The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787-1828


Historians and political scientists continue to emphasize the connection between the expansion of the suffrage to almost all adult white males and Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828. That interpretation has the unfortunate effect of preventing general appreciation of what has been clear to specialists for decades, that the suffrage had significantly expanded and the United States become in many ways a functioning democracy long before 1815. Even before the Revolution at least 60 percent of adult white males had been able to vote, and that figure had expanded significantly by 1787. The traditional belief that voting must be restricted to those with a "stake in society" still persisted, but increasingly the stake was measured less by the freehold ownership of landed property than by measures of civic involvement such as taxpaying, militia service, and evidences of social contribution. Qualifications defined by wealth were gradually undermined by inflation, and restrictions on voting proved difficult to enforce in practice. After partisan differences became inflamed in the 1790s, turnouts rose to unprecedented—and sometimes unrepeated—levels. In the end this pressure from below created a situation in which even conservatives thought that honest elections required the legal recognition of what was in fact happening at the polls. There was no constitutional revolution in the 1820s, except in New York, and the growing political agitation that resulted in Jackson's election was nothing more than the application to presidential elections of what had become commonplace in many states before 1815.