Sources of Expansion

It is well know by any student of history that the franchise expanded dramatically in the years leading up to the Civil War. Three important socioeconomic and institutional developments helped to drive this expansion: widespread changes in the social structure and composition of the nation’s population; conditions under which the material interests of the enfranchised could be served by broadening the franchise; and the formation of broadly based political parties that competed systematically for votes.

Every state that had a property requirement in force in 1790 experienced a substantial increase in the number of its adult white male residents who did not meet the requisite level of property ownership. Urban populations were growing, and even financially stable city-dwellers could own no real property. Mechanics, laborers, artisans, manager, shopkeepers, and other groups of urban residents found themselves disqualified to vote for economic reasons. Even some farmers in rural area were disqualified because they leased the land they worked rather than owning it themselves. 

These changes in the social structure created significant and growing clusters of men who were full participants in economic and social life but who lacked political rights. Not surprisingly, at times they exerted significant pressures to enlarge the franchise, particularly when they were concentrated in cities, neighborhoods, or distinct rural districts.