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Great Britain & the U.S.'s Democratization Processes

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  • 0:01 Two Democracies, Two…
  • 0:30 British Route to…
  • 2:02 American Route to…
  • 3:33 Differences & Commonalities
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Few countries have quite the history of democracy as the United States and the United Kingdom. And yet, full democratization has only come in the last 100 years to both. This lesson explains the history of giving people the vote in the U.K. and U.S.

Two Democracies, Two Different Routes

When you think about democratic governments, chances are the structures used in the United States and the United Kingdom are amongst the very first to spring to mind. After all, a great many of the world's political structures are based on the democratic institutions of these two countries. Despite their appearances today, both countries had to take a long route to democratization, full of controversy, political challenges, and in one case, open violence and protests.

The British Route to Democratization

The United Kingdom can trace its government back to 1066 with the arrival of William the Conqueror during the Norman Invasion. Like most medieval rulers, William relied heavily on his nobles, and rewarded them with significant amounts of power and land. Later, in 1215, these nobles felt threatened by another monarch, King John, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, guaranteeing the rights of nobles. However, despite what you may have heard, the Magna Carta did absolutely nothing for the 95% of the country that was not nobility. Later, in 1295, Parliament was established, which would share the law-making ability with king.

Following a brief anti-monarch period known as the Commonwealth, the monarchy was restored in the 17th century. However, this time Parliament demanded parliamentary sovereignty, meaning that the monarch had to recognize that Parliament ran the country, albeit on behalf of the king. Also during this time, new groups began clamoring for greater representation. A new group of rich commoners, known as the aristocracy, found themselves in political competition with the nobles. As such, the right to vote was extended to landowners.

Additionally, as the country entered the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, more and more people were demanding the right to vote, due once again to the growth of the middle class. This new class was wealthy, but may not own land. During the late 19th century, laws were passed to allow all men to vote. By 1948, all people over 21 could vote, and currently, any legal resident in the U.K. with British, Irish, Commonwealth, or EU citizenship can vote in the country.

The American Route to Democratization

The American route was quite different. The U.S. Constitution granted the states the right to choose who could vote. It was originally based on property, much like the British model. That said, as the country moved toward the violence of the Civil War, the emphasis for many states was placed on keeping free blacks away from the polls. Despite the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which guaranteed a right to vote despite race, as well as giving all American-born men equal protections and citizenship, property requirements would again be used to keep blacks away from the polls. Ultimately, it would take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with many violent hiccups, to secure the right to vote for all races.

Meanwhile, women faced their own struggle to vote. Starting in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, women organized and campaigned to vote. However, since the decision lay ultimately with the states, they were able to find some success from an unlikely place. In 1869, Wyoming became the first territory, and later the first state, to allow women the right to vote. Wyoming did so because there was a real lack of single women, and it was hoped that by giving them the right to vote, more women would move to the state.

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