Illinois, which was admitted to the Union as the 21st state in 1818, set out to draft a new constitution in 1847, in the face of a mountain of public debt. One delegate posed the question: “Is it our policy, as a state burdened with debt and sparsely settled, to restrict the right of suffrage, and thus prevent immigration to our soil?” Another delegate argued to expand the franchise to help put the state on the right track: “Should we not…hold out to world the greatest inducement for men to come amongst us, to till our prairies, to work in our mines, and to develop the vast and inexhaustible resources of our state?” That incentive was political participation, and it was clear that Illinois needed to compete against other states who might offer a broader franchise: “We cannot obtain this class of population without holding out to them inducements equal to those of other states; and as we are burthened with a debt, we should have those inducements greater than elsewhere.”
The most important way in which the needs and desires of political elites aligned with broadening the franchise to include more voters was through political parties and electoral competition.
Early in the 19th century, the Federalist and Republican parties competed actively for votes in most states, and even in states dominated by one party, such as New York in the 1820s, organized factions jockeyed for votes. The Federalist Party had pretty much faded from existence by the end of the 1820s, and it was quickly replaced by the Whig Party, which aligned itself against the Democrats in a series of hyper-competitive elections beginning in the 1830s. Less than 50 years after the Constitution was ratified there was a strong and vibrant national party system. Elections were systematically contested, and party loyalty and identification became prominent elements of public life. Unsurprisingly, in this competitive political culture, the issue of suffrage inescapably attached itself to partisan rivalries.
To some degree the involvement of political parties in debates over suffrage was a straightforward reflection of their ideological differences. The Federalists, who relied on the strength of northeastern elites and established political power tended to oppose any broadening of the franchise, whereas the more egalitarian Jeffersonian Republicans viewed expansion more favorably.
The ideological gap between the Whigs and Democrats was even more pronounced. The Democrats, echoing the Jeffersonian egalitarianism of the Republican Party, embraced political participation as a manifestation of individualism—valued as the most important way to people to protect their rights and defend themselves against the encroachments of government. This belief in the centrality of the individual in the polity made the Democrats favor a larger franchise.
The Whigs, on the other hand, clung to a more hierarchical vision for society, believing in a more active state, the affairs of which were best conducted by society’s “natural” leaders. As a result, the Whigs were inclined to resist efforts to enlarge the franchise.
But this was politics—and ideological leanings and theoretical constructions of political society could not alone determine what would transpire. Self-interested political parties were keenly award of both the advantages and potential disadvantages of enfranchising new voters—who were potential supporters. The outcomes of elections could easily depend on the size and shape of the electorate, and so it was natural that parties might try to broaden the franchise in an effort to win elections, whatever their ideological views about democratization. In the 1830s, the Democratic Party established itself as the nation’s first mass-based political organization, and popular elections spread widely. The nature of partisan competition was such that if any party or faction—out of conviction or political self-interest—actively promoted a broader franchise, it put pressure on their adversaries to join in, lest it risk alienating large groups of people who might soon be granted the right to vote.