The Constitutional Convention

Under the Articles of Confederation, states had retained complete control over the franchise. But the Constitution of the United States forged a durable link between state suffrage rules and the right to vote in national elections: Article I, Section II stipulated that voting for members of the House of Representatives would occur using the same qualifications as the “most numerous Branch of the state legislature” in each respective state. The House of Representatives was the only federal office for which the Constitution required popular election. 

The decision of the Constitutional Convention was largely practical. They had left the difficult question of voting qualifications up to the Committee of Detail, which met in late July and early August. That committee recommended something close to the final language, which passed on the opportunity to create a national voting rule. 

There was a great fear that instituting a national suffrage requirement would jeopardize the ratification of the proposed constitution. To begin with, it would have been nearly impossible to find a rule that did not greatly contradict the existing standard in at least a few states. And so any national suffrage requirement was likely to generate opposition in one state or another. Additionally, a narrow national voting requirement could have inspired such popular opposition to the Constitution that it would have doomed its chances of ratification altogether. 

As Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut observed, “the right of suffrage was a tender point, and strongly guarded by most of the state constitutions. The people will not readily subscribe to the national Constitution, if it should subject them to be disfranchised.” Madison reiterated the point in the Federalist Papers: “One uniform rule would probably have been as dissatisfactory to some of the States as it would have been difficult to the convention.” By making the franchise in national elections dependent on state suffrage laws, the authors of the Constitution circumvented their differences about the makeup of the franchise, avoiding a potential sticking point. 

The decision of the delegates in 1787, however, would pose problems for the nation down the road. It left the federal government without any clear power or mechanism, other than through constitutional amendment, to institute a national conception of voting rights. Individual states retained the power to define who could vote in every situation, and citizenship in the new nation was divorced from the right to vote. This fact that was to have significant repercussions for almost two centuries, as individual states would use their laws to shave the franchise according to their own liking—actively disenfranchising entire segments of the population they wished to exclude from political participation. 

The American Revolution, in sum, produced only modest gains in the formal democratization of politics. In more than a third of the states, colonial restrictions on suffrage remained more or less in force, and the right to vote expanded only in some states, while it contracted in a few others. Overall, the proportion of adult men in the United States who could vote in 1787 was surely higher than it had been in 1767, but the shift was hardly dramatic. Still, the experience of the Revolutionary War—the political and military trauma of breaking with a sovereign power, fighting a war, and creating a new state—served to crack the ideological framework that had upheld and justified a limited suffrage. The concept of virtual representation was undermined; the notion that a legitimate government required the “consent” of the governed became a staple of political thought; and a new, contagious language of rights and equality was widely heard.