When did the United States become a democracy? One of the best measures of democracy—of democratic practice in politics—is the number and proportion of eligible voters who cast ballots in a given election. Changes in turnout—an increase or decrease in voter participation—also provides a good indicator of the voters’ degree of engagement with their representative government. Due to the lack of comprehensive voter returns for the period before 1825, it has been difficult for historians to determine with accuracy the levels of voter turnout in the decades immediately following the ratification of the US Constitution. The Mapping Early American Elections (MEAE) project contains the data that makes it possible to depict visualizations of turnout.
Contrary to the prevailing myth, a large proportion of the white male population in colonial British North America was actually eligible to vote, even before the American Revolution. Despite the existence of property qualifications for voting in all the colonies, the widespread availability of land meant that most white males could own enough land to meet the franchise requirements. The American Revolution accelerated the trend toward universal male suffrage by lowering or removing property qualifications for voting. In addition, some states enfranchised free black men. In one state, New Jersey, single women who owned property (i.e. widows and spinsters) could vote from 1776 until 1807.
Possessing the ability to vote, however, is different from actually exercising the franchise. Studies have shown that in the colonial era, levels of voter participation tended to remain fairly low. Turnout tended to increase only in elections where major issues were at stake or the candidates presented sharply different political alternatives. In general, however, voters tended to defer to the elite members of society in matters of governance.
The MEAE project presents evidence that challenges the conventional narrative of early American history: that “democratic” elections only really began with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Until the emergence of the so-called “Second Party System,” it has been said that voter participation levels remained relatively low. Evidence from the New Nation Votes project suggests otherwise. Voter turnout actually increased dramatically during the era of the First Party System. In fact, the highest turnout levels in the age of Federalists and Democratic Republicans often equaled or even exceeded Jacksonian voter participation. A quarter century before Jackson’s election, voter turnout frequently reached 50 to 70 percent of the total free male population in many states. In those states which explicitly restricted the votes to whites, turnout is measured as the total vote divided by the total number of white adult male inhabitants.
In the late 1790s, a variety of factors sharply boosted voter turnout. Both the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans vigorously contested elections from the late 1790s until after the War of 1812. A burgeoning network of partisan newspapers helped to frame the news for readers who strongly identified with their political party. Finally, substantive issues galvanized voters, propelling them to the polls.
Turnout surged in states which had a competitive party environment, including New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts (including Maine), Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and North Carolina. Each party had an interest in mobilizing every single voter and getting him (or in New Jersey, him and her) to the polls. In the late 1790s, the Democratic Republicans created a more democratic form of political rhetoric and new techniques of voter mobilization. In the years after 1800 the Federalist party likewise refashioned itself with a more popular style of rhetoric and new mobilization practices.
As party newspapers spread, editors put issues in a partisan framework, thus reinforcing electors’ party identification and their motivation to vote. In states which had intense party competition and a network of party newspapers, turnout in many congressional races rose above 50 percent of the adult free male population.
In the age of Jefferson and Madison, critical issues also helped drive voters to the polls. The greatest surge in turnout occurred after the passage of the Embargo Act in 1807. Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans advocated American withdrawal from foreign trade until the British and/or French respected American neutral rights. As the Embargo distressed the commercial centers of New England and the Middle Atlantic, the Federalists enjoyed a dramatic revival.
After 1808, turnout surged in the five northeastern states that had near-universal male suffrage and competitive parties—New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Turnout increased to seventy percent in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in gubernatorial elections. In the western states of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, gubernatorial turnout sometimes exceeded seventy percent of adult white male inhabitants even though these states lacked two-party competition.
After 1808, many congressional races exhibited a sharp rise in turnout. Maryland, for example, had very competitive and closely balanced parties. Maryland also had an extensive network of important Republican and Federalist newspapers, more than any other southern state. Moreover, Baltimore and Philadelphia party newspapers had wide circulation in adjacent areas of Maryland. The Embargo and the War of 1812 were also important issues in Maryland. All of these contributed to the increased voter turnout in that state. (These were census years that provide accurate counts of the adult male population. For more specific results using the New Nation Votes data, see the table in figure 2 which shows the turnout in Maryland congressional elections in 1808, 1810 and 1812.)
|DISTRICT 1: SOUTHERN MARYLAND|
|DISTRICT 2: CENTRAL MARYLAND EAST|
|DISTRICT 3: CENTRAL MARYLAND WEST|
|DISTRICT 4: WESTERN MARYLAND|
|DISTRICT 5: BALTIMORE COUNTY AND TOWN|
|DISTRICT 6: UPPER CHESAPEAKE|
|DISTRICT 7: EASTERN SHORE CENTRAL|
|DISTRICT 8: EASTERN SHORE SOUTH|