Mulling Over American Democracy in the 19th Century

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American democracy was still developing in the 19th century. However, most historians connote that this democracy was defined “the people” in 19th-century terms as white men who pushed for the United States’ Declaration of Independence from Britain. Like their more conservative competitors, the Progressive historians regarded women as politically irrelevant, Indians as doomed primitives, and black slaves as exceptions in a national story of democratic progress. Although women, Indians, and blacks added up to the majority of the American people, they mattered less than the expanded political rights of common white men to the Progressive story.

The great authority on American democracy was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose astonishing survey in two volumes contained many true predictions and is still packed with useful lessons. Tocqueville confirmed the low estimate of freedom of thought in America, but he foresaw in the United States the first example of a type of democracy that would surely overtake the Western world. He found in such a future many good things and many defects; he predicted a day when slavery would threaten disaster to America; he foretold what kind of poetry a democracy would produce and delineated the art of Walt Whitman; he apprehended the complication of laws and the declining quality of justice; but he was reconciled to what must be (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006).

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While the 18th Century created the American democracy, the 19th Century defined United States as a union. With the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the new American nation forged a country that sought a “national” identity, while valuing the separate identities of each individual state. Americans tend to view the Constitution as the uncontested law of the land and to express pride in its enduring place in their politics. With the ratification of the Constitution, conventional wisdom has it, the foundation of American politics and government was solidly established. The Constitution sustained the economic and political development of the United States for more than 200 years. Even critics of American politics tend to admire the Constitution’s success. It has been so dominant, they lament, that the radical egalitarian movements it was designed to inhibit have never built up much steam. Critics attribute the American welfare state’s arrested development, compared to other representative democracies, to the energy sapping complexity of the constitutional system of checks and balances. Political scientist James Morone (1998) argued, “If the United States had been playing by parliamentary rules, it would have had [national health insurance] in 1949 (after Truman campaigned on the issue)—more or less on the same schedule as the [parliamentary democracies]”.

Despite the developments in the constitutional democracy, equality has always been the least fully developed of America’s founding concepts in the 19th century. Not even Thomas Jefferson, who had a deep admiration for the “common man,” believed that broad meaning could be given to the claim of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” To Jefferson, “equality” had a restricted, though significant, meaning: people are of equal moral worth and as such deserve equal treatment under the law (Nisbet, 1975). Even then, Jefferson made a distinction between free men and slaves, who were not entitled to legal equality.

The history of America shows that disadvantaged groups have rarely achieved a greater measure of justice without a struggle (Howard, 1999). Legal equality has rarely been bestowed by the more powerful upon the less powerful. Their gains have nearly always occurred through intense and sustained political movements, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, that have pressured established interests to relinquish or share their privileged status.

Disadvantaged groups have a shared history of political exclusion, struggles for empowerment and policy triumphs, but they also have distinctive histories, as is evident by a brief look at the efforts of African Americans, women, and Native Americans to achieve a greater degree of equality in American society.

For African Americans, it took a civil war to bring slavery to an end, but the battle did not end institutionalized racism. When Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, whites in the region regained power and gradually reestablished racial segregation by enacting laws that prohibited black citizens from using the same public facilities as whites (Woodward, 1974). In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court endorsed these laws, ruling that “separate” facilities for the two races did not violate the Constitution as long as the facilities were “equal.” “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” the Court argued, “the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The Plessy decision became a justification for the separate and unequal treatment of African Americans. Black children, for example, were forced into separate schools that rarely had libraries and had few teachers; they were given worn-out books that had been used previously in white schools.

For women, the United States carried over from English common law a political disregard for women, forbidding them to vote, hold public office, and serve on juries (Matthews, 1994). Upon marriage, a woman essentially lost her identity as an individual and could not own and dispose of property without her husband’s consent. Even the wife’s body was not fully hers. A wife’s adultery was ruled by the Supreme Court to be a violation of the husband’s property rights.

This is why the first women’s rights convention in America was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, after Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been barred from the main floor of an antislavery convention (Flexner, 1975).  Thereafter, however, the struggle for women’s rights became closely aligned with the abolitionist movement, but the passage of the post–Civil War constitutional amendments proved to be a setback for the women’s movement. The Fifteenth Amendment, for example, said that the right to vote could not be abridged on account of race or color, but said nothing about sex (DuBois, 1978). After decades of struggle, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally adopted in 1920, forbidding denial of the right to vote “by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

For Native Americans, when white settlers began arriving in America in large numbers during the seventeenth century, nearly ten million Native Americans were living in the territory that would become the United States. By 1900, the Native American population had plummeted to less than one million. Diseases brought by white settlers had taken a toll on the various Indian tribes, but so had wars and massacres. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is not simply a hackneyed expression from cowboy movies (Nagel, 1996). It was part of a strategy of westward expansion, as settlers and U.S. troops alike mercilessly drove the eastern Indians from their ancestral lands to the Great Plains and then took those lands as well.

Because civil rights policy should involve large issues of social values and the distribution of society’s resources, questions of civil rights are politically explosive. For this reason, legislatures and executives as well as the courts have been deeply in the recent years to resolve the lack of attention to the mentioned disadvantaged groups in the 19th century American democracy. Thus, in answering “Did America become more `democratic` or equal during the Nineteenth Century?”, it is deemed that during the birthing of the Constitution, democracy seemed to be an exclusive right of white men, while women, African Americans and Native Americans did not enjoy such privileges.

Works Cited

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).

Encyclopædia Britannica. Tocqueville.. 2006. Retrieved November 28, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975)

Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).

Matthews, Glenna. The Rise of Public Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Mayer, J.P. and Kerr, A.P (ed.). Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835–1840), (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1969).

Morone, James. The Democratic Wish: Popular Participation and the Limits of American Government. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

Nagel, Joane. American Indian Ethnic Renewal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Nisbet, Robert. “Public Opinion Versus Popular Opinion,” Public Interest 41 (1975): 171.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

Woodward, V. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3rd  rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

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