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The Myth of Progress in Voting Rights

There are many myths surrounding the political history of the United States. The most deeply-held is the claim that the right to vote has steadily expanded since 1789, incorporating an ever-broader electorate into the world's first democracy.

December 10, 2011 March for Voting Rights in New York City. Occupy Wall Street joined the NAACP and others, as thousands marched in midtown Manhattan to defend voting rights.,Michael Fleshman from Brooklyn, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

This premise is simply false, and it leads us into hopeful delusions about inevitable progress. We must rid ourselves of these pollyannaish expectations. Think of President Obama's stirring second inaugural, in which he evoked an America always moving forward, from "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall."  That's a lovely notion, but it's odds with the facts.

The fallacy that voting rights have organically broadened over time has real political implications. It blinds us to how access to the ballot has see-sawed back and forth since the Founding, just as often restricted as enlarged.

Its essence is the constant assertion by journalists, pundits, and even scholars that "only propertied white men voted at the Founding." This claim is wrong all counts.

First, independent (single and widowed) women voted freely in New Jersey from 1776 to 1807 under a constitutional provision enfranchising all "inhabitants" who owned a minimal amount of nearly worthless revolutionary paper money.  And this was no obscure accident, as it was affirmed by the state's highest court on several occasions.

Second, only three of the original thirteen states (Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia) had a racial limit on suffrage in 1775, and after the Revolution, the small number of free Black men began voting in steadily increasing numbers. Here, as with New Jersey women, the historical impetus was to dis-franchise, with Delaware (1792), Maryland (1802), New Jersey (1807), Connecticut (1818), New York (1821), Rhode Island (1822), and finally Tennessee (1834), North Carolina (1835), and Pennsylvania (1838) moving to exclude or severely limit their often-substantial Black electorates.

Many people seem to view the above, however, as exceptions to the larger trend of democratization.  What is hardest to give up is the notion of a universal property requirement.  As of 1775, seven of the thirteen colonies (New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey) kept the British suffrage requirement of a "forty pound" freehold, e.g. owning a minimum value of land. But Georgia, New Hampshire, and New Jersey dispensed with their land-owning requirements early in the revolutionary era, while Massachusetts and Pennsylvania legislated that voters pay only a nominal local or state tax, which was at most haphazardly enforced.

Historians have long known these facts, most of which appeared in an authoritative 1957 study. So why do pundits, journalists, and otherwise educated folk keep repeating the mantra that the republic's original electorate was made up exclusively of property-owning white men?

In my view, it is a feel-good mechanism, which allows Americans avoid the disturbing realities of U.S. history.  Many people know about the disfranchisement of Black southerners in the Jim Crow era, from the late nineteenth century through passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  Putting the blame on one part of the country lets the rest of us off the hook. It avoids how many people—obviously women and also Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and various immigrants were legally or illegally stripped of their suffrages over the past two centuries. The constant racial gerrymanders, illegal purges of voter rolls, removal of polling places, and spurious "voter ID" laws that Republicans have legislated over the past decade should remind us of how it's done.  They are just updating the history.

Voter suppression and disfranchisement are as American as cherry pie.  Let's get rid of our myths of slow but inevitable progress and get down to the hard work of securing the right to vote for everyone.

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[Van Gosse is Professor of History at Franklin and Marshall College, and Co-Chair, Historians for Peace & Democracy. His most recent book is The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2021).]