Resolute Square

The Progressive Presumption and the Right to Vote

Teri Kanefield writes: "While there were always activists and idealists who believed that a country that boasted of rule by people should give all people a voice, the changes were also driven by self-interests." And it's self-interests working today to silence those voices.
Published:March 26, 2024

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

Last week I wrote about the Right to Vote. I left off when the drafters of the Constitution kicked the problem of who should be allowed to vote down the road. This week I’ll pick up with the history of voting rights from 1790 until about 1870. Information (mostly) from:

(The author, Keyssar, is a professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The book is almost 900 pages including notes and the research is impressive.)

The general progression from colonial days until the Civil War looked like this:

Colonial and Early America: 

The right to vote was mostly restricted to white men who owned property. Some colonies/states allowed women and freed Black Americans to vote if they could meet the property requirements. (Some states didn’t allow women to own property.) The numbers of non-white male voters was relatively small. While we don’t have the numbers, Keysslar tells us that only a “fraction” of the population voted in the presidential election of 1789.

In 1776, approximately 98% of the voting population was Protestant. So “we the people” was a small homogenous group.

The franchise opened for white men: From Keysslar: “The United States was the first country in the Western world to significantly broaden its electorate by permanently lowering economic barriers to voting.” Most states removed the property ownership requirement and instead instituted a tax paying requirement which allowed more men to vote. Then states gradually got rid of all economic requirements. The result was almost universal suffrage — for white men.

But white men on the margins were still often excluded: Migrants, the poor who accepted public assistance or charity, convicts, the mentally ill. Debates centered around whether penniless migrant illiterate drifters had the ability to make informed and rational decisions about who should govern or whether they would be too easily swayed by those who offered them charity.

At the same time, the franchise closed for Black Americans: The number of states that forbid freed Black Americans to vote rose steadily between 1790 and 1850. Examples: New Jersey, Maryland, and Connecticut initially allowed African Americans to vote, but by 1820, limited the franchise to whites. In 1835, North Carolina added the word “white” to its constitutional requirements. Pennsylvania, which had a liberal constitution during the revolutionary era, added “white” to its constitutional requirements in 1838.

Every state that entered the union after 1819 prohibited blacks from voting.

By 1855, only five states (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island) did not discriminate against African Americans, but these states contained only 4 percent of the nation’s free black population.

The federal government also prohibited black Americans from voting in the territories it controlled.

The Progressive (or Triumphalist) Presumption

Keysslar explains what he calls the progressive presumption or triumphalist presumption, which he defines as “a deeply embedded, yet virtually unspoken, notion that the history of suffrage is the history of gradual, inevitable reform and progress.” (p. 22)

He traces the origins of this idea at least as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker who came to the United States in 1831 and wrote Democracy in America based on what he observed. What struck Alexis de Tocqueville most about the United States was “the country’s equality of conditions, its democracy.” Yes, this was the era of slavery and restricting rights for women, but the United States was the only country in the Western world to open the suffrage to (almost) all (white) men.

While the US was ahead in some ways (removing economic barriers for white men) it was behind in others: The British empire abolished slavery in all of its holdings in 1834.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Lincoln era, opened Chapter 3 with this image of the men in a 19th century American town discussing politics:

The opening paragraph and the painting (Stump Speaking by 19th century painter George Caleb Bingham, 1811-1879) illustrate what Alexis de Tocqueville saw and admired.

Among the things Alexis de Tocqueville concluded was:

Once a people begins to interfere with the voting qualification, one can be sure that sooner or later it will abolish it altogether. That is one of the most invariable rules of social behavior.

His reasoning was that power becomes consolidated into the hands of a few, those few become less willing to share it. In fact, that didn’t happen. He also conclcuded that:

The further the limit of voting rights is extended, the stronger is the need felt to spread them still wider; for after each new concession the forces of democracy are strengthened, and its demands increase with its augmented power. The ambition of those left below the qualifying limit increases in proportion to the number of those above it. Finally the exception becomes the rule; concessions follow one another without interruption, and there is no halting place until universal suffrage has been attained.

In other words, he viewed progress as automatic: Once it starts, it will inevitably push forward. Keysslar proves through historical examples that this presumption is false. In fact, the history of voting rights shows that both of Toqueville’s conclusions were false.

Why the franchise opened up (for white men) in the first half of the 19th century

Middle class Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were mostly yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, merchants, “mechanics,” and soldiers. They were also white and almost entirely Protestant. 

While there were always activists and idealists who believed that a country that boasted of rule by people should give all people a voice, the changes were also driven by self-interests. The leaders of the Democratic-Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson (which later morphed into the party of the Confederacy) knew that extending the vote to yeoman farmers and other non-elite whites would improve their electoral prospections. This group tended to vote Democratic instead of Whig. For example, in 1807, the New Jersey state legislature restricted voting rights to tax-paying, white male citizens. This was done to give the Democratic-Republican Party an advantage in the 1808 presidential election. Women often voted for the opposing Federalist Party, so taking away women’s voting rights helped the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1845, American demographics began changing. The Irish Famine of 1845 brought millions of Irish Catholics to American shores. No surprise, this was also the decade that saw the rise of an anti-Catholic political party, the Know Nothings, which flourished about 1850. The No Nothing Party was anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. Anti-Catholic feelings in the US peaked during this large wave of immigration.

Catholics were viewed as less civilized, less white, and embracing a religion viewed as tyrannical.

Then, in 1865, a period of rapid industrialization along with more waves of Jewish and Catholic immigrants into the Northern cities created a new working class, a proletariat, that hadn’t been a force in the United States earlier. These new immigrants worked in factories and in merchandizing and lived in crowded conditions in Northern urban cities. They often arrived penniless.

Keysslar argues that the elite in the early 1800s allowed white men without property or money to vote because the United States then didn’t have the proletariat class of workers so despised in Europe:

The relatively early broadening of the franchise in the United States was not simply, or even primarily, the consequence of a distinctive American commitment to democracy, of the insignificance of class, or of a belief in extending political rights to subaltern classes. Rather, the early extension of voting rights occurred—or was at least made possible—because the rights and power of those subaltern classes, despised and feared in the United States much as they were in Europe, were not at issue when suffrage reforms were adopted. (pp. 131-132).

Abolishing slavery similarly changed the demographics in the South. By the end of the Civil War, four million enslaved people had been freed.

In the early 1800s, when the Southern states opened the franchise to yeoman farmers, they never dreamed that the class of Southern farmers would one day include their own newly-freed enslaved population. Similarly, in the early 1800s, when the North opened the franchise to the urbanites, they never imagined that the end of the nineteenth century would see an enormous influx of proletariat factory workers, including Catholics, and Jews.

What happened next was a rise in restrictions including voter registration and residency requirements intended to keep these immigrants from voting. For example, in 1857, Massachusetts passed a law requiring prospective voters to demonstrate their ability to read the Constitution. This was intended to keep what the Know Nothings called the “ignorant, imbruted Irish” from the polls. (p.. 152.) In 1860 “secessionist Georgia disenfranchised propertyless whites, largely in response to the rapid growth of an Irish working-class population in Augusta and Savannah.” (p. 151). 

With two exceptions, the franchise was gradually restricted in the second half of the nineteenth century. First, western states, beginning with Wyoming, allowed women to vote primarily as a way of attracting white women from the east to the new states.

The other exception was the 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote. There were, of course, nineteenth century idealists committed to universal suffrage behind the 15th Amendment. In fact, abolitionists had been working for decades to create equality. But there was also some self-interest. During the Reconstruction Era, the Republicans (then the anti-slavery party of Lincoln and northern industrialism) knew that Black men, if given the vote, would vote Republican. So they wanted Black men to vote. The Republicans (which was then the Party of Lincoln) knew that white southern women, if allowed to vote, would cancel out the votes of white northern women, so there was no gain, therefore no point including women. Thus women were thus not included in the 15th Amendment. This enraged the women, black and white, who had worked tirelessly to help end enslavement and create equal rights. They were shocked to find themselves left out of the 15th Amendment.

In other words, the period from 1790 to about 1870 witnessed a “checkered tale of motion forward, backward, and sideways, of local peculiarities and surprises, of rapidly changing, increasingly heterogenous society contending awkwardly with its own professed political values.”

And yet, there remains a firm belief that the history of voting rights has been one of “gradual, inevitable reform and progress.”

Keysslar notes that because the progressive presumption has dominated thinking about voting rights in the modern era, the history of voting rights has been of little interest to scholars. What is there to write about, after all, if progress in voting rights is automatic? We have the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, so all we have to do is sit back and applaud the progress and watch as it continues on its own momentum. Right? (wrong!)

In the past, I’ve talked about a “progressive view of history” that goes like this: The founders started with some pretty good ideas, but they left out a lot of people. As more people have come to be included, the graph slopes upward and points to a better and even more inclusive future. Progressives see history as an upward slope and they assume the slope will continue upward, like this:


The regressives (which include today’s Republican Party) have an opposite view of history. They think America started out as good and pure: The nation was homogeneous (ruled by white male Christians) and life was simpler. Government was local. The laws were easy to understand. The states were not bound to offer due process, so justice was swift (and often brutal). At first, there was almost no federal government. Then, over time, the federal government grew larger and more complicated (mostly because of the New Deal and then attempts to create fairness) until pretty soon people felt like they need a PhD or law degree to understand what is happening.

People who cannot tolerate complexity pine for a simpler time.

They see a downward slope that looks like this:

The problems with the regressive view is obvious. Going back to bygone era requires dismantling much of the federal government (the “deep state”) put in place over the past two hundred years and taking back rights people have been given. It’s possible, but unlikely, that taking away rights and dismantling a complex federal government can be done without violence.

There are problems with the progressive presumption as well. Among other things, it creates a sense of complacency and entitlement. If history naturally slopes upward, it’s like being on a rowboat without having to paddle. Citizens don’t have to do anything. When there is a backslide they feel helpless, shocked, and terrified. When people feel helpless, shocked, and terrified they are more likely to fall prey to rage merchants. They are less likely to become activists. If you think the arrow naturally points upward, there is nothing to do. It also encourages conspiracy thinking because people start looking for someone to blame. (This is why so many people who consider themselves progressives blame the Democrats for not solving the problem that has been with us since the start of the nation.)

If we zoom out and look at the history from 30,000 feet, it can indeed look like an inevitable upward slope. We have come a long way from 1776 when the electorate was 98% Protestant and almost entirely male.

This, from Christianity Today, explains the white nationalism embraced by much of today’s Republican Party:

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

It’s clear from the history of voting rights that the position the Republicans are taking today on voting rights and who is a real American is not new. As Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

The problem the Republicans are having now is that their demographic are shrinking.

So the Republican extremists are in a panic. They believe America is being destroyed, so they are resorting to desperate measures.

Anyone who has worked elections can tell you that this is true: In a polarized environment, winning an election is about turnout. Most people know whether they embrace the Trump view of what America should be or the Biden view of what America should be.

It’s obvious that Trump’s behavior since November 2020 has not expanded his voters. He lost Liz Cheney and Mike Pence, among others. He lost in 2020, and has not expanded his base, so I expect him to lose again.

The question is: What will be the margins? Will the margins be razor thin again? Or will the margins be more comfortable, allowing for more rapid changes? Roosevelt was able to turn the country around during the 1930s from an age of extreme income inequality to an era that saw the rise of a middle class and decrease in poverty, but he also won the 1933 election with 57% of the vote.

* * *

I know this is contrary to your shift in focus, but I would really love to hear your thoughts on the hiring of Ronna McDaniels by NBC/MSNBC.

One reason I am changing my focus is that so many of my readers watch cable news programs or get their news from left-leaning social media and I have concluded that what I’ve been calling the left-wing misinformation-echo chamber is getting worse. In fact, I’ve concluded that it is hopeless. The reason: Pundits who are (1) consistently wrong and (2) provide emotionally based content are consistently showcased. Being wrong is not a disqualification as long as the pundit or “expert” riles people and keeps them glued to the screen.

I suspect NBC concluded that inviting Ronna McDaniel will allow for lots of heated arguments. It will rile people. It will enrage them. It will keep them viewed to their screens. It will help ratings.

Inviting Ronna McDaniel to participate in these panels is exactly what I would expect from an echo-chamber going farther down the tubes. It also demonstrates that while some people who appear have intelligent well-thought out fact-based views, these are not the sole hiring criteria. A person who lies and presents unhinged views is also qualified if that person stimulates “discussion” and controversy and helps create compelling theater.

There is, incidentally, a Russian propaganda technique known as “noise.” Instead of silencing dissenting voices, Russian propaganda allows “all” views to be presented. This allows lies to be showcased alongside the truth. The result is that viewers end up confused and conclude that the truth is unknowable. When the population gives up on the truth and concludes that it is unknowable, autocracy can take hold. I am not saying this is the motive of MSNBC, but in one of their statements about the hire, they said they are committed to presenting a diversity of viewpoints.

People don’t need a diversity of viewpoints. A diversity of viewpoints is confusing. The truth gets lost. People need news and facts.
I would guess that NBC/MSNBC’s motive is to create more conflict (which is entertaining) and to bill itself as presenting all sides to counter the accusation that it is partisan media.

I would also guess that some of the people who are objecting to McDaniels don’t care how many of their liberal heroes are consistently wrong.

If viewership decreases, I suspect we won’t see much Ronna McDaniels. If there is enough pushback from viewers, she won’t continue.
That’s because it’s all about ratings.