Rise of Democratic Politics

In 1821, political parties were nonexistent and voters generally deferred to the leadership of local elites. Direct appeals by candidates for support were considered in poor taste. Election procedures were, by later standards, quite undemocratic. Most states imposed property and taxpaying requirements on the white adult males who alone had the vote, and they conducted voting by voice. Presidential electors were generally chosen by state legislatures. Citizens had only the most indirect say in the election of the president, as a result, voting participation was extremely low, amounting to less than 30 percent of adult white males.

Between 1820 and 1840, a revolution took place in American politics. In most states, property qualifications for voting and office holding were repealed; and voting by voice was largely eliminated. Direct methods of selecting presidential electors, county officials, state judges, and governors replaced indirect methods. Because of these and other political innovations, voter participation skyrocketed. By 1840 voting participation had reached unprecedented levels. Nearly 80 percent of adult white males went to the polls.

A new two-party system, made possible by an expanded electorate, replaced the leadership by elites. By the mid-1830s, two national political parties with philosophical differences, strong organizations, and wide popular appeal competed in virtually every state. Professional party managers used partisan newspapers, speeches, parades, rallies, and barbecues to mobilize popular support. Our modern political system had been born.

The Expansion of Voting Rights: The most significant political innovation of the early nineteenth century was the abolition of property qualifications for voting and office holding. Under the new constitution adopted in 1821, all adult white males were allowed to vote, so long as they paid taxes or had served in the militia. Five years later, an amendment to the state’s constitution eliminated the taxpaying and militia qualifications—establishing universal white manhood suffrage. By 1840, universal white manhood suffrage had become a reality.

In order to encourage popular participation in politics, most states also instituted statewide nominating conventions, opened polling places in more convenient locations, extended the hours that polls were open, and eliminated the earlier practice of voting by voice. This last reform did not truly institute the secret ballot. Each party had a different colored ballot, which voters deposited in a publicly viewed ballot box, so those present, knew who had voted for which party. By 1824 only 6 of the nation’s 24 states still chose presidential electors in the state legislature, and eight years later the only state still to do so was South Carolina. States also reduced residency requirements for voting. Immigrant males were permitted to vote in most states if they had declared their intention to become citizens. States also allowed voters to choose presidential electors, governors, and county officials.

While universal white manhood suffrage was becoming a reality, restrictions on voting by African Americans and women remained in force. Most states also explicitly denied the right to vote to free African Americans. By 1858 free blacks were eligible to vote in just four northern states: New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Source: Rise of Democratic Politics
Copyright 2016 Digital History

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