Voting and Elections in Early America

Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Education Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program

By Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Special Thanks to the Library of Congress

Portrait of the Oneida Chieftain Shikellamy (c. 1820) by Artist/maker unknown, AmericanPhiladelphia Museum of Art

Voting and Elections in American History

Long before the pilgrims landed, voting and elections were taking place in America. For example, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of Native American tribes who inhabited territory west of the Colonies, had established a system of representative government sometime around 1500 that lasted until the Revolutionary War. Woman played a prominent role in choosing its political leaders. “Clan Mothers,” female tribal elders, nominated candidates to be Chiefs (or Speakers) to represent the tribes in the League’s Council, which governed the Iroquois Confederacy.  All representatives elected to serve in the Council, however, were men.

The departure of the pilgrim fathers, for AmericaConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Mayflower Compact and Establishing Self-Government

Imagine the situation: over 100 people, cut off from any government, with a rebellion brewing. Only staunch determination would help the Pilgrims land and establish their colony. If they didn't work as a group, they could all die in the wilderness.

The Mayflower Approaching LandConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Pilgrim leaders realized that they needed a temporary government authority. Back home, such authority came from the king. Isolated as they were in America, it could only come from the people themselves. Aboard the Mayflower, by necessity, the Pilgrims and "Strangers" made a written agreement or compact among themselves.

Show lessRead more

The Mayflower Compact was probably composed by William Brewster, who had a university education, and was signed by nearly all the adult male colonists, including two of the indentured servants. The format of the Mayflower Compact is very similar to the written agreements used by the Pilgrims to establish their Separatist churches in England and Holland. Under these agreements the male adult members of each church decided how to worship God. They also elected their own ministers and other church officers. This pattern of church self-government served as a model for political self-government in the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact is very short. It simply bound the signers into a "Civil Body Politic" for the purpose of passing "just and equal Laws . . . for the general good of the Colony." But those few words expressed the idea of self-government for the first time in the New World.

History of Plymouth PlantationConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Early Voting in Plymouth Plantation

Immediately after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact, the signers elected John Carver (one of the Pilgrim leaders) as governor of their colony.        They called it Plymouth Plantation. When Governor Carver died in less than a year, William Bradford, age 31, replaced him. Each year thereafter the "Civil Body Politic," consisting of all adult males except indentured servants, assembled to elect the governor and a small number of assistants. Bradford was re-elected thirty times between 1621 and 1656.

Chronicles of the Pilgrim fathers of the colony of Plymouth, from 1602-1625, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

In the early years Governor Bradford pretty much decided how the colony should be run. Few objected to his one-man rule. As the colony's population grew due to immigration, several new towns came into existence. The roving and increasingly scattered population found it difficult to attend the General Court, as the governing meetings at Plymouth came to be called. By 1639, deputies were sent to represent each town at the other General Court sessions. Not only self-rule, but representative government had taken root on American soil.

Province of the Massachusetts Bay. To the constables . . . You are required in his Majesty's name, forthwith to assembly the freeholders, andConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Who Was Eligible to Vote Before the Revolution?

As new colonies were established in America, the practice of self-government continued to spread beyond Massachusetts. For the most part, American colonists adopted the voter qualifications that they had known in England. Typically, a voter had to be a free, adult, male resident of his county, a member of the predominant religious group, and a "freeholder."

Show lessRead more

A freeholder owned land worth a certain amount of money. Colonists believed only freeholders should vote because only they had a permanent stake in the stability of society. Freeholders also paid the bulk of the taxes. Other persons, as the famous English lawyer William Blackstone put it, "are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own."

To the freeholders and freemen of the City and County of New York, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

Becoming a freeholder was not difficult for a man in colonial America since land was plentiful and cheap. Thus up to 75 percent of the adult males in most colonies qualified as voters. But this voting group fell far short of a majority of the people then living in the English colonies.

Show lessRead more

After eliminating everyone under the age of 21, all slaves and women, most Jews and Catholics, most free black men, Indians, plus those men too poor to be freeholders, the colonial electorate consisted of perhaps only 10 percent to 20 percent of the total population.

The election, a medley, humbly inscribed to Squire Lilliput, professor of scurrilityConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Elections in the Colonies

The act of voting in colonial times was quite different from today.

Whereas it is industriously reported (as I imagine with design at this juncture, to prejudice the Honourable Elisha Cooke, Esq; in the good opinion of the freeholders and voters of this town) that on Tuesday evening last being the 30th of April,, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

In many places, election days were social occasions accompanied by much eating and drinking. When it came time to vote, those qualified would simply gather together and signify their choices by voice or by standing up.

To the independent freeholders and freemen . . . long intimidated at elections, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

As time went on, this form of public voting was gradually abandoned in favor of secret paper ballots. For a while, however, some colonies required published lists showing how each voter cast his ballot.

All the real friends of liberty, and our happy constitution, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

Voting fraud and abuses were common in the colonies. Sometimes large landowners would grant temporary freeholds to landless men who then handed the deeds back after voting. Individuals were paid to vote a certain way or paid not to vote at all. Corrupt voting officials would allow unqualified persons to vote while denying legitimate voters the right to cast their ballots. Intimidation and threats, even violence, were used to persuade people how to vote. Ballots were faked, purposely miscounted, "lost," and destroyed.

NJ 1776Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

"Of Government in Petticoats!!"

The provision on suffrage in the New Jersey state constitution of 1776 granted the right to vote to "all inhabitants" who were of legal age (21), owned property worth 50 English pounds (not necessarily a freehold), and resided in a county for at least one year. No one is sure what was meant by "all inhabitants" since the New Jersey constitutional convention was held in secret. But it appears that no agitation for woman suffrage occurred at the convention.

After the state constitution was ratified by the voters (presumably only men voted), little comment on the possibility of women voting took place in the state for 20 years. Even so, one state election law passed in 1790 included the words "he or she." It is unclear how many, or if any, women actually voted during this time.

1864 Mitchell Map of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and MarylandConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

In 1797, a bitter contest for a seat in the New Jersey state legislature erupted between John Condict, a Jeffersonian Republican from Newark, and William Crane, a Federalist from Elizabeth. Condict won the election, but only by a narrow margin after Federalists from Elizabeth turned out a large number of women to vote for Crane. This was probably the first election in U.S. history in which a substantial group of women went to the polls.

Newspaper coverage of women voting was widespread in the state and included the publication of a new song titled, "The Freedom of Election." The sarcastic last verse illustrates pretty much what the attitude of most New Jersey men must have been.

Women at the polls in New Jersey in the good old timesConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Women Lose the Right to Vote in New Jersey

In 1806, Newark and Elizabeth again faced off at the polls, this time over the site of a new county courthouse. During three days of voting, partisans from both towns used every legal and illegal device to gather the most votes. Men and boys, white and black, citizens and aliens, residents and non-residents, voted (often many times). Women and girls, married and single, with and without property, joined the election frenzy. Finally, males dressed up as females and voted one more time.

The following year, the state legislature passed a new election law to clear up the confusion over who was qualified to vote in New Jersey. The law declared that since it was "highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order, and dignity of the state," no persons were to be allowed to vote except free white men who either owned property worth 50 pounds or were taxpayers. Such voters would also have to be citizens and residents of the county where they voted. The campaign for this new election law was led by John Condict, the legislator who was nearly defeated in 1797 when many women voted for his opponent. Thus, in 1807, with little debate in the all-male state legislature, and no public protest from the state's female population, the experiment with woman suffrage in New Jersey came to an end.

George Washington (1797) by Gilbert StuartThe White House

Federalists
vs. Republicans 

When it came time during the Convention in Philadelphia to design the executive branch of the federal government (Article II of the Constitution), virtually everyone assumed Washington would become the first president. Indeed, the writers of the Constitution created the office of president with Washington in mind. For his part, Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency. Washington became the first and only president to be unanimously elected.

John Adams President of the United StatesConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Washington’s warning did not sway many. The presidential election of 1796, the first without Washington as a candidate, saw candidates backed by the Federalist and Republican parties. The Federalists favored John Adams...

Thomas Jefferson Vice PresidentConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

...and the Republicans backed Thomas Jefferson.

Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 4th Congress, 2nd Session February, 1797, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

Neither Adams nor Jefferson actively campaigned. They remained at home while their supporters wrote letters and newspaper articles promoting their candidate. Adams won the presidency with 71 of the 139 Electoral College votes, one more than the required majority. Jefferson with 68 electoral votes came in second to become vice president. Thus the new administration had a Federalist president and Republican vice president.

In 1800, the Federalists again chose John Adams to run for president with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Hamilton loyalist from South Carolina, as their candidate for vice president. The Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s chief political opponent in New York, for vice president.

Aaron Burr. Second Vice-President of the United States, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

The Providential DetectionConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Campaign tactics radically changed in this election. Adams embarked on a speechmaking tour, campaigning on his record and promoting himself as a political moderate. Jefferson remained at home but wrote numerous letters to his supporters. He also distributed a statement of principles, perhaps the first party platform. Jefferson’s principles called for restoring civil liberties, curbing the growth of federal power, and protecting states’ rights.

A new display of the United StatesConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Backstabbing occurred within both parties. Hamilton despised Adams and openly schemed to manipulate the Federalist electoral vote for president in favor of Pinckney, who was supposed to be running for vice president. This divided the Federalist Party between Adams and Hamilton factions. On the Republican side, Aaron Burr, running for vice president, secretly plotted to become president in the event of an electoral vote tie between Jefferson and himself.

An address, to the voters for electors of President and Vice President of the United States in the State of Virginia ... The American Republic ticketConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Importance of the Electoral College

By 1800, both parties were maneuvering to control the selection of those who voted in the Electoral College. This small group of electors, not the popular vote, decided who became president. Each state’s electoral vote equaled the number of representatives and senators it had in Congress.

Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 6th Congress, 2nd Session February 1801Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

An Election
Goes to the House of Representatives

The tie in the Electoral College threw the election for president into the House of Representatives where each of the 16 states got one vote. In the first ballot, Jefferson won eight states to Burr’s six. Two states could not vote because their congressional delegations split equally. But Jefferson needed a majority, nine states, to win the presidency. The House voted 34 more times with the same result.

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United StatesConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Reluctantly, Hamilton lobbied fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson. Hamilton distrusted Burr even more than he did Jefferson. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson won the presidency with 10 states. Burr came in second with four and became vice president.

12th amendmentConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

In 1804, the states ratified the 12th Amendment, which required electors of the Electoral College to vote separately for president and vice president rather than for the two best candidates for president. From then on, parties nominated candidates to run specifically for president or vice president. In effect, this amendment recognized the permanent role of political parties in American government.

New York 1824 -- A Caucus Held at AlbanyConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Election of 1824: The Contenders

Without the 12th Amendment, the election of 1824 might have been a nightmare. There were so many candidates—10—that the election was certain to be deadlocked. And they all belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. In earlier elections, presidential candidates had been chosen by a small circle of insiders in Congress called a "King Caucus." In reaction to this, state party caucuses started making their own nominations. Many separate caucuses in state legislatures and at state party conventions selected presidential candidates.

Wm H Crawford.Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Only a few were serious contenders. The insiders in the King Caucus nominated Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford. He was a slaveholder from Georgia and was the favorite of President James Monroe. Crawford, however, had suffered a stroke.

John Quincy AdamsConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The North's candidate was Secretary of State John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts. The son of former President John Adams, he was strongly backed by commercial interests in New England. He played down his backers because much of the West and South resented New England.

Henry ClayConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Henry Clay was from the West and supported Western needs like roads and canals. A Kentucky slaveholder, he was speaker of the House of Representatives. Clay saw that the election would likely go to the House, where as speaker he would have the inside track.

Andrew JacksonConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The outsider among the top candidates was Andrew Jackson from Tennessee. He was famous as the general who had beaten the British at New Orleans in 1815. He was a senator from Tennessee, but his political views were largely unformed and unknown.

To the public. In September, 1824, I published at this place, Nashville, some criminal charges against Gen. JacksonConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Election of 1824: The Campaign

The campaign quickly heated up, becoming America's first great mudslinging contest. Jackson was called a gambler, duelist, adulterer and military tyrant. Clay was called a drunkard and gambler. Adams was ridiculed for his slovenly dress. Crawford was attacked for dishonesty and mismanaging the budget.

Show lessRead more
The people's ticket. For president- Wm. H. Crawford, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more
Show lessRead more
Republican anti-caucus ticket. For President John Quincy Adams, From the collection of: Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources
Show lessRead more

A foot-raceConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

When the votes of the 24 states were finally tallied, to no one's surprise, there was no majority winner. In popular vote, Jackson came in first with 42 percent, Adams took 32 percent, and Clay and Crawford had 13 percent each. In the crucial electoral vote, Jackson led with 99 electors from 11 states, 32 votes short of a needed majority. Adams had 84 electors from seven states. Crawford had 41, and Clay was last with 37.

Rules to be observed by the House of Representatives in the choice of a president of the United StatesConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

An Election Goes to the House Again

Following the procedures of the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives now had to choose the president from the top three: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. At the time, Inauguration Day was in March, and the first months of 1825 became a frenzy of lobbying and back-room bargaining. Rumors spread that representatives were trading their votes for ambassador posts and cabinet jobs.

Henry Clay's appointment as secretary of state, 7 March 1825Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

Henry Clay's fourth place finish shut him out of the presidency. He tried to use his post as speaker of the House to play kingmaker. He called in favors and worked behind the scenes to influence the vote. Jackson was a fellow Westerner, but Clay suspected that he would be a rival in future presidential races. Clay disliked Adams, but the two met privately a month before the House election. Both men denied making any bargains. But rumors said that Adams had promised to make Clay secretary of state.

Election of PresidentConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The House met to vote on February 9, 1825. After more than a month of arm twisting and bargaining, John Quincy Adams took exactly the 13 states he needed to win, Jackson won seven, and Crawford four. The public galleries in the house broke into such an uproar of booing and hissing that Speaker Clay ordered them cleared. Three days later, the new president nominated Henry Clay as his secretary of state. Charges of making a "corrupt bargain" would dog Henry Clay for the rest of his life.

Caucus curs in full yell, or a war whoop, to saddle on the people, a pappoose presidentConstitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Educaton Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources

The Jackson supporters were furious. After all, he had won by far the largest share of popular votes with 42 percent. Jackson immediately declared that he would run in 1828. And he became the first major American politician to call for eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president directly by popular vote.

1840, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Show lessRead more

On May 9, 1831, two young Frenchmen sailed into the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island and began a remarkable journey through the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, both minor French court officials, had been sent by their government to study new experimental prisons in America. However, even before leaving France, de Tocqueville and de Beaumont decided to spend most of their time observing American democracy in action.

The County Election, John Sartain, 1854, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Show lessRead more

"The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe," wrote de Tocqueville. Although property requirements for voting were still common, they were beginning to disappear. Elections were usually held every year for local and state offices. Those who had the right to vote did so and in large numbers. During the time that de Tocqueville toured America, 70% or more of the voters turned out on election day, compared to under 50% today.

Credits: Story

Narration from Constitutional Rights Foundation's Bill of Rights in Action.

Special thanks to Barat Education Foundation & Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program for curating images from the Library of Congress and National Archives.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
American Democracy
Celebrate the history of the United States presidency and discover defining moments in American Democracy
View theme
Google apps