Modern history



ONE OF THE MOST PROFOUND REVOLUTIONS of the past two centuries or so has been the introduction of ordinary people into the political process. For America and the rest of Western Europe this revolution was most dramatically expressed at the end of the eighteenth century—“the age of the democratic revolution,” as historian R. R. Palmer once called it.1 This bringing of the people into politics took place in the several decades following the American Revolution, while in Europe it took much longer, requiring for many nations the greater part of the nineteenth century. And for the rest of the world the process is still going on. Indeed, since the end of World War II we have witnessed what has been called a “participation explosion”—the rapid incorporation into the political process of peoples who hitherto had been outside of politics—in hurried, sometimes even desperate, efforts by underdeveloped nations to catch up with the modern developed states.2 During the first decade of the twenty-first century various organizations have estimated that the great majority of all the states in the world have become electoral democracies, with the number of presumed democracies hovering around 120 or so. Of course, these democracies differ greatly from one another. Indeed, The Economist puts the number of full-fledged democracies at only twenty-eight, with eighty-four considered to be either flawed democracies or hybrid regimes. The Economist labels the governments of fifty-five countries as authoritarian.

Still, the growth of democracies throughout the world over the past six or seven decades is impressive. In fact, this incorporation of common people into politics is what sets the modern world apart from what went on before. Eighteenth-century Revolutionary Americans were in the vanguard of this modern development. Within decades following the Declaration of Independence, Americans were calling their government a democracy; they legitimated the term and set the rest of the world on the path of democratization.

To be sure, it was the ancient Greeks who had actually invented democracy—that is, rule directly by the people themselves—and who had passed the word on to the eighteenth-century Western world. But the Greek idea of democracy inherited by the West was regarded with suspicion and hostility. The great Greek writers whose works the Western Europeans most read—Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle—had found democracy wanting to one degree or another. They believed that the people trying to rule by themselves would inevitably lead to anarchy and violence, ending in dictatorship and tyranny. At best, Aristotle had contended, democracy might be part of a mixed government, acceptable if it were balanced by monarchy and aristocracy.

And that is how the eighteenth-century English on both sides of the Atlantic tended to employ the word “democracy”: as a term almost always used in conjunction with “monarchy” and “aristocracy”—as an essential part of a mixed or balanced constitution. Indeed, the eighteenth-century English constitution was so famous precisely because it mixed or balanced the three pure types of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—in its crown, House of Lords, and House of Commons.

By itself a pure democracy—“a government of all over all,” as James Otis called it—was not much valued.3 It meant not a government electorally derived from the people, but one actually administered by the people themselves. Enlightened Britons might agree that ideally the people ought to govern themselves directly, but they realized that democracy in this literal sense had been approximated only in the Greek city-states and in the New England towns; actual self-government or simple democracy was not feasible for any large community. As one American polemicist stated in 1776, even the great radical Whig Algernon Sidney had written that he had known of “no such thing” as “in the strict sense, . . . a pure democracy, where the people in themselves and by themselves, perform all that belongs to government,” and if any had ever existed in the world, he had “nothing to say for it.”4 Neither Alexander Hamilton nor James Madison in The Federalist had any good words for the kind of pure democracy that existed in antiquity. “Such Democracies,” wrote Madison in The Federalist No. 10, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” Consequently, most eighteenth-century Britons in both the mother country and the colonies were so uneasy over the impracticality and instability of pure democracy that the term “democracy” was commonly used vituperatively to discredit any untoward tendency toward popular government.

The English had invented the idea of representation, imagining their elected House of Commons to be the democratic part of the mixed constitution. But, as we have seen in the previous essay, it was the Americans who expanded the idea of representation to all parts of their federal and state governments. This expansion did not happen immediately. The original Revolutionary state constitutions of 1776 were intended to be republican versions of the mixed or balanced constitution of the former mother country. This is why we call the lower houses of our federal and state legislatures “houses of representatives” and set them against our senates, executives, and judiciaries, as if they were the only representative bodies in our governments. But eventually, in the several years following the Declaration of Independence, Americans came to think of all their elected governmental institutions as representative of the people, and the term “republic,” which meant government derived from the people, became identified with the term “democracy.” By the first decade or so of the nineteenth century the two terms became interchangeable.

Because representation of the people was based so exclusively on popular election, voting in America, as we have noted, became the sole criterion of representation. Americans believed that unless they actually voted for their agents, they could not be adequately represented by them. This peculiar notion of actual representation in turn made the suffrage seem to be the necessary and sufficient measure of democratic politics—which accounts for our often naive notion that simply giving people the vote in a developing country is tantamount to creating a democracy. Although the right to vote is clearly a prerequisite for democratic politics, it is hardly all there is to it. In fact, voting is only the exposed tip of an incredibly complicated political and social process. How this process came about and how the people became involved in politics are questions that lie at the heart of the American Revolution.

The American Revolution was both a consequence and a cause of democracy. It marked a decisive change in the way political activity was carried on in America and gave new legitimacy to the involvement of common people in politics. It was not, however, simply a matter of enfranchising new voters. The franchise in most colonies prior to the Revolution was already extensive. Although the right to vote in colonial America was restricted by property qualifications (usually a personal estate worth forty pounds or a freehold worth forty shillings a year) as it was in eighteenth-century England, property owning was so widespread in America that the colonists enjoyed the broadest suffrage of any people in the world: perhaps as many as 60 to 80 percent of adult white males in the colonies could legally vote. The legal exclusion of the propertyless from the franchise was based not on the fear that these people without property might confiscate the wealth of the aristocratic few, but on the opposite fear: that the aristocratic few might manipulate and corrupt the poor for their own ends. Only men who were independent, owned stable amounts of property, and were free from influence should have the vote. The same reasoning lay behind the exclusion from the franchise of women, minors, and others who were considered to be dependent and to have no will of their own.

Despite the breadth of suffrage in colonial America, however, the fact remains that most of those legally enfranchised did not exercise their right to vote. And when they did vote, they usually voted for the same prominent families. It turns out that the property holders in colonial America were not as independent and as free from influence as the law presumed. The social structure and social values were such that colonial politics, at least when compared to politics in post-Revolutionary America, was remarkably stable; the percentage of people actually voting and participating in politics remained small, and the political leadership remained in a remarkably limited number of hands.

Established social leaders expected deference from those below them and generally got it, and were habitually reelected to political office. Yet this acquiescence that people gave to those who by their wealth, influence, and independence were considered best qualified to rule was based not simply on traditional habits of deference but, more important, on the substantial dependency that patronage and economic and social power created. In 1773 in the Mohawk district of Tryon County, New York, at least four hundred men had the franchise. Yet in an election for five constables, only fourteen electors turned out to vote; all fourteen were closely tied by interest or patronage to Sir William Johnson, the local grandee of the area, and all fourteen naturally voted for the same five candidates.5

Translating the personal, social, and economic authority of the leading gentry into political patronage and power was essentially what eighteenth-century politics was about. The process was self-intensifying: social authority created political power, which in turn created more social influence. Some members of the gentry, such as the Tidewater planters of Virginia or the wealthy landholders of the Connecticut River valley, had enough patronage and influence to overawe entire communities. Connecticut River valley gentry like Israel Williams and John Worthington, so imposing as to be called “river gods,” used their power to become at one time or another selectmen of their towns, representatives to the Massachusetts General Court, members of the Massachusetts Council, provincial court judges, justices of the peace, and colonels of their county regiments. It became impossible to tell where the circle of their authority began: the political authority to grant licenses for taverns or mills, to determine the location of roads and bridges, or to enlist men for military service was of a piece with their wealth and social influence.

It was likewise substantial paternalistic and patronage power, and not merely the treating of the freeholders with toddy at election time, that enabled the great Virginia planters to mobilize their “interest” and to maintain law and order over their local communities without the aid of police forces. The leading Virginia gentry were the vestrymen of their parishes and the lay leaders of the Anglican Church, so that the sacredness of religion and the patronage of poor relief further enhanced the hierarchy of authority. All this was the stuff of which aristocracies were made.

Colonial society had no organized political parties and no professional politicians in today’s sense of these terms. Large planters, established merchants, and wealthy lawyers held the major offices and ran political affairs as part of the responsibility of their elevated social position. It was rare for a tavern keeper or a small farmer to gain a political office of any consequence. Men were granted political authority in accord not with their seniority or experience in politics but with their established economic and social superiority. Thus Thomas Hutchinson, scion of a distinguished Boston mercantile family, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives at the age of twenty-six and almost immediately became its speaker. So too could Jonathan Trumbull, an obscure country merchant, be catapulted in 1739 into the speakership of the Connecticut assembly at age twenty-eight and into the prestigious Council of Assistants the following year simply by the fact that his marriage into the ancient and esteemed Robinson family had given him, as eighteenth-century historian Samuel Peters put it, “the prospect of preferment in civil life.”6 Social and political authority was indivisible, and men moved horizontally into politics from society rather than (as is common today) moving up vertically through an exclusively political hierarchy.

Yet politics in eighteenth-century colonial America was unstable enough in many areas that members of the elite struggled for political power and precedent among themselves. The social hierarchy was often sufficiently confused at the top that it was never entirely clear who was destined to hold political office and govern. It was obvious that well-to-do lawyers or planters from distinguished families were superior to, say, blacksmiths, but within the group of well-to-do lawyers or wealthy planters, superiority was not so visible and incontestable. Indeed, in some colonies social superiority was so recent and so seemingly arbitrary that contesting it was inevitable. These contests for office and power created the grinding factionalism—the shifting competing congeries of the leading gentry’s personal and family “interests”—that characterized much of eighteenth-century colonial politics.7

Before the 1730s and 1740s, many of these contests were transatlantic in character and focused on the metropolitan center of the empire (London). In the early decades of the eighteenth century, elite factions opposed to the royal governors often sought political leverage from the imperial arena; in other words, they resorted to the use of imperial interests and transatlantic connections in order to win local political battles in their colonies. They used extralegal channels in the home country, such as merchant groups in London, in order to undermine the royal governors’ political positions from the rear. Or they formed alliances with other imperial agents, such as those representing the Church of England, in order to bypass the governors. Colonial opposition leaders even made personal journeys to London to lobby for the reversal of gubernatorial decisions or even the removal of a governor. This kind of Anglo-American politics was open-ended. Since there were many transatlantic avenues of influence and connection and many appeals over the heads of local officials to Whitehall, few decisions made in the colonies themselves could be final.8

But after 1740 or so this open-ended character of American politics began to close up, and the colonists’ ability to influence English politics sharply declined. Communications to the mother country became more formal, and personal appeals declined. The colonial lobbying agents who earlier had been initiators of colonial policy were now hard put to head off colonial measures begun by others in Britain. As the earlier transatlantic channels and avenues of influence clogged up or closed off, the royal governors were left as the only major link between the colonies and Great Britain. If opposition groups in the colonies were going to contest their governors, they would have to find leverage within their own colonies.9

Under these changed circumstances dissident factions in the colonies were forced to turn inward, toward the only source of authority other than the king recognized by eighteenth-century Anglo-American political theory: the people. Opposition groups now began to mobilize the electorate in their colonies as never before, using the popular elective assemblies as their main instrument of opposition against the royal governors. Consequently, the number of contested elections for the colonial assemblies rapidly multiplied. In Boston, for example, in the decade of the 1720s, only 30 percent of elections were contested; by the 1750s, 60 percent were. With the growth of contested elections came greater voter participation and more vitriolic political rhetoric and propaganda. Groups began forming tickets, caucuses, and political clubs, and hiring professional pamphleteers to attack their opponents for being overstuffed men of wealth and learning. In these mid-eighteenth-century developments we can see the beginnings of what would eventually become typically American egalitarian electoral propaganda and modern political campaigning.10

But of course nobody had the future in mind. By appealing to the people, these elite families and factions were not trying to create the democratic world of the nineteenth century; they were simply using whatever weapons they had at their disposal—together with inflammatory popular Whig rhetoric—to get at their opponents. All of their appeals to the people were merely tactical devices for gaining office. The colonial assemblies that earlier had been virtual closed clubs now became more sensitive to the public out-of-doors. In the 1750s they began publishing compilations of their laws and revealing how their members voted on particular issues. In the 1760s they began building galleries in the legislative halls to allow the people to witness debates. Some even began calling for a widening of the franchise. Those who opposed these measures were labeled “enemies of the people.”11

Democracy in America thus began not as the result of the people arousing themselves spontaneously and clamoring from below for a share in political authority. Instead, democracy was initially created from above. The people were cajoled, persuaded, even sometimes frightened into getting involved. Although normally many of the towns of Massachusetts—sometimes as many as one-third—did not even bother to send their representatives to the General Court, they “have it in their power upon an extraordinary Emergency,” warned Governor William Shirley in 1742, “to double and almost treble their numbers [of representatives], which they would not fail to do if they should be desirous of disputing any point with His Majesty’s governor which they might suspect their ordinary members would carry against his influence in the House.”12 Each competing faction tried to outdo its opponents in posing as a friend of the people, defending popular rights and advancing popular interests against those of the crown. Yet over time what began as a pose eventually assumed a reality that had not been anticipated. The people once mobilized could not easily be put down.

Thus by the 1760s American politics were already primed for the Revolutionary transformation from monarchy to republicanism. As patriot leaders began contesting the authority of the English government, the earlier practices of mobilizing the people into politics increased dramatically. As we have seen, the imperial debate not only challenged traditional British authority but compelled Americans to articulate an idea of actual representation that they have never lost. This idea of actual representation led to heightened demands to expand the franchise and to the unprecedented conviction that representation in government ought to be equal and more or less in proportion to population. Initially provided for in the Revolutionary state constitutions of 1776, this conviction resulted in the federal Constitution’s mandate that a census be taken every ten years. Eventually, as we have noted in the previous essay on “The Origins of American Constitutionalism,” the belief inherent in the concept of actual representation that voting itself was the sole criterion of representation tended to transform all elected officials, including governors and members of upper houses, into other kinds of representatives of the people, placing them, at least in name, in an awkward relationship to the original houses of representatives.

Actual representation had more than constitutional importance for American politics. It had social significance as well. Even before the Revolutionary turmoil had settled, some Americans, as we have seen, began arguing that mere voting by ordinary men was not a sufficient protection of ordinary men’s interests if only members of the elite continued to be the ones elected. It was coming to be thought that in a society of diverse and particular interests, men from one class or group, however educated and respectable, could not be acquainted with the needs and interests of other classes and groups. Wealthy college-educated lawyers or merchants could not know the concerns of poor farmers or small tradesmen. As we have seen, the logic of actual representation required that ordinary men be represented by ordinary men, indeed, by men of the same religion, ethnic group, or occupation.

Such an idea—lying at the heart of the radicalism of the American Revolution—constituted an extraordinary transformation in the relationship between society and government. It expressed egalitarian forces released by the Revolution that could not be easily contained.

At the outset of the Revolution, equality to most Americans had meant an equality of legal rights and the opportunity to rise by merit through clearly discernible ranks. But in the hands of competing politicians seeking to diminish the credentials of their opponents and win votes, the idea of equality was soon expanded in ways that few of its supporters had originally anticipated—to mean that one man was as good as another. This meaning of equality soon dissolved the identity between social and political leadership and helped to give political power to the kinds of men who hitherto had never held it. Politics was transformed, and political upstarts—obscure men with obscure backgrounds who had never been to college—launched vigorous attacks on the former attributes of social superiority (names, titles, social origins, family connections, even education) and bragged that their own positions were based not on relatives or friends but only on what their hard work and money had made for them.

The confrontation in the 1780s between John Rutledge, a distinguished social and political leader in South Carolina, and William Thompson, an unknown Charleston tavern keeper, graphically illustrates the new emerging post-Revolutionary culture. Rutledge had sent a female servant to Thompson’s tavern to watch a fireworks display from the roof. Thompson denied the servant admittance and sent her back to Rutledge. Rutledge was infuriated and demanded that Thompson come to his house and apologize. Thompson refused and, believing that his honor had been affronted by Rutledge’s arrogant request, challenged Rutledge to a duel. Since the social likes of Rutledge did not accept challenges from tavern keepers, Rutledge went to the South Carolina House of Representatives, of which he was a member, and insisted that it pass a bill banishing Thompson from the state for insulting an officer of its government. Thompson took to the press for his defense and in 1784 made what can only be described as a classic expression of American resentment against social superiority—a resentment voiced, said Thompson, not on behalf of himself but on behalf of the people generally, or “those more especially, who go at this day under the opprobrious appellation of the Lower Orders of Men.”

In his newspaper essays Thompson did not merely attack the few aristocratic “nabobs” who had humiliated him; he actually assaulted the very idea of a social hierarchy ruled by a gentlemanly elite. In fact, he turned traditional eighteenth-century opinion upside down and argued that the social aristocracy was peculiarly unqualified to rule politically. In other words, social authority should have no relation to political authority; it was in fact harmful to political authority. Rather than preparing men for political leadership in a free government, said Thompson, “signal opulence and influence,” especially when united “by intermarriage or otherwise,” were really “calculated to subvert Republicanism.” The “persons and conduct” of the South Carolina nabobs like Rutledge “in private life may be unexceptionable, and even amiable, but their pride, influence, ambition, connections, wealth, and political principles ought in public life,” Thompson contended, “ever to exclude them from public confidence.” Since in a republican government “consequence is from the public opinion, and not from private fancy,” all that was needed in republican leadership, said Thompson, was “being good, able, useful, and friends to social equality.”

Thompson sarcastically went on to recount how he, a mere tavern keeper, “a wretch of no higher rank in the Commonwealth than that of Common-Citizen,” had been debased by what he called “those self-exalted characters, who affect to compose the grand hierarchy of the State, . . . for having dared to dispute with a John Rutledge, or any of the NABOB tribe.” The experience had been degrading enough to Thompson as a man, but as a former militia officer it had been, he said, “insupportable”—indicating how Revolutionary military service had affected social mobility and social expectations. Undoubtedly, wrote Thompson, Rutledge had “conceived me his inferior.” But like many others in these years—tavern keepers, farmers, petty merchants, small-time lawyers, former militia officers—Thompson could no longer “comprehend the inferiority.”13

Many new politicians in the following years, likewise not being able to comprehend their inferiority, began using the popular and egalitarian ideals of the Revolution to upset the older hierarchy and bring ordinary people like themselves into politics. This was not always easy, for as some politicians complained, “the poorer commonality,” even when they possessed the legal right to vote, seemed apathetic to appeals and too accepting of traditional authority. Their ideas of government had too long been “rather aristocratical than popular.” “The rich,” said one polemicist, “having been used to govern, seem to think it is their right,” while the common people, “having hitherto had little or no hand in government, seemed to think it does not belong to them to have any.”14 To convince the people that they rightfully had a share in government became the task of hustling egalitarian politicians in the decades following the Revolution. Everywhere, but especially in the North, these middling politicians urged the people to shed their political apathy and “keep up the cry against Judges, Lawyers, Generals, Colonels, and all other designing men, and the day will be our own.” They demanded that they do their “utmost at election to prevent all men of talents, lawyers, rich men from being elected.”15

The increased competition between candidates and parties in the early nineteenth century meant more and more contested elections for both federal and state officials, which sent the turnout of voters skyrocketing. In many places, especially in the North, the participation of eligible voters went from 20 percent or so in the 1790s to 80 percent or more in the first decade of the nineteenth century.16

As voting took on a heightened significance, the states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes. In the eighteenth century, landed property had been a justifiable qualification for voting because it had been seen as a source of independence and authority. But as property in the fast-moving economy of the early Republic became more and more a commodity to be exchanged in the marketplace, property as a requirement for officeholding and suffrage steadily lost its meaning. Who could believe that “property is . . . any proof of superior virtue, discernment or patriotism”? asked the New York Democratic-Republicans in 1812.17 By 1825, under this kind of popular pressure, every state but Rhode Island, Virginia, and Louisiana had more or less achieved universal white male suffrage; by 1830 only Rhode Island, which had once been the most democratic place in North America, retained the old forty pounds–forty shillings freehold qualification for voting. With the exception of a brief period in New Jersey (1790–1807) no state granted women suffrage. By modern standards the system was far from democratic, but by the standards of the early nineteenth century, America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world.18

Many of the spokesmen for popular interests who emerged in these years made no pretense to having any special personal or social qualifications to rule. They were not wealthy men, they had not gone to Harvard or Princeton, and they were often proud of their parochial and localist outlook. When Simon Snyder, the ill-educated son of a poor mechanic, ran successfully for governor of Pennsylvania in 1808, opponents mocked his obscure origins and called him and his followers “clodhoppers.” Snyder and his supporters quite shrewdly picked up the epithet and began proudly wearing it. Being a clodhopper in a society of clodhoppers became the source of much of Snyder’s political success. Like other such popular political figures, his claim to office was based solely on his ability to garner votes and satisfy the interests of his constituents. No longer could political office be the consequence of a gentleman’s previously established wealth and social authority. If anything, holding office in America was becoming the source of that wealth and social authority.

In the 1780s James Madison had hoped that government might become a “disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests in the State.”19 But this hope seemed increasingly visionary. Few elected officials sought to stand above the competing interests of the marketplace and, like an umpire, make impartial judgments about what was good for the whole society. In fact, elected officials were bringing the partial, local interests of their constituents, and sometimes even their own interests, right into the workings of government. State legislators often became what Madison in the 1780s had most feared: judges in their own causes. In Connecticut the subscription list of the Hartford Bank, suggested one shrewd subscriber in 1791, had to be left open, or seem to be open—that is, if the bank hoped to be incorporated by the Connecticut legislature. There were “a number in the Legislature who would wish to become subscribers, and would, of course, advocate the bill while they supposed they could subscribe, and, on the contrary, if it was known the subscription was full, they would oppose it violently.”20

Everywhere legislators responded to the interests of those who elected them. Since every town in the country seemed to want a bank, banks proliferated. In 1813 the Pennsylvania legislature in a single bill authorized the incorporation of twenty-five new banks. After the governor vetoed this bill, the legislature in 1814 passed over the governor’s veto another bill incorporating forty-one banks. By 1818 Kentucky had forty-three new banks, two of them in towns that had fewer than one hundred inhabitants.

Early nineteenth-century politics increasingly assumed modern characteristics, and partisanship and parties—using government to promote partial interests—acquired a legitimacy that they had not had before. Congressmen began referring to those who sought to influence them as “a commanding lobby,” and the term “lobbyist” took on its modern meaning. The word “logrolling” in the making of laws (that is, the trading of votes by legislators for each other’s bills) likewise began to be used for the first time, to the bewilderment of conservative Federalists. “I do not well understand the Term,” said an Ohio Federalist, “but I believe it means bargaining with each other for the little loaves and fishes of the State.” The modern problem of taxation in a democracy had already emerged. As one Virginia congressman complained in 1814, “Everyone is for taxing every body, except himself and his Constituents.”21

If representatives were elected to promote the particular interests and private causes of their constituents, then the idea that such representatives were simply disinterested gentlemen, squire worthies called by duty to shoulder the burdens of public service, became archaic. Many now began running for office, not, as earlier, simply standing for election. The weakening of the older social hierarchy and the erosion of the traditional belief in elite rule made the rise of political parties both necessary and possible. Indeed, the United States was the first nation to develop modern political parties dealing with mass electorates. Individuals cut loose from traditional ties to the social hierarchy were now forced to combine in new groups for political ends. Political office was no longer set by social ascription, but rather was won by political achievement within the organization of the party and through the winning of votes.

In time new arts of persuasion, using cheap newspapers and mass meetings, were developed, and politics assumed carnival-like characteristics that led during the nineteenth century to participation by higher percentages of the legal electorate than ever again was achieved in American politics. In such an atmosphere of stump-speaking and running for office, the members of the older gentry were frequently at a considerable disadvantage. In fact, by the early nineteenth century, being a gentleman or professing the characteristics of a gentleman, even having gone to college, became a liability in elections in some parts of the country.

In his Jeffersonian Republican campaign for governor of New York in 1807, Daniel Tomkins, prosperous lawyer and graduate of Columbia College, knew that portraying himself as a simple “farmer’s boy” would contrast successfully with the character of his opponent, Morgan Lewis, who was an in-law of the aristocratic Livingston family. In 1810 the New York Federalists tried to retaliate and combat Tomkins and the Jeffersonian Republicans with their own plebeian candidate, Jonas Platt, “whose habits and manners,” said the Federalists, “are as plain and republican as those of his country neighbors.” Unlike Tompkins, Platt was not “a city lawyer who rolls in splendor and wallows in luxury.”22

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, this kind of popular antielitism coming out of the Revolution was as strong as ever, as the 1868 election campaign for the fifth congressional district of Massachusetts vividly demonstrates. The fifth congressional district—Essex County—was the former center of Massachusetts Brahmin Federalism, but by the mid-nineteenth century it was increasingly filled with Irish immigrants. The campaign was essentially between Richard Henry Dana Jr., a well-to-do and Harvard-educated descendent of a distinguished Massachusetts family and author of Two Years Before the Mast, and Benjamin Butler, son of boardinghouse keeper who had never been to college and was one of the most flamboyant demagogues American politics has ever produced. (One gets some idea of Butler’s standing with the Massachusetts elite by realizing that he was the first governor of Massachusetts in over two centuries not invited to a Harvard College commencement.) In the congressional campaign, Butler showed Dana what nineteenth-century electoral politics was all about. While Dana was talking to tea groups about bond payments, Butler was haranguing the Irish shoe workers of Lynn, organizing parades, turning out the fire and police departments, hiring brass bands, distributing hundreds of pamphlets, and charging his opponent with being a Beau Brummel in white gloves. Dana was simply no match for him.

When Dana was finally forced to confront audiences of workingmen, he gave up talking about bonds and tried desperately to assure his audiences that he too worked hard. All the while, Butler mocked his wearing of white gloves and his efforts to make common cause with the people. During one speech Dana told the Irish shoe workers that when he spent two years before the mast as a young sailor he too was a worker who didn’t wear white gloves. “I was as dirty as any of you,” he exclaimed. With such statements it is not surprising that Dana ended up with less than 10 percent of the vote in a humiliating loss to Butler.23

By vying for political leadership and competing for votes, new men—not necessarily as colorful as Butler but having the same social obscurity and doomed in any other society to remain in obscurity—became part of the political process. The most important criterion of their leadership was their ability to appeal to voters.

It was the American Revolution that had helped to make possible and to accelerate these changes in our politics. As a result of the republican revolution, Americans essentially denied any other status than citizen. The people were all in politics and all of the people were equal. Any sort of unequal restrictions on the rights of citizenship—on the right to run for office or to vote, for example, theoretically were anomalies, relics of an older society that now had to be eliminated. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, competing political parties searched out groups of people hitherto uninvolved in politics and brought them in: renters initially denied the franchise because they were not freeholders, poor men who lacked the necessary property qualifications, and newly arrived immigrants—anyone who might become a voter and supporter of the party, or even one of its leaders. If they could not yet legally vote, the vote could be given them. If they could legally vote but did not bother, then they could be persuaded that they ought to. In these ways American politicians in the decades following the Revolution worked to establish universal male suffrage and democratic politics.

We take these developments for granted and easily forget how far ahead of the rest of the world the United States was in the early nineteenth century. Tavern keepers and weavers were sitting in our legislatures while most European states were still trying to disentangle voting and representation from an incredible variety of estate and corporate statuses. In 1792 Kentucky entered the Union with a constitution allowing universal suffrage for all free adult males. A generation later the English were still debating whether voting was a privilege confined to a few; in fact, England had to wait until 1867 before workingmen got the vote and became, in William Gladstone’s words, “our fellow subjects.” In many parts of the world today people are still waiting to become citizens and full participants in the political process.

Yet, as we know all too well, America’s record in integrating the people into politics has not been an untainted success story. The great aberration amidst all the Revolutionary talk of equality, voting, and representation was slavery. Indeed, it was the Revolution itself, not only with its appeal to liberty but with its idea of citizenship of equal individuals, that made slavery in 1776 Suddenly seem anomalous to large numbers of Americans. What had been taken for granted earlier in the eighteenth century as part of the brutality and inequality of life—regarded as merely the most base and degraded status in a society of numerous degrees and multiple ranks of freedom and unfreedom—now seemed conspicuous and peculiar. In a republic, as was not the case in a monarchy, there could be no place for subjection and degrees of freedom or dependency. In the North, where slavery was considerable but not deeply rooted, the exposure of the anomaly worked to abolish it. By 1804 all the Northern states had legally ended slavery, and by 1830 there were fewer than 3,000 black slaves remaining out of a Northern black population of over 125,000.24 In the South the suddenly exposed peculiarity of slavery threw Southern whites, who had been in the vanguard of the Revolutionary movement and among the most fervent spokesmen for its libertarianism, onto the defensive. Although the South was able to maintain dominance over much of the federal government in the antebellum period by manipulating the Constitution, its leadership was hollow, increasingly desperate, and without firm foundation in the country as a whole; in time, the peculiarity of slavery gradually separated the section from the mainstream of America’s egalitarian developments.

Yet the very egalitarianism of America’s republican ideology—the egalitarianism that undercut the rationale of slavery—worked at the same time to inhibit integrating the free black man into the political process. Since republican citizenship implied equality for all citizens, a person once admitted as a citizen into the political process was put on a level with all other citizens and regarded as being as good as the next man—uneducated tavern keepers were as good as wealthy college-educated planters. With the spread of these republican assumptions, Northern whites began to view black voters with increasing apprehension, unwilling to accept the equality that suffrage and citizenship dictated. In the 1790s in several states of the North, free blacks possessed the right to vote (often as a result of the general extension of the franchise that took place during the Revolution), and they exercised it in some areas with particular effectiveness. But in subsequent years, as the white electorate continued to expand through changes in the laws and the mobilization of new voters, blacks found themselves being squeezed out.

There is perhaps no greater irony in the democratization of American politics in the early nineteenth century than the fact that as the poor white man gained the right to vote, the free black man lost it. By the heyday of Jacksonian democracy, white popular majorities in state after state in the North had moved to eliminate the remaining property restrictions on white voters while at the same time concocting new restrictions taking away the franchise from black voters who in some cases had exercised it for decades. No state admitted to the Union after 1819 allowed blacks to vote. By 1840, 93 percent of Northern free blacks lived in states that completely or practically excluded them from suffrage and hence from the participation in politics.25

This exclusion of blacks from politics was largely a consequence of white fears of the equality that republican citizenship demanded. But it was also a product of competitive democratic politics. In some states, like Pennsylvania, black exclusion was the price paid for lower-class whites gaining the right to vote, universal male suffrage having been opposed on the grounds that it would add too many blacks to the electorate. In other states, like New York, exclusion of blacks from the franchise was an effective way for Democratic Party majorities to eliminate once and for all blocs of black voters who too often had voted first for Federalist and then for Whig candidates. Since the Democratic Party—as the spokesman for the popular cause against elitism and aristocracy—was in the forefront of the effort to expand suffrage, it seemed to be good politics for the party not only to attract new voters to its ranks but to take away voters who supported its opponents. It was this kind of political pressure that led to the peculiar situation in some states in which immigrant aliens were granted the right the vote before they had become citizens while blacks who had been born and bred in the United States had their right to vote abolished—a development often based on a shrewd assessment by politicians of what particular party new immigrants and blacks would support. Such were the strange and perverse consequences of democracy.

For a republican society it was an impossible situation, and Americans wrestled with it for decades. Federal officials in the first half of the nineteenth century could never decide the precise status of free blacks, sometimes arguing that blacks were not citizens in possessing the right to vote but were citizens in having the right to secure passports. Others tried to discover some sort of intermediate legal position for free blacks as denizens standing between aliens and citizens. But the logic of republican equality would not allow these distinctions, and sooner or later many sought to escape from the dilemma posed by black disfranchisement by denying citizenship to all blacks, whether slave or free, a position Chief Justice Roger Taney and the Supreme Court tried to establish in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Suffrage had become sufficiently equated with representation in America that if a person was not granted the right to vote then he was not represented in the community; and not being represented in a republican community was equivalent to not being a citizen. In the end, enslaved blacks without liberty and free blacks without citizenship were such contradictions of the Revolutionary ideals that sooner or later they had to tear the country apart.

When Northerners came to debate methods of Southern reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, they moved often reluctantly but nonetheless steadily toward black enfranchisement, impelled both by the logic of the persisting ideals of the Revolution and by the circumstances of politics. Although some historians have believed that the Republican Party’s espousal of black suffrage in the aftermath of the war was based on a cynical desire to recruit new voters to the party, it was obviously based on much more than that. In terms of political expediency alone, the Republicans’ sponsorship of black suffrage ran the risk even in the North of what we later came to call “white backlash.” Many advocates of black suffrage sincerely believed, as Wendell Phillips put it, that America could never be truly a united nation “until every class God has made, from the lakes to the Gulf, has its ballot to protect itself.”26

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that black enfranchisement after the Civil War was bolstered, like all reforms, by political exigencies, and that many Northerners and Republicans favored it grudgingly and only as a means of preventing the resurgence of an unreconstructed South controlled by a Democratic Party that would threaten the dominance of the Republican Party. Hence there resulted an awkward gap between the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined citizenship for the first time and gave it a national emphasis that it had hitherto lacked, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which enfranchised blacks but unfortunately linked their enfranchisement not to their citizenship but to their race. This linkage allowed a state to impose any voting qualifications it chose as long as they were not based on race. This created a tangled situation that Americans only began to unravel a century later.

Although Americans have hesitated to make the connection between citizenship and the right to vote explicit and unequivocal, everything in American history has pointed to that connection. During the 1960s, largely under the impetus of the civil rights movement but going beyond that, Americans became more and more interested in political and voting rights, and the logic of principles concerning suffrage and the representation first articulated in the Revolution were finally drawn out. The voting rights acts and the anti–poll tax amendment were based on a deeply rooted belief that no nation like ours could in conscience exclude any of its citizens from the political process. That same legacy from the Revolution led the Supreme Court in a series of reapportionment decisions to apply the idea of “one person, one vote” to congressional and state legislative districting. As a result, senates in many states finally became the fully representative bodies they had not been intended to be in 1776. Of course, as one wag has observed, our periodic redistricting can sometimes turn democracy on its head. Instead of the voters choosing their political leaders, the leaders get to choose their voters.27

Many Americans became concerned with large and unequal campaign contributions precisely because they seemed to negate the effects of equal suffrage and violate the equality of participation in the political process. Despite an electorate that at times seems apathetic, interest in suffrage and in the equality of consent has never been greater than it has over the past generation. Such a concern naturally puts a terrific burden on our political system, but it is a burden we should gladly bear (and many other nations would love to have it), for it bespeaks an underlying popular confidence in the processes of politics that surface events and news headlines tend to obscure.

In fact, our concern with suffrage and with the formal rights of consent has assumed such a transcendent significance that it has sometimes concealed the substance of democratic politics and has tended to exaggerate the real power of the legal right to vote. Suffrage has become such a symbol of citizenship that its possession seems necessarily to involve all kinds of rights. Thus acquiring the vote has often seemed to be an instrument of reform or a means of solving complicated social problems. The women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century—premised on the belief, as one woman put it in 1848, that “there is no reality in any power that cannot be coined into votes”—came to focus almost exclusively on the gaining of suffrage.28 And when the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the franchise was finally ratified in 1920 and did not lead to the promised revolution, the sense of failure set the feminist movement back at least half a century. As late as the 1960s, this formal integration into the political process through suffrage continued to be regarded as a panacea for social ills. Certainly this assumption lay behind the response to the youth rebellions of the late 1960s and the eventual adoption of the Twenty-sixth Amendment giving eighteen-year-olds the vote.

This special fascination with politics and this reliance on political integration through voting as a means of solving social problems are legacies of our Revolution, and they are as alive now as they were then. The Revolution not only brought ordinary people into politics; it also created such confidence in suffrage as the sole criterion of representation that we have too often forgotten just what makes the right to vote workable in America. In our dealings with newly developing nations, we are too apt to believe that the mere institution of the ballot in a new country will automatically create a viable democracy, and we are often confused and disillusioned when this rarely happens.

The point is that we have the relationship backward. It is not suffrage that gives life to our democracy; it is our democratic society that gives life to suffrage. American society is permeated by the belief in (and, despite extraordinary differences of income, in the reality of) equality that makes our reliance on the ballot operable. It was not the breadth of the franchise in the nineteenth century that created democratic politics. The franchise was broad even in colonial times. Rather, it was the egalitarian process of politics that led to the mobilization of voters and the political integration of the nation. It was the work of countless politicians recruited from all levels of society and representing many diverse interests, attempting to win elections by exhorting and pleading with their electors, that in the final analysis shaped our democratic system. Any state can grant suffrage to its people overnight, but it cannot thereby guarantee to itself a democratic polity. As American history shows, such a democracy requires generations of experience with electoral politics. More important, it requires the emergence of political parties and egalitarian politicians none of whom have too much power and most of whom ought to run scared—politicians whose maneuvering for electoral advantage, whose courting of the electorate, and whose passion for victory result, in the end, in grander and more significant developments than they themselves can foresee or even imagine. Politicians are at the heart of our political system, and insofar as it is democratic, they have made it so.


This essay is a much-revised and updated version of a lecture originally given before the Kentucky legislature in Frankfort, Kentucky, on January 9, 1974, which perhaps accounts for the rather exuberant paean to politicians at the end. The event was arranged by the American Enterprise Institute, which sponsored a series of lectures by scholars and other intellectual figures at different venues as part of the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution.

These lectures were collected and published as America’s Continuing Revolution: An Act of Conservation (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1975).

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