It is frequently asserted that when the US constitution was ratified in 1788, it was a very progressive piece of legislation because it gave everyone the right to vote, making the US the first modern democracy.

However, on close inspection, one finds that the franchise at the time was hardly universal. Indeed the following groups were certainly excluded: women, slaves and indigenous peoples.

In addition, I am not sure about the following groups.

  1. Indentured servants - I am not sure but I understand they were formally attached to their masters and couldn't just apply for citizenship (I may be wrong).
  2. Settlers on the frontier - even if they were legally citizens, I understand it would have been practically impossible for them to vote due to inefficient communication.
  3. Anyone looking poor without any prominent member of the local community to vouch for them - they didn't have driving licenses, so how did they check if someone was a citizen or not?

Overall, what proportion of the then US population had the right to vote? How many of them could exercise this right in practice?

  • First, I think the question is predicated on a mistaken assumption; the US Constitution of 1788 doesn't define voting rights for anyone. "Originally, the U.S. Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible." wikipedia.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 15:52
  • @MarkC.Wallace - Agreed. Even so, it ought to be possible to work out the answer to the question. Someone might have even done it already. Yes, you'd have to look at the voting rules each state had, but there were only 13 of them then. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 16:15
  • The second, less serious problem, is that there out to be a distinction between case 1 (enfranchisement of indentured servants) and case 2 (logistics of voting). Case 3 (credentialing of franchised voters) is distinct from either of the other two. We're comparing apples, oranges and carpentry here.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 16:44

1 Answer 1


Before making statements about the US Constitution, I suggest reading it. The original Constitution said nothing about who does or who does not have the right to vote.

Voting standards during the colonial and immediate post-colonial period were the same as those in Britain, which operated on a simple principle: whoever paid taxes was entitled to a single vote, regardless of the amount of taxes they paid. When you paid taxes your name was enrolled on a list of tax-paying citizens and this list was used to control who was admitted to the polling station.

The laws pertaining to polling were all local laws, not constitutional matters and originally it was held that making laws concerning the right to vote were a state power.

The exclusion of, for example, women to polling places was a matter of decorum, not right to vote, and woman, indians, minors and other such people not allowed into a polling place, had every right to vote so long as they paid taxes. In such cases the property owner (ie tax payer) would send an agent or representative to vote for them and execute their will. For example, to quote the laws of New Jersey in 1800:

"... to and for the guardians of minors, and to and for the agents of single women, or other persons, who cannot attend the meeting of the owners and possessors, such agents being appointed in writing, to vote at said meetings."

From the above law, you can see only single women were not allowed into the polling place and required an agent. A married woman or widow who owned property would presumably have been allowed to enter and vote herself.

As for enumerating the number of people entitled to vote you need only refer to a census from the period, such as the 1791 census. In those days the census focused on recording the number of taxpayers, not the total number of persons, so you will find counts of such persons, who are perforce voters in that census and can compare it to modern estimates of the total population to gauge the percentage of people entitled to vote.

As for how owners were identified, it depended on the place. In a small town or country the poll would be occupied by people who knew and could identify by sight all the property owners in town. If there was some question, the person would bring his deed. A person possessing a deed would be presumed to be the person named on the deed. In many places, especially large cities, when you paid taxes on your property you were given a receipt. This receipt gave you admittance to the polls. If you were a kid, an Indian or a woman, you would find a lawyer or other respectable person you trusted, give them the receipt and they would vote for you.

  • The 1790 US census as near as I can tell had no specific accounting of who was a taxpayer and who wasn't. This actually makes more sense, as for Federal purposes the important information was how many residents each state had, broken out by slave and non-slave (slaves being accounted as 3/5 of a non-slave for purposes of Congressional representation and electoral votes). If a particular state chose to enfranchise people by taxpaying status, that would be that state's business, and accounting it that state's problem.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 15:53
  • 1
    Not strictly true - voting was restricted to property holders. One of the latent tensions in colonial America was the number of adults whose parents had not yet given them property, and therefore could not vote. They hoped to gain land/property in across the Ohio, but Great Britain refused to allow settlement.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 15:53
  • @Tyler Durden The USA holds federal censuses every 10 years, 1790, 1800,1810, etc. There was no 1791 federal census.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Jun 5 at 14:03

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