Sunday, June 11, 2017

Women's vote in the Early Republic period in the US

Gordon Wood in his 2009 history, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, wrote this about voting in the early days of government under the Constitution in the United States:

Perhaps the most radical change resulting from the Jeffersonian election of 1800 was in politics. Popular voting took on a significance that it had never quite had before, and the increased numbers of contested elections for both federal and state officials 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. At the same time, 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. Of course, the enhanced importance of voting and the increase in electoral competition made suffrage exclusions as important as suffrage expansions. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey, which earlier had had no racial restrictions, now confined voting exclusively to white adult males. With the exception of a brief period in New Jersey (1790-1807) no state granted women the 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.

Its always both frustrating and fascinating to see how political progress and political retrogression can happen at the same time within the same political entity. Jefferson and his supporters in the Republican Party (the party that later became today's Democratic Party) called his election in 1800 "the revolution of 1800." Jefferson's party wasn't nearly so squeamish at using the word "revolution" in a positive sense in those days, in dramatic contrast to today's corporate Democrats. Today's Republicans with the Reagan Revolution and the Gingrich Revolution and so on has not been nearly so squeamish in that regard in recent decades.

One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that Wood cites the fact that "[p]opular voting took on a significance that it had never quite had before" was "the most radical change" that manifested itself in the 1800 election at all levels. If you're someone who believes that democratic participation and popular interest in public affairs are desirable in a democratic republic, that was a good thing.

I would also note that increasing democratic participation is at the core of what Bernie Sanders refers to as the kind of revolution he wants to see.

Another striking point in that paragraph is that women had the franchise for nearly two decades around the start of the nineteenth century. But as voter participation expanded for white men, the one state that recognized women's right to vote put an end to it. A similar backward step from the standpoint of democracy was that there was also a trend to remove the franchise from free blacks in some places. This is a case where democratic progress (a huge increase in popular participation) happened simultaneously with democratic regression.

The trend toward disenfranchising women had begun earlier, with New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire having withdrawn women's suffrage prior to 1800. (See Wikipedia's Timeline of women's suffrage in the United States.) This is evidence that some men and women even in the late 18th century in the US thought that women voting was a good thing. Not only was the idea talked about at the time. It had actually been practiced to a limited extent in the United States.

But since Wood has a realistic and evidence-based approach to history, he reminds us that "by the standards of the early nineteenth century America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world."

The egocentric American Exceptionalism is happy to use alleged American superiority in all things as an excuse to make war against foreign governments that displease us.

But it is important to remember that the US in 1800 was at best only a partial democracy by the standards of 2017 - women in Iran also have the right to vote today - it still at that time had the most popular electoral politics in the world. And it really was an inspiration for people in Europe and Latin America that wanted to move in a democratic direction in their countries' governance.

And if we believe democracy is a desirable and necessary for a free people, that was a good thing. And understanding that is an essential part of understanding the history of the Early Republic and antebellum periods.

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