Overall, the Revolution led to a great expansion of the right to vote. By the 1780s, with the exceptions of Virginia, Maryland, and New York, a large majority of the adult white male population could meet voting requirements. New Jersey’s new state constitution, of 1776, granted the suffrage to all “inhabitants” who met a property qualification. Until the state added the word “male” (along with “white”) in 1807, property-owning women, mostly widows, did cast ballots. The new constitutions also expanded the number of legislative seats, with the result that numerous men of lesser property assumed political office. The debate over the suffrage would, of course, continue for many decades. For white men, the process of democratization did not run its course until the Age of Jackson; for women and nonwhites, it would take much longer.
Even during the Revolution, however, in the popular language of politics if not in law, freedom and an individual’s right to vote had become interchangeable. “The suffrage,” declared a 1776 petition of disenfranchised North Carolinians, was “a right essential to and inseparable from freedom.” Without it, Americans could not enjoy “equal liberty.” A proposed new constitution for Massachusetts was rejected by a majority of the towns in 1778, partly because it contained a property qualification for voting. “All men were born equally free and independent,” declared the town of Lenox. How could they defend their “life and liberty and property” without a voice in electing public officials? A new draft, which retained a substantial requirement for voting in state elections but allowed virtually all men to vote for town officers, was approved in 1780. And every state except South Carolina provided for annual legislative elections, to ensure that representatives remained closely accountable to the people. Henceforth, political freedom would mean not only, as in the past, a people’s right to be ruled by their chosen representatives but also an individual’s right to political participation.