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The Right to Vote in America From the Colonial Period to the Reconstruction

Active participation of the population in political affairs was one of the characteristic features of Britain’s colonies in North America. True to the English traditions of representation, British colonists and later the citizens of the independent United States always valued the right to cast their votes in elections. Yet while the perceived value of voting rights remained high from the 17th to the late 19th century, the actual scope of enfranchisement had expanded significantly from the colonization to the Reconstruction. From the early 17th century to 1870, Americans’ voting rights underwent three major expansions. First, the state constitutions of the newly independent USA lifted religious requirements of some Puritan colonies, then the Jacksonian democracy saw universal white male enfranchisement, and then the 15th Amendment expanded voting rights to blacks.

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Before following the history of voting rights in America, it is necessary to briefly establish why this topic is crucial for the history of the United States. English political culture or the early Modern time rested on two features – the right to be judged by the jury of one’s peers and participation in government through elected representatives. These two rights constituted a cornerstone of English and later British identity, so it is a small wonder that American colonists valued them so highly. Even when a given colony did not originally provide these rights – as in New York immediately after taking it from the Dutch – the colonists sought and eventually secured their “traditional rights of Englishmen” (Corbett et al., 2021, 4.1). Then, Locke’s treatises on political philosophy popularized the idea of representative government even further (Corbett et al., 2021). Thus, from the very onset of the British colonization of North America, the political culture of these colonies revolved around voting rights to a very significant degree. This is why the development of this right signifies essential milestones in the history of the United States as a polity.

During the colonial period, the right to vote in choosing the representatives for local assemblies was limited on several accounts. Enough, the only ones who qualified for casting ballots were free white males. Apart from that, there were also property requirements – generally speaking, only those who possessed sufficient property, the total sum of which depended on the colony in question, were eligible to vote. Finally, there were also religious requirements limiting access to political participation. For example, Massachusetts’s Fundamental Orders rejected voting rights to anyone who was not a church member – which, of course, meant the Puritan church and not any other (Anderson, 1998). The Puritan colonies of early New England were not a model of religious tolerance – Governor Winthrop persecuted and exiled those like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for opposing his views (Corbett et al., 2021). Given that, it was hardly surprising that at least some of the Protestant colonies added a religious requirement on top of all others. As a result, it limited the right to vote to a comparatively small subset of the population.

The first notable change in voting rights came as the states of the newly independent USA reshaped their political organization after the Revolutionary War. The state constitutions provided examples of democratic and aristocratic tendencies alike. For example, the Pennsylvania Constitution eliminated property requirements and expanded voting rights to every white male tax-payer that has resided in one place for at least a year (Corbett et al., 2021). At the same time, the states of New England and the Chesapeake Bay aimed to keep democracy in check by putting forth relatively high property requirements for holding public office and voting. For instance, in Massachusetts, any person willing to vote “had to be worth at least sixty pounds” apart from being male and white (Corbett et al., 2021, 7.3). Thus, the right to vote was still fairly limited, especially since the Founding Fathers never intended to establish a full democracy (Corbett et al., 2021). Yet while the property requirements still disenfranchised even a considerable part of the white male population, the new constitutions had, at the very least, abandoned explicit religious requirements that were a norm a century earlier.

Another major change in the scope of voting rights came in the early 19th century with the advent of the so-called Jacksonian democracy. As the revolutionary generation exited the political stage, the code of deference before the most affluent and accomplished individuals waned as well. Americans of the 1820s were willing to respect “towering national figures” like Washington or Jefferson but saw no reason to extend similar reverence to those of their generation (Corbett et al., 2021, 10.1). Gradually, the respect for the will of the people overshadowed the culture built around deferring to the affluent, virtuous, and well-educated elite. Since the 1790s, new state constitutions allowed universal male suffrage to bolster immigration (Corbett et al., 2021). With the elitist ideas of the Federalist Party falling out of favor after the War of 1812, original states followed suit. Connecticut abolished property requirements in 1818, and New York did the same in 1821-22 (Corbett et al., 2021). By the mid-1820s, most white American men were eligible to vote regardless of whether they owned sufficient property – the first major expansion of the right to vote in the post-Revolutionary age.

It took roughly half a century before the second similar expansion took place, largely due to the Civil War and the failure of the Presidential Reconstruction. Had Lincoln’s vision of reintegrating the South on lenient terms of his ten percent plan succeeded, it might not have been the case, since voting right for blacks were not high on his agenda. Yet Lincoln’s death and the plummeting popularity of Johnson allowed the overwhelmingly Republican Congress to take the matter into their own hands and enforce a more radical vision of the Reconstruction. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, forbade limited voting rights based on race or previous condition of servitude – although not literacy or other educational factors (Corbett et al., 2021). While not technically guaranteeing political rights to black males because of these loopholes, the new amendment still proclaimed “universal manhood suffrage” as a constitutional principle (Corbett et al., 2021, 16.3). With it, the period from colonial history to Reconstruction demonstrated yet another considerable expansion in the right to vote. While far from universal, it was broader than ever before by the end of the Reconstruction.

Speaking about the milestones in the development of the American right to vote up to the late 19th century, it would be wrong to forego the movement for women’s suffrage that developed during this time. Admittedly, it was far from achieving its goals by the end of the Reconstruction and, thus, the chronological scope of this paper. Yet the female suffrage movement has already gained some traction throughout this period, notably in the first Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Using the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed that men and women were created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” (“Declaration,” 1848). Among other grievances, the document mentioned that men submitted women to laws “in the formation of which [they] had no voice,” clearly hinting at the female suffrage agenda (“Declaration,” 1848). Thus, even though the eventual achievement of female suffrage was still decades away, the movement for it was already making its first steps and gaining momentum in the mid-19th century.

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As one can see, American history from the colonial period to the end of the Reconstruction may be viewed as a gradual expansion of voting rights to a broader and broader population. While the colonists valued their traditional rights as Englishmen, including the right to vote for elected representatives, the application of this right was very limited in the 17th century. Aside from the property and gender requirements, some Puritan colonies also had religious restrictions in place. While the new state constitutions of the early post-Revolutionary era did not provide for a massive increase in the number of voters, they had, at the very least, eliminated these religious requirements. The erosion of the code of deference led to the first massive expansion of voting rights by the 1820s, creating near-universal enfranchisement for white males regardless of property ownership. The next similar expansion was a cornerstone of Reconstruction – the Fifteenth Amendment enacted, if not without loopholes, universal male suffrage. This was not the end either – the work toward female suffrage, while far from completion, was already in progress.


Anderson, V. D. (1998). New England in the seventeenth century. In Canny, N. (Ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 1: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, pp. 193-217. Oxford UP.

Corbett, P. S., Jansen, V., Lund, J. M., Pfannestiel, T., Waskiewicz, C., & Vickery, P. (2021). U.S. History. OpenStax.

Declaration of Sentiments. (1848). Women’s Rights National Historic Park.

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