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Essay: The expansion of suffrage

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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  • Words: 1,563 (approx)
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The U.S Constitution, ratified on June 21, 1788, established the national government of the United States along with underlying laws and guaranteed inalienable rights to American citizens. However, arguably the most important establishment from the US constitution was the establishment of a formal democracy. Throughout American history, our democracy has endured many changes, ranging from moderate to severe. These changes include an expansion of democracy during the Jacksonian era, a clash of democracy during the pre-civil war era, and a reconstruction of democracy post civil war era. The evolution of Democracy in America included the increased participation of white males in politics along with suffrage for all white males, many reform movements that helped establish today’s democracy, the abolishment of slavery, and equal rights for all races in America.

One of the most striking events of the 19th century was the increased growth of the electorate. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the US, was also known as “The People’s President” due to his contribution to the Common Man’s rights. Throughout Jackson’s presidency, there appeared to have been a trend of more Americans being involved in politics. By 1840, 80% of white males participated in the election which was exponentially more than the election just 16 years before when only 27% of white males voted. This is due to the fact that most property and taxpaying requirements in terms of voting rights disappeared in most states (Brinkley 231).  However, of course, these voting rights extended only to white males. The expansion of male suffrage started even before Jackson was in office, beginning with Ohio and other new states who adopted a constitution that grants voting rights to all adult white males and gave them the right to hold public office. The problem with voting restrictions was that the rich were more represented than the poor in the American democracy of the early 19th century so many tried to exterminate voting prerequisites. An example of the attempts of getting rid of property requirements was the Dorr Rebellion of 1842 when Thomas W. Dorr and his followers created a “People’s Party” in Rhode Island. Their goal was to force conservatives in Rhode Island to adopt a new constitution that expanded suffrage. Though their attempt to draft their state constitution failed, they still raised awareness and urged the nation to expand voting rights (Brinkley, 232). The establishment of a Second Party System also occurred during the Jacksonian Era and this meant that more people believed that parties were essential to democracy and that each individual had to be loyal to a specific party. One way that Jackson encouraged loyalty of his party among Americans was through the Spoils System where he would reward his supporters with jobs (Brinkley, 234). This was hypothetically another way that Jackson got US Citizens to become more involved with politics because people were now choosing which party they were going to contribute to. Overall, Jacksonian America expanded democracy and democratic ideologies such as an increased involvement of white males in politics along with suffrage for those same white males.

Jacksonian Democracy was the nation’s primary view of politics for a generation up until the 1840s. However, there was an Impending Crises which would soon be known as the Civil War between the Confederacy (South) and the Union (North) that would affect American democracy even further. Before the Civil War, though, there were many Antebellum reforms including Women’s Rights movements and Abolitionist movements. Both movements had increased effects on American views of democracy. For example, the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” was written in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention. The Seneca Falls Convention was a group of Women who advocated for female rights and argued that women should have the same opportunities as men. The “Declaration of Sentiments” states that not only were all men created equal, but also women. The biggest demand made by these women was the right to vote and participate in the electorate (Brinkley, 330). Though women did not attain suffrage until the 19th amendment in 1920, which prohibited any citizen, no matter the gender, from being denied the right to vote, the reform efforts of the mid 19th century still had lasting effects on democracy in the United States. One of the other very prominent Antebellum reform groups were the Abolitionists who challenged the existence of slavery in the US.  These abolitionists included William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, and Frederick Douglass and the group soon divided into two sectors- radical and moderate. Radicals usually condemned the constitution, attacked religion, and called for northern succession. Moderate Abolitionist approaches differed from those of the radicals as they tried to appeal to slave owners and to the governments in order to abolish slavery (Brinkley 331). However, the two sides set aside their differences and petitioned Congress to abolish slavery as much as possible but their efforts were often limited because of the “Gag Rule” which basically banned Abolitionist petitions from congress (history.house.gov). The “Gag Rule”  was brought up due to the radical view of abolitionists. This challenged democracy because the Constitution guarantees citizens the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” yet the House of Representatives often postponed all slavery petitions without even hearing them (history.house.gov). Though Women’s rights advocates and abolitionists in the mid 19th century did not achieve their goals immediately-female suffrage and the abolishment of slavery-they still set up the means for democratic reform in later years including the 15th and 19th amendments of the constitution.

The Impending Crisis was approaching closer in America and soon the Civil War began. One of the main causes of this Civil War was the differing views of slavery between the North and the South. The North was opposed to slavery and the South did not want to give their slaves up to freedom. However, Northern views were really set into action when the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was elected. Lincoln had great contributions to American democracy because he strictly promoted an Anti-slavery nation (Brinkley, 361). Though Thomas Jefferson ruled that after 1808 there would be an end to the importation of slaves, domestic slavery was still booming due to the invention of the cotton gin (Brinkley 307). This meant that more slaves were being sold and utilized, enhancing the idea that slaves were essentially property and didn’t have inalienable rights. Under federal law, slaves in the South were not allowed to have property, leave their masters without permission, get married, bear arms, and they definitely were not allowed to vote (Brinkley, 303). Abraham Lincoln pushed for the abolishment of slavery and human rights no matter the race or skin color. Slave states in the South opposed ideals such as those of Abraham Lincoln and formed the United States Confederacy in attempt to save their state’s right to slavery. Lincoln’s opposition to the South’s confederacy was to be known as the Union. The civil war began in 1861 between the Confederacy and the Union. Though there were many key events during the civil war, one that had a significant effect on American Democracy was definitely the Emancipation Proclamation (Brinkley, 373).  This proclamation, which was formally signed on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of slaves in every area that was under the Confederacy except for Tennessee, West Virginia, and South Louisiana (Brinkley, 374). It also granted these ex-slaves the ability to work in the army and stated that they must be treated no different than the white men. Even though this proclamation only applied to a limited amount of regions in the US, it still had a huge effect as it showed that the main purpose of the war was not only to preserve the Union, but also to abolish slavery and push towards human rights.

There were many effects of the Civil War, economically, politically, and socially. However, arguably the biggest and most astonishing of the effects was the abolishment of slavery and the 14th and 15th amendments of the constitution, granting previously unthinkable rights to African Americans. The 14th amendment granted African Americans citizenship as it stated that everyone born on American soil or naturalized was automatically a citizen and was subject to the privileges included in the constitution (Brinkley, 404). This amendment also emphasized the illegality of any states denying suffrage to any adult males, no matter the race. The 15th amendment, however, officially ratified this illegality by stating that it was forbidden for any state or federal government to deny suffrage to any citizen due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Brinkley, 406). This right did not yet extend to females in America though. It is apparent that the Civil War had a major effect on American Democracy along with the lives of all African Americans in our nation.

American democracy was essentially established after the United States Constitution was ratified. Though there have been many changes throughout the evolution of American Democracy, the most prevalent were definitely the increased participation of white males in politics, granted suffrage for all white males, many reform movements that helped establish today’s democracy, the abolishment of slavery, and the establishment of equal rights for all races in America. Though these changes did not come without immense efforts from many different groups, especially African Americans and Women, the evolution of our democracy has truly made the United States of America the epitome of the land of the free.

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