Constitutional Rights Foundation & Barat Education Foundation Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program
The Pilgrim leaders realized that they needed a temporary government authority. Back home, such authority came from the king. Isolated as they were in America, it could only come from the people themselves. Aboard the Mayflower, by necessity, the Pilgrims and "Strangers" made a written agreement or compact among themselves.
The Mayflower Compact was probably composed by William Brewster, who had a university education, and was signed by nearly all the adult male colonists, including two of the indentured servants. The format of the Mayflower Compact is very similar to the written agreements used by the Pilgrims to establish their Separatist churches in England and Holland. Under these agreements the male adult members of each church decided how to worship God. They also elected their own ministers and other church officers. This pattern of church self-government served as a model for political self-government in the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact is very short. It simply bound the signers into a "Civil Body Politic" for the purpose of passing "just and equal Laws . . . for the general good of the Colony." But those few words expressed the idea of self-government for the first time in the New World.
In the early years Governor Bradford pretty much decided how the colony should be run. Few objected to his one-man rule. As the colony's population grew due to immigration, several new towns came into existence. The roving and increasingly scattered population found it difficult to attend the General Court, as the governing meetings at Plymouth came to be called. By 1639, deputies were sent to represent each town at the other General Court sessions. Not only self-rule, but representative government had taken root on American soil.
A freeholder owned land worth a certain amount of money. Colonists believed only freeholders should vote because only they had a permanent stake in the stability of society. Freeholders also paid the bulk of the taxes. Other persons, as the famous English lawyer William Blackstone put it, "are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own."
Voting fraud and abuses were common in the colonies. Sometimes large landowners would grant temporary freeholds to landless men who then handed the deeds back after voting. Individuals were paid to vote a certain way or paid not to vote at all. Corrupt voting officials would allow unqualified persons to vote while denying legitimate voters the right to cast their ballots. Intimidation and threats, even violence, were used to persuade people how to vote. Ballots were faked, purposely miscounted, "lost," and destroyed.
After the state constitution was ratified by the voters (presumably only men voted), little comment on the possibility of women voting took place in the state for 20 years. Even so, one state election law passed in 1790 included the words "he or she." It is unclear how many, or if any, women actually voted during this time.
In 1797, a bitter contest for a seat in the New Jersey state legislature erupted between John Condict, a Jeffersonian Republican from Newark, and William Crane, a Federalist from Elizabeth. Condict won the election, but only by a narrow margin after Federalists from Elizabeth turned out a large number of women to vote for Crane. This was probably the first election in U.S. history in which a substantial group of women went to the polls.
The following year, the state legislature passed a new election law to clear up the confusion over who was qualified to vote in New Jersey. The law declared that since it was "highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order, and dignity of the state," no persons were to be allowed to vote except free white men who either owned property worth 50 pounds or were taxpayers. Such voters would also have to be citizens and residents of the county where they voted. The campaign for this new election law was led by John Condict, the legislator who was nearly defeated in 1797 when many women voted for his opponent. Thus, in 1807, with little debate in the all-male state legislature, and no public protest from the state's female population, the experiment with woman suffrage in New Jersey came to an end.
Neither Adams nor Jefferson actively campaigned. They remained at home while their supporters wrote letters and newspaper articles promoting their candidate. Adams won the presidency with 71 of the 139 Electoral College votes, one more than the required majority. Jefferson with 68 electoral votes came in second to become vice president. Thus the new administration had a Federalist president and Republican vice president.
In 1800, the Federalists again chose John Adams to run for president with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Hamilton loyalist from South Carolina, as their candidate for vice president. The Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s chief political opponent in New York, for vice president.
Campaign tactics radically changed in this election. Adams embarked on a speechmaking tour, campaigning on his record and promoting himself as a political moderate. Jefferson remained at home but wrote numerous letters to his supporters. He also distributed a statement of principles, perhaps the first party platform. Jefferson’s principles called for restoring civil liberties, curbing the growth of federal power, and protecting states’ rights.
Backstabbing occurred within both parties. Hamilton despised Adams and openly schemed to manipulate the Federalist electoral vote for president in favor of Pinckney, who was supposed to be running for vice president. This divided the Federalist Party between Adams and Hamilton factions. On the Republican side, Aaron Burr, running for vice president, secretly plotted to become president in the event of an electoral vote tie between Jefferson and himself.
In 1804, the states ratified the 12th Amendment, which required electors of the Electoral College to vote separately for president and vice president rather than for the two best candidates for president. From then on, parties nominated candidates to run specifically for president or vice president. In effect, this amendment recognized the permanent role of political parties in American government.
When the votes of the 24 states were finally tallied, to no one's surprise, there was no majority winner. In popular vote, Jackson came in first with 42 percent, Adams took 32 percent, and Clay and Crawford had 13 percent each. In the crucial electoral vote, Jackson led with 99 electors from 11 states, 32 votes short of a needed majority. Adams had 84 electors from seven states. Crawford had 41, and Clay was last with 37.
Henry Clay's fourth place finish shut him out of the presidency. He tried to use his post as speaker of the House to play kingmaker. He called in favors and worked behind the scenes to influence the vote. Jackson was a fellow Westerner, but Clay suspected that he would be a rival in future presidential races. Clay disliked Adams, but the two met privately a month before the House election. Both men denied making any bargains. But rumors said that Adams had promised to make Clay secretary of state.
The House met to vote on February 9, 1825. After more than a month of arm twisting and bargaining, John Quincy Adams took exactly the 13 states he needed to win, Jackson won seven, and Crawford four. The public galleries in the house broke into such an uproar of booing and hissing that Speaker Clay ordered them cleared. Three days later, the new president nominated Henry Clay as his secretary of state. Charges of making a "corrupt bargain" would dog Henry Clay for the rest of his life.
The Jackson supporters were furious. After all, he had won by far the largest share of popular votes with 42 percent. Jackson immediately declared that he would run in 1828. And he became the first major American politician to call for eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president directly by popular vote.
On May 9, 1831, two young Frenchmen sailed into the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island and began a remarkable journey through the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, both minor French court officials, had been sent by their government to study new experimental prisons in America. However, even before leaving France, de Tocqueville and de Beaumont decided to spend most of their time observing American democracy in action.
"The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe," wrote de Tocqueville. Although property requirements for voting were still common, they were beginning to disappear. Elections were usually held every year for local and state offices. Those who had the right to vote did so and in large numbers. During the time that de Tocqueville toured America, 70% or more of the voters turned out on election day, compared to under 50% today.
Narration from Constitutional Rights Foundation's Bill of Rights in Action.
Special thanks to Barat Education Foundation & Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program for curating images from the Library of Congress and National Archives.