Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nineteenth Century American Democracy

Although America has long been portrayed as a "beacon of democracy," The United States was not always as democratic as it is today. As a fledgling country, America was far from a true democracy.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of democracy is:
"1: a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting
2: an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights"
This is a good definition for democracy, however it is vital that the second part of this definition be followed strictly to maintain a true democracy. All people, no matter what the social or economic class, should have the same rights as all other people. Someone's beliefs or their appearance should not govern how they are treated. However, these things were often not the case in the early stages of American democracy.
In the 19th century, The United States were not completely democratic. In a 1852 painting by George Bingam, he depicts some of the flaws of the American "democratic" election system.
The County Election - George Bingam, 1852
One flaw portrayed in this painting is the presence of the men up for election. He is standing next to the voting stand and attempting to convince the voters to vote for him. Another flaw with this system is that people are forced to say their votes out loud, and that they are not sure that the name that they say is actually being written down. The man in the red shirt in the top/middle of the painting is saying his choice, and the men on the porch to the right are writing down his vote. One vital part of this painting is the man in the bottom right. He is slumped over and has a bandage, as if he was just in a fight. This shows that even though the system is democratic and is supposed to please everyone, it is not always peaceful and people do get hurt. Finally, only men are present in this picture, showing that women were not allowed to vote, or take any part in the "democratic" process.
The democracy of 19th century America was also restricted by strict voting regulations. In order to vote, one must: be white, be a male, and must own $50 of property. This vastly restricted the amount of people who could vote. In 1816, presidential electors were not elected by the people, they were all elected by legislature, therefore making the government highly undemocratic. Through time, however more states began to have the electors chosen by people's vote. By 1836, all electors were elected by the people, except in South Carolina. The American "democratic" system was far from democratic in the 19th century. There were many restrictions in voting that made it so that only certain few people could vote.

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