Introduction to “The Road to Partial Democracy”

The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, . . . will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property; these last being to all intents and purposes as much dependent on others, who will please to feed, clothe, and employ them, as women are upon their husbands, or children on their parents. . . . Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as could be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.

— John Adams, 1776

At its inception, the United States was not a democratic nation—far from it. The concept of democracy had a decidedly negative connotation. To Aristotle, democracy was the deviant form of rule by the many, a devolved form of the polity that had descended into disorder, demagoguery, and mob rule, beholden to the impulsive, uniformed wills of the people.

Many of the founding generation saw ancient examples of democracies as cautionary tales of what to avoid if the Americans wanted to build a government to last. James Madison was painfully aware that the small democracies that predominated in the ancient world “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

When the Constitution was ratified, a very small number of the new nation’s inhabitants were able to vote, mostly white males who owned land. African Americans, Native Americans, women, men under a certain age, and adult white males who did not own land were all excluded from the electorate almost entirely.

The political culture and institutions of the United States became more democratic during the first half of the 19th century. The ascendants of “Jacksonian democracy” during this era has long been heralded as a time when property qualifications for voting were cast aside, and universal white manhood suffrage was achieved. Spurred by an “age of democratic revolutions,” the ideal of democracy became widespread during these years, the word itself more positive and even celebratory. Changes in the social structure of the American population and the emergence of competitive political parties helped to broaden the franchise across the growing country, and by 1850, voting was a far more commonplace activity than it had been in 1800.