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The Fight to Vote


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About The Book

Praised by the late John Lewis, this is the seminal book about the long and ongoing struggle to win voting rights for all citizens by the president of The Brennan Center, the leading organization on voter rights and election security, now newly revised to describe today’s intense fights over voting.

As Rep. Lewis said, and recent events in state legislatures across the country demonstrate, the struggle for the right to vote is not over. In this “important and powerful” (Linda Greenhouse, former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent) book Michael Waldman describes the long struggle to extend the right to vote to all Americans. From the writing of the Constitution, and at every step along the way, as disenfranchised Americans sought this right, others have fought to stop them. Waldman traces this history from the Founders’ debates to today’s many restrictions: gerrymandering; voter ID laws; the flood of dark money released by conservative organizations; and the concerted effort in many state legislatures after the 2020 election to enact new limitations on voting.

Despite the pandemic, the 2020 election had the highest turnout since 1900. In this updated edition, Waldman describes the nationwide effort that made this possible. He offers new insights into how Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud—“the Big Lie”—led to the January 6 insurrection and the fights over voting laws that followed one of the most dramatic chapters in the story of American democracy.

As Waldman shows, this fight, sometimes vicious, has always been at the center of American politics because it determines the outcome of the struggle for power. The Fight to Vote is “an engaging, concise history…offering many useful reforms that advocates on both sides of the aisle should consider” (The Wall Street Journal).


The Fight to Vote 1 “The Consent of the Governed”
AT THE start of America’s drive toward democracy, many thought about representation and how to give power to the people. Surprisingly few thought about the vote.

On June 11, 1776, Philadelphia pulsed with revolution. In quick succession the Continental Congress appointed three committees to prepare for the expected final break with Great Britain. One panel would explore foreign alliances; another would set terms for a confederation of the newly independent states; and the Committee of Five would write the Declaration of Independence. As that document grew in importance over the years, its authors described how it was drafted. The story got better with each retelling. John Adams claimed he had chosen the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson, just as he had tapped George Washington to lead the Continental Army. “You should do it,” he remembered insisting.

“Oh! no,” Jefferson replied.

“Why will you not? You ought do it.”

“I will not.”


“Reasons enough.”

“What can be your reasons?”

“Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.—You are much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.”

Years later Jefferson would serenely deny such a conversation, claiming it was clear all along that he would write the Declaration. In any case, that Jefferson’s hand held the quill would have echoing consequences. Adams, after all, was a fussily conservative thinker, fearful of what he called the “leveling” tendencies of democracy. The Virginian did more than draft a bill of complaints against the British Crown. His draft began with a statement of principle that became an enduring American creed.

Working on a portable desk made to order by a local carpenter and attended by a fourteen-year-old slave boy, Bob Hemmings, Jefferson consulted the “declaration of rights” drafted for the new Virginia constitution. The Pennsylvania Gazette had printed it in full that week. That document, written by George Mason, began by declaring that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” It went on to proclaim that “all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.”

Jefferson pared, pruned, and reshaped the words into the ringing preamble of America’s Declaration. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—the last phrase Benjamin Franklin’s felicitous edit—“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson’s opening salvo evoked the philosophy of natural rights. Historians recently have been scrutinizing the parchment again and have concluded that the passage ended not with a period but a comma, thus driving forward to the next point:

—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The “consent of the governed”—consent that must be won from “all men,” “created equal.” It was an idea both revolutionary and “intended to be an expression of the American mind,” as Jefferson put it. This ideal was far from reality at the time it was pronounced in 1776. Young America was anything but a democracy. But the fight to give life to those words was under way, even as Jefferson wrote. That creed would rebuke civic inequality from the beginning. Abolitionists declaimed the preamble in mass meetings in the 1830s. The first women’s rights convention, at Seneca Falls, New York, traced its language. Abraham Lincoln, decrying the spread of slavery in 1854, called that passage “the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” He paraphrased it at Gettysburg. Franklin Roosevelt borrowed it to decry “economic royalists” during the Depression. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cited it as “the true meaning of [our] creed.” Mostly these later Americans focused on its articulation of equality. Less clear, and the basis of two centuries of battle, is the connection between equal citizenship and a government that relies on and is responsible to the people. The power of that idea would impel a movement toward democracy that would take two centuries.
“No Will of Their Own”
At the time of the Revolution, America was a traditional, stratified society. A small cluster of wealthy men led the revolt: plantation owners like Washington, attorneys like Adams, and merchants like John Hancock. Americans paid deference. The sense of social hierarchy—and the idea that political power should flow from that rank—was palpable.

The colonists inherited political ideas lauding Great Britain’s “balanced” system. That approach split power between the king (“the one”), the nobles (“the few,” found in the House of Lords), and the people (“the many,” represented in the House of Commons). Such a system of checks, balances, and limits would protect liberty—the right, above all else, to be left alone by a potentially tyrannical government. In England representation was visibly uneven in the eighteenth century. “Rotten boroughs” in the countryside elected members of Parliament from just one family’s estate. Old Sarum, a verdant but unpopulated mound in rural Salisbury, sent two men to Parliament. In effect some buildings had the right to vote, but not all people. Meanwhile the new industrial cities Manchester and Birmingham went without direct representation. The satirical painter William Hogarth parodied the state of British elections. Colorful images of bribery, drunkenness, and lechery—and a mayor passed out from eating too many oysters—spill across the canvas.

When the colonial agitators and pamphleteers of 1776 spoke of “consent of the governed,” they echoed the language of the British philosopher John Locke and his notion of the social contract: the idea that rulers and people must forge an agreement for government to be legitimate and that the people had the right to overthrow an unjust state. The colonists weren’t thinking about turning out incumbent officeholders, as we might today, but the much more disruptive task of overthrowing a regime. At first these arguments mostly referred not to individuals and the government but to the colonies and the mother country. Conflict first flared over the Stamp Act of 1765. The British had insisted that the colonists be satisfied with “virtual” representation in Parliament, just as most Englishmen were. Now the American colonists demanded direct representation in the halls of power. Repeated calls for representation and equal rights—calls directed by colonial Whig leaders toward England—in turn led some within the colonies to ask uncomfortable questions. Religious minorities such as Baptists and Catholics, debtors, and backwoods farmers began to direct similar demands at the governments closer to home.

Yet this debate about representation, these first forays toward the ideas of democracy, rarely revolved around voting itself.

In the colonies as in England, only white men with a defined amount of property could vote. The restriction dated to the Middle Ages. A British law enacted in 1430 limited voting to only those with a freehold estate producing an annual income of 40 shillings—enough to “furnish all the necessaries of life, and render the freeholder, if he pleased, an independent man.” Colonists solemnly rehashed the arguments for voting limits: only men with a stake in society could be trusted with the franchise. Not just African slaves but indentured servants, tenant farmers, women, children, indebted artisans—many found themselves dependent on someone else. William Blackstone was an English jurist whose influential lectures landed in Boston and Philadelphia bookstores just a few years before the Revolution. The property limit on voting, Blackstone explained, seeks “to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own.” Poor people would be “tempted to dispose” of their votes—literally, to sell them. “This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty.” Excluding the poor, he insisted, would actually foster greater equality among the remaining voters. His arguments echo in later claims that the poor are duped, easily induced to fraud, somehow shady—and the assertion that blocking their vote would actually help them. Even then this must have seemed something of a stretch. Palpable fears lingered not far below the surface. Give everyone a vote, and who knows what they will vote for?

Just how limited was the right to vote at the time of the American Revolution? Historians can’t quite agree. The thirteen colonies were independent of one another and had varying rules. Seven restricted voting to men who owned land with specific acreage or value, others to those with specific amounts of personal property. One summary suggests that “by and large the property clauses prohibited at least a quarter—and in some states possibly as many of half—of the white male adults from voting for representatives to their state legislatures.” In newly settled areas inland, cheap land meant wider ownership. There as many as 80 percent of white men could vote. But in established areas and cities that hugged the Atlantic coastline only 40 percent of white men could cast ballots. One historian claimed colonial Massachusetts was a “middle class democracy.” Yet women were prohibited from voting almost everywhere; in most colonies so were Catholics and free black men. And of course neither slaves nor Indians could vote. Of the 3 million people who lived in the thirteen colonies, only a fraction could cast ballots.

In any event, before the Revolution voting did not matter much. Royal appointees made the big decisions about taxes, appointments, and whether to take military action. Legislatures were a check on distant executive power, not the source of legitimate public authority. The sovereign was, well, sovereign. Elections were infrequent. In a brief ritualized moment of equality, members of the gentry would stoop to mingle with the public and seek support. Crowds would gather, eager to see the candidates and their families arrive by fancy coach. Office seekers would host fêtes for voters, with ample hard cider and food. Colonists called it “treating.” When young George Washington ran for office in Virginia in 1755, Daniel Okrent writes, “he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer his election agent handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received.” He gently chided his campaign agent, My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.” Politicians called it “swilling the planters with bumbo.” Another, younger Virginia office seeker was more fastidious. James Madison disdained “personal solicitation” of voters and “the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors, and other treats.” Madison lost. Voting was generally done viva voce (by voice). Sometimes it was done “by view,” with supporters lining up to stand behind candidates. Enthusiasts with clubs would drive off their opponents’ backers. Paying for votes was so common in one small colony, it became known as “Rhode Islandism.” Polling places across the colonies were scattered, sometimes a full day’s ride from where voters lived. Elections were marred by bribery and intimidation.

As a result few people voted, even when they had the right to do so. In a Connecticut gubernatorial election after Independence, only 5 percent of eligible voters turned out. One clergyman bemoaned the apathy. The “multitude,” he complained, “will not leave the plow to have a governor of their taste.” Of course poor people might be enraged or engaged for a brief time by a public issue. If they could not vote, they could engage in “mobbing”—burning an official in effigy, say, or enthusiastically rioting. The roughnecks organized by Sam Adams in his protests against British policy—throwing stones as they whooped “Liberty and Property!”—were making their voices heard (loudly) in a manner quite familiar to their countrymen.

That was America on the eve of the Revolution. A world of deference and disinterest, where a few great families were presumed to govern. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the historian Gordon S. Wood traces what happened next, how the ideas held by the colonists began to shift—rapidly, vertiginously. They thought they could replace monarchy with a republic, in which a few dispassionate men would hold power. Virtue would govern. They erected a new edifice of government that would enable those men to sift through society’s competing demands. The Constitution, with its checks and balances, its tentative nods to democracy and its multiple veto points, embodied their theories. The founders discovered they had set loose political and intellectual energies that quickly overwhelmed those dreams and ideas.
“The Influence and Control of the People”
In January 1776 word arrived: King George III had rejected the “olive branch petition” sent by the Continental Congress the previous summer, refusing even to read it, denouncing those in the colonies who “openly avow their revolt, hostility, and rebellion,” and vowing “the most decisive exertions” of military force to quell the uprising. The very day the Royal Address was printed in Philadelphia, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. Paine had arrived in the New World just two years before, escaping a failed marriage and a desultory career as a rope maker and tax collector in England. His pamphlet proved a sensation, a wild and widely bootlegged best seller with 150,000 copies in print. Paine argued for a break not just with Britain but with monarchy itself. “England since the conquest hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones,” he wrote. The Americans cast off British rule in town meetings and colonial assemblies over the coming months. In December residents of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, demanded a new state government, organized on a different basis. “If the right of nominating to office is not invested in the people,” their statement read, “we are indifferent who assumes it whether any particular persons on this or on the other wide of the [wa]ter.” A month later the colony’s general court lauded the people for quickly establishing “a Form of Government” under the “Influence and Control of the People, and therefore more free and happy than was enjoyed by their Ancestors.”

On May 10, 1776, the Continental Congress urged each colony to form a new government. Five days later it went further, pushing colonists to act so that any trace of the king’s authority is “totally suppressed.” John Adams lauded the move as “an epocha, a decisive event,” and enthused to a friend, “We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected and remarkable of any in the History of Nations. . . . Every Colony must be induced to institute a perfect Government.”

Across the colonies revolutionaries quickly fell to writing new constitutions to replace the royal charters. New Hampshire had already created a republic after its aristocratic royal governor escaped. Soon it enacted a law giving the vote to any man who paid taxes. It was, writes historian Marchette Chute, “the first sign that the crust which had formed in America on the subject of the franchise could crack under the pressure of war.” South Carolina too had already declared its independence. There only large landowners were allowed to sit in its legislature, and they kept intact the colonial rule that only white men who owned an ample amount of property could vote.

In the newly independent states up and down the seaboard, with few models, Americans moved toward a more accountable form of government. The legislature was key, especially the lower house. John Adams wrote a treatise to share with fellow congressmen, many of whom were hurrying home to write their state charters: “The principal difficulty lies, and the greatest care should be employed, in constituting this Representative Assembly. It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” That required “equal representation,” he insisted. “Great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” The legislature was balanced with an upper house, often apportioned by county rather than based on population size. These state senates represented property—not so much to enshrine wealth as to assure that elites could tamp down the excesses of democracy. Elections now were frequent. Whigs—the political party in England that challenged the Crown—held to a basic political maxim: “Where ANNUAL ELECTION ends, TYRANNY begins.” Every state except South Carolina now elected members to the state legislature every year. For the first time power came from the people—some broad group of them, at least—and the most important lawmaking body was the legislature. Gordon Wood explains that to the colonists, the role of the legislature was a startling change, the thing “that made the new governments in 1776 seem to be so much like democracies.” And these legislatures were chosen by voters. America’s new states considered themselves separate, independent countries. Of course they each set their own voting rules. That fact of late eighteenth-century life has significant consequences today.

Most states kept or only slightly eased colonial-era property limits on suffrage. One Virginia constitution writer reported, “It was not recollected that a hint was uttered in contravention of this principle.” Jefferson had scratched out a proposed draft constitution for the state that significantly expanded suffrage. It arrived after the delegates were already done drafting and was ignored. John Jay led the writing of New York’s constitution, in a small upstate town since the British occupied Manhattan. Jay believed that “the mass of men are neither wise nor good.” (His son later recalled that it was “a favorite maxim with Mr. Jay, that those who own the country ought to govern it.”) New York actually curbed voting rights, imposing the property requirement for the first time on residents of New York City and Albany.

But as war cascaded and Americans mobilized, a new strain of radicalism pressed for a wider democracy and demanded expanded voting rights.

A key institution in colonial America was the “well regulated militia.” We know it in vestigial form through the Second Amendment. Adult men from age sixteen to sixty were required to serve and to own a military weapon. Militia members were drawn not solely from those with property, as had been the case in England, but from the full population of available men. In peaceful times militias fell into disuse. But as the break with Britain neared, they mobilized. Weapons were stockpiled, stolen from the British, and smuggled from Europe. The militias took on the coloration of a proto-political organization, partway between a tarring-and-feathering mob and the later mass political parties of empowered voters. When the Virginia aristocrat George Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1775 to take command of the scruffy continental forces, he was startled to discover that New England’s soldiers elected their officers. Men who bore arms for independence grew incensed that the new political order might still prevent them from voting for legislators. Some Maryland counties simply ignored the old rules, declaring instead that “every taxable bearing arms, being an inhabitant of the county, had an undoubted right to vote for representatives at this time of political calamity.”

With mounting pressure several states went further, changing the basic rules for voting. Georgia and North Carolina eliminated property requirements. Vermont, a new state that had broken away from New York and had not yet joined the union, wrote its first constitution without a property requirement, so long as residents displayed “quiet and peaceable behavior.” Men who had served in the militia and the Continental Army led the fight there, most visibly the Irish immigrant Matty Lyon, a former indentured servant who would later be elected to the U.S. Congress. And those working-class militiamen who mustered in the very town where Jefferson was writing the Declaration helped produce the most radical of all state constitutions.
The Pennsylvania Revolution
Philadelphia bustled as the British Empire’s second busiest port. Its streets teemed with sailors, indentured servants, shopkeepers, slaves, printers, and mechanics. A few dozen wealthy Quaker families dominated, but the colony welcomed every ethnic group and religion. Old and new worlds clashed: the same year the Continental Congress first met there, a crowd killed a woman it suspected of being a witch. Yet there were lending libraries, scientific societies, bookstores, and coffeehouses filled with debaters. In many other colonies Whig elites quietly switched sides, decorously shedding loyalty to the Crown. Not in Pennsylvania. In vibrant Philadelphia, the Revolution was recognizably revolutionary.

Its militia, according to historian Eric Foner, “was drawn most heavily from the ranks of poorer artisans and laborers and included ‘a great many apprentices’ and servants as well. Although blacks were excluded by law, some may have served illegally in 1775. . . . Aristocratic Whigs described the militia privates as ‘in general damn’d riff raff—dirty, mutinous, and disaffected.’?” Increasingly the unkempt militiamen spoke out. First they insisted on the right to elect officers, as their New England counterparts did. Then they began to demand the right to vote for public officials as well, regardless of property qualifications. “For such men,” Foner writes, “participation in the militia was the first step in the transition from crowd activity to organized politics.” A Philadelphia newspaper editorialized that the vote should belong to “every man who pays his shot, and bears his lot.”

Pennsylvania’s insurrection boiled over on a rainy day in May. The existing state assembly had instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to oppose independence, but Congress’s plea for “suppressing” royal government checked that move. A seething crowd of four thousand gathered outside the statehouse in an open meeting to cheer Congress’s call and to demand a new constitution. Authority dissolved; the assembly was rendered irrelevant. Committees of Correspondence and “associators” across Pennsylvania chose delegates to a new state constitutional convention. It first met in June at Carpenters’ Hall. At the same time, a new provincial legislature formed, meeting down the hall from the Second Continental Congress in the statehouse. Three separate revolutionary conclaves worked within a few blocks of each other, with overlapping membership. The lurking presence of the nation’s most energetic agitators turned up the heat even higher. Sam Adams, fresh from instigating rebellion in Boston, served as a delegate to the Continental Congress but quietly worked with the local patriots to upend their government.

The Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 was at the time the world’s most democratic such document. “Every freeman of the full age of twenty-one Years,” it declared, “shall enjoy the right of an elector,” so long as he paid taxes. (The very poor still could not vote.) Pennsylvania would have only one legislative house, elected annually. The position of governor was eliminated; instead a committee exercised executive power. In a touch that uncomfortably prefigured twentieth-century revolutionary fanaticism, only those who swore an oath to the constitution could vote. For a time the drafters even toyed with limiting the size of personal wealth. It gave little fealty to the idea of checks and balances; popular sovereignty, accountability to the common people, would be enough. By 1787 nearly 88 percent of Pennsylvania’s adult white men could vote.

The most prominent American led the way. Benjamin Franklin was now eighty-one. Philadelphia’s artisans revered him and considered him their political spokesman. Franklin served on all three revolutionary bodies. He chaired the new state’s constitutional convention and was credited with authorship of its charter (parenthood he never denied). He ridiculed the property requirement for voting:

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?

When the radical legislature hired Thomas Paine as clerk, America’s most powerful polemicist joined with Franklin. Paine served as its functionary as well as a subsidized propagandist. Common Sense had vaguely urged that “qualified voters” be empowered to choose a new government, without saying who they might be. Paine was out of town when the new constitution was written, but now he roared support for its provisions. A property requirement for voting, he said, “makes scarce any, or no difference, in the value of the man to the community.” Still, even Paine found it hard to embrace universal voting rights. He fretted that servants would be unable to break free of their masters and exercise individual will. Independence was key. (Two decades later Paine’s evolution was complete. Writing from Paris during the French Revolution, he now proclaimed, “[The] right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.”)

Pennsylvania’s government provoked nonstop tumult. Quaker businessmen realized they were losing their grip on power. They tried repeatedly to repeal the constitution or dull its most democratic features. Over the months they staged what one historian called a “counter revolution.” Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke for them when he scolded, “They call it a democracy—a mobocracy in my opinion would be more proper. All our laws breathe the spirit of town meetings and porter shops.”

Conservatives tried to overturn the 1776 constitution three times. They wanted to create an upper chamber of property owners, to allow British sympathizers to vote, and to have a single man serve as governor. Franklin responded to one such effort, just months before he died, pronouncing himself opposed to any system that gave “the rich a predominancy in government.” Meeting in the City Tavern, merchants and their allies mapped a grassroots campaign to elect legislators who would rewrite the charter. Ironically they found popular mobilization the key to undermining the populist constitution. Finally, in 1790 they succeeded. Pennsylvania joined the other states in creating a bicameral legislature, an elected governor, and an independent judiciary. Even so they did not dare repeal broad voting rights.
“There Will Be No End of It”
John Adams was aghast at the radicalism of Franklin’s Pennsylvania constitution. He called Paine a “Disastrous Meteor.” The mutual disdain between Adams and Franklin, the prig and the worldly epicurean, is one of the more engrossing subplots of the Revolution. Adams was enormously jealous of Franklin’s renown. Later he would complain, “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the policy negotiations legislation and war.” Franklin returned the sentiment. “He means well for his country,” he wrote of Adams, “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things absolutely out of his senses.” Here the rivalry played out as a clash of political philosophy.

Adams wrote a proposal for a new Massachusetts constitution. Ironically all men could vote in the election to choose delegates to write the state charter, but the resulting document actually narrowed suffrage, tightening property requirements from what they had been under the British.

One legislative leader wrote to Adams suggesting that suffrage be expanded to all men. Adams recoiled. “Depend upon it, sir,” he replied, “it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level.”

Critics assailed the proposed charter. The town of Northampton warned that “many persons” would be disenfranchised. According to one clergyman, writing in a Boston newspaper, the exclusion of blacks, Indians, and “mulattos” from the franchise showed white men “meant their own rights only, and not those of mankind, in their cry for liberty.” Citizens rejected the Massachusetts constitution the first time they voted. It won ratification on a second round, but only because of presumed widespread voter fraud in the western part of the state.

• • •

An idea in motion, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, tends to stay in motion. The logic of the revolutionaries’ argument—“the consent of the governed”—in part created pressure for a wider franchise. Americans understood, even then, that the ideals of the Declaration formed a standard by which practices would be measured and found wanting. Women began to object that they were denied the vote. A famous exchange between Abigail Adams and her husband, John, during the break with Britain wittily explained the momentum.

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy,” Abigail wrote, “and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

John replied with mordant flirtatiousness: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.”

About The Author

Lisa Vosper/Brennan Center

Michael Waldman is president and CEO of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to revitalize the nation’s systems of democracy and justice. He was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999 and is the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography and The Fight to Vote. Waldman was a member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court. A graduate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law, he comments widely in the media on law and policy.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 18, 2022)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982198930

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Raves and Reviews

"Through this book, Michael Waldman delivers a message every American needs to hear. The struggle for the right to vote is not over. It is still being waged even today. We must use it or we can lose it."

– Rep. John Lewis

"Michael Waldman's masterly history reminds us that ‘We the People’ can and must restore our experiment in Constitutional freedom."

– Taylor Branch, author of America in the King Years

“Waldman’s important and engaging account demonstrates that over the long term, the power of the democratic ideal prevails — as long as the people so demand.”

– The Washington Post

“An engaging, concise history of American voting practices, and despite a heavily partisan treatment of today’s “voting wars,” it offers many useful reforms that advocates on both sides of the aisle should consider.”

– The Wall Street Journal

The Fight to Vote is an important and powerful reminder that we forget American history at our peril: that democracy was hard-won and that with the right to vote once again under attack, it's ours to lose.”

– Linda Greenhouse, Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School

"[An] important new book."

– E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post

“As Waldman makes clear in this important book, the fight to vote has been at the heart of U.S. history, as have the countless debates over how to expand democracy even as ‘some fought to gain a voice in their government’ while ‘others fought just as hard to silence them.’”

– Booklist (starred review)

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