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8-10-2015, 05:42

The Emergence of a More Democratic Republic

Today we accept the notion that democracy means that every citizen has a vote, with certain reasonable restrictions such as age, registration requirements and so on. In the early 1800s it was generally accepted that in order to vote, a person needed to have a legal stake in the system, which meant property ownership or some economic equivalent. When government under the Constitution began, the people did not vote for presidential electors; United States senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913. Even eligibility to vote for members of the House of Representatives was left to the individual states. Women, Indians and Blacks (whether slave or free) were restricted from voting almost everywhere. When Sam Houston was elected governor of Tennessee in 1828, his friends had to make him a gift of 500 acres of land, which was one requirement for holding that office.

In the decades surrounding the presidency of Andrew Jackson democracy broadened. Many states rewrote their constitutions, gradually eliminating property qualifications, taxpaying for voting, religious qualifications for office, etc. Presidential electors were more and more elected by the people, not the state legislatures; in most areas the electoral franchise was extended to all free white males. European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the spirit of equality that pervaded the United States, unlike anything known in the Old World. By the late 1830s, the United States had become a full democracy for adult white males, but inequalities still existed: poor people were still poor, and while wealth may not have bought votes directly, it certainly was a prerequisite for any kind of real power. What was different about America was not that the gap between rich and poor had narrowed—indeed, the opposite was probably true—but that there were few systemic barriers (except for slavery) that prevented people from gaining wealth and power. However limited, the idea of America as a land of unprecedented opportunity was not inaccurate in the context of the times.

The other major change in the Jacksonian era was the emergence of a solid two-party system. The modern Democratic Party was founded under Jackson, and an opposition party— the Whigs—eventually evolved. When that party disappeared in the early 1850s, it was soon replaced by the Republican Party, giving the U. S. the basic political structure that survives to this day. Although many issues have changed since the 1800s, present-day Republicans and Democrats have much in common with their ancestors.