John Tyler: The American Franchise

John Tyler: The American Franchise

The population of the United States increased by 18 percent during John Tyler's presidency, as immigrants poured in from Ireland, Germany, and other parts of northern Europe. By the end of Tyler's term, the vast expansion and democratization of the American electorate had run its course. In almost all states, all white males were eligible to vote, and approximately 80 percent of them exercised this right. In all states except South Carolina, delegates to the electoral college were now chosen by the people directly, rather than by state legislatures. This change in the electoral process put the presidency on a firm popular base rather than a federal base. The slight expansion in the electorate in 1844 was the result of a population increase, not any changes in suffrage eligibility.

During the Tyler administration, America remained assertive in increasing its territorial claims. An early achievement was John Tyler's signing of the Log Cabin Bill, which allowed western settlers to buy 160-acre tracts of land for $200. This promoted westward expansion of the electorate, which was in full swing during the Tyler years; Oregon was a focal point, in particular. The annexation of Texas also secured the American position in the Southwest. This strategy laid the groundwork for the Polk presidency's successes in conquering Mexican territory all the way to the Pacific.

Transportation, Communication, and Education

America's nineteenth century infrastructure experienced incredible changes during Tyler's presidency. For example, there were dramatic improvements in transportation, particularly in the development of turnpikes (toll roads) and canals, which allowed for easier travel and transport of goods and services. By the end of Tyler's term, the first telegraph line, between Washington and Baltimore, had been constructed. On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the following message from Baltimore to Washington: "What hath God wrought?" What Morse had wrought was an invention that would make it possible within a few years to communicate instantaneously across the length and breadth of the continent.

In most of the North by the mid-1840s, free primary education was available for all white children. Public high schools were beginning to supplant the private academies, and many colleges were founded in the Midwest. By Tyler's presidency, there were over 150 private denominational colleges.

Economic Developments

In the North, urbanization continued, with towns of over 8,000 people showing a 90 percent population increase. This growth reflected the fact that new technologies, particularly the power looms (using water power) and frame spinners, helped to develop thriving textile, furniture, firearms, clocks, and other industries in the North. With such intense growth in manufacturing, the labor movement was gaining momentum. In fact, labor unions, which had made some gains in membership during the depression of 1837-40, were first recognized as legal organizations in the landmark case Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842). Decided in Massachusetts, this case held that a strike to gain a closed shop (in which all employees had to be members of a union) was legal.

In the South, plantation agriculture continued, and "King Cotton" became the preferred crop for domestic and export markets, with sugar not far behind. About 15,000 gentry families, each of whom might own dozens of slaves, controlled the best lands and produced about half the crops, but they were often in debt to regional or northern bankers. Small white farmers, who might own a half-dozen slaves, produced most of the rest of the crops. There was little urbanization in the South; less than 10 percent lived in towns of over four thousand population.

Slavery continued in the South. Natural increase of the African American population in the region meant that slaves increased twice as fast as freemen. Slave codes did nothing to protect the plantation and farm slaves from maltreatment, particularly flogging and beatings. Although there was no rebellion to match Nat Turner's effort of 1831, in the 1840s, there were numerous spontaneous uprisings and efforts to flee. Those who were caught were shot, hanged, punished severely, or sold. By the end of Tyler's presidency, it was clear that the institution of slavery was so deeply rooted in the "cotton culture" of the South that it would not be eliminated peacefully.