Sources of Expansion

Ideas and Arguments

While population shifts and political competition were likely the most important factors driving the expansion of the franchise during the first half of the 19th century, there is an interesting shift in the way that advocates of reform framed their arguments. Americans were beginning to believe that the sovereign “people” included many individuals who did not own property, and accordingly, restrictions on the franchise that had appeared normal or conventional in 1780 were starting to look archaic, outmoded, and undemocratic. 

Proponents of expanding the franchise rejected the conservative view that voting was a privilege that the state could limit however it wished to further its own interests, instead taking the position that voting was a right, but a right that had to be earned: by paying taxes, serving in the militia, or even laboring on the public roads. The notion of an earned right made clear that the goal of most suffrage reformers was not a universal right to vote but rather an enfranchisement of what New Yorker Samuel Young described as an “intermediate class.” 

This shift was manifested at the numerous state constitutional conventions that took place during this time period. Nathan Sanford, a noted proponent of expanding suffrage in New York, argued: “those who bear the burthens of the state should choose those that rule it.” That simple proposition meshed well with the rhetoric of the Revolution, appealing to demands that all taxpayers vote and that it was injustice to withhold the franchise from those who fought for the nation and served in its militias. 

The movement for franchise expansion thus was grounded in the conviction that the relatively agrarian and egalitarian United States of the early nineteenth century would permanently endure. Only rarely did a reformer, such as J. T. Austin of Boston, argue that suffrage should be broadened even if we did become “a great manufacturing people.” “God forbid,” declared Austin, but if it should happen, he shrewdly observed that it would be “better to let…the laborers in the manufactories” vote. “By refusing this right to them, you array them against the laws; but give them the rights of citizens…and you disarm them.”

Some still argued for maintaining a narrow franchise, but they were shrinking in numbers, and their arguments lacked the same force and effectiveness they had exhibited during the colonial and Revolutionary eras. Their arguments rested less on the alleged virtues of freeholders than on the fear that the eventual growth of industry would create a large, propertyless, and dangerous urban class whose interests would not align with the more enlightened political elites. 

The argument for eliminating property requirements gained momentum and became easier to make with each passing decade, in part because reformers could cite a growing number of states where no property qualifications were in force and no calamities had ensued. And in the South, the momentum for reform was reinforced by anxiety about slave revolts that only intensified with each passing year, effectively fusing pro-suffrage arguments with the defense of slavery. 

Delegates to state conventions could rely on the experience of large parts of the population to have faith in judgment of those who stood to gain the right to vote. In the rapidly growing, energetic, and increasingly urban society of Jacksonian America, large numbers of propertyless were known by their neighbors, relatives, and friends to be altogether capable and worthy of exercising the franchise. “If a man can think without property, he can vote without property,” observed one delegate to the Louisiana convention of 1845. 

Such a presumption contributed not only to the eradication of property qualifications but also to the stunningly swift abolition of taxpaying requirements in all but a handful of states. By 1855, half of the states that had ever had taxpaying requirements–including those that had substituted them for property ownership–had gotten rid of them. 

Some states, including Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, voted to retain tax provisions, on the grounds that only those who shared the financial burdens of the state ought to have a voice in governance. Elsewhere, however, this last major, explicit link between a person’s economic circumstances and suffrage—favored by many democratic reformers of the of the 1810s and 1820s—was dissolved with little fanfare. 

In the first 60 years of the United States, a deliberately narrow franchise, informed by the legacy of British colonial voting regulations, had expanded dramatically. Property holding requirements and then taxpaying requirements had fallen victim to an expanding population and vigorous political competition. The tie between economic status and voting had largely been severed, and Americans had taken a large step towards viewing voting as a right, rather than a privilege conferred upon a select few.