In a limited sense, the United States had become steadily more democratic throughout the early nineteenth century. American citizens turned out to vote in very large numbers, took an avid interest in political affairs, and participated in quasi-political events like parades, riots, and public commemorations. But in many states, voting...
In a limited sense, the United States had become steadily more democratic throughout the early nineteenth century. American citizens turned out to vote in very large numbers, took an avid interest in political affairs, and participated in quasi-political events like parades, riots, and public commemorations. But in many states, voting was limited to people who owned property, and with the advancing Market Revolution, property ownership, and therefore enfranchisement, were tenuous.
In the 1830s, the electorate began to expand. Several states held constitutional conventions that dropped most property qualifications for voting and took measures to create equal representation in state legislatures. By the 1840s, almost all white men could vote in most states.
With this change in the electorate came a democratization of American political culture. Politicians had to appeal to ordinary American males, and so they presented themselves in that light. Andrew Jackson, who was styled as "Old Hickory," was an especially visible example of this trend. Americans also participated in organizations dedicated to political change, like the various reform movements that swept the nation during this period. These men and women, especially abolitionists, espoused an expansive view of democracy, though many also feared the electoral power of the immigrants, mostly Irish and German, who flooded Northern cities during the period.
This democratization of American society and politics was highly gendered and racialized. Of course, enslaved men could not vote, and several female reformers began to advocate suffrage for women, universally denied during this period.
Almost all states, North and South, took steps to bar African Americans from voting. In North Carolina, for example, the 1835 constitutional convention that expanded (though not completely) voting rights for white men explicitly stripped the right to vote from the state's thousands of free black men, who had previously been qualified to vote. Other states, including New York, took similar steps. Moreover, part of Andrew Jackson's appeal to whites was the hard line he took against Native Americans, which included Indian removal. Southern slaveholding elites deliberately appealed, with varying success, to poor whites to maintain the existing class structure. In a very real sense, then, white political equality, and antebellum democracy itself, was built upon the oppression of others.