Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

The American Franchise

Chester Alan Arthur served as President at a time when the nation's population reached 50 million. Men voted and were expected to exhibit stern loyalty to a political party. Boss politics dominated the day. Women, who could not vote, were expected to stand outside the party system, attentive to the so-called domestic sphere of life. African Americans, enfranchised by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, still voted in most southern states and everywhere else in the nation. Regardless of their residency or citizenship status, many recent immigrants also voted, especially those who avoided legal scrutiny by having big-city political machine protection.

Incipient Reform Efforts

These electoral characteristics of the American political scene, although commonly accepted, were not set in concrete. Historians see the era as one of transition, especially in the weakening of the walls separating the domestic sphere of the private household and the public sphere of politics. For several historians, this era witnessed the beginnings of the so-called feminization of American politics, a time when women began to press strongly for reform on several levels. Critical issues of the day included women's suffrage and temperance. Males, however, always dominated the civil service reform movement, which aimed at breaking the hold of ethnic politics and party bosses on government. Reformers were intent on forcing both structural change (i.e., the political decision-making process) and policy change (i.e., the way that government uses its power). In time, these reform efforts would bring significant political power to progressive women and their male supporters while weakening the grip of traditional ethnic and party loyalties.

Status of the African American Vote

It was also a time of transition for African American voters, especially in the South. White Democrats were back in power due to the Compromise of 1877, which gave Hayes the presidency in return for the withdrawal of all Union troops. In the 1880 election, a majority of adult black males voted in almost every southern state, and they voted Republican. Only in Mississippi and Georgia was black voting severely restricted. However, in states such as South Carolina, one saw harbingers of exclusion as blacks were punished for voting Republican. At that time, southern newspapers began to demonize African American men as a threat to the safety of white women, thus setting the stage for the lynching that would come in the 1890s and early 1900s. By 1883, when the Supreme Court upheld private segregation of public accommodations in the civil rights cases, Jim Crow was already under way. (For more information on the character of the American electorate in the 1880s, see President Garfield's biography.)