelids were hotly alerting him, Phil, we've got miles to go today.

He stepped out of the car and onto the mostly deserted parking lot of a library at the University of Florida. He stretched his cramped body. It was a Sunday morning, and he was no doubt awake before the vast majority of the notoriously raucous undergraduate population. Lampi never attended college himself, but he had come to respect the institution of higher education. The libraries were certainly useful.

Philip was just a few years out of high school, and if he had been a bit luckier, he could have been in a campus dormitory himself right now. He was an orphan. Well, not exactly. His mother was alive, but his father (who he never met) had divorced her before Philip was born. It was in the midst of World War Two, and his mother was working in a factory during the day and as a waitress at night. She decided to give him up to the state. That was in Massachusetts. He had been tossed around various foster homes around Massachusetts for much of his youth. Fitchburg. Leominster. Groton. He had finally settled down in the town of Barre, where there was an orphanage called the Stetson School. Some weekends, he visited his mother. He attended Barre High School, and one day when he was sixteen, as he looked through a 1959 World Almanac for his homework, he noticed an anomaly. Some election data for the Presidential election of 1852 was arranged oddly - much different from the rest of the information. He decided to fix it, and spent many of his teenage hours reorganising the data, filling in gaps and creating a definitive chart of the 1852 election. It was his first taste of what would become an obsession. This activity kept him occupied until he graduated high school and shipped down to Florida to get a job at a fruit factory with a friend.

Philip Lampi walked into the library, sat down where he had been the night before and resumed his work. He took out his binders, notebooks and began to copy out the information he pulled out of the library's archives. He might not talk to another human being for the rest of the day.

Lampi's Odyssey

It hadn't been done for two hundred years. There's a good chance it might never have been done.
-Philip Lampi

In 1973, Lampi began a marauding tour of the libraries, city halls and archives of the eastern United States, searching for electoral data to copy. This was before the widespread proliferation of photocopy machines, so most of his data was written out in his beautiful, flowing handwriting. It was a painstaking process. He had to find out when each election was (there could be dozens in one calendar year) and then search for newspapers or official documents with the results. Then each result had to be tabulated. This same process was repeated for every office (from President to Senator, Representative, Governor, State Senator, Sheriff, etc), for every year, for every locality and for nominations as well as actual results.

He mostly subsisted on peanut butter and lost twenty pounds. He slept in his car, and rented a hotel room only every few days, when he needed a shower. He was encouraged along the way by a few historians and professors that he met, who recognised that if Lampi gave up what had become a quest to chart out all of America's early electoral history, that probably no one would ever attempt to collect this data. When he made his way up to Massachusetts, he was allowed special access to the documents of the American Antiquarian Society, which boasts the largest collection of early American documents in the country (by virtue of the fact that the British never got around to burning their collection during the War of 1812). He was actually given a fellowship with the society, and used their documents to full advantage.

In Massachusetts, he took a job as a night watchman at the Stetson School - the orphanage he had grown up in (though by then it was no longer an orphanage). At night, he would work on his tabulations for two hours at a time in between his rounds. He spent about twelve years as a night watchman, occasionally vacationing to some exotic archive to meet new and exciting data.

Over time, word spread through some historical circles of his accomplishment in collating the election returns of early America. He was given a full-time job with the American Antiquarian Society, and the Federal Government authorised a grant to digitise his data and place it on the internet. Most of his election data can now be found at A New Nation Votes, where a team of researchers has stored the bulk of Lampi's voluminous data - until then contained in three-ring binders and spiral notebooks. The information he has spent a lifetime compiling has since been used in many studies and histories of the post-revolutionary period. Lampi remains as busy as ever, working at the Antiquarian Society, helping with the 'A New Nation Votes' project and even finding new electoral data. Lampi remains determined to continue in his project until he dies, and regrets only that he probably will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. He has gained prominence as a notable historical and political mind in recent years and has guest-lectured at prestigious universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Brown and Harvard.

Yet Lampi's life story remains somewhat unsatisfying in the contemporary sense. He is, by all accounts, an extremely nice, soft-spoken man. He wears thick glasses that make his eyes look enormous - no doubt from a lifetime of scrutinizing tiny print. Yet there is no sweet Penelope at the end of this 'odyssey', no grandchildren to spoil. Lampi, the orphan, never made a family for himself. The reason for this could perhaps be the lesson of his story; he could not have accomplished his life's work with the obligations of parents, children, a wife and a full-time job. Perhaps the only way to truly make a difference in the world is uncompromising obsession.

1The answer, incidentally, is 27. It was a landslide.

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