Voting rights in America in the early 1800s was a complex process because many politicians and government leaders supported slavery, limiting voting rights to those who were legally free. Women were considered secondary citizens, so their civil liberties, such as the right to vote, didn’t receive a fair amount of attention. Socioeconomics and land ownership were also big factors in determining who could vote, so the poor working class didn’t have many political freedoms either. Voting privileges were primarily granted to wealthy, white men.
Declaration of Independence
The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 brought new political freedoms to America. The country needed a leader and a democratic system for electing officials. The forefathers agreed that voting rights should be extended to all citizens, defined as property owners who were at least 21 years of age. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the majority of property owners were Protestant white males. As a result, only the wealthy had a voice in political decisions and women and minorities were excluded. The first Presidential election was held in 1789, when only 6 percent of the population had voting rights. In 1812, six Western states were the first to give non-property owning white men the right to vote.
Ratification of the U.S. Constitution clearly defined the balance of power in government, making it difficult for a single leader or an individual branch of government to rule the country. The forefathers chose to put voting rights in the hands of states, so there were no national or federal laws to regulate voting. Most states followed previous voting precedents and gave voting rights to white male landowners only. Even though the Bill of Rights enumerated civil liberties, it didn’t grant women or African Americans the right to vote.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, granted African-American men the right to vote. The Amendment states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, some Southern states imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that made it nearly impossible for black men to qualify for voting privileges. Black women, regardless of their ability to pass voting prerequisite tests, were not allowed to vote.
Women's Struggle for Voting Rights
During the early 1800s, most women worked at home and raised families. As a result, they didn’t have money to purchase land, separate from their husbands. Men were listed as sole property owners on real estate deeds, making them U.S. citizens and granting them voting rights in many states. It wasn’t until 1856 that the last state, North Carolina, gave voting rights to all white males, regardless of property ownership. Women weren’t given national voting privileges until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. However, California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Michigan and New York gave women voting privileges before the Amendment was enacted.
- KQUD.org: Northern California Citizenship Project; 2004
- National Constitution Center: Centuries of Citizenship: A Constitutional Outline
- Library of Congress: 15th Amendment to the Constitution
- League of Women Voters Albuquerque-Bernalillo County: America the Beautiful: A History of the Right to Vote in the U.S.