Last week we discussed how, in the early days of the country, there were many restrictions on voting. Not only could women, slaves, and Native Americans not vote, but even among white men, only those with substantial property could cast a ballot. Surprisingly, free black men who met the minimum property requirement could vote in 10 of the 13 original states (excluding Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina).
In the 1790s, after the Constitution and the government it mandated went into effect, property requirements became unpopular. There was more emphasis on individual liberty, and a man’s ownership of his own person and his own labor became, in the eyes of many, as important as the ownership of real estate. The first new state admitted to the Union, Vermont (in 1791), guaranteed the vote to all men, regardless of color or wealth. When Kentucky was admitted the following year, they made the same guarantees. Also in 1792, original states Delaware and New Hampshire removed property requirements; no new state admitted to the Union after 1800 had them. By 1825, only three states still had property requirements for white males: Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. Virginia’s requirement was $25, or $788 in today’s money; Rhode Island’s was $132, or $4,200 today. A few states in the North allowed Native Americans to vote IF they owned property, and several states that did not have property requirements for white men in general still applied them to white men who were foreign-born or did not speak English, making immigrants second-class citizens.
This trend toward eliminating property requirements for white men in the 1820s helps explain the rise of Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote in 1824 and the electoral college in 1828. Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, but he was the first who had come from a working-class background. Yes, he had become wealthy by the 1820s, but he had literally been born in a log cabin whereas all six of his predecessors had come from privileged, wealthy families. Jackson appealed to the “common man,” famously opening up the White House to the general public during his inauguration (to the dismay of many Washington elites). Every presidential candidate after Jackson would have to find ways to appeal to the average white male voter, rather than just to the wealthy and middle-class, and this would fundamentally change politics.
While the status of unpropertied white men was rising, however, that of propertied free black men was falling. Within a couple of years of Kentucky coming into the Union as a state that allowed free black men the franchise, the state rescinded it. Other Southern states began following suit - but so did Northern states, as well. Those who did not ban the black vote outright kept property requirements attached to it, even though they had been removed from white voters. For example, New York removed property requirements for white men in 1821, but raised it for free blacks - to $250, or almost $8,000 dollars today. This was about double the average farmer’s annual income. Only 16 black men in New York were wealthy enough to vote that year. By 1825, only 68 of the 13,000 free black men in the state could meet the requirement.
By 1860, free black men had the equal right to vote in only five states, all of them in New England. Why were their rights diminishing over time?
The answer is simple: cotton. Eli Whitney’s new invention the cotton gin - invented in 1793, the year after Kentucky became a state - immediately started making cotton a profitable crop to grow. By the 1820s, it dominated the U.S. economy, eventually making up half of all exports. Cotton’s profitability meant new life, and new protections, for slavery. Restricting the rights of free blacks served to reinforce the color barrier that made slavery easier to maintain.
Race had become more important than class.
--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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