George Washington: The American Franchise

George Washington: The American Franchise

In 1790, approximately 4 million people lived in the United States, and slaves made up nearly 20 percent of the total population. By the time George Washington left office, another 500,000 Americans were added to the population either by birth or immigration. Of these numbers, only 6 percent lived in the twenty-four towns that had populations greater than 2,500. Five cities, spread from north to south along the Atlantic seaboard, had populations greater than 10,000: Boston (18,038), New York (33,131), Philadelphia (42,444), Baltimore (13,503), and Charleston (16,359).

During Washington's presidency, America was on the move. By the end of the decade, 500,000 people, principally from Virginia and North Carolina, had moved inland, west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they confronted 100,000 Native Americans who had lived there for hundreds of years. Moreover, it has been estimated that from 1790 to 1800, about 10 percent of all American households relocated each year. Indeed, in the rural farm areas of the Atlantic seaboard, a third of the households moved elsewhere during that time period, and in the cities, closer to 50 percent of the population relocated.

From Farm to Market

The vast majority of these Americans farmed the land, not as a business but as a subsistent way of life for their families. More interested in long-term economic security than in markets, they hoped to achieve a level of material decency while protecting their independence from creditors and banks. However, in the 1790s, warring European nations looked to American farms for foodstuffs. Seaboard farmers responded to the high prices offered them for farm produce by moving from subsistence agriculture to market farming.

These production decisions significantly altered traditional relationships in the household. Prior to the American Revolution, one frequently saw both men and women working in the fields. By 1795, household responsibilities fell more exclusively to women while men worked the heavy plows needed to do what lightweight hoes had once accomplished. Additionally, country farmers began to gather raw materials for their wives and children to finish while they worked the fields. Merchants gathered the finished shoes, cloth, brooms, hats, and other handmade goods on weekly rounds. Rural households, as a result, became tied into the urban economy as never before.

Socioeconomic Changes

The transition to the market that began during the Washington years affected every part of the nation, but it especially affected the rural areas and towns on the seaboard. Some people grew very rich in the process while others grew poorer. Of course, there had been affluent people in America in earlier times. For example, when George Washington married Martha, he added her 17,000 acres of prime Virginia land, along with her several hundred slaves, to his own 5,000 acres. But the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite grew in the 1790s. In New York, the wealthiest 4 percent of the population owned over 50 percent of the wealth. Urban places, moreover, with their narrow streets, were now crowded with ragged children, roving dogs, pigs, horses, and cattle. Open sewers filled with waste and garbage fumes polluted the air and provided nesting grounds for mosquitoes and the deadly diseases they carried, such as yellow fever.

There were other signs of change during the Washington years. Most farmers' sons grew up knowing they would inherit little; daughters knew that the chances for a dowry were smaller and smaller with each passing year. This pattern seriously weakened parental authority over children. As a result, more marriages occurred based upon affection and personal attraction rather than property and parental decisions. Another sign of change was the high number of pregnancies outside of marriage. In a pattern that began in the 1770s and picked up steam thereafter, the number of babies born within eight months of marriage rose to nearly 30 percent.

Suffrage Movement

Although the typical voter in 1796 had to be a property-owning white male, changes were in the making. In the state constitutions adopted after independence, the old freehold, or property, qualifications for voting were generally retained. Some states, however, had dropped the freehold restriction in favor of granting the franchise to tax-paying individuals. By 1789, about 50 to 75 percent of adult white men were thus enfranchised. But in 1790, Vermont granted the vote to all free men. Kentucky, the first new western state, which entered the Union in 1792, did the same. Tennessee followed in 1796 with a property qualification only for newcomers who had lived in their communities less than six months. And women who owned property could vote in New Jersey, but this loophole was abolished in 1807. In the 1790s, African American males who owned property could vote in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland.