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The Right To Vote: The Contested History Of Democracy In The United States Hardcover – August 22, 2000

4.7 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.


" . . .a useful corrective to somuch of the nonsense written about this important subject." -- Dallas Morning News [10/22/00]

". . . a masterful account of America's rocky progress toward realizing universal suffrage.. . . An enormously illuminating book!" -- Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, authors of Why Americans Still Don't Vote

". . . a wonderful new book . . ." -- -Richard Reeves, Tulsa World [11/23/00]

". . . easily the wisest and most comprehensive study of who was and is allowed to cast a ballot. . ." -- --Los Angeles Times Book Review [11/26/00]

"A superb retelling of the history of the right to vote. . .instructive to anyone concerned with the fate of democracy." -- Nancy F. Cott, Woodward Professor of History and American Studies at Yale

"In the wake of, arguably the most controversial election in American history, one may do well to pick up. . .[this] book. . ." -- New York Law Journal [12/22/00]

"Keyssar's bold and coercively argued revisionist history of the franchise will be of great value to students of democratization everywhere." -- James C. Scott, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University

"This is a masterful historical account of a complex, contradictory legacy." -- Publishers Weekly [Starred Review]

"This magisterial work is of great importance to anyone who wants to understand American politics." -- Benjamin I. Page, Professor

"Until now no one has ever studied, in all its detail, the full history of voting rights in the United States." -- American Prospect [1/5/01]

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (August 22, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046502968X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465029686
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #673,161 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a book that will make you angry. If you are a conservative, this book should make you feel very guilty. It is important to begin with that this book is a detour from Keyssar's larger project, which was supposed to be a history of the American working class' electoral participation. After struggling with the work for several years he realized that he needed to publish a whole book explaining what the right to vote actually was in American history. The result is a history of the slow and uneven path to universal suffrage in American history. We learn about the existence of the vote before 1776, the improvement that occured with the revolution, and the larger improvement that occured with the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian period in which the large majority of white men were able to vote. At the same time we learn of efforts to counter the expanding suffrage, such as disfranchisement of free blacks all over the country before 1861, attacks on the voting rights of paupers, felons, migrants and aliens, as well as the disfranchisment in the early 1800s of the limited voting rights women had in the early 1800s. Keyssar then goes on to discuss the narrowing of the portals from the 1860s to the 1920s, periods ironically bounded by giving the vote to blacks in the 1870s and to women by the 1920s. But in between that period nearly all blacks and many whites were disenfranchised in the south, while literacy, residence, nationality and registration systems sought to limit the vote in the North (while "asiatics" were barred in the west).Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This book has helped me trendously with my masters thesis. It drew me in to American History like few books have. Keysaar does a brilliant job of helping us to imagine what it was to be alive during the infancy of our country. Perfect reading during the current "crisis" with the presidential election.
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Format: Paperback
The Right to Vote (The Contested History of Democracy in the United States) by Alexander Keyssar is, first of all, marvelous for not being a triumphalist look at the march towards a perfect democracy. The book is, rather, a honest examination of the ups and downs in the struggle towards a concept of universal suffrage. The anti-democratic forces won many victories during the course of this history and continue to have an effect on today's political and judicial decisions. This book is a little daunting at first as it is quite thorough in its research and presentation (beginning with property qualifications in all of the first states) and is not about the fiery personalities involved in these two centuries of thrust and parry. The book grows more fascinating as the narrow focus (right to vote) spreads into its own mosiac representing all of America and its beliefs on a fundamental level. An important and readable study.
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Format: Hardcover
The previous reviewers make the major arguments in favor of buying, reading and digesting this book. It is well-written, thoroughly researched and very well thought out. I want only to add a few specific points that might further perk your interest.
Keyssar is able to present succinct summations of complex historical and legal issues. For example, one of the themes of the final historical chapter is to outline how the Warren Court developed the standard of "one man, one vote". In a few brilliant pages (pp. 298-302 of the paperback edition), Keyssar gives a synopsis of just how complicated and convoluted even this standard can be. Keyssar points out that this standard works only where there are no structural biases to the way that the individual votes are aggregated. A simple example: in my home city of Portland, OR, we elect our city councilors at-large. For a majority white city, this has the consequence of making it more difficult to elect minority councilors. Keyssar lays out the complexities of the debates on the resulting issues from this line of thought with clarity and fairness.
For me, another of the pleasures of the book was learning about some lesser known moments in our national history, e.g., the Dorr War in Rhode Island in 1841-1842. This is part of one of the overall themes of the book, which is the class bias that has always been (and still is) part of our politics. Keyssar is very good at explicating how both parties have played that game.
One final point that Keyssar makes and which is worth reminding ourselves of in light of the last election. There is no constitutional right to vote for the President for any of us. To quote: "...
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Format: Hardcover
There's a trick to writing a good history book. The trick is to not get bogged down in so much picayune detail that the book becomes a bore, while including enough detail to help the reader gain clear, authoritatively-based insight into exactly what happened and how. Fortunately, Keyssar understands this nuance. As a result, this book is engaging like few American histories I've read. At the same time, there is sufficient well-researched and well-documented detail to place this among the best of scholarly works.
Apart from the deftness of Keyssar's writing, the subject matter - how voting rights have evolved in America - is one that has received paltry little attention. That is, until now. Thankfully, this book reveals voting rights history in a way that makes the reader feel like he or she is finally getting the history lesson he or she never got in high school - but should have.
Of course it has become a cliche to say that "This is a book every American should read." But I would be remiss if I failed to say that the book genuinely made me feel that way. More than that, this is an important book for anyone in the global community that wants to use the American experience to gain deeper insights into the evolution of democracy. In that sense, The Right to Vote is not just "The Contested History of Democracy in the United States," as the subtitle states, it is ultimately the universal story about how human yearning so typically collides with (and challenges) the operatives of the greater political machine. In short, everyone in every nation that cares about the future of democracy should read this book.
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