Ideals of universal democracy and ethnic coexistence were not values of the original United States. If they were, they were considered later in the country’s history or by foreign dignitaries such as Ben Franklin.
At the same time, however, most of these new states and many old ones explicitly limited the franchise to white males. In New Jersey, for example, women and free blacks who owned property had voted until 1807, when the state abolished all property qualifications but limited suffrage to white men. The revolutionary constitutions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which had granted the vote to free blacks, soon joined with New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina in denying suffrage to African Americans regardless of their education or property.
At its birth, the United States was not a democratic nation—far from it. The very word ‘democracy’ had pejorative overtones, summoning up images of disorder, government by the unfit, even mob rule. In practice, moreover, relatively few of the nation’s inhabitants were able to participate in elections: among the excluded were most African Americans, Native Americans, women, men who had not attained their majority, and white males who did not own land.
Typically, white, male property owners twenty-one or older could vote. Some colonists not only accepted these restrictions but also opposed broadening the franchise.
The Revolutionary War stimulated a desire for reform. Advocates of change said that the conflict was about liberty and representation. They believed in a voting system that embodied those aims for more people. Debates were most intense between 1776 and the adoption of the federal Constitution. The range of disputes was too vast and too complex to cover in depth in this space. The chief concerns, however, focused on extending voting rights to veterans, the implications of a broader electorate, and the validity of property requirements. Property requirements seemed to attract the most attention. They came under attack almost as soon as the Revolution began.
Benjamin Franklin lampooned them when he wrote:
“Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass? “
Property restrictions gradually disappeared in the nineteenth century. Tax-paying requirements replaced property ownership, though they too waned after the 1820s. By the 1850s, most economic barriers to voting had disappeared.
Every male citizen of the commonwealth, liable to taxes or to militia duty in any county, shall have a right to vote for representatives for that county to the legislature. – Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson Volume 8
Although the so-called Revolution of 1800 saw no revolutionary changes in the American political scene, it was the dawning of a new age. The willingness of the Federalists to peacefully hand over power and to accept political defeat was extraordinary in a world controlled by kings and military leaders. In most states, property qualifications still limited the vote to white males owning as least a fifty-acre plot of land. This voting limitation upheld Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to a rural republicanism that rested on the widespread farm ownership of relatively independent adult males.
entire exclusion from a voice in the common concerns is one thing: the concession to others of a more potential voice on the ground of greater capacity for the management of joint interests is another . . . Everyone has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody and stamped as of no account at all. No one but a fool, only a fool of a peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgement that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to greater amount of consideration than his (Mill, Representative Government, p. 474).
With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties. – John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States
While I was at the hotel to—day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. – Abraham Lincoln
It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
The bill on the subject of slaves was a mere digest of the existing laws respecting them, without any intimation of a plan for a future & general emancipation. It was thought better that this should be kept back, and attempted only by way of amendment whenever the bill should be brought on. The principles of the amendment however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. – Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography