Contested Franchise

Part One

  Granted by the States   

“What is citizenship? What is implied therein, and what the duty of civil society as to defense and protections of rights therein implied? … those who examined it must have been pained by the fruitless search in the law books and the records of our courts for a clear and satisfactory definition of the phrase “citizen of the United States.”

 Congressman C.C. Bowen, 1869. 

A Perfect Confusion


The United States Constitution of 1787 made citizens.

However, it did not  explain who could be citizens. The only qualification Congress offered came in the 1790 Naturalization Act, which defined eligibility for immigrants to become citizens as those who were “white.”

The Bill of Rights described some civil rights for citizens, but the Constitution left political--and therefore voting--rights up to the states.

Without Federal rules, therefore, states freely granted or restricted voting rights as each saw fit. All thirteen original states imposed property qualifications to vote. To be an eligible voter, one had to own property. Interestingly, some states permitted landowning Black men to vote, and New Jersey allowed unmarried (and propertied) women to vote.

Otherwise, thirteen different states had thirteen different qualifications for who had the privilege of voting, and in thirteen different states, very few people qualified.

(Above) Extract from election law of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Reverend Alexander Lucius Twilight served as the first African American state legislator when elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1836. Courtesy of Orleans County Grammar Schools.

“Aristocratic nations are naturally too apt to narrow the scope of human perfectibility; democratic nations, to expand it beyond reason.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.

Jacksonian Democracy


Within a generation of the founding, Americans reconsidered who could vote, and who could not. The period after the War of 1812, popularly known as the age of Jacksonian Democracy, saw great expansion of the electorate—the White male electorate.

In the first fifty years of the 1800s most states revised their constitutions and dropped property qualifications for voting. These moves ushered in a period of universal (White) male suffrage--most adult White men were now allowed to vote.

White Americans boasted about their participation in the widest and freest electorate in the democratic world. Despite the exclusion of women and people of color, it was.

(Above) This political cartoon celebrates the expansion of the franchise to the workingmen of New York. Courtesy of Columbia University Libraries.

(Right) This ballot for Andrew Jackson encourages voters to “Sweep the Augean Stable”; in other words, the horse manure—or, the opposing party. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.