Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
suffrage, Age of the Common Man, labor, American frontier, American politics, old northwest, common man, voting rights
The Age of the Common Man was a period of American political history lasting from 1820 to 1850 characterized by the implementation of universal white manhood suffrage by every state through removing property and tax qualifications from state constitutional suffrage laws, as well as the “common man” entering the center of much political discourse. These conventions were demanded by the political, social, economic, and in some cases physical climates and conditions of each state. To look at these factors, this thesis divides the nation into three regions, two of which are examined: the Northeast, the Northwest, and the South (the South is not examined).
In the Northeast, the conditions driving suffrage expansion were largely a result of changes to urban economies. These changes, caused by the Industrial, Transportation, and Communications Revolutions, created a class of landless urban laborers that were denied suffrage. At the same time, a new generation of Americans was replacing that of the Founding Fathers and rejected many of their predecessors’ aristocratic and elitist ideals and sought to implement the democracy seemingly promised to them by the American Revolution. Urban laborers began to organize into unions which were supported and strengthened by Workingmen’s Parties, local and state-level parties that advocated for the rights of laborers. These organizations created a political presence of urban laborers that politicians could not longer ignore.
In the Northwest, the egalitarian “frontier ethos” that existed from the beginning of Western settlement demanded a democratic system of leadership by persuasion and example. The creation of settlements in a vacuum of social, economic, and political hierarchies like those that existed in the East made it so that frontiersmen had to work together in a democracy to address the issues facing their society.
As all of this was happening, politics were changing at a national level. America’s Second Party system was forming, creating increasingly contentious elections. Beginning in 1824, a shift from election by legislative caucus to election by popular vote caused these parties to look to the people for support and address their concerns to garner as much support as possible. In the East this meant absorbing the efforts of Workingmen’s Parties and in the West this meant nominating candidates reflective of frontiersmen and the egalitarian nature of the frontier itself including Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison. The Transportation and Communications Revolutions centralized information, spreading the ideas of each region to the other.
This shift in politics at state, regional, and national levels caused state legislators to reevaluate their constitutional suffrage laws and extend the right to vote to the common man. Within a few years of the beginning and end of the Age of the Common Man, every state held a convention that resulted in the guaranteeing of suffrage for all white men.
This thesis aims to provide a comprehensive look at all of the listed regional and national factors creating a national trend of democratization via suffrage reform. To do so, the works of historians and political scientists were reviewed, but more importantly documents from the time were researched in depth. These documents are newspapers from all over the country, materials surrounding state constitutions and constitutional conventions, and documents relating to the American Revolution, all of which gave unique insights into the mindsets of both common citizens and politicians.
Out of this period came the first concrete step in suffrage reform that allowed for the democratic progress since then to take place. It is in this regard that understanding the developments made between 1820 and 1850 is important, for without doing so, understanding American political development since 1850 would be impossible.
Prosper, Matthew, "“Realizing Democracy”: A Study of the Regional and National Social, Political, and Economic Factors Driving Suffrage Development in the Age of the Common Man, 1820-1850" (2019). Honors Theses. 2340.