The history of voting in America, Part I

A Liberal Dose


In November, most people’s thoughts (in the U.S., anyway) turn to two things: Thanksgiving and voting. Among other things, we are taught from childhood to be thankful for liberty and freedom; the vote (sometimes referred to as “the franchise”) is a fundamental part of that freedom and is therefore one of the things we should be most thankful for. “No taxation without representation” was one of the principles that led to the American Revolution and the creation of our nation. And yet, we probably take voting for granted more than just about any country. This is demonstrated by the fact that we have the lowest voter turnout anywhere in the western world. The right to vote was hard-fought and hard-won, with enormous struggle and sacrifice along the way, and if taken for granted could easily slip away. As Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, in Philadelphia, a woman in the crowd asked him, “Well, what have you given us?” He responded, “A republic, madame, if you can keep it.”

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men were created equal” (leaving women out entirely), not even all men were equal in the early republic where voting was concerned. Male slaves and male Native Americans, of course, did not have the franchise - but, and a lot of folks nowadays don’t realize this, neither did poor people. Each of the 13 states continued the policy they had followed when they were colonies: you could only vote if you owned a certain amount of property. So, if you were a free, white male aged 21 or older but you worked in a factory, or were hired labor on a farm, or were in training for a trade, you had no voice. The people in power, though, looked at it differently. They would tell you that you DID have a voice - theirs. This was the same argument Parliament gave to the colonists in the lead-up to the Revolution. Elected officials represent the whole country (or county, or district), so they represent you and your interests - you’re just not allowed to participate. Patriots were not willing to settle for that, yet at first they, too, limited the franchise.

Their argument was that, if you have a landlord or an employer, you are not really independent; there was a good chance you would vote, not your own conscience, but the will of the person who controlled your livelihood or your living conditions. A person of property, on the other hand, had an investment in the community and could be trusted to have a broader view. Interestingly, in the early days of the southern colonies - and in 10 of the first 13 states (Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina being the exceptions) - a free black man, if he owned property, could vote (free blacks had been able to vote in Virginia in the mid-1600s). This means that a free black man with a sizeable farm or a business, in North Carolina, could vote when many white men in his community could not. Race was obviously a major factor in his life, but -  at the time -so was class.

And so, too, was religion. Among the original 13 colonies, when they were colonies, only New York allowed Jewish people to vote. This changed when the new republic was established - but not everywhere. Jews were still not allowed to vote in many states, especially in the South. Those states argued that the Constitutional ban on having religious requirements to hold office applied on the federal level, not the state. Maryland was the last state to pass a law allowing non-Christians to vote, in 1826. Its many critics called it “The Jew Bill.”

For the first 50 years of America, then, only roughly 10 to 20 percent of citizens could vote. Next, we’ll examine how that started to change - positively, for some, but not for all.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.  


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