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

Alex Keyssar, Author, Alexander Keyssar, Author
Alex Keyssar, Author, Alexander Keyssar, Author Basic Books $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-465-02968-6
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HAmerica's self-image as the land of democracy flows from the belief that we've long enjoyed universal suffrageDor 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 exceptionalismDearly white manhood suffrageDwas, 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 beganDthe civil rights movementDwhich 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.)
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