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

By Alexander Keyssar | Go to book overview

Conclusion:
The Project of Democracy

THIS IS A STORY WITH A PARTIALLY HAPPY ENDING. At the opening of the twenty-first century (and the new millennium), nearly all adult citizens of the United States are legally entitled to vote. What once was a long list of restrictions on the franchise has been whittled down to a small set of constraints. Economic, gender-based, and racial qualifications have been abolished; literacy tests are gone, if not forgotten; residency requirements have been reduced to a matter of weeks; the age of political maturity has been lowered; and the burden of registration has been rendered less onerous. The proportion of the adult population enfranchised is far greater than it was at the nation's founding or at the end of the nineteenth century. That there exists a right to vote rather than the privilege of voting is clearly established in law as well as in popular convictions.

Yet getting here has taken a very long time. The elementary act of voting--of participating in the shaping of our laws and the selection of our lawmakers--was, for many decades, reserved to white English-speaking literate males, a majority of whom belonged to the respectable classes. As late as 1950, basic political rights were denied to most African Americans in the South, as well as significant pockets of voters elsewhere, including the illiterate in New York, Native Americans in Utah, many Hispanics in Texas and California, and the recently mobile everywhere.

That it took so long for universal suffrage to be achieved reflects elements of our history that fit uneasily into the official portrait of the United States

-316-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Part I - The Road to Partial Democracy 1
  • One - In the Beginning 3
  • Two - Democracy Ascendant 26
  • Three - Backsliding and Sideslipping 53
  • Part II - Narrowing the Portals 77
  • Four - Know-Nothings, Radicals, and Redeemers 81
  • Five - The Redemption of the North 117
  • Six - Women's Suffrage 172
  • Part III - Toward Universal Suffrage -- and Beyond 223
  • Seven - The Quiet Years 225
  • Eight - Breaking Barriers 256
  • Conclusion - The Project of Democracy 316
  • Appendix - State Suffrage Laws, 1775-1920 325
  • Appendix - Sources 391
  • Notes 403
  • Index 453
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