The Expansion of the Vote: A White Man’s Democracy

At the heart of the new legitimacy of the Second (Two) Party System, and their forthright celebration of democracy, was the dramatic expansion of voting rights for white men.

After the Revolution, most states retained some property requirements preventing poor people from voting. Republicans believed citizens needed an economic stake in society to be trusted to vote wisely.

As industrial wage labor began to create dependent laborers on a large new scale, the older republican commitment to propertied voters fell out of favor. As property requirements for voting were abolished, economic status disappeared as a foundation for citizenship. By 1840 more than 90 percent of adult white men possessed the right to vote.

Voters could now cast their opinion for more offices. Previously, governors and presidential electors had been selected by state legislatures. The growing democratic climate of the first decades of the 19th century changed this and increasingly all offices were chosen by direct vote. The United States was the world leader in allowing popular participation in elections.

At the same time that state legislatures opened suffrage (that is, the right to vote) to all white men, they simultaneously closed the door firmly on white women and free African Americans. This movement was especially disappointing since it represented a retreat from a broader sense of political rights that had been included in some early state constitutions.

New Jersey revised its state constitution to prevent all women from voting, as well as all free blacks. New York acted similarly in 1821 when its legislature extended the franchise to almost all white men, but simultaneously created high property requirements for free blacks. As a result, only 68 of the 13,000 free African Americans in New York City could vote in 1825.

Tragically, the democratization of American politics to include nearly universal white manhood suffrage also intensified discrimination by race and gender. The idea of total democracy remained too radical for full implementation.

Source: The Expansion of the Vote: A White Man’s Democracy
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