This essay argues that education became an important cultural arbiter of voting rights in the early national North. It first shows how, in constitutional conventions, reformers marshaled the existence of expanded access to public education to justify eliminating property qualifications for the suffrage for white men. Many of these same conventions also disfranchised free Black men. Though racism and partisan politics motivated these decisions, convention delegates often justified them on grounds of education. They claimed that Black men were not educated enough to entrust with the vote. At the same time, many white communities curtailed Black access to education. Constitutional convention proceedings influenced Black activist to increase their emphasis on education—which dated back to the revolutionary era—to claim, reclaim, and maintain voting rights. By the Civil War, the results of this discourse were apparent: In Northern states, where education was legally segregated and unequal, most Black men could not vote. Where Black children had relatively equal education, Black men had the suffrage. Literacy and education tests were still rare. But the Northern discourse that connected schooling and suffrage had transformed education into a basis for voting rights, much like property had been before it.


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pp. 435-469
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