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Thomas Jefferson: The American Franchise

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Although the so-called Revolution of 1800 saw no revolutionary changes in the American political scene, it was the dawning of a new age. The willingness of the Federalists to peacefully hand over power and to accept political defeat was extraordinary in a world controlled by kings and military leaders. In most states, property qualifications still limited the vote to white males owning as least a fifty-acre plot of land. This voting limitation upheld Thomas Jefferson's commitment to a rural republicanism that rested on the widespread farm ownership of relatively independent adult males. It was this republican vision that had motivated Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase—even though its constitutionality was in question—and to oppose primogeniture. The first promised to open up thousands of acres to farmers, thus assuring the continuation of an agrarian republic, while the latter blocked the creation of landowning dynasties controlled by inheritance to the eldest son.

Important changes, however, were afoot that would transform America from an agrarian republic to a mass democracy over the next two decades. For one thing, new, more egalitarian states had been carved out of the backcountry given to America by the British after the American Revolution. By 1803, four new frontier states had entered the Union: Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), and Ohio (1803). Louisiana would follow in 1812. Most of these new states eliminated the property and taxpaying qualifications for voting, and most eastern states soon followed suit. In all, there were sixteen states in the Union in 1800. According to census figures that year, the nation's population had increased from 3.9 million to 5.3 million—a jump of 35 percent—since the date of the first census in 1790.

At the same time, however, most of these new states and many old ones explicitly limited the franchise to white males. In New Jersey, for example, women and free blacks who owned property had voted until 1807, when the state abolished all property qualifications but limited suffrage to white men. The revolutionary constitutions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which had granted the vote to free blacks, soon joined with New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina in denying suffrage to African Americans regardless of their education or property.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Peter Onuf

Professor Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His writings include:

Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (University Press of Virginia, 2001)

Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Indiana University Press, 1987)

Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983)