Title Reviewed:
American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1760–1860.

Author Reviewed:
Chilton Williamson

Ron Ridgley


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 58, Issue 1, pp 70-71

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Suffrage from Property to Democracy, 1760–1860. By Chilton Williamson. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. Pp. x, 306. Index. $6.00.)

At long last a volume has appeared that clears up most of the tangled web in which our suffrage history has been obscured. It is a book which is certainly not to be recommended to the casual reader but which should not be ignored by anyone wishing a clearer understanding of this country's democracy.

By doing a state by state survey of most of the Atlantic seaboard the author has shown that in pre-Revolutionary days the colonies all demanded at least a freehold qualification test for voting, but frequently this requirement was ignored and thus a broader suffrage was more often in existence that has been credited by historians.

To Williamson the turning point in the movement that led to eventual universal white manhood suffrage was the Revolution. During this period anti-British agitators and suffrage reformers found common cause in their struggle against Britain. This, then, marked the beginning of conscious involvement in suffrage reform that was to continue even into the present century.

The book treats in detail (sometimes to the reader's anguish) the struggle in each state for lessening of property qualifications that appeared in the post-Revolutionary period. The suffrage advances that Williamson records were made as a result sometimes of party politics, of soldiers' demands, and of southern attempts to line up nonslaveholding whites in a solid white front.

Turnerites are dealt a blow when Williamson in his shortest chapter points out that the New West made few contributions to suffrage. Instead the western states borrowed from the new advances of the seaboard states.

Often, almost as much an issue as suffrage was the idea of making voting procedures more democratic. Mr. Williamson records the complaints of voters about the necessity of traveling to distant polls and lack of secrecy in voting.

From the 1820's on, the suffrage issue was relegated to a minor role, bursting forth dramatically only in the Dorr Rebellion of the 1840's. But by the eve of the Civil War universal white manhood suffrage was a reality in the United States.

This is a book which will long be the last word on the subject of pre-Civil War suffrage reform in this country. Too much credit cannot be given Mr. Williamson for coming to grips with such a complex problem, nor too much praise for handling it so competently.

Ron Ridgley, Deming Junior High School, Terre Haute, Indiana

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.