The United States' Democratization Process

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  • 0:01 A Republic
  • 0:36 All Men
  • 1:26 Civil Rights
  • 2:47 Women Get the Vote
  • 3:21 More to Do?
  • 4:19 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.

Sadly, most Americans take the right to vote for granted, with some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world. However, as this lesson proves, the right to vote has been particularly hard-won for minorities, women, and other disenfranchised groups.

A Republic

When the United States was founded, there were some pretty weighty and controversial ideas floating around. After all, this was a country founded on the idea that all men were created equal and that all men had the right for either liberty or death. Well, mostly. See, the Founding Fathers were a rather insular bunch, and it would end up taking nearly two hundred years for voting rights to reach all the people who can vote today. In fact, important questions remain regarding whether even the current voting public is truly large enough.

All Men

Despite all the bombast you hear about the United Kingdom being a tyranny under George III, the truth of the matter was that it was actually a tyranny under Parliament. After all, it was Parliament that had passed the Stamp Act, Intolerable Acts, and other provisions that infuriated the colonists, and some of the founding fathers had even attempted to convince Parliament to grant them the right of self-governance while still subject to the Crown.

Obviously, those attempts failed. Instead, when the United States declared its independence, it did so by positioning itself as a representative republic for all people. In doing so, it gained the loyalty of many otherwise indifferent colonists. In England, commoners were only permitted to vote if they had wealth, but from the onset, the colonies guaranteed the right to all men as the states allowed.

Civil Rights

Wait, all men as the states allowed? That's right - the United States allowed the states to decide who got to vote and who didn't. Many states allowed free men of all races to vote, including some Southern states. Still others limited votes based on property ownership. However, as the early years of America's first century continued, prohibitions based on property, went out of style in favor of prohibitions based on race.

The end of the Civil War brought the Reconstruction Amendments. Made up of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, these meant that all men were permitted to vote, regardless of race. However, in many parts of the South, mechanisms were put into place that required people to own property in order to be able to vote. Since most blacks did not own property, this meant that they could not vote. Other tactics involved the use of grandfather clauses, which stated that if a person's grandfather could vote, they could vote regardless of property status, which guaranteed the rights of poor whites while still excluding poor blacks. Poll taxes, which required someone to pay a fee to vote, also kept many African Americans away. It would be nearly another 100 years until such restrictions were removed, when the Twenty-fourth Amendment was passed as a part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Women Get the Vote

Remember, in the early days of the U.S., states got to choose who got to vote. Plans to campaign for women's suffrage, or the right of women to vote, go back to 1848, with the Seneca Falls Convention and the work of Susan B. Anthony. However, in many states, there was little political motivation to extend the right to women. In other states, especially those frontier states out West, women's suffrage was viewed as a way to attract single women to balance out a male-heavy society. As a result, Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869, well before it was a state.

However, with the growth of the Progressive Movement in the 1910s, women's suffrage expanded into a national issue. With the entry of the U.S. into World War I, suddenly women were working and paying taxes. As a result, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed after the war, guaranteeing the right of women to vote.

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