History of Sufferage
SUFFERAGE - A history of voting rights
The history of the right to vote in the United States suggests an inevitable progress toward democracy. In colonial America property qualifications limited the right to vote, whereas suffrage today is open to all citizens at the age of eighteen. The colonists regarded the suffrage as a privilege; Americans today consider it a right. But this interpretation obscures long periods in which various groups—women, black men, and paupers—were disfranchised.
The history of American suffrage begins in England in 1430, when Parliament restricted the vote in county parliamentary elections to persons owning land that generated an annual income of at least forty shillings. English boroughs had a hodgepodge of criteria for their elections. Laws also excluded aliens, servants, non-Anglicans, and women.
The colonies initially established suffrage requirements that resembled the rules of the boroughs, but by the early eighteenth century lawmakers came to emulate the spirit of the law of 1430. For example, Massachusetts at first enfranchised all male adult Congregational church members, but excluded Anglican property owners. Pressure in post-Restoration England compelled the colony to allow propertied Anglicans over the age of twenty-four to vote alongside twenty-one-year-old propertyless Congregational church members.
After the Glorious Revolution, the charter of 1691 established a modified version of the election act of 1430. Elsewhere in New England and in New York, the forty-shilling freehold was reproduced; frequently it involved a freehold of a certain size (often fifty acres) or value (usually forty or fifty pounds). Several New England colonies also allowed a personal estate of forty pounds as a substitute.
Because land was readily available, the application of English standards created a large electorate. Eligibility ranged from about 50 to 80 percent of free males. Moreover, because most free men eventually acquired land, the landholding qualification functioned most often only as an age requirement.
Voters also had to meet religious, racial, and residency requirements. Some colonies disfranchised dissenting Protestants, Catholics, and Jews until 1689; thereafter, most excluded only non-Protestants. Free blacks were disfranchised in every southern colony during part of the colonial era, and ten colonies established residency requirements.
Colonial and revolutionary Americans believed that a man's economic independence earned him membership in the political community. His autonomy supposedly enabled him to make independent political decisions; his economic stake in society would impel him to act in the public interest. The disfranchisement of propertyless males grew partly out of the related belief that economic dependence encouraged corruption, and that economic grievances endangered property rights.
During the crises leading to the Revolution, quarrels about representation caused a reconsideration of relations among property, taxation, and voting. Americans insisted that Parliament lacked the authority to tax unrepresented subjects. Extending this argument, many claimed that taxpayers, not only property holders, needed the vote to protect themselves against excessive taxation. By 1790, five states permitted all male (in some states only white male) taxpayers to vote for all or some offices. The states also relied increasingly upon residency, not land ownership, as evidence of one's attachment to the community. Virtually all set one to two years as the required length of residency.
The Revolution itself and the subsequent turmoil in the states threatened to sever political rights from their economic moorings. During the war many Americans argued that the polity should include those men who supported the Revolution, without reference to property. Tories, no matter how much property they possessed, were denied the vote. After the war, residency requirements took the place of loyalty oaths.
For all the alterations in political rights wrought by the Revolution, far more than half the adult population remained disfranchised. Among them were many propertyless men, women, slaves, some free black men, apprentices, indentured laborers, felons, and those considered mentally incompetent. Slaves and indentured servants were excluded because of their legal dependence upon a master, felons and the mentally impaired because they showed no attachment to the community or were considered incompetent.
Women were excluded because of a presumed incapacity for sound reasoning. Only in New Jersey were women enfranchised. The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 granted the vote to all inhabitants "worth" fifty pounds who had resided in a voting place for one year. In subsequent years, election officials interpreted the provision literally and permitted propertied women to vote. New Jersey, however, was the exception.
But the revolutionary struggle had significantly expanded the electorate. During the Revolution states with poll taxes and taxpayer franchises (such as North Carolina and New Hampshire) established nearly universal free male suffrage. When suffrage qualifications were tied to the value of an estate, wartime inflation eroded barriers. All states ended religious restrictions on voting. At war's end, the eligible electorate numbered from 60 to 90 percent of free males, with most states edging close to the high end of that range.
Between the Revolution and the Civil War, politically active Americans carried forward the Revolution's ambiguous legacy. Because property ownership was widespread, it no longer served as a benchmark for citizenship. Political incapacity continued to be linked to gender. Most men thought of women as politically incompetent and thus connected civic virtue with masculinity. But white Americans also linked civic virtue to race. Blacks were seen as incapable of civic virtue, white men as naturally virtuous. Between 1790 and 1860 almost every state, old and new, disfranchised free blacks while expanding the electorate to include almost all white adult male citizens.
The suffrage requirements of the frontier states were more democratic than eastern ones. Beginning with Kentucky in 1792, all but two western states embraced white male adult suffrage; in the East, all but two states retained either a property or taxpaying qualification for all or part of the period from 1820 to 1860. Several western states even enfranchised aliens who had established permanent residence and Indians who had given up tribal citizenship. The new West's rapid movement toward universal white manhood suffrage was facilitated by insecure land titles, the erosion of social distinctions, the desire to attract new settlers, and the belief that Indians could eventually become enough like whites to exercise political rights intelligently. Electoral competition everywhere also encouraged politicians to lower suffrage qualifications so they could portray themselves as champions of popular democracy.
With the advent of the second American party system, Democrats and Whigs hotly disagreed about the scope of political rights. The Democrats, worried less about civic virtue and more about each man's need to defend himself against governmental tyranny, viewed the suffrage as an inherent right of white males. The Whigs largely accepted republican notions of a hierarchical organic society and therefore treated the suffrage as a privilege. But by 1850, electoral pressure had converted most Whigs to the idea of white male democracy.
Only in the state of Rhode Island did politicians resist the trend. The state's requirement that a man own a $134 freehold in order to vote became increasingly restrictive as the Rhode Island economy shifted from agriculture toward industry. By the early 1840s more than half of the state's male population was disfranchised. But a reform effort led by Thomas Dorr, after holding an extralegal constitutional convention in 1841 and an extralegal gubernatorial election, sparked some liberalization of suffrage requirements.
In Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 three hundred female and male reformers asserted the right of women to vote. The idea of woman suffrage grew in response to the nearly universal enfranchisement of white males and female participation in abolitionism after the 1820s. But in a culture that exalted the domestic role of women, few people argued the merits of female enfranchisement.
Although suffrage had always been regulated by state constitutions and statutes and local ordinances, woman suffragists after the Civil War hoped for national enfranchisement alongside newly freed black men. But they lost as traditional notions of woman's place predominated in Congress: the Fourteenth Amendment tacitly endorsed suffrage restrictions based upon sex.
Congress, in an act unique among postemancipation societies, admitted freedmen to membership in the political community. In so doing, congressmen imagined that the suffrage would give the freedmen the ability to protect themselves and their families from exploitation. The Republican-dominated Congress also enfranchised black men to strengthen Republican control in the southern states. Black male suffrage became national in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from discriminating against potential voters because of race or previous condition of servitude (but not sex).
The amendment was partially successful. For most of Reconstruction, blacks voted and often used their resulting political power to protect their other rights. Although white Democrats overthrew Reconstruction by forcibly keeping blacks from the polls, thereafter they generally eschewed violence. Instead, they relied upon discriminatory apportionment and election laws to limit black and poor white political influence, and in the 1890s and 1900s, imposed poll taxes and literacy and property requirements through constitutional revisions. Thus they disfranchised virtually all black men and many poor whites, and thereby ensured Democratic hegemony.
At the same time, northern ballot reformers sought to "purify" the election process, thereby reducing the size of the electorate. The secret ballot eliminated vote-buying, but also voters who were illiterate in English. Formal literacy tests were adopted in a dozen northern states by the early twentieth century. Strict voter registration laws placed the burden of proving eligibility on citizens.
The disfranchisement of growing numbers of blacks and immigrants was applauded by many woman suffragists, who argued that the enfranchisement of native white women would secure the social order, whereas undesirable black and immigrant male voters endangered it. This conservative turn did not appreciably help their cause. Neither did the reunification of the movement in 1890 under a new organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Despite the changing role of women in American society (as more women entered the workplace, became educated, bore fewer children, and spent less time caring for them), the movement met increased resistance from the liquor industry (which feared female support for prohibition) and the textile industry (which feared female support for restrictions on child labor). Beneath such practical concerns lay a more deeply felt anxiety about changing sex roles.
But the adoption of more vigorous tactics and the triumph of progressive reforms throughout the country (which made woman suffrage appear to be less radical) stimulated massive support for woman suffrage. In 1916, the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed female enfranchisement; in 1919 Congress approved, and a year later the states ratified, the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
As women were gaining the suffrage, blacks sought its restoration in the South. The naacp, established in 1909, pursued reenfranchisement through litigation. At first, it successfully closed loopholes in southern disfranchisement that had permitted some poor, illiterate whites to vote. But its most important early success was the Supreme Court's 1944 decision prohibiting the white primary. The Court ruled that Texas had made the party primary part of the public electoral process; therefore the white-only primary violated black rights under the Fifteenth Amendment.
Despite that victory, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the manipulation of election laws by local registrars effectively excluded the vast majority of black adults. The struggle for southern enfranchisement (a major goal of the civil rights movement) accelerated after World War II for several reasons, among them the belief that the United States was hypocritical in claiming that it was defending freedom against Soviet communism while oppressing African-Americans at home. But the most important reason was the migration of millions of black southerners to the North, where blacks already voted. That circumstance gave blacks political leverage on both parties. But because Democrats hoped to retain the allegiance of southern white voters and Republicans wished to attract those voters, weak compromises resulted in the form of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, which ineffectually authorized federal protection of black voting rights.
The civil rights struggle intensified in the early 1960s. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, activists focused increasingly on the suffrage. The Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 registered few black Mississippians but drew national attention to black disfranchisement. Then, in March 1965, the Alabama State Troopers' assault on marchers outside the town of Selma generated so much support for national protection of black voters that President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded passage of an effective voting rights act, which he signed into law in August. When combined with prohibition of the poll tax in federal elections by the Twenty-third Amendment and a sweeping Supreme Court decision in 1966, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sparked the registration of the vast majority of eligible black southerners.
Thus, amendments to the U.S. Constitution and federal law enfranchised virtually all male and female citizens at the age of twenty-one. But U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War revived a claim made since the Revolution that men old enough to fight were also old enough to vote: in 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen.