Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 139-140
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The Right to Vote:
The Contested History of Democracy in the United States
The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. By Alexander Keyssar (New York, Basic Books, 2000) 464 pp. $30.00 cloth $18.00 paper
This valuable study traces the evolution of municipal, state, and national laws, constitutional provisions, and court decisions that determined who could, and could not, vote from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century. Because state governments had primary jurisdiction over suffrage qualifications until the mid-twentieth century, much of the book is devoted to detailing instances of, and the reasons for, the imposition or removal of state requirements with regard to property holding, race, gender, citizenship, ethnicity, literacy, residence, registration, and the like. These matters are helpfully summarized in a laboriously constructed sixty-two-page appendix listing each state in the nation.
Keyssar draws from the records of state constitutional conventions, court decisions, legal treatises, and political-science literature, and he deploys several histograms to display what proportion of states at different times had various kinds of restrictions on suffrage rights. These tactics are largely the extent of his interdisciplinary arsenal. He makes no attempt statistically to quantify the rates of voter participation by different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial groups to test what impact legal restrictions may have had. Such an analysis, he promises, will be the subject of his next book. Even without such an analysis, a central theme of the book is that restrictions on suffrage rights were intentionally class- biased against the poor, who were also frequently non-white, non- native-born, and uneducated, and that these laws prevented hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lower-class Americans from choosing who governed them.
Positing that "a polity cannot be truly democratic without universal suffrage" (xvi), Keyssar seeks to explain why it took the United States 200 years since the Revolution to attain that standard and why the right to vote was extended in some times and places and restricted in others. Some of what he covers is familiar. Nonetheless, his long chronological perspective yields important insights. One is to reject the "triumphalist" story of an inevitable, straight-line expansion of voting rights over time. Instead, the erratic movement toward full democracy fell into four distinct chronological periods: the elimination of property-holding requirements and resulting expansion of suffrage rights for adult white males between 1790 and 1850; the restriction of voting rights between 1850 and 1920, which rendered the temporary enfranchisement of blacks during Reconstruction an "aberration from prevailing patterns" (79); a period of stasis between 1920 and 1960; and then a vast expansion of suffrage rights during the last four decades of the twentieth century, when the national government took control of voting rights from the states.
Keyssar's long view also indicates that wars were always a major factor in expanding suffrage rights, whereas upper-class fears of a dangerous [End Page 139] urban industrial and, in the South, a black agricultural, proletariat always helped to motivate restrictions on suffrage. This distrust of a growing urban proletariat, he shrewdly argues, explains why the women's suffrage movement stalled after the Civil War and why the absence of a significant industrial working class facilitated elimination of property qualifications for white males in the Jacksonian period and the atypical enfranchisement of women in western states before the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Michael F. Holt
University of Virginia