Cover image for The right to vote : the contested history of democracy in the United States
The right to vote : the contested history of democracy in the United States
Keyssar, Alexander.
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Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2000]

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xxiv, 467 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1580 Lexile.
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JK1846 .K48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Most Americans take for granted their right to vote, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But the history of suffrage in the U.S. is, in fact,the story of a struggle to achieve this right by our society's marginalized groups. In The Right to Vote, Duke historian Alexander Keyssar explores the evolution of suffrage over the course of the nation's history. Examining the many features of the history of the right to vote in the U.S.--class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and age--the book explores the conditions under which American democracy has expanded and contracted over the years.Keyssar presents convincing evidence that the history of the right to vote has not been one of a steady history of expansion and increasing inclusion, noting that voting rights contracted substantially in the U.S. between 1850 and 1920. Keyssar also presents a controversial thesis: that the primary factor promoting the expansion of the suffrage has been war and the primary factors promoting contraction or delaying expansion have been class tension and class conflict.

Author Notes

Alexander Keyssar is Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

HAmerica's self-image as the land of democracy flows from the belief that we've long enjoyed universal suffrageDor at least aspired to it. Duke historian Keyssar (Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts) convincingly shows that, though distinctive in some ways, the evolution of the franchise in America is similar to that in other countries: highly contested, with retreats as well as advances, containing within it the sharp reflections of larger struggles for power. America's basic claim to exceptionalismDearly white manhood suffrageDwas, according to Keyssar, part historical accident and part mistake, adopted before a European-style urban working class emerged. Keyssar identifies four periods: one of expansion from the Constitution's signing to around 1850; a period of contraction lasting until around WWI, in which the upper and middle classes demonstrated hostility to universal suffrage; a period of mixed, minor adjustments lasting till the 1960s, when the fourth period beganDthe civil rights movementDwhich inaugurated the removal of most of the remaining barriers. Various historical dynamics, such as economic development, immigration and class relations, underlie this periodization, expressed, Keyssar says, in shifting ideologies: voting as a right versus voting as a privilege or trust, while lack of financial independence was repeatedly used to justify excluding whole categories of voters. These large background shifts outline the tortured ebb and flow of suffrage: the post-Civil War enfranchisement of blacks and its rollback, the 70-year struggle for women's suffrage, the restoration of black voting rights in the 1960s. This is a masterful historical account of a complex, contradictory legacy. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

American democratic principles of government seem to demand that all persons with even a remote stake in government should have the right to vote. Historians and political scientists realize that this interpretation has not always been the case. Keyssar provides an interesting and useful study of how the concept and practice of properly granting voting rights evolved throughout the nation. The original voting population was more diverse than most casual readers of US history probably think. A common conception is that only adult, white males shared in the original franchise. Keyssar's state-by-state study of voting rights shows the fallacy of that conception. Another common assumption about voting rights in this country is that they expanded only in the steady direction of increasing the eligible population. Keyssar shows clearly that the line of progression was anything but steady. While there were eras of genuine progress in expanding the franchise, there were also eras when voting rights were taken away from some groups that had previously voted. This book is highly recommended for any student of American politics. J. P. Sanson Louisiana State University at Alexandria



Chapter One In the Beginning Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers--but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass? --Benjamin Franklin, The Casket, or Flowers of Literature, Wit and Sentiment(1828) As the men who would later be called "the framers" of the United States Constitution trickled into Philadelphia during the late spring of 1787 (most of them arrived late), they had weighty issues on their minds: whether the Articles of Confederation should be revised or replaced with an altogether new plan of government; how the federal government could be made stronger without undermining the power of the states; resolving the already brewing conflict over the apportionment of representatives between large and small states; and contending with the freighted and divisive matter of slavery. Although the Revolutionary War had been won and independence achieved, a great deal still appeared to be hanging in the balance: as James Madison portentously noted, "it was more than probable" that the plan they came up with would "in its operation ... decide forever the fate of Republican Government."     With George Washington presiding and the energetic, carefully prepared Madison shaping many of the terms of debate, the fifty-five delegates to the convention wrestled, in closed sessions, with these and many other issues throughout the hot and humid summer. That they would succeed in devising a constitution acceptable to the twelve states that had sent them (not to mention Rhode Island, which had declined the invitation to attend) was far from certain; several impasses were reached in the first two months of deliberation, and by the end of July, many of the delegates were frustrated, impatient, and tired. Eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin, described by one of his fellow delegates as "the greatest philosopher of the present age," trudged wearily back and forth to the sessions, occasionally having to be carried in a sedan chair.     By mid-September, a constitution had been drafted and signed, and delegates began returning home to promote its ratification. The Articles of Confederation were to be scrapped; the increased--but restrained--powers of the federal government had been specified; the issues of state representation and slavery had been compromised; and a great many details outlining the operation of a new republican government had been etched in parchment. What British leader William E. Gladstone a century later would call "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain of man" was complete. The western world's most durable and perhaps most celebrated written blueprint for representative government was soon to become the fundamental law of North America's new nation.     Remarkably, this new constitution, born in celebration of "republican government," did not grant anyone the right to vote. The convention's debates about suffrage, held during the doldrums of late July and early August, were brief, and the final document made little mention of the breadth of the franchise. Only section 2 of article 1 addressed the issue directly: it declared that in elections to the House of Representatives "the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature." More obliquely, section 1 of article 2 indicated that the legislature of each state had the right to determine the "manner" in which presidential electors would be selected, while article 4 entrusted the federal government with a vague mandate to "guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." Otherwise, the Constitution was mute--from which much would follow. The Received Legacy For more than a decade before the founding fathers arrived in Philadelphia, individual states had been writing their own suffrage laws. These laws almost everywhere were shaped by colonial precedents and traditional English patterns of thought. The lynchpin of both colonial and British suffrage regulations was the restriction of voting to adult men who owned property. On the eve of the American Revolution, in seven colonies men had to own land of specified acreage or monetary value in order to participate in elections; elsewhere, the ownership of personal property of a designated value (or in South Carolina, the payment of taxes) could substitute for real estate.     Both in England and in the colonies, property requirements had long been justified on two grounds. The first was that men who possessed property (especially "real property," i.e., land and buildings) had a unique "stake in society"--meaning that they were committed members of (or shareholders in) the community and that they had a personal interest in the policies of the state, especially taxation. The second was that property owners alone possessed sufficient independence to warrant their having a voice in governance. As Henry Ireton had argued in England in the seventeenth century, "if there be anything at all that is the foundation of liberty, it is this, that those who shall choose the law-makers shall be men freed from dependence upon others." And the best way to be "freed" from such dependence, or so it was believed, was through the ownership of property, especially real estate. Conversely, the ballot was not to be entrusted to those who were economically dependent, because they could too easily be controlled or manipulated by others. Such control may have seemed particularly plausible in the six colonies in which voting was viva voce--although advocates of secret paper ballots pointed out that disfranchisement was not the only solution to that problem. Indeed, implicit in the argument for independence was another notion, often unspoken but especially resonant in the colonies, where economic opportunities were believed to abound: that anyone who failed to acquire property was of questionable competence and unworthy of full membership in the polity.     These concerns also prompted other restrictions on voting. Many colonies instituted residency requirements to exclude transients who presumably lacked the requisite stake in the colony's affairs; for similar reasons, some made citizenship, of England or the province, a prerequisite for voting. To guarantee that those who were dependent could not vote, several colonies formally barred all servants from the polls, while others expressly excluded paupers. Women too were prohibited from voting, because they were thought to be dependent on adult men and because their "delicacy" rendered them unfit for the worldly experiences necessary for engagement in politics. In addition, there were limitations on the franchise that had more to do with social membership in the community than with a person's independence or stake in society. Freedmen of African or Amerindian descent were denied the ballot in much of the South. In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, only members of the Congregational church could vote; in the eighteenth century, Catholics were disfranchised in five states and Jews in four.     As these details suggest, aside from property qualifications, there were no firm principles governing colonial voting rights, and suffrage laws accordingly were quite varied. Not only Catholics and Jews, but also Native Americans, free blacks, and nonnaturalized aliens could vote in some places and not in others. Women were barred expressly in several colonies, including Virginia, but statutes elsewhere made no reference to gender, and in at least a few Massachusetts towns and New York counties propertied widows did legally vote. Absentee landowners were enfranchised in Virginia in 1736, which often meant that they could vote in more than one place. In practice, moreover, the enforcement or application of suffrage laws was uneven and dependent on local circumstances.     Of equal importance, the qualifications to vote in local elections--especially in the cities and larger towns--often differed from those needed to vote for colonial or provincial officers. These differences had two sources. The first was political or institutional. Royal charters for incorporated cities frequently spelled out precise suffrage rules, and those rules commonly granted political citizenship to men who had commercial affairs--rather than a residence--within the city limits. The breadth of the franchise in New York City, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Norfolk, Virginia, for example, was determined not by colonial general assemblies but by royal declaration and by the appointed officers who controlled the municipal corporations. The second reason for this municipal-colonial difference was economic: city and town dwellers possessed different types of property than did farmers, and consequently they sought to define property requirements in terms other than acreage or land. Although differently configured, city and town suffrage qualifications were not uniformly more strict or more lenient than were the qualifications for voting in the countryside.     Did the right to vote expand or contract during the colonial era? Were the colonies becoming more or less democratic, in their suffrage rules? The evidence is mixed. Some broadening of the franchise certainly occurred: religious restrictions, for non-church members and Protestant dissenters, tended to be relaxed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; municipal corporations began to grant the franchise to freeholders as well as men of commerce; and both Massachusetts and Virginia enacted laws that reduced the property requirements for voting. Yet the colonial era also witnessed some statutory contraction of the suffrage. The initial laws restricting the franchise to property owners generally were passed only decades after the colonies were settled, and in several colonies, including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia (which had a notably nonlinear franchise history), property requirements became more stringent over time. Moreover, the legal exclusion of Catholics, as well as African Americans, mulattoes, and Native Americans, took place primarily in the eighteenth century. Whether these laws altered rather than codified existing practices is unclear; but the statutes seem to have been more restrictive by the middle of the eighteenth century than they had been in the seventeenth.     What also is unclear is just how many people could and did vote. This issue is a source of controversy among historians, some of whom conclude that colonial America was a land of middle-class democracy in which 80 or 90 percent of all adult white males were enfranchised, while others depict a far more oligarchic and exclusive political order. In fact, enfranchisement varied greatly by location. There certainly were communities, particularly newly settled communities where land was inexpensive, in which 70 or 80 percent of all white men were enfranchised. Yet there were also locales--including coastal towns (e.g., Ipswich, Massachusetts), farming counties (Westchester, New York, and Chester, Pennsylvania), cities (e.g., Philadelphia and Boston), and even some frontier settlements (Kent, Connecticut)--where the percentages were far lower, closer to 40 or 50 percent. Levels of enfranchisement seem to have been higher in New England and in the South (especially Virginia and the Carolinas) than they were in the mid-Atlantic colonies (especially New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland); not surprisingly, they also tended to be higher in newer settlements than in more developed areas. On the whole, the franchise was far more widespread than it was in England, yet as the revolution approached, the rate of property ownership was falling, and the proportion of adult white males who were eligible to vote was probably less than 60 percent. The Revolution and the Vote The ultimate end of all freedom is the enjoyment of a right of free suffrage. --"A Watchman," Maryland Gazette , 1776 The "shot heard round the world" signaled the beginning of a new era in the history of the franchise. By challenging Britain's right to rule the colonies, the American Revolution sparked a far-reaching public debate about the nature and sources of legitimate governmental authority. The issue of suffrage was always near the center of that debate: if the legitimacy of a government depended on the consent of the governed (one of the key rhetorical claims of the revolution), then limitations on suffrage were intrinsically problematic, since voting was the primary instrument through which a populace could express or withhold consent.     Did the colonial franchise restrictions, then, have to be abolished? The question loomed large, and in many of the former colonies, the revolutionary period--stretching from the mid-1770s to the ratification of the Constitution--witnessed heated public exchanges and sharp political conflict over the franchise; in some locales, men voted--or were prevented from voting--through the use or threat of force. Challenges to the traditional class restraints on suffrage were critical ingredients in the democratic, rather than anti-imperial, thrust of the revolution.     The conflict over the franchise that erupted during the revolution involved--as such conflicts always would--both interests and ideas. The planters, merchants, and prosperous farmers who wielded power and influence in late-eighteenth-century affairs had an unmistakable interest in keeping the franchise narrow: a restricted suffrage would make it easier for them to retain their economic and social advantages. Conversely, tenant farmers, journeymen, and laborers (not to mention African Americans and women) had something to gain from the diffusion of political rights. Landowners would maximize their political power if the franchise were tied to freehold ownership, while city dwellers, shopkeepers, and artisans had a direct interest in replacing freehold requirements with taxpaying or personal property qualifications.     Yet the debates were not simply a self-interested shouting match between the haves and the have nots or between men who owned different types of property. For one thing, the haves were hardly unanimous in their views; nor presumably were the have nots, who left fewer written records. Furthermore, ideas--whether or not independent of interests--mattered to the haves and have nots alike. Participants in debates about the franchise surely were influenced by their own material interests, but they also were trying to grasp or invent ideas that meshed with social reality and harmonized with deeply held values. This was always true in American history, and never more so than during the revolution--an era of political experimentation and war in which ideas about politics possessed exceptional valence. Received notions were being looked at with fresh eyes, held up against the backdrop of changed circumstances; new ideas had to be tested against models of history and human nature. The founding fathers--and mothers, sons, and daughters--were trying to envision a new polity as well as a new state, and they felt some urgency about getting it right.     Throughout the ex-colonies, political leaders put forward several different arguments--some traditional, at least one new--to justify the retention of restrictions, particularly property restrictions, on the franchise. Implicit in these arguments was the claim that voting was not a right but a privilege, one that the state could legitimately grant or curtail in its own interest. Indeed, in early English usage, the word franchise referred to a privilege, immunity, or freedom that a state could grant, while the term suffrage alluded to intercessory prayers. Even Pennsylvanian James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and one of the more democratic of the founding fathers, described suffrage as a "darling privilege of free men" that could and should be "extended as far as considerations of safety and order will permit."     One such consideration was the stake in society notion inherited from the colonial period. Only men with property, preferably real property, were deemed to be sufficiently attached to the community and sufficiently affected by its laws to have earned the privilege of voting. Sometimes this argument was given a negative cast, with proponents insisting that the propertyless, if enfranchised, would constitute a menace to the maintenance of a well-ordered community. Defenders of property qualifications also maintained (as the British had to the colonists) that representation could be virtual rather than actual, and that consequently there was no need to enfranchise the poor. The interests of the propertyless, like those of women and children, could be represented effectively by wise, fair-minded, wealthy white men.     Those who opposed any expansion of suffrage also relied heavily on the belief that in order to vote a person had to be independent. This venerable idea, a staple of republican thought in the eighteenth century, was given influential expression in the late 1760s by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England . The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty. If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing those delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life. But, since that can hardly be expected in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications; whereby some, who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting, in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other.     Blackstone's reference to persons who were "in so mean a situation" that they had "no will of their own" (a phrasing that Blackstone appears to have lifted, without attribution, from Montesquieu) was repeated endlessly during the revolutionary era. In debates everywhere, from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Maryland to South Carolina, lawyers, merchants, and farmers defended property qualifications by quoting or paraphrasing Blackstone and by invoking the spectre of a demagogue coming to power through the manipulation of dependent men and women. Even Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most democratic leader of the revolution, accepted Blackstone's equation of property with independence and the right to vote--although Jefferson sought to solve that distasteful equation by advocating the distribution of free land to the propertyless. Thomas Paine also believed, in the 1770s, that voters should be personally independent, but by 1795 the experience of two revolutions had changed his mind and led him to advocate universal suffrage. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE RIGHT TO VOTE by ALEXANDER KEYSSAR. Copyright © 2000 by Alexander Keyssar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Introductionp. xv
Part I The Road to Partial Democracyp. 1
1 In the Beginningp. 3
The Received Legacyp. 5
The Revolution and the Votep. 8
The States and the Nationp. 21
2 Democracy Ascendantp. 26
The Course of Thingsp. 27
Sources of Expansionp. 33
Ideas and Argumentsp. 42
3 Backsliding and Sideslippingp. 53
Women, African Americans, and Native Americansp. 54
Paupers, Felons, and Migrantsp. 61
Registration and Immigrationp. 65
Democracy, the Working Class, and American Exceptionalismp. 67
A Case in Point: The War in Rhode Islandp. 71
Part II Narrowing the Portalsp. 77
4 Know-Nothings, Radicals, and Redeemersp. 81
Immigrants and Know-Nothingsp. 82
Race, War, and Reconstructionp. 87
The Strange Odyssey of the Fifteenth Amendmentp. 93
The Lesser Effects of Warp. 104
The South Redeemedp. 105
5 The Redemption of the Northp. 117
Losing Faithp. 119
Purifying the Electoratep. 127
Two Special Casesp. 162
Sovereignty and Self-Rulep. 166
The New Electoral Universep. 168
6 Women's Suffragep. 172
From Seneca Falls to the Fifteenth Amendmentp. 173
Citizenship and Texesp. 180
Regroupingp. 183
Doldrums and Democracyp. 196
A Mass Movementp. 202
The Nineteenth Amendmentp. 211
Aftermathp. 218
Part III Toward Universal Suffrage--and Beyondp. 223
7 The Quiet Yearsp. 225
Stasis and Its Sourcesp. 226
Franklin Roosevelt and the Death of Blackstonep. 237
War and Racep. 244
"Our Oldest National Minority,"p. 253
8 Breaking Barriersp. 256
Race and the Second Reconstructionp. 257
Universal Suffragep. 268
The Value of the Votep. 284
Two Uneasy Piecesp. 302
Getting the Electorate to the Pollsp. 311
Conclusion: The Project of Democracyp. 316
Appendix State Suffrage Lawsp. 325
Notesp. 403
Indexp. 453