The Right to Vote Expands and Contracts (1790-1863)

The original United States Constitution (1787) mostly left the issue of voting rights and regulations up to the states. As the country expanded, in most cases, so did the number of eligible voters.

Voting Rights Taken Away

In the early 19th century, most property qualifications for voting and holding elected office positions were removed. By 1860, just five states limited the vote to taxpayers and only two still imposed property qualifications. 

Even as the right to vote expanded for white males, new laws made it increasingly difficult for African Americans to vote. Every new state that joined the Union after 1819 explicitly restricted voting rights to white men.

African American men lost the right to vote in states like New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut where free Black men could vote in the early years of independence.

By 1855, only five states—Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—allowed African Americans to vote without significant restrictions.

Fear of African American Political Power

Why this shift toward restricting the vote for African Americans?

Some historians point out that the white middle class in northern states "feared" what might happen if significant numbers of African Americans fled the South, migrated to their states and gained political power.

For example, after petitions from thousands of "worried white citizens", the 1838 Reform Convention in Pennsylvania rewrote the state Constitution to exclude African American voters. They changed the provision for “freemen” to “enjoy the rights of an elector” to “white freemen.”

Resistance to Disenfranchisement