The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States


Most Americans take for granted their right to vote, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But the history of suffrage in the U.S. is, in fact, the story of a struggle to achieve this right by our society's marginalized groups. In The Right to Vote, Duke historian Alexander Keyssar explores the evolution of suffrage over the course of the nation's history. Examining the many features of the history of the right to vote in the U.S. -- class, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and age -- the book explores the conditions under which American democracy has expanded and contracted over the years.

Keyssar presents convincing evidence that the history of the right to vote has not been one of a steady history of expansion and increasing inclusion, noting that voting rights contracted substantially in the U.S. between 1850 and 1920. Keyssar also presents a controversial thesis: that the primary factor promoting the expansion of the suffrage has been war and the primary factors promoting contraction or delaying expansion have been class tension and class conflict.


I have come to believe that books have fortuitous or unforeseen beginnings, and this one is no exception.

A half dozen years ago, I began to draft a different book, a highly quantitative study of working-class participation in electoral politics in the United States. My outline for that book--developed after several years of research--called for a stage-setting chapter about the legal and political history of the right to vote. I envisioned that chapter as a simple preamble to a detailed investigation of the ways in which working people did and did not participate in elections.

But when I sat down to write the chapter, I ran into trouble. The story line, tracing the evolution of the right to vote in the United States, began to zig and zag at unpredictable moments. Easy generalizations wilted when I tried to mold them into forceful arguments or undergird them with documentary evidence. Moreover, the evidence I had on hand, drawn from standard sources, looked increasingly skimpy and incomplete. I went back to the library for a few months and then tried again. Without success. The more I wrote, the further I seemed to be from the finish line. The chapter kept getting longer, as did my list of unanswered questions.

Eventually I realized that the chapter with which I was wrestling was a book in itself. The subject, the right to vote, was of almost self-evident importance to American history and contemporary politics; remarkably little had been written about it; and I could not really make sense of electoral participation until I had a deeper understanding of the laws that shaped and structured that participation. I also realized that I wanted to write about the history of suffrage: the richness of the issues, their intricacy and importance, had captured my attention and imagination. Americans had debated, and fought over, limitations on the right to vote from the revolution to the late twentieth century, and those debates and contests told much about the meaning of democracy in American political life and culture. My stacks of . . .

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