The Early Republic

In this lesson, students examine voting rights in the early years of the United States and the causes and effects of the first major expansion of voting rights, which took place in the late 1700s and first half of the 1800s. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to explain where various groups of Americans stood regarding the right to vote before the Civil War, and will hypothesize about what they expect happened next.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • understand what the Constitution as it was originally written and ratified said and did not say about voting rights
  • explain why most states in the early Republic limited voting rights to white men who owned property
  • explain the reasons for the first major expansion of voting rights in the United States
Essential Questions
  • What did the Constitution as it was originally written and ratified say about voting rights?
  • Who did and did not have the right to vote in most states in the years of the early Republic? Why?
  • What made possible the first major expansion of voting rights in the United States?


suffrage [suhf-rij] (noun) the right to vote 

franchise [fran-chahyz] (noun) the right to vote

disenfranchisement [dis-en-fran-chahyz-muhnt] (noun) the act of depriving someone of the right to vote


Additional Resources



Part I: Voting Rights During the Early Years

1. This lesson is about the right to vote in the United States. Start by identifying what you already know about voting rights by answering these questions with a small group. Write down an answer to each question on a sticky note. 

  • When the country was established, who had the right to vote?
  • What did the Constitution that was adopted in 1787 say about who could vote in elections?
  • How have voting rights changed over the course of U.S. history?

(Note: Divide the board into 3 columns, one titled Constitution, the second titled Who Could Vote, and the third Change over Time.) When your group has answered the questions, put the sticky notes in the correct columns. (Note: Read aloud the answers students have come up with. Note that different groups may have come up with different answers.) In the first part of this lesson, you will see if your answers to the first two questions are correct. In the second part of the lesson you’ll look at the first major change in voting rights in American history. 

2. In this lesson you’re going to find out who the nation’s founders believed should have the right to vote. You might be surprised to find that not that many people had that right when the country was created. Start by reading what the Constitution as it was ratified in 1789 had to say about voting. (Note: Divide the class into groups. Assign each group one of the following Articles of the Constitution: Article 1, Article 2, Article 4.) On your own, read your assigned Article, and make notes about what it says about voting. (If you have a printout of the Article, you might want to highlight or underline the relevant parts.) Then meet with your group and compare your notes. Come up with a short summary of what your group’s Article says. Have the person in your group whose birthday is coming next present your group’s findings to the rest of the class. Then, as a class, answer these questions:

  • What conclusions can you draw about what the Constitution originally said about voting?
  • What did it say about who has the right to vote?
  • What, if anything, surprises you about what you have discovered? What makes it surprising?

3. To find out more, read the handout FAQ: Voting in the Early Republic. Then find a partner and complete the activity at the end of Voting Rights: Opposing Viewpoints.

4. On your own, write a one-sentence answer to each of the following questions: According to the original Constitution (ratified in 1789), what role would the federal government play in deciding who could vote? Who had the right to vote during the country’s early years? (Note: Randomly call on students to read aloud their answers.) Now you’ve answered the first two questions that started the lesson. On to the third: the first expansion of voting rights. 


Part II: The First Expansion of Voting Rights


In Part I, you learned that there were some restrictions to voting rights in the early years of the United States. While for the most part, only white men could vote, not all white men could vote. The most common characteristics that qualified a man to vote were based on owning property, paying taxes or having served in the militia.

1. Now you’re going to look at the first major expansion of voting rights in U.S. history. Return to your group to complete the next activities. (Note: Cut out the pieces of Groups That Wanted to Expand Suffrage and give one piece to each group.) Each group has been given a piece of paper that identifies a group of people in the early United States that wanted to expand voting rights. With your group, brainstorm reasons why your assigned group wanted more people to have the right to vote. Have each group share its ideas with the class. (Note: List each group on the board or chart paper along with students’ explanations of why that group would advocate expanding suffrage.) Evaluate the groups’ explanations. Which seem most plausible? Why? What can you add to other groups’ lists? Which reasons do you think were good ones for expanding voting rights? Which do you think weren’t good? (Note: Guide students to include the following reasons: Men who owned no property wanted the right to vote. Their numbers increased as the country urbanized and industrialized. Territories eager for statehood wanted to encourage settlement, raise land values and income from taxes. Free African Americans wanted full political participation, as did immigrants. White Southerners wanted more white voters, both to enhance white solidarity and to ensure that there would be more whites to put down possible slave rebellions. Political parties wanted to increase their membership, and expanding suffrage rights could help them do so.)

2. Look at the results of their efforts. With your group, study the table Property Requirements for Suffrage, 1790-1850. Answer the questions that follow the table. Then look at the table Race Exclusions, 1790-1850 and answer the questions that follow it.

3. Write a response to the following prompt: Even with property and taxpaying requirements in place, by 1840, more than 90 percent of the white men in the United States had the right to vote. In contrast, by 1855, 96 percent of African Americans lived in states that limited their voting rights.*

4. Look back at the third column of the chart you created at the beginning of Part I. How did voting rights change during the time period you have studied in this lesson? What future changes do you envision?

*Source: Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. (NY: Basic Books, 2000), p. 55.


Common Core Standards: College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards: CCSS: R.1, R.7, W.9, SL.1, SL.2

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