The Constitutional Convention

Democracy Ascendant

The United States grew rapidly. In 1790, the population was less than four million; by 1820 it was nearly ten million, and by 1850 it was more than twenty million. The expansion of the population followed two major developmental trends: cities grew dramatically, particularly on the eastern seaboard, and the population moved westward in to the frontier counties of states like Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The nation added vast new territories by purchase or conquest, and advances in technology dramatically increased the mobility of the population within inhabited areas. In the Northeast manufacturing industries, led by textiles, became increasingly prominent features of the economic and physical landscape, and laborers flocked to cities in large numbers to drive the engine of industrialism. 

This quickening pace of change drove many states to examine and change the way they set up the franchise in the early to middle 19th century. The first state constitutions, written during the tumult of the revolution, started to appear either flawed or obsolete—or both. Between 1790 and the 1850s, every state (there were 31 states in the Union by 1855) held at least one constitutional convention, and many held several. 

At each convention (even in the states that required multiple efforts) a key concern was the distribution of political power among the increasingly diverse residents of each state. Disputes over political power, rights, and influence, often along geographic lines resulting from westward expansion of the population, factored heavily into the debates and the new governing documents they produced.  The breadth of the franchise and the apportionment of state legislative seats—were often what prompted states to call constitutional conventions in the first place.

“To attempt to govern men without seeking their consent is usurpation and tyranny, whether in Ohio or in Austria. . . . I was looking the other day . . . into Noah Webster’s Dictionary for the meaning of democracy, and I found as I expected that he defines a democrat to be “one who favors universal suffrage.”

—Norton Townshend, Ohio Constitutional Convention, 1850

In large part as a result of the flurry of constitutional drafting activity, nearly everywhere the laws governing the right to vote in the United States transformed dramatically between 1790 and the 1850s. 

Legislative Provisions

In addition to the fundamental changes wrought by constitutional conventions, state legislatures frequently supplemented constitutional provisions with statutes regulating voting practice. One such area centered on the physical act of voting. At the nation’s founding, the concrete procedures for voting varied widely from state to state and even from town to town. In the South, voting was still typically an oral and public act: men assembled before election judges, waited for their names to be called, and then announced which candidate they wished to support, or inscribed their names in a poll book underneath the name of the candidate they preferred. 

In some states, constitutions began to require that voting be conducted by written ballot, and by the mid-nineteenth century, almost every state had adopted the practice. Printed ballots gradually replaced handwritten ones, and political parties themselves began to prepare ballots—pre-filled out with a particular party’s candidates, and often of a unique size, shape, or color–both to assist and to monitor their voters. Localities constructed sets of administrative rules around voting as well—as voting activity increased, then had to define what it meant to be a resident, how to register to vote, and maintain rollbooks with the names of qualified voters—all of these rules, regulations, and mechanisms that seem familiar to voters today first started taking shape in the early 19th century. 

Far more significant were the substantive changes in voting requirements that occurred from 1790 to 1850, particularly those that lowered economic barriers to voting. 

Between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, the economic and class lines that had so clearly circumscribed the electorate in the 18th century began to shift and even disappear, opening the right to vote to a far larger portion of the population than had enjoyed it just a few decades earlier. 

Property requirements for voting were gradually dismantled after 1790. Delaware eliminated its property requirement in 1792, and Maryland did likewise a decade later. Massachusetts and New York both abolished their freehold estate qualifications in 1821. Virginia was the last state to enforce a property requirement in all elections, with a freehold law on the books until 1850. North Carolina finally eliminated its property qualification for senatorial elections in the mid-1850s. Alongside these developments was another of equal importance: none of the new states admitted to the union after 1790 adopted mandatory property requirements in their original constitutions. By the end of the 1850s, only two property requirements remained in force anywhere in the United States, one applying to foreign-born residents of Rhode Island, and the other to African Americans in New York. 

The elimination of property requirements, however, did not mean that states did not have any economic barriers to voting in place. Taxpaying requirements were commonplace, and were often passed to replace repealed property requirements, and several of the new western states, including Ohio and Louisiana, used them instead of property requirements. By the 1850s, however, even taxpaying requirements were falling out of use—between 1830 and 1855, six states relinquished their insistence that voters pay taxes, leaving only six others with taxpaying clauses. 

The franchise was also expanded to resident aliens in many states during the first part of the 19th century—but their voting status continues to fluctuate and evolve even today. In 1800, some state constitutions specified that voters had to be citizens, while others conferred the franchise on the more vague and inclusive “inhabitants.” The federal government, hoping to encourage settlement, expressly permitted resident aliens to vote in the Northwest Territories. Thus in many locales, foreign-born men who had not been naturalized by the federal government but who did meet property, taxpaying, and residency requirements were able to participate in elections.