In which Americans give the vote to anybody who shows up.
Keeping government in the hands of the most important citizens of a community was such a strong tradition that at first it didn’t even occur to anyone in the new United States to change it. In 1790 every state in the Union allowed only men with property to vote. It was generally believed that anyone who couldn’t accumulate some sort of property was far too irresponsible to be given a voice in government. On the other hand, some other colonial restrictions on voting were dropped immediately upon independence. No states kept their colonial prohibitions against Jews voting, and many allowed free blacks to vote.
Many Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson especially) believed that only a freehold – the ownership of a farm – could give a citizen the independence to act as an impartial voter. They believed that tenant farmers, laborers, apprentices and servants could be bullied by their masters into voting how they were told; even shopkeepers were considered to be at the mercy of their customers. Giving a vote to these lesser folk would only amplify their masters’ voting strength. A free farmer, on the other hand, was self-sufficient, beyond coercion, and able vote his conscience. Fortunately, with so much open land on which to set up small farms, property qualifications in the early US were easy to meet.
It didn’t take long for most states to realize that real estate was not the only measure of a man’s position in a community. Urban tradesmen and professionals were especially eager to see this definition expanded, and the qualification was often changed from land ownership to total household worth, or maybe just paying taxes, which was a much simpler and more flexible standard anyway. In keeping with the republican spirit of the times, most states set extremely low requirements that allowed just about any homeowner to vote.
Finally the states went all out and started dropping financial requirements altogether, letting all men vote willy-nilly. Most new states after the first thirteen had universal white male suffrage right from the start, beginning with Vermont in 1791 and Kentucky in 1792, while older states dropped their financial limitations over time, beginning with Delaware and New Hampshire in 1792. By 1840, only three states (Louisiana, Rhode Island and Virginia) still restricted voting to men of property; all the rest allowed every citizen -- every free white adult male citizen -- to vote.
Why would established voters willingly dilute their own political strength by giving the vote to everyone with a pulse and facial hair? In a country that had recently fought a war for freedom, ideology played a big part.
As Benjamin Franklin explained:
Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime 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?
But on a more practical level, the vote was often expanded because of the militia. The Founders didn’t trust a peacetime army. The saw it as a tool of oppression, and tried to keep it as small as possible. To take up the slack, they expected the citizenry to rally to the flag in times of war and then go home when the enemy was beaten.
They were proven wrong the very first time the country went to war. During the War of 1812, the low pay, hardships and danger of army life – along with the general unpopularity of the war itself - made it difficult to recruit enough soldiers to fill out the regular army. Instead, the United States had been forced to call up the militia, which had no choice in the matter. By law, every able-bodied white man in the community was required to fight when called upon; however, sending disenfranchised soldiers off to fight a war they had no control over hurt morale and undermined enthusiasm. To rekindle their patriotism, New York, Connecticut and Mississippi tried adding military exemptions to the property qualifications needed to vote.
In the South, the militia got heavy use on slave patrols hunting runaways. In these states, universal white, male suffrage promoted a spirit of racial solidarity and encouraged working class whites to think of themselves as members of the ruling elite instead of wondering why they were being called out on a rainy night to track down some rich man’s missing property.
In the West, underpopulated frontier states offered liberal voting rights as a benefit to attract new settlers. And finally, at some point the country decided that having every voter requalify before every election was just not worth all the extra paperwork. There were too many borderline cases that needed to be decided one at a time – perhaps problems of joint ownership, recent business losses or disputed assessments. Such a complex system opened up too many opportunities for election fraud and buying votes.ⓐ
Once universal suffrage started to show up anywhere in the electoral process, it became political suicide for a party to oppose it elsewhere. In some jurisdictions, voting qualifications were broader for some elections than for others. For example, New York and North Carolina had strict property qualifications when voting for their upper house but not when voting for their lower house, which meant that any party that opposed universal franchise for the upper house (usually the Federalists) could be easily punished in elections for the lower house. The same thing happened when citizens of St. Louis who were too poor to vote for state offices in Missouri were allowed to vote in municipal elections. They voted against the party that refused to expand the state franchise.
Except Women and People of Color
One unfortunate side effect of universal white, male suffrage was that the new laws plugged some earlier loopholes that had allowed lesser people to have a small voice in government. In New Jersey, voting had originally been limited to any “inhabitant” owning property, but the 1807 rewrite specified now that voting was limited to men only. In many free states, the rewrites now limited voting specifically to white males. Admittedly, there hadn’t been a lot of female or free black property owners rich enough to vote under the old system, but now they would never even get the chance. By the time of the Civil War, only five states in liberal New England①
allowed black men to vote under the same conditions as white men. ⓑ
Even so, it was becoming more difficult to reconcile the fine oratory of freedom with the whole concept of slavery. Most of the Founding Father disliked slavery on some level and hoped it would die out. But in Jefferson’s words, they had the wolf by the ears. “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” In the southern states, where tropical cash crops worked by tropical slaves were the mainstay of the economy, very few people in power wanted to let go of such a profitable institution, nor release thousands of uncontrolled Africans into their communities. But in the northern states, where slaves were less common and mostly just a handful of household servants, drivers and assistant carpenters, it was a lot easier for society to follow its moral compass and set them all free. Before the US had even gotten past its 3rd president, all the northern states abolished slavery, beginning with Vermont in 1777 and ending with New Jersey in 1804. Then they turned around started pestering their southern neighbors to do the same.
That wasn’t all. Soon women began to ask for a voice in government. Overall, the big three social reform movements of the early nineteenth century – the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol, and women's suffrage -- were intertwined. Supporters of one movement were usually sympathetic to the other movements as well, although outright cooperation could be awkward. The spark for the women's rights movement came in the spring of 1840 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her new husband honeymooned as delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England, just like any other romantic young American couple. The leadership of the convention, however, did not want the abolition of slavery to become associated in the public mind with a lot of crazy talk about women's rights, so they voted to keep all the female delegates silenced, off the convention floor and seated separately where they could be kept under control. (To be fair, a lot of the heavyweights of the antislavery movement like William Lloyd Garrison were appalled at this snub, but they lacked the votes to do anything about it.) While bitching about this to one another in the cheap seats (I’m just guessing there), Elizabeth Cady Stanton met and became friends with Lucretia Mott, long an idol of hers. Eventually they decided to organize America's first women's rights convention in Stanton's hometown of Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848.
Most feminists were abolitionists and vice versa, but they split over which was more important. Among the general population, the abolition of slavery was more popular than women’s rights because only a few voters had slaves but many had wives. The strategic question among activists was whether connecting the two issues would look like a slippery slope from one to the other. And did this boost support for women’s rights more than it dragged down support for abolition? Mott remained an abolitionist first and foremost; she was willing to compromise her feminist ideals to fight slavery. In contrast, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to support the 14th and 15th Amendments establishing civil rights for ex-slaves because these did not include women.
A similar rift was appearing in the battle against alcohol, which was mostly a progressive issue because drinking was destroying the lives of the poor. Susan B. Anthony began her activist career fighting alcohol, and one of the earliest feminist issues was the need to give women the ability to divorce drunken and abusive husbands. The Sons of Temperance had invited their sister group, the Daughters of Temperance, to attend their 1852 meeting in Albany, but when Anthony rose to speak, the chairman informed her “the sisters were not invited there to speak but to listen and learn”. Later that year, delegates Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer were kept out of the men-only New York State Temperance Convention at Syracuse, NY, so they arranged their own rival meeting on the dangers of drunkenness at a nearby church. The World’s Temperance Convention in New York in September 1853 schismed into two competing meetings, one for men only and another across town that included both women and men who were willing to talk with women.
In a short time, the women’s rights became its own movement, with national organizations, local charters and annual conventions that had nothing to do with slavery or drinking. Grace Greenwood, an early woman journalist, characterized the leadership rather well: “Lucretia Mott may be said to be the soul of this movement, and Mrs. Stanton the mind, the swift, keen intelligence. Miss Anthony alert, aggressive and indefatigable, is its nervous energy, its propulsive force.” ⓒ
The feminist movement couldn’t agree on how to approach religion. Stanton was an outspoken critic of the role the churches had played in oppressing women, and she often attacked the whole concept of religion itself, hoping to tear up the roots of women’s subjugation. Susan Anthony, in contrast, was a devout Quaker who tried to convince religious leaders to change their ways and support women’s rights. This made Stanton a lot less popular than Anthony, which may partially explain why Anthony and not Stanton ended up on the first American coin to honor a mortal woman.
① Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont had racial equality. New York allowed black men with property to vote, but had no such restriction on white voters. ⓐ Robert E. DiClerico, Voting in America: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2004) ⓑ Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States ( ⓒ Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, Woman Suffrage And Politics: The Inner Story Of The Suffrage Movement. (Charles Scribner's Sons 1926)