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John Adams: The American Franchise

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During John Adams's presidency, the American population increased from 4.7 million to 5.3 million people—a 35-percent increase since 1790. Four out of five families farmed the land. Most of their produce was consumed on the farm or exchanged within the local community. Only twelve cities in the United States held more than 5,000 people, and only 3 percent of the population was urban. At that time, the greatest growth in the nation occurred in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. The frontier town of Cincinnati, located on the Ohio River, was the most distant outpost. By 1800—the first century of the new Republic—500,000 people, principally from Virginia and Maryland, had migrated to these western lands. Kentucky and Tennessee both had populations large enough to be admitted to the Union as states in 1792 and 1796, respectively. New Englanders had moved into upstate New York and Ohio while people in New Jersey moved into western Pennsylvania.

Luckily for Adams, Jay's Treaty in 1794 with the British brought some peace to the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and established the formal designation of sovereign nations for Native American tribes. But the pressure on the tribes to move further west was great. The Treaty of Greenville in 1795, for example, pushed the Shawnees into present-day Missouri in exchange for the cession of 17 million acres in Ohio. The once-powerful Iroquois were confined to a few scattered reservations in New York. No new major engagements with frontier tribes beset the nation during Adams's presidency.

In view of his much-expressed concern about Shays's Rebellion in 1786 and the Whiskey Rebellion of western farmers in 1794, John Adams must have been dismayed at the weakening of property requirements for voting in the newest western states. As the population moved westward in the 1790s, the pressure to increase the number of people eligible to vote grew. Most of the original thirteen states still limited the vote to property owners or taxpayers in the 1790s. These restrictions limited male suffrage to half of the white male population. Turnout among eligible voters was low, in part because voice voting made each man's vote a matter of public knowledge. Most state constitutions stipulated that presidential electors and U.S. senators were to be chosen by state legislators and not by popular vote. Everywhere, except on the frontier, wealthy merchants and slave owners dominated officeholding, and financial and kinship ties were crucial factors in political advancement. However, the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee began a trend that extended the right to vote to all white males over the age of twenty-one.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

C. James Taylor

Mr. Taylor is the editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.