From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

Throughout the history of our country, being able to vote has been synonymous with enjoying a political voice. Although Americans from colonial times to the present have also expressed their views on policies, programs, and political leaders through protest movements, demonstrations, petitions, and newspaper editorials, suffrage has always been the benchmark of formal political participation. In this issue of History Now our scholars look at efforts by propertyless white men, African Americans, and women of all races to win voting rights. The essays featured in “The Evolution of Voting Rights” remind us why we should never take for granted the right to express ourselves at the ballot box—and our obligation as citizens to do so.

"Stump Speaking" by George C. Bingham, 1856 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC04075)In our first essay, “Making (White Male) Democracy: Suffrage Expansion in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War,” Stuart M. Blumin offers us a revisionist view of the expansion of white male suffrage. Blumin reminds us, first, that suffrage before 1800 was limited to white males who owned property. But in the wake of the Revolution, steps were taken—especially in the newer states—to erase economic restrictions and enact universal manhood suffrage for white men. As Blumin observes, this means that this development occurred before the Jacksonian era, which is commonly touted as the “age of the common man.” As he also notes, universal white male suffrage was not achieved through grass-roots popular protest; it was a top-down policy by legislators. Blumin ends on a note of caution: expanded suffrage did not insure voter turnout. Nevertheless, as a step toward democratization, this historical development is significant.

Engraved portrait of African American members of Reconstruction Congresses [Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina; James T. Rapier of Alabama; and Hiram R. Revels, Blanche K. Bruce, and John R. Lynch of Mississippi], New York, ca. early 1880s (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC09400.447)In “A Right Deferred: African American Voter Suppression after Reconstruction,” Marsha J. Tyson Darling traces the long and effective campaign to suppress the voting rights given to African American males after the Civil War. The statistics are sobering, as post-Reconstruction southern state governments, aided by extra-legal groups like the Ku Klux Klan who engaged in violent action against the local black population, drastically reduced the number of eligible African American voters. Violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, fraud, and ballot box stuffing, combined with the gerrymandering of voting districts, led to drastic declines in eligible black voters. In 1867, in Mississippi, for example, 70 percent of black males were registered to vote; by 1890, only 9000 of the 147,000 voting age African American males qualified for the franchise. By the 1950s, however, progress could once again be seen, with Civil Rights Acts passed in 1957 and most notably in 1964 and 1965. Darling’s essay demonstrates the need for continuing vigilance to protect the rights of all Americans.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony, between 1880 and 1902 (Library of Congress)Eleanor Clift’s “Women’s Long Journey for the Vote” examines  the struggle for woman suffrage, a movement that spanned approximately seven decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its origins lay in the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton issued the call for women’s equality in her Declaration of Sentiments. Although some victories were achieved in the nineteenth century, it was not until August 18, 1920, that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted American women the vote. As Clift explains, thousands of women of every social class played a role in this victory, as they joined marches, went to jail in support of their cause, staged hunger strikes, and demonstrated outside the White House. They also organized an effective strategy for winning the vote state by state and through a constitutional amendment. Women’s support of the American effort in World War I played a critical role in the final success of woman suffrage.

Alice Paul, ca. 1918 (Library of Congress)In “Alice Paul, Suffrage Militant,” Barbara Winslow provides an in-depth look at one of the most radical, and controversial, leaders of the woman suffrage movement, the militant Alice Paul. Paul, born into a Quaker family, studied social work in college and traveled to England to study further. It was here that Paul encountered, and joined, the militant suffrage movement led by the Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. When she returned to the United States in 1910, Paul would employ many of the tactics she had learned abroad. She led the first national women’s suffrage parade in Washington DC, and soon afterward joined Lucy Burns in creating the Congressional Union, an organization far more militant than the larger National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Paul’s tactics were controversial, but effective. Even after suffrage was won, Alice Paul continued to press for radical reform, calling for an Equal Rights Amendment.

Participants in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 1965 (Library of Congress)As Professor Darling has shown us, the history of African American suffrage involved tragedy as well as triumph. In his essay “A Vote-less People Is a Hopeless People,” Robert A. Pratt provides a closer look at one of the most dramatic moments in the black struggle: the march on Selma, Alabama. Despite the victory won in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, violence aimed at African American voters continued in the South. Additional legislation seemed necessary to African American leaders. In Selma, activists like Amelia Boynton and Bernard Lafayette of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee began to mobilize blacks who had been frightened away from the voting booth by the threatening behavior of local whites. Boynton invited the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to assist them in their struggle. On March 7, 1965, a date that Pratt reminds us came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” veteran civil rights leaders like John Lewis led six hundred marchers to Selma’s Pettus Bridge. Here they were attacked by dozens of state troopers and by a posse led by Sheriff Jim Clark. The marchers were beaten and tear-gassed. The marchers retreated, but two weeks later, on March 21, more than three thousand marchers returned—and crossed the Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery. On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Today, Pratt notes, efforts at voter suppression continue.

Our issue is rich in additional resources, including videos about suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; spotlighted primary sources by Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Robert Kennedy; and, of course, helpful lesson plans, including “Women’s Suffrage: 140 Years of Struggle” for grades 5–8 and “Alice Paul: Suffragist and Agitator” for grades 9–12. Our special interactive feature is “The Fifteenth Amendment Celebrated: An In-Depth Exploration.”

Our “From the Archives” section offers eight essays on the subject of voting rights previously published in History Now, providing a closer look at woman suffrage in the US and Britain and an overview of voting rights in the United States.

Summer has come, and we know you are looking forward to a vacation from the classroom. Whether you choose to read in a quiet spot in the garden, embark on a new adventure, or plan a trip with family and friends, we look forward to seeing you again in the fall. Before signing off I want to offer my own special thanks to Nicole Seary, my in-house co-editor at Gilder Lehrman, who makes my task easier and more enjoyable for every issue of History Now.

Carol Berkin