The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

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Originally published in 2000, The Right to Vote was widely hailed as a magisterial account of the evolution of suffrage from the American Revolution to the end of the twentieth century. In this revised and updated edition, Keyssar carries the story forward, from the disputed presidential contest of 2000 through the 2008 campaign and the election of Barack Obama. The Right to Vote is a sweeping reinterpretation of American political history as well as a meditation on the meaning of democracy in contemporary American life.
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Editorial Reviews

Rick Pearlstein
. . . a tale that boldly overturns almost everything you think you know about Americans' most taken-for-granted right. . .To students of U.S. political development, this counter-history matters a great, great deal. One of the hoariest chestnuts is that no working-class political movement has succeeded in America precisely because the American working class was unqualifiedly granted political rights. That cliche will fade in proportion to the number of people who read and take seriously this book. So will the number of people who take their vote enough for granted never to cast it at all.
Washington Post
Paul Rosenberg
A broad-based, realistic picture of the various historical forces working for or against the expansion of democracy, which . . . makes sense of an otherwise bewildering array of advances and retreats. . . a marvelously coherent, richly detailed history of a most hard-won right.
—(The Denver Post)
Michael Kazin
Alexander Keyssar's scholarly masterpiece . . . is easily the wisest and most comprehensive study of who was and is allowed to cast a ballot that has ever been written. . .
—(The Los Angeles Times)
John M. Hamilton
—(The Chicago Tribune)
Rick Perlstein
. . . a tale that boldly overturns almost everything you think you know about Americans' most taken-for-granted right. . .To students of U.S. political development, this counter-history matters a great, great deal. One of the hoariest chestnuts is that no working-class political movement has succeeded in America precisely because the American working class was unqualifiedly granted political rights. That cliche will fade in proportion to the numbe3r of people who read and take seriously this book. So will the number of people who take their vote enough for granted never to cast it at all.
—(The Washington Post)
Jamin Raskin
Keyssar's new book is a stunning triumph. It is the first comprehensive history of voting rights and wrongs in America written since 1918, and Keyssar's graceful, penetrating examination of the recurrent struggles for the right to vote fills this void magnificently.
—(Raleigh News and Observer)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
America's self-image as the land of democracy flows from the belief that we've long enjoyed universal suffrage--or at least aspired to it. Duke historian Keyssar (Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts) convincingly shows that, though distinctive in some ways, the evolution of the franchise in America is similar to that in other countries: highly contested, with retreats as well as advances, containing within it the sharp reflections of larger struggles for power. America's basic claim to exceptionalism--early white manhood suffrage--was, according to Keyssar, part historical accident and part mistake, adopted before a European-style urban working class emerged. Keyssar identifies four periods: one of expansion from the Constitution's signing to around 1850; a period of contraction lasting until around WWI, in which the upper and middle classes demonstrated hostility to universal suffrage; a period of mixed, minor adjustments lasting till the 1960s, when the fourth period began--the civil rights movement--which inaugurated the removal of most of the remaining barriers. Various historical dynamics, such as economic development, immigration and class relations, underlie this periodization, expressed, Keyssar says, in shifting ideologies: voting as a right versus voting as a privilege or trust, while lack of financial independence was repeatedly used to justify excluding whole categories of voters. These large background shifts outline the tortured ebb and flow of suffrage: the post-Civil War enfranchisement of blacks and its rollback, the 70-year struggle for women's suffrage, the restoration of black voting rights in the 1960s. This is a masterful historical account of a complex, contradictory legacy. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
YAs are not the primary audience for this 500-page tome. It is filled with page after page of fine print, only occasionally interrupted by b/w charts. Some sentences require a second (or third) reading for clarification. Readership within this age group will be limited to future political science majors and to serious student-researchers who are investigating voting-related topics. Although the discussions of enfranchisement and disenfranchisement through the centuries are informative and interesting, few will read it cover-to-cover. Still, it will be a valuable reference tool. The extensive index makes it easy to locate specific topics and the 49 pages of notes indicate the thoroughness of the author's research. The author goes far beyond the familiar battle for women's suffrage and the struggle for minority voting and includes other groups not frequently considered in the electoral process. Keyssar takes a chronological approach. The reader will find that the original voters were white male property owners and that attempting to widen the electorate to include other groups was frequently a struggle. There was a gradual, often inconsistent, widening of the electorate to the universal suffrage enjoyed today. Blacks in the South, working class immigrants, and women were the major groups in the battle for enfranchised/disenfranchised. Native Americans, Irish Catholics, felons, paupers, and other groups experienced difficulty along the way to universal suffrage. Grandfather clauses, literacy tests, secret organizations, and poll taxes were among the other problems various groups faced. A complete historical perspective. Category: History and Geography. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended foradvanced students, and adults. 2000, Basic Books, 479p. notes. index., Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Prof. John E. Boyd; Jenkintown, PA
Presents a detailed history of suffrage in the US, chronicling the surprisingly slow evolution of the right to vote from the American Revolution to the present. Highlights the gap between the image of the US as a democratic nation and the reality that it took nearly 200 years of universal suffrage to be achieved, describing the struggles of women, African Americans, and immigrants. Analyzes the story of voting in the context of currents in American economics, social, and political history, and explains the ways in which diverse forces shaped voting rights. Keyssar teaches history and public policy at Duke University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Dallas Morning News
. . .a useful corrective to somuch of the nonsense written about this important subject.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465005024
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 6/29/2009
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 828,785
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander Keyssar is the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His 1986 book, Out of Work, was awarded three scholarly prizes, and his book, The Right to Vote, was named the best book in U.S. history by both the American Historical Association and the Historical Society; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Introduction xv
Part I The Road to Partial Democracy 1
1 In the Beginning 3
The Received Legacy 5
The Revolution and the Vote 8
The States and the Nation 21
2 Democracy Ascendant 26
The Course of Things 27
Sources of Expansion 33
Ideas and Arguments 42
3 Backsliding and Sideslipping 53
Women, African Americans, and Native Americans 54
Paupers, Felons, and Migrants 61
Registration and Immigration 65
Democracy, the Working Class, and American Exceptionalism 67
A Case in Point: The War in Rhode Island 71
Part II Narrowing the Portals 77
4 Know-Nothings, Radicals, and Redeemers 81
Immigrants and Know-Nothings 82
Race, War, and Reconstruction 87
The Strange Odyssey of the Fifteenth Amendment 93
The Lesser Effects of War 104
The South Redeemed 105
5 The Redemption of the North 117
Losing Faith 119
Purifying the Electorate 127
Two Special Cases 162
Sovereignty and Self-Rule 166
The New Electoral Universe 168
6 Women's Suffrage 172
From Seneca Falls to the Fifteenth Amendment 173
Citizenship and Texes 180
Regrouping 183
Doldrums and Democracy 196
A Mass Movement 202
The Nineteenth Amendment 211
Aftermath 218
Part III Toward Universal Suffrage--and Beyond 223
7 The Quiet Years 225
Stasis and Its Sources 226
Franklin Roosevelt and the Death of Blackstone 237
War and Race 244
"Our Oldest National Minority," 253
8 Breaking Barriers 256
Race and the Second Reconstruction 257
Universal Suffrage 268
The Value of the Vote 284
Two Uneasy Pieces 302
Getting the Electorate to the Polls 311
Conclusion: The Project of Democracy 316
Appendix State Suffrage Laws 325
Notes 403
Index 453
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