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Alexander Keyssar. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, xxiv + pp. $ (paper). The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Front Cover. Alexander Keyssar. Basic Books, Jun 30, – History – pages . Keyssar, Alexander. The right to vote: the contested history of democracy in the United States /. Alexander Keyssar p. cm. Includes index. ISBN X.

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Library Locations and Hours. Most Americans take for granted their right to vote, whether they choose to exercise ghe or not. But the history of suffrage ,eyssar the U. In The Right to Vote, Duke historian Alexander Keyssar explores the evolution of suffrage over the course of the nation’s history.

Examining the many features of the history of the right to vote in the U. Keyssar presents convincing evidence that the history of the right to vote has not been one of a steady history of expansion and increasing inclusion, noting that voting rights contracted substantially in the U. Keyssar also presents a controversial thesis: HAmerica’s self-image as the land of democracy flows from the belief that we’ve long enjoyed universal suffrageDor at least aspired to it.

Duke historian Keyssar Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment ketssar Massachusetts convincingly shows that, though distinctive in some ways, the evolution of the franchise in America is similar to that in other countries: America’s basic claim to exceptionalismDearly white manhood suffrageDwas, according to Keyssar, part historical accident and part mistake, adopted before a European-style urban working class emerged.

Keyssar identifies four periods: Various historical dynamics, such as economic development, immigration and class relations, underlie this periodization, expressed, Keyssar says, in shifting ideologies: Keyssxr large background shifts outline the tortured ebb and flow of suffrage: This is a masterful historical account of a complex, contradictory legacy. American democratic principles of government seem to demand that all persons with even a remote stake in government should have the right to vote.

Historians and political scientists realize that this interpretation has not always been the case. Keyssar provides an interesting and useful study of how the concept and practice of properly granting voting rights evolved throughout the nation.

The original voting population was more diverse than most casual readers of US history probably think. A common conception is that only adult, white males shared in the original franchise. Keyssar’s state-by-state study of voting rights shows the fallacy of that conception. Another common assumption about voting rights in this country is that they expanded only in the steady direction of increasing the eligible population.

Keyssar shows clearly that the line of progression was anything but steady. While there were eras of genuine progress in expanding the franchise, there were also eras when voting rights were taken away from some groups that had previously voted. This book is highly recommended for any student of American politics. Sanson Louisiana State University at Alexandria.

Thank you for using the catalog. The right to vote: Suffrage — United States — History. Voting — United States — History. Summary Most Americans take for granted their right to vote, whether they choose to exercise it or not.

Publisher’s Weekly Review HAmerica’s self-image as the land of democracy flows from the belief that we’ve long enjoyed universal suffrageDor at least aspired to it. Choice Review American democratic principles of government seem to demand that all persons with even a remote stake in government should have the right to vote.

Excerpts Chapter One In the Beginning Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies.

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The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers–but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass? Although the Revolutionary War had been won and independence achieved, a great deal still appeared to be hanging in the balance: That they would succeed in devising a constitution acceptable to the twelve states that had sent them not to mention Rhode Island, which had declined the invitation to attend was far from certain; several impasses were reached in the first two months of deliberation, and by the end of July, many of the delegates were frustrated, impatient, and tired.


Eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin, described by one of his fellow delegates as “the greatest philosopher of the present age,” trudged wearily back and forth to the sessions, occasionally having to be carried in a sedan chair. By mid-September, a constitution had been drafted and ovte, and delegates began returning home to promote its ratification. The Articles of Confederation were to be scrapped; the increased–but restrained–powers of the federal government had been specified; the issues of state representation and slavery had been compromised; and a great xlexander details outlining the operation of a new republican government had been etched in parchment.

What British leader William Ksyssar. Gladstone a century later would call “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a rlght time by the brain of man” was complete. The western world’s most durable and perhaps most celebrated written blueprint for representative government was soon to become the fundamental law of North America’s new nation. Remarkably, this new constitution, born in celebration of “republican government,” did not grant anyone the right to vote.

The convention’s debates about suffrage, held during the doldrums of late July and early August, were brief, and the final document made little mention of the breadth of the franchise. Only section 2 of article 1 addressed the issue directly: The Received Legacy For more than a decade before the founding fathers arrived in Philadelphia, individual states had been writing their own suffrage laws.

These laws almost everywhere were shaped by colonial precedents and traditional English patterns of thought. The lynchpin of both colonial and British suffrage regulations was the restriction of voting to adult men who owned property.

The Right To Vote The Contested History Of Democracy In The United States by Alexander Keyssar

On the eve alexanderr the American Revolution, in seven colonies men had to own alxeander of kdyssar acreage or monetary value in order to participate in elections; elsewhere, the ownership of personal property of a designated value or in South Carolina, the payment of taxes could substitute for real estate. Both in England and in the colonies, property requirements had long been justified on two grounds.

The first was that men who possessed property especially “real property,” i. The second was that property owners alone possessed sufficient independence to warrant their having a voice in governance.

As Henry Ireton had argued in England in the seventeenth century, “if there be anything at all that is the foundation of liberty, it is this, that those who shall choose the law-makers shall be men freed from dependence upon others. Conversely, the ballot was not to be entrusted to those who were economically dependent, because they could too tje be controlled or manipulated by others.

Such control may have seemed particularly plausible in the six colonies in which voting was viva voce–although advocates of secret paper ballots pointed out that disfranchisement was not the only solution to that problem. Indeed, implicit in the argument for independence was another notion, often unspoken but especially resonant in the colonies, where economic opportunities were believed to abound: These concerns also prompted other restrictions on voting.

Many colonies instituted residency requirements to exclude transients who presumably lacked the requisite stake in the colony’s affairs; for similar reasons, some made citizenship, of England or the province, a prerequisite for voting. To guarantee that those who were dependent could not vote, several colonies formally barred all servants from the polls, while others expressly excluded paupers. Women too were prohibited from voting, because they were thought ovte be votf on adult men and because their “delicacy” rendered them unfit for the worldly experiences necessary for engagement in politics.

In addition, there were limitations on vot franchise that had more to do with social membership in the community than with a person’s independence or stake in society. Freedmen of African or Amerindian descent were denied the ballot in much of the South. In seventeenth-century Massachusetts, only members of the Congregational church could vote; in the eighteenth century, Catholics were disfranchised in five states and Voe in four.

As these details suggest, aside from property qualifications, there were no firm principles governing colonial voting rights, and suffrage laws keysaar were quite varied.

Not only Catholics and Jews, but also Native Americans, free blacks, and nonnaturalized aliens could vote in some places and not in others. Women were barred expressly in several colonies, including Virginia, but statutes alxander made no reference to gender, and in at least a few Massachusetts towns and New York counties propertied widows did legally vote.


Absentee landowners were enfranchised in Virginia inwhich often meant that they could vote in more than one place. In practice, moreover, the enforcement or application of suffrage laws was uneven and dependent on local circumstances.

Of equal importance, the qualifications to vote in local elections–especially in the cities and larger towns–often differed from those needed to vote for colonial or provincial officers.

These differences had two sources. The first was political or institutional. Royal charters for incorporated cities frequently spelled out precise suffrage rules, and those rules commonly granted political citizenship to men who had commercial affairs–rather than a residence–within the city limits. The breadth of the franchise in New York City, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Norfolk, Virginia, for example, was determined not by colonial general assemblies but by royal declaration and by the appointed officers who controlled the municipal corporations.

The second reason for this municipal-colonial difference was economic: Although differently configured, city and town suffrage qualifications were not uniformly more strict or more lenient than were the qualifications for voting in the countryside. Did the right to vote expand or contract during the colonial era? Were the colonies becoming more or less democratic, in their suffrage rules? The evidence is mixed. Some broadening of the franchise certainly occurred: Yet the colonial era also witnessed some statutory contraction of the suffrage.

The initial laws restricting the franchise to property owners generally were passed only decades after the colonies were settled, and in several colonies, including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia which had a notably nonlinear franchise historyproperty requirements became more stringent over time. Moreover, the legal exclusion of Catholics, as well as African Americans, mulattoes, and Native Americans, took place primarily in the eighteenth century.

Whether these laws altered slexander than codified existing vtoe is unclear; but the statutes seem to have been more restrictive by the middle of the eighteenth century than they had been in the seventeenth.

What also is unclear is just how many people could and did vote. This issue is a source of controversy among historians, some of whom conclude that colonial America was a land of middle-class democracy in which 80 or 90 percent of all adult white males were enfranchised, while others depict a far more oligarchic and exclusive political order. In fact, enfranchisement varied greatly by location.

There certainly were communities, particularly newly settled communities where land was inexpensive, in which 70 or 80 percent of all white men were enfranchised. Yet there were also locales–including coastal towns e. Levels of enfranchisement seem to have been higher in New England and in the South especially Virginia and the Carolinas righ they were rivht the mid-Atlantic colonies especially New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland ; not surprisingly, they also tended to be higher in newer settlements than in more developed areas.

On the whole, alexandr franchise was far more widespread than it was in England, yet as the revolution approached, the rate of property ownership was falling, and the proportion of adult white males who were eligible to vote was probably less than 60 percent. The Revolution and the Vote The ultimate end of all keyssra is the enjoyment of a right of free ovte.

By challenging Britain’s right to rule the colonies, the American Revolution sparked a far-reaching public debate about the nature and sources of legitimate governmental authority. The issue of suffrage was always near the center of that debate: Did the colonial franchise restrictions, then, have to be abolished?

The question loomed large, and in many of the former colonies, the revolutionary period–stretching from the mids to the ratification of the Constitution–witnessed heated public exchanges and sharp political conflict over the franchise; in some locales, men voted–or were prevented from voting–through the use or threat of force.

Challenges to the traditional class restraints on suffrage were critical ingredients in the democratic, rather than anti-imperial, thrust of the revolution.