In the 19th century, what brought on a general election in the United Kingdom?

In the 19th century, what brought on a general election in the United Kingdom?

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A quick scan of a list of British governments in the 19th century quickly reveals that, while terms of office were limited to seven years, most parliaments did not last so long. Instead the prorogation (dissolution) of a parliament by the monarch, acting under the advisement of the prime minister, often initiated new elections.

I'm read about several instances of this happening, such as over the Corn Laws, but haven't yet learned enough to make the leap from instances to general principles with any great clarity.

Under what circumstances were 19th Century parliaments dissolved, and what motivated the principle actors? Between the prime minister, parliament, monarch, electorate, etc., who was able to exert influence to force a change?

The existing answers provide an excellent background to the political situation in the nineteenth century. I will try to answer the specific points raised in the question.

Before I begin, I would like to clarify a few points.

Firstly, the ability of the monarch to dissolve Parliament comes under what is known as the Royal Prerogative. Since the "Glorious Revolution" and, in particular, the 1689 Bill of Rights that followed it, the exercise of Royal Prerogative has been limited. Article 1 of the Bill of Rights states that the:

"power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal."

Further, the Bill of rights confirmed that Parliament had the right to limit the use of remaining prerogatives (which they did in the Triennial Act of 1694).

In practice, this meant that the monarch could no longer dissolve Parliament without the consent of Parliament. (There was a specific exception to this however. Parliament was dissolved on the death of the monarch, as happened in 1820 for example, although - to be fair - this is very much an extreme case!)

The second important point is that, in the nineteenth century, the monarch appointed the Prime Minister and had the absolute right to appoint whomsoever they wished. Obviously, this could - and did- cause problems. In fact, this had been the cause of what is now known as "the Decade of Ministerial Instability" under George II in the previous century. HM government have an interesting article of the development of the institution of Prime Minister on their website.

Finally, we should remember that political parties in the UK only began to coalesce into the kind of parties that we would recognise today in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries, over the period from about 1760 to 1834. Previously, the "Whig" and "Tory" groups in Parliament are best thought of a loose coalitions of MPs with broadly similar views and goals. However, there was no "party line" on particular bills that came before Parliament. By 1834, the groups had become sufficiently well established that Robert Peel could issue the Tamworth Manifesto defining the goals of a "Conservative Party".

The split was effectively complete by the watershed election of 1852, where the two-party system of Conservative and Liberal parties emerged.

So, to answer your specific questions:

Under what circumstances were 19th Century parliaments dissolved, and what motivated the principle actors?

Normally the Prime Minister asked the monarch for a dissolution of Parliament. This could be because they could not command the confidence of Parliament or form a stable government (e.g. in the election of 1807).

Before the emergence of the two-party system in the middle of the century, contentious legislation on issues like Catholic emancipation or Parliamentary reform simply caused the various political coalitions to shift and reform. A Prime Minister on the "wrong" side of such legislation could easily lose the confidence of Parliament (or of the monarch who had appointed him).

Contentious legislation after the new parties had begun to emerge in the 1830s, such as that for the repeal of the Corn Laws, could split the newly formed parties and either strengthen the position of the Prime Minister (as was the case with Robert Peel in the election of 1841), or fatally undermine it (Robert Peel resigned in 1847, rather than asking for a dissolution of Parliament, fearing that the forthcoming election would become a vote of confidence).

Prime Ministers could also ask for a dissolution of Parliament because they sought to obtain a political advantage. This was the case in the election of 1806. Then, as now, such attempts to gain political advantage at an election were not always successful. Another general election followed in 1807!

As mentioned above, a dissolution would be triggered by the death of the monarch (e.g. the election of 1820).

In addition, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was normal for Prime Ministers to call for a dissolution of Parliament following an Act of Parliament that resulted in significant changes to the electoral system. This happened, for example, in the 1832 election following the Reform Act of 1832. However, when such an act came late in the life of the Parliament, as with the Representation of the People Act 1884, the election might be delayed, as happened with (the 1885 election).

Between the Prime Minister, Parliament, monarch, electorate, etc., who was able to exert influence to force a change?

The Prime Minister could ask the monarch for a dissolution of Parliament. Then, as now, meetings between the monarch and their Prime Minister are private, so we do not know how often, if ever, the Prime Minister's request was refused.

Parliament was able to make the Prime Minister's position untenable. In such cases the Prime Minister could either resign or ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and force an election.

By the nineteenth century, the monarch no longer had the authority to dissolve Parliament unless asked to do so by Parliament itself, normally in the person of the Prime Minister.

The electorate had no say in the matter.

Click on the "election" link in the Wikipedia list of UK Parliaments for more details about each election.

Parliament's key power then (and now) was to control the supply - i.e., the amount of money raised from taxation that went to the Crown. If the Crown (i.e., the government) could not get Parliament to grant the supply it sought then, in extremis, it had little choice but to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

Beyond that the Septennial Act of 1715 required that the Crown called an election at least every seven years (this was lowered to five years in 1911).

It increased the maximum length of a parliament (and hence the maximum period between general elections) from three years to seven. This seven-year ceiling remained in law from 1716 until 1911.

The Act overturned the provisions of the Triennial Act 1694, which "required parliament to meet annually and to hold general elections once every three years."


The key internal concerns were:

  • Great Irish Famine of 1845 & 1852, almost 800,000 died, which resulted in significant Land Reforms
  • Tons of social reforms by Parliament (think Dickens's Bleak House)
  • Some focus on education
  • Some parliamentary reforms for more representative government

Main external concerns were Crimean War (1854) (their Great Game) and colonial Boer Wars.

In sum, the 19th century was a period of reform that gradually increased political democracy and improved economic and social conditions for the general population.

These improvements did not happen by chance.


To make such reforms happen, 19th century Britain had distinctive individuals who were willing to change (politically) or had a better way (of life, doing things, trade, etc.).

Key political leaders:

  • W. E. Gladstone - Liberal (Whigs) leader
  • Benjamin Disraeli - Conservative (Tory) leader
  • Lord Salisbury - Conservative
  • Robert Peel - Conservative

Individuals known for their ideas / political pressure:

  • William Wilberforce - for abolishing slave trade
  • Richard Cobden - for Anti-Corn Law League
  • John Bright - for free-trade and, with Cobden, work on Corn Laws
  • Karl Marx - who spent his adulthood in London, England, developing his masterpiece, and whose influence is clearly evident in the 19th century British social reforms.
  • Frederic William Maitland - not popular (internationally), but very respected by English lawyers, politicians and scholars for this thesis (at 25 years old), a distinctly English perpsective on liberty (i.e. influential for parliamentary reforms).

A British Parliament could last no more than seven years (until 1911 when it was changed to five), and as a practical matter, elections were often called in the sixth year. So I will focus on elections that either were called long before the sixth year, or involved a change of party. Here is a list of British general elections.

The key issue was the personalities that shaped these external events.

The first election of the 19th century, in 1802, was held "on schedule," six years after 1796. But in the next election, 1806 a Tory government in power that fell when its great anti-Napoleonic leader, William Pitt the Younger died. Its replacement, a Whig government lasted only one year, to 1807, being replaced by the Tories.

Other Tory governments fell at the deaths of King George III in 1820 and King George IV in 1830, respectively. The two Whig governments that followed were short-lived.

Beginning in 1835,the next few governments revolved around Sir Robert Peel. Technically a conservative, he was a "fusionist" who won a term in 1835. as a Whig-backed conservative Prime Minister. He also supported the Whig government that followed in 1837. and "defected" back to the Tories in 1841.

The Election of 1852 was considered a "watershed" election insofar as it decisively split Conservatives and Liberals into the Tory and Whig parties. (A similar thing happened in the U.S. in 1980 that pushed most conservatives into the Republican party and most liberals into the Democratic party.) The Tories became the Conservative party and the Whigs the Liberal Party.

Beginning in 1857, the mid-century elections were dominated by Lord Palmerston, who was a successful foreign policy manager. It was "accidental" that he was also a liberal, and therefore a Whig, but the election of this man on the back of foreign policy successes allowed the passage of liberal social reforms, especially after the crimean and Second Opium Wars of the mid-1850s.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the two leading Conservative and Liberal Prime Ministers, Disraeli and Gladstone polled nearly equally, but neither had a majority. Their governments were tossed about by splinter third parties, notably the Irish National Party, that held the balance of power.

Britain from 1754 to 1783

Henry Pelham died in 1754 and was replaced as head of the administration by his brother, the duke of Newcastle. Newcastle was shrewd, intelligent, and hard-working and possessed massive political experience. But he lacked self-confidence and a certain breadth of vision, and he was hampered by being in the House of Lords. In 1755 Henry Fox was appointed secretary of state and acted as the administration’s spokesman in the Commons. Fox’s promotion alienated a man who was far more interesting and remarkable than either of these ministers, William Pitt the Elder. Pitt had entered Parliament as an Opposition MP in the 1730s. In 1746 he had been appointed paymaster general, a highly lucrative state office. But Pitt, whose ambition was for fame and recognition rather than money, remained unsatisfied. The king, however, disliked him and successfully obstructed his career. In 1755 he dismissed Pitt, who began to attack Newcastle on imperial and foreign policy issues.

Dismantling Reconstruction

Racism remained a pervasive force in the North as well as the South, and by the early 1870s many Northerners had begun blaming Reconstruction’s problems on the supposed inferiority of Black voters.

At the same time, key decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court struck at the protections afforded by Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments and legislation. The Court’s decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), established that the 14th Amendment applied only to former enslaved people, and protected only rights granted by the federal government, not by the states.

Three years later, in United States v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of three white men convicted in connection with the massacre of more than 100 Black men in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, as part of a political dispute. The men had been convicted of violating the 1870 Enforcement Act, which banned conspiracies to deny citizens’ constitutional rights and had been intended to combat violence by the Ku Klux Klan against Black people in the South.

The Supreme Court’s ruling—that the 14th Amendment’s promise of due process and equal protection covered violations of citizens’ rights by the states, but not by individuals—would make prosecuting anti-Black violence increasingly difficult, even as the Klan and other white supremacist groups were helping to disenfranchise Black voters and reassert white control of the South.


Acts of Union 1707 Edit

The first step towards political unification were taken on 1 May 1707, when the parliaments of Scotland and England approved Acts of Union which combined the two parliaments and the two royal titles.

Perhaps the greatest single benefit to Scotland of the Union was that Scotland could enjoy free trade with England and her colonies overseas. For England's part, a possible ally for European states that were hostile to England had been neutralized.

Certain aspect of the former independent kingdoms remained separate. Examples of Scottish and English institutions which were not merged into the British system include: Scottish and English law which remain separate, as do Scottish and English banking systems, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Anglican Church of England also remained separate as did the systems of education and higher learning.

As the Scots were generally well educated, they made a disproportionate contribution to both the government of the United Kingdom and the administration of the British Empire.

Ireland joins with the Act of Union (1800) Edit

The second stage in the development of the United Kingdom took effect on 1 January 1801, when Great Britain merged with the Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed under the Act of Union 1800. The country's name was changed to "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". The Act was passed in the British and therefore unrepresentative Irish Parliament with substantial majorities achieved in part (according to contemporary documents) through bribery, namely the awarding of peerages and honors to critics to get their votes. [2] The separate Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland were abolished, and replaced by a united Parliament of the United Kingdom. Ireland thus became part of an extended United Kingdom. Ireland sent around 100 MPs to the House of Commons at Westminster and 28 peers to the House of Lords.

Napoleonic wars Edit

Hostilities between Great Britain and France recommenced on 18 May 1803. The Coalition war-aims changed over the course of the conflict: a general desire to restore the French monarchy became closely linked to the struggle to stop Napoleon. The Napoleonic conflict had reached the point at which subsequent historians could talk of a "world war". Only the Seven Years' War offered a precedent for widespread conflict on such a scale.

Victorian era Edit

The Victorian era marked the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901, scholars debate whether the Victorian period–as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians–actually begins with the passage of Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and other non-English speaking countries.

Ireland and the move to Home Rule Edit

World War I Edit

Partition of Ireland Edit

Empire to Commonwealth Edit

Britain's control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt.

Between 1867 and 1910, the UK granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand "Dominion" status (near complete autonomy within the Empire).

1945-1997 Edit

The end of the Second World War saw a landslide General Election victory for Clement Attlee and the Labour Party.

As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued and a number of immigrants from the remaining British Empire were invited to help the rebuilding effort. During the 1950s the UK lost its place as a superpower and could no longer maintain its large Empire. This led to decolonization, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970.

Though the 1970s and 1980s saw the UK's integration to the European Economic Community which became the European Union in 1992 and a strict modernization of its economy.

After the difficult 70s and 80s the 1990s saw the beginning of a period of continuous economic growth that has to date lasted over 15 years. The Good Friday Agreement saw what many believe to be the beginning of the end of conflict in Northern Ireland since this event, there has been very little armed violence over the issue.

In the 2001 General Election, the Labour Party won a second successive victory.

Despite huge anti-war marches being held in London and Glasgow, Tony Blair gave strong support to the United State's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Forty-six thousand British troops, one-third of the total strength of the British Army (land forces), were active to assist with the invasion of Iraq and after that British armed forces were responsible for security in southern Iraq in the time before the Iraqi elections of January 2005.

2007 saw the conclusion of the premiership of Tony Blair, followed by that of Gordon Brown. The next prime minister, David Cameron, was elected in 2010. During his first term, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the 2011 election to the Scottish Parliament. On 18 September 2014, the SNP held a referendum that asked the people of Scotland whether they want to be independent from the UK. 55% of voters wanted to remain in the UK.

David Cameron was re-elected in 2015 on promises to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. It took place on 23 June 2016 and was won by the "Leave" campaign with 52% of the vote. Cameron would then resign and be replaced by Theresa May as prime minister who will lead the country into the process of "Brexit".

On January 2020, Brexit had occurred.

Terrorist attacks Edit

The U.K. also saw two incidents of terrorism occur in London in the 21st century.

On 7 July 2005, three bombs exploded on the London Underground at 8:50 during the morning rush hour, and a fourth exploded one hour later on a bus in Tavistock Square. The attack, done by Muslim extremists, killed 52 people and injured over 700 others.

On 22 March 2017, exactly one year after the bombings in Brussels, five people were killed in the 2017 Westminster attack near the Houses of Parliament. One of them was the attacker, Khalid Masood, who also stabbed an officer of the Metropolitan Police, who later died of his injuries.

On 22 May 2017, "two bombings" occurred at the Manchester Arena with 19 people dead and 50 injured. [3] It is a suspected suicide bombing. [4]

¹ The term "United Kingdom" was first used in the Union with Scotland Act 1706. However it is generally seen as a descriptive term, indicating that the kingdoms were freely united rather than through conquest. It is not seen as being actual name of the new United Kingdom, which was (by article one) "Great Britain". The "United Kingdom" as a name is taken to refer to the kingdom that emerged when the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland merged on 1 January 1801.

² The name "Great Britain" (then spelt "Great Brittaine") was first used by James VI/I in October 1604, who indicated that henceforth he and his successors would be viewed as Kings of Great Britain, not Kings of England and Scotland. However the name was not applied to the state as a unit both England and Scotland continued to be governed independently. Its validity as a name of the Crown is also questioned, given that monarchs continued using separate ordinals (e.g., James VI/I, James VII/II) in England and Scotland. To avoid confusion, historians generally avoid using the term "King of Great Britain" until 1707 and instead to match the ordinal usage call the monarchs kings or queens of England and Scotland. Separate ordinals were abandoned when the two states merged with the Act of Union 1707, with subsequent monarchs using ordinals apparently based on English not Scottish history (it might be argued that the monarchs have simply taken the higher ordinal, which to date has always been English). One example is Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who is referred to as being "the Second" even though there never was an Elizabeth I of Scotland or Great Britain. Thus the term "Great Britain" is generally used from 1707.

³ The number changed several times between 1801 and 1922.

4 The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by (i) The British Parliament (Commons, Lords & Royal Assent), (ii) Dáil Éireann, and the (iii) the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, a parliament created under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920 which was supposedly the valid parliament of Southern Ireland in British eyes and which had an almost identical membership of the Dáil, but which nevertheless had to assemble separately under the Treaty's provisions to approve the Treaty, the Treaty thus being ratified under both British and Irish constitutional theory.

Whigs and Tories: 1688-1832

From the latter part of the 17th century until the early 19th, there were essentially two major political parties in Great Britain: the Whigs and Tories. Neither could be described as "modern" in the sense of organised voters working together, compromising their differences for the sake of gain at the polls. In the 18th century, the only voters were men of means: the landed aristocracy and wealthy merchants. They considered party organization as dishonest and activities such as campaigning beneath their status. A "gentleman" was expected to be independent, to think for himself and to protect his own interests. He might ally himself with others on a particular issue, but such alliances were temporary and fragile. The early political parties were loose groupings of like-minded individuals (called "factions") with little discipline and less loyalty.

The party labels "Whig" and "Tory" began as derisive terms when they first appeared during the Exclusion crisis of 1678. Across the country people disagreed on the issue of whether or not James Stuart, Duke of York and heir to the throne, should be allowed to succeed King Charles II, his brother. The Tories believed that James should succeed, the Whigs that he should not.

The origins of this dispute are found in the religious and political controversies of the previous one hundred and fifty years. With much bloodshed and trauma, the Tudor monarchs of the 16th century had broken with the Catholic Church, created an Anglican Church and formed a Protestant state. This new allegiance was confirmed during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum of 1649 - 1660. At the same time, England had also begun to embrace some modern democratic ideas which empowered Parliament and constrained the Monarchy. King Charles II was probably secretly a Catholic but at least adhered publicly to the Anglican faith. James however was openly Catholic and very devout. Some saw his Catholicism as a threat to all the religious and political changes that had taken place. Therefore, the Whigs, as they came to be known, opposed James' succession to the throne. Those who supported James' hereditary right to the crown came to be known as Tories.

The term Whig was probably short for "Whiggamore" and referred to a horse thief also to Scottish Presbyterians who were associated with republican ideas, with nonconformity, and with rebellion against legitimate authority. By calling them Whigs, the Tories tried to slander those who claimed the right to exclude the "legitimate" heir from the succession. In response, the Whigs tried to slander those who supported James' hereditary rights despite his faith by calling them "Tories." "Tory" was probably an Irish word meaning "papist outlaw." Both slanders backfired: each group embraced with pride the derisive term flung at them by their opponents.

The result of the initial struggle between the two "parties" during the succession crisis was that the Whigs lost and James became king when Charles II died in 1685. However, during his short reign of only three years, James II (1685 - 1688) managed to offend not only the Whigs but many Tories with his radical Catholicism and his claims to rule by "Divine Right", like the autocratic Catholic princes of Europe. Consequently, most Whigs and many Tories conspired to oust James during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After a brief struggle, James ignominiously abandoned the throne and Parliament invited William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart, both Protestants, to succeed jointly to the English crown.

Although the succession crisis was the specific event that led to the formation of the two major parties, the differences between them ran much deeper. Generally those who identified themselves as Whigs were inspired by the values of liberal democracy brought about by the Enlightenment, and consisted of the noble houses, wealthy merchants and non- Anglicans. Those who identified themselves as Tory consisted of the landed gentry and the Church of England, and were opposed to the reformism of the Whigs, such as expanding the franchise and increased Parliamentary representation for lower classes.

After 1688, most Tories accepted a limited version of the Whig theory of a Constitutional Monarchy. However, whether rightly or wrongly, their loyalty to the new order was suspect because they had supported James' succession in the first place. This suspicion was confirmed in 1714 when the Tory ministers of the late Queen Anne (1702-1714) were disgraced for negotiating for the return of James II on her death. This uprising in favour of a Stuart restoration (and another one in 1745) stigmatized the Tories as supporters of absolute monarchy and as being opponents of the Protestant Succession. Except for a brief ascendancy from 1710 to 1714, the Tories were in a weak political position for almost one hundred years. The Whigs became so dominant after the first Jacobite uprising that the period from 1714 to 1784 is often called the "Whig Supremacy." Many of the Prime Ministers categorised as Whigs did not actively support a party policy: for them it was in practice merely their nominal label.

With the French Revolution in 1789, and the ensuing wars, the Whigs split, with many aligning themselves with the then Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger against the Revolution. Pitt and his successors became known as Tories, originally as an insult, but by the time of the Earl of Liverpool they had accepted the term.

Conservative and Liberal: 1832-1922

The Whig and Tory parties both altered after the enactment of the Great Reform Act of 1832. Two of the three major modern political parties, Conservative and Liberal, grew directly out of these earlier ones. The Conservative Party was founded in 1834 by Sir Robert Peel as a result of his Tamworth Manifesto, a speech in which he outlined the new political philosophy. The party has been consistently socially conservative but has shifted its position on economics, initially supporting free trade under Peel, then favouring protectionism for much of the nineteenth century, to become a party of economic liberalism and reduced government after World War II.

The Liberal Party was formed after the collapse of the Whig party due to the enfranchisement of the British middle class following the Reform Act 1832, and has typically been a reforming party. From the 1840s until the 1940s it was strongly defined by its support for free trade and social welfare, in contrast to Conservative preference for protectionism and private charity. The Liberals were also known for their pragmatic support for state intervention in the economy where necessary, whereas the Conservatives opposed such intervention on ideological grounds. In its last government, from 1906-1922, it introduced a number of social reforms including welfare, regulation of working hours and national insurance. The division of the Liberal Party in the early 1920s led many previous supporters to switch their allegiance to the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats, the successor party to the Liberal Party, are socially liberal and typically support higher taxation to support the welfare state, but have an increasing faction of economic liberals.

Conservative and Labour: 1922 to present

The Labour Party was founded in 1900 to represent the views of the working class population and the trade union movement. The party has been traditionally socialist or social democratic in outlook, proven by the introduction of the welfare state and central planning in the United Kingdom in the 1940s. Following the electoral success of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the disastrous result of the 1983 general election for the Labour Party, and the electoral success of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, the Labour Party has moved towards a neo-liberal stance, as shown in the Third Way philosophy. Since entering government in 1997, some have argued that Labour has become increasingly right wing. Others, however, have pointed to large increases in social spending as evidence that the party remains committed to social democratic values.

Politics of the 1870s and 1880s

Two seemingly incongruent trends marked the political landscape of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. At no other time was the citizen’s interest in elections and politics more avid than during this time period. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the eligible voters (white and black males in the North and white males the South) consistently voted in local and national elections. This amazing turnout occurred at a time when the major political parties differed little on the issues and when the platforms of the two main national political parties were almost indistinguishable. Consequently, throughout the era, voters gave few strict mandates to either parties or individuals and the outcomes of the presidential races were determined by a relatively small number of votes. Although Grover Cleveland, elected in 1884, was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win office since James Buchanan in 1856, no sitting President had a majority of his own party in both houses of Congress for his entire term.

Political activity in the Midwest was both highly partisan and rousingly participatory. Thousands turned out for political rallies and parades, sometimes clothed in cheap but colorful costumes provided by the parties and marching along with the bands and floats. Men and women sat for hours in the hot sun devouring details on the issues of the day, regardless of the fact that the parties differed little on these very issues. These rallies were as much social events as political gatherings.

The political debate was actively carried on in the press. Newspaper circulation far exceeded the number of voters in most counties, indicating that many families subscribed to more than one paper. In 1886, the Midwest published 340 dailies and 2900 weeklies, totals that were almost exactly the same as the number of television and radio stations in the nation in the mid-1950s. These papers flourished because they were semiofficial party organs, and provided a direct route from the party operatives to the rank and file. The news was almost as biased as the editorials.

Voters spoke of political loyalty in the same breath as religious affiliation. Most voted as their fathers had before them. A sample of thousands of interviews taken by directory makers in Illinois and Indiana in the mid-1870s showed that only 2 percent of men were without a party affiliation. Anyone uncomfortable with his party’s position would most likely not split his ticket and almost never switched parties. Instead, if he was really unhappy, he just stayed away from the polls on election day.

Given that the two parties were nearly evenly matched in the Midwest and the nation as a whole in the 1880s, turnout for elections was especially important. Nationally, less than two percentage points separated the total Democratic and Republican vote for congressmen in the elections of 1878, 1880, 1884, 1886 and 1888. On the presidential front, in 1880 Garfield was victorious over Hancock by only 7,000 votes. Cleveland, in 1884, edged out Blaine by only 70,000 votes out of 10 million cast. The Midwest was almost as close Blaine was only 90,000 votes ahead of Cleveland out of 3 million votes cast regionally. Indiana went to Cleveland, the only state in the Midwest to do so, possibly because his vice-presidential running mate was Indiana Senator Thomas A. Hendricks.

Clearly, a small shift in votes, a sharp drop in turnout or a bit of fraudulent manipulation of returns could decide the winners in local, state or even national races. Consequently, the parties aligned their strategy with the two main facts of political life, intense partisanship and very tight races. Indiana and New York were considered the ‘swing’ states, and much effort was expended by both parties on getting out the vote in these two states.

The Parties

The Republican Party first appeared on the national ballot in 1856. Following the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Whig party disintegrated, and meetings in the upper mid-western states led to the formation of this new party opposed to the spread of slavery into the western territories. The Republicans quickly became the dominant force in the North, and with the Confederate defeat, known as the party of the victors. The south became solidly Democratic, and would remain so for decades.

After the war, the Republicans continued the Whig tradition of promoting industrial development through high tariffs. The party promoted government activism, primarily to foster economic development. Freedmen and the white, Protestant population of the Northeast comprised their political base. It was during this post-war period that the party became known as the "Grand Old Party", or GOP.

The party advocated moralistic policies based on evangelical Protestant values. They generally supported restrictions on the sale and use of alcohol and limits on business openings on Sunday. Their support came from the Methodists and Baptists of the Northeast and Midwest and other evangelical sects.

The party was not without dissent. After the disgrace and scandal of Ulysses Grant’s administration, a group of Republican civil service reformers provoked a revolt in the 1872 election. This issue was kept alive by a group of New York Republicans, known as Mugwumps, who continued to advocate for reform of the civil service patronage system. Grant was not without his supporters, who were known as Stalwarts. A third group, the Half-Breeds, favored moderate reform and the continuation of high tariffs.

In truth, the parties differed only slightly on the issues in the years after the war. The Republican party, for the most part, favored industrialists, bankers and railroad interests. In fact, more than one scandal during the era arose from corrupt dealings between politicians and railroad barons. Republicans more strongly favored hard money policies and strict laissez-faire economic policies, until public pressure forced the issue of regulation, especially with regard to railroad rates.

The modern form of the Democratic party began in the years after the War of 1812. Although the Democrats cannot be credited with starting conventions, platforms and highly institutionalized campaigning, they succeeded in bringing these features to new levels in the party system. From the mid-1830s to the Civil War, the Democrats were the nation’s majority party, controlling Congress, the presidency and many state offices. In general, the Democrats favored a confined and minimal federal government and states’ rights.

The party suffered its first major disruption in the mid-1850s. A large influx of Irish and German Catholic immigration precipitated a strong reaction among northern Democrats. Worries about the future of the "Protestant" nation led to the formation of the Know-Nothing party, which drew off many Democrats. Also, many Democratic leaders were reluctant to take a stand against slavery, and that was viewed as a pro-southern stand that permitted slaveholders to prevail in new territories and consequently to dominate in national politics. The new Republican party astutely played on the nativism and anti-southern sentiment, resulting in a new political alignment.

The Democrat’s second significant era lasted from the Civil War into the 1890s. Partisan loyalties planted early in the century and nurtured during the Civil War kept the party faithful loyal in election after election. Southern whites who had not been Democrats earlier flocked to the party in the aftermath of Reconstruction, making the Solid (Democratic) South a political reality.

Elections and Voting in the 19th Century

Today, the right to fair and free elections is almost taken for granted. However, many of the rights we have today as voters - including the right to a secret ballot and for elections to be duly supervised - were not commonplace until the late 19th century. Until this point, elections results were often open to corruption through practises including bribery and treating of electors, and intimidation and threatening of voters.

This section explores the way in which Parliament responded to calls for electoral reform in the 19th century.

What were voting conditions like in the 19th century? How did Parliament address corrupt practices in elections?

Parliamentary Archives and Norfolk Record Office worked with a local research group to explore elections in the 19th century

Leaving all to younger hands

The campaign to win passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote stands as one of the most significant and wide-ranging moments of political mobilization in all of American history. Among other outcomes, it produced the largest one-time increase in voters ever. As important as the goal of suffrage was, the struggle was always far broader than just the franchise, and it spoke to fundamental questions about women’s roles in politics and modern life: Who does the government permit to vote? What is the relationship between citizenship and suffrage? The suffragists challenged the political status quo at the time and in many ways can be thought of as the voting rights activists of their day. That observation is still true today as women approach their second century of full voting rights and leads us to explore why does the history of women’s suffrage matter?

The women’s suffrage movement always had a deep sense of its own history. In many ways, suffragists were our first women’s historians, none more so than Susan B. Anthony. When the fourth volume of the History of Woman Suffrage appeared in 1902, the 82-year-old Anthony looked back with pride at what the movement had accomplished, but she also looked forward to what still needed to be done, penning this inscription in her friend Caroline Healey Dall’s personal copy:

This closes the records of the 19th century of work done by and for women— what the 20th century will show—no one can foresee—but that it will be vastly more and better—we cannot fail to believe. But you & I have done the best we knew—and so must rest content—leaving all to younger hands. Your sincere friend and coworker, Susan B. Anthony. 1

When she wrote those words, Anthony had devoted more than 50 years to the women’s suffrage movement and victory was nowhere in sight. Yet she remained proud of what she and her co-workers had done for the cause, and confident that the future would bring even more progress. I suspect that the suffrage leaders who guided the movement to its successful conclusion on August 26, 1920, felt the same way.

Once the 19th Amendment passed, suffragists claimed a new moniker—that of women citizens.

“Shall Not Be Denied”

The 19th Amendment states that “the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment was originally introduced in Congress in 1878 but it took until 1919 before it enjoyed sufficient bipartisan support to pass the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it needed to be ratified by the legislatures in three-fourths of the states. By March 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment, but that left suffragists one short. In August, Tennessee put the amendment over the top, paving the way for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.


Once the 19th Amendment passed, suffragists claimed a new moniker—that of women citizens. In many ways the suffrage movement was an anomaly, the rare time when a broad coalition of women came together under one banner. In the post-suffrage era, politically engaged women embraced a wide variety of causes rather than remaining united around a single goal. Their political ideologies ran the gamut from progressive to moderate to conservative, but when it came to politics and public life, their message was clear: “We have come to stay.”

In this enlarged perspective, the suffrage victory is not a hard stop but part of a continuum of women’s political mobilization stretching not just between the iconic Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 but across all of American history. It is still appropriate, indeed welcome, to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment as an important marker in American women’s history. But, rather than positioning 1920 as the end of the story, it is far more fruitful to see it as initiating the next stage in the history of women’s political activism—a story that is still unfolding.

Throughout American history, women have been dedicated political actors even without the vote. Women’s political history is far broader than the ratification of a single constitutional amendment.

Passage of the 19th Amendment: An incomplete victory

When thinking about the larger implications of the suffrage victory, we also need to remember that many women, especially those in Western states, were already voting in the years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. In addition, many women across the country enjoyed the right to vote on the local level in municipal elections and for school committees. Focusing too much on the 1920 milestone downplays the political clout that enfranchised women already exercised, as well as tends to overshadow women’s earlier roles as community builders, organization founders, and influence wielders. Throughout American history, women have been dedicated political actors even without the vote. Women’s political history is far broader than the ratification of a single constitutional amendment.

Celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment also slights the plight of African American voters, for whom the 19th Amendment was at most a hollow victory. In 1920, the vast majority of African Americans still lived in the South, where their voting rights were effectively eliminated by devices such as whites-only primaries, poll taxes, and literacy tests. For Black Americans, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not the 14th, 15th, or 19th Amendments, that finally removed the structural barriers to voting.

In a parallel disfranchisement, few Native American women gained the vote through the 19th Amendment. Not until 1924 did Congress pass legislation declaring that all Native Americans born in the United States were citizens, which cleared the way for tribal women to vote. But Native American women still faced ongoing barriers to voting on the state and local levels, especially in the West, as did Mexican Americans. Puerto Rican women did not gain the vote until 1935 and Chinese American women not until 1943. When assessing who can exercise the right to vote, it is always essential to ask who cannot.

Women suffragists cover a billboard to advertise their Washington, D.C. parade. Nation-wide demonstrations were held in May 1914 to support the Federal Amendment enfranchising women (Shutterstock)
Suffrage and feminism

Women’s demand for fair and equitable treatment in the political realm emerges as an integral part of the history of feminism. To protest women’s exclusion from voting demanded an assault on attitudes and ideologies that treated women as second-class citizens to formulate that challenge involved conceptualizing women as a group whose collective situation needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, white suffragists often failed to realize they were speaking primarily from their own privileged class and race positions. The fact that certain groups of women, especially women of color, were often excluded from this supposedly universal vision demonstrates how racism intersected with feminism throughout the suffrage movement and its aftermath. Contemporary feminists have significantly broadened their commitment to recognizing the diversity of women’s experiences and worked hard to include multiple perspectives within the broader feminist framework, but it is still a struggle. The suffrage movement is part of that story, warts and all.

A global struggle

The history of women’s suffrage also reminds us that the struggle for the vote was a global phenomenon. Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, American and British abolitionists forged connections that influenced the early history of the suffrage movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott first met at an antislavery conference in London in 1840. Women’s international networks were especially vibrant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1888, the International Council of Women was founded to bring together existing women’s groups, primarily from North America and western Europe, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as its prime instigators. Its offshoot, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, founded in Berlin in 1904 “to secure the enfranchisement of the women of all nations,” fed the growth of the women’s suffrage movement worldwide. Women today enjoy nearly universal access to the franchise, but it is a misnomer to say that women were “given” the vote. Just as in the United States, women around the globe had to fight for that right.

Empowered through solidarity

Participating in the suffrage campaign provided women with the kind of exhilaration and camaraderie often described by men in periods of war or political upheaval. Women were proud to be part of this great crusade, and they cherished the solidarity it engendered for the rest of their lives. Frances Perkins, a veteran of the New York suffrage campaign and the first woman to serve in the cabinet as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, remembered it this way: “The friendships that were formed among women who were in the suffrage movement have been the most lasting and enduring friendships—solid, substantial, loyal—that I have ever seen anywhere. The women learned to like each other in that suffrage movement.” 2

National Woman’s Party activists watch Alice Paul sew a star onto the NWP Ratification Flag, representing another state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment (Library of Congress)
Factions within the movement

The history of women’s suffrage also confirms the difficulty of maintaining unity in social movements. Women’s rights and abolition were closely allied before the Civil War, but that old coalition linking race and gender split irrevocably in the 1860s. The dispute was about who had priority: newly freed African American men or white women, who also wanted to be included in the post-Civil War expansion of political liberties represented by the 14th and 15th Amendments. Suffragists such as Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe had hoped for universal suffrage, but once the amendments were drafted, they supported ratification despite the exclusion of women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton adamantly refused to support the amendments, often employing racist language to imply that white women were just as deserving of the vote as African American men, if not more so. By 1869 the suffrage movement had split in two over this question, not to reunite until 1890.

That split was both strategic and philosophical, as was the one in the 1910s between Carrie Chapman Catt’s mainstream National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and Alice Paul’s upstart National Woman’s Party (NWP). Catt’s much larger group tended to favor a state-by-state approach, while Paul and her supporters focused on winning a federal amendment. In addition, NAWSA was committed to working within the system while the NWP took to the streets, silently picketing the White House to express their outrage at women’s voteless status. In the end both sides were necessary to win ratification, just as the 19th century split had allowed competing personalities with different approaches to advance the movement in their own ways.

It is a misnomer to say that women were “given” the vote. Just as in the United States, women around the globe had to fight for that right.

Toward the future of equality in practice as well as in law

By the early 20th century, women had already moved far beyond the domestic sphere and boldly entered public life, yet a fundamental responsibility and privilege of citizenship—the right to vote—was arbitrarily denied to half the population. The 19th Amendment changed that increasingly untenable situation, representing a breakthrough for American women as well as a major step forward for American democracy. The wave of female candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and the unprecedented number of women who ran for president in 2020 built directly on the demands for fair and equitable access to the political realm articulated by the women’s suffrage movement.

Historian Anne Firor Scott provides an especially evocative image of how winning the vote was part of larger changes in women’s lives and in American society more broadly: “Suffrage was a tributary flowing into the rich and turbulent river of American social development. That river is enriched by the waters of each tributary, but with the passage of time it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the special contributions of any one of the tributaries.” 3 Think of the contributions of the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file women who participated in the fight to win the vote as the tributaries that make up suffrage history. And then think of suffrage history as a powerful strand in the larger stream of American history, which is richer and stronger because it heeded Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s prescient statement at Seneca Falls that all men and women are created equal. While the United States still lacks truly universal suffrage and gender equity remains a widely debated issue, the 19th Amendment represented a giant step toward both goals and left a firm constitutional foundation for future progress. When Susan B. Anthony talked about “leaving all to younger hands,” I like to think this is what she had in mind.

Late 19th Century

In the second half of the 19th Century, printing technology in the United States was advancing to meet the needs of a population expanding from coast to coast. Faster printing presses and the construction and connection of the railroad system and postal service made the manufacture and distribution of books, magazines, and newspapers more efficient, and the nation was able to read about and respond to current events more quickly than ever before. Illustration was important to publications like Frank Leslie&rsquos Illustrated Newspaper and Harper&rsquos Weekly. Artists, salaried as on-site reporters, sketched events as they were taking place, while freelancers were paid to do political cartoons, allegorical pictures, and story illustrations. In order for the artwork to be printed, the original artwork&mdashgenerally done in pen and ink&mdash had to be interpreted by wood engravers who created the printing blocks that would go on the presses.

Winslow Homer, engraving made from reportage drawing, "Surgeons at the Rear," 1862

Harper and Brothers publishers, already successful with its books and illustrated weekly newspaper, created a monthly magazine and formed a staff of in-house artists to make pen drawings on a wide range of subjects and narrative fiction. These illustrators of the 1870s and 1880s were among the finest in the world, each with his own specialty: Thomas Nast for political cartoons, Thur de Thulstrup for history and horses, Howard Pyle for Americana, Edwin Austin Abbey for all things costumed or English, William A. Rogers for urban scenes, A. B. Frost for rural subjects and humor, and Frederic Remington for the western frontier. This great collection of talent led American publishing to finally rival the quality of European illustrated journals.

In the words of his biographer, &ldquoIf Thomas Nast was merely a cartoonist, then Abraham Lincoln was merely a politician.&rdquo Followers of Nast&rsquos political cartoons tripled the circulation of Harper&rsquos Weekly. Political personalities that he satirized were weakened and usually dethroned, and every presidential candidate that he supported was elected. He expressed his opinion on every important social and political issue of his time, created the elephant and donkey symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties and gave America its now familiar portrayals of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast, cover illustration, Harper's Weekly, 1874

English artist/illustrators associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood&mdashDante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys, A.B. Houghton, and others&mdashcreated drawings for books and literary journals. Typically, these would be translated by wood engravers or wood block cutters. The Dalziel Brothers were the finest engraving craftsmen of their time and their interpretations of artists' pen work was said to actually improve the picture's quality. The English were the first to adapt Japanese colored wood block printing techniques to book production. Edmund Evans, a former engraver, designed a method of printing illustrations in six colors and employed the talents of Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway. Near the end of the century, the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley was creating elegant and decadent work which was also, in part, influenced by Japanese graphic art. In France, the commercial posters of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha were the epitome of Art Nouveau illustration style. Art was drawn onto multiple stone lithographic plates representing particular colors, and resulted in a full-color effect. Color lithography, also called "chromolithography," was being used to produce advertising posters, business cards, and greeting cards and also for magazine covers and center pages (Joseph Keppler). Towards the end of the century, photoengraving allowed artists' original line art to be exactly reproduced without having to be interpreted through hand engraving. The halftone screening process was used to reproduce tonal paintings and photographs.

Arthur Boyd Houghton, book illustration (engraved by the Dalziel Bros.), 1868

Kate Greenaway, watercolor illustration, 1879

Aubrey Beardsley, book illustration in woodcut, from Salomé, a play by Oscar Wilde, 1894

Alphonse Mucha, lithographic print, "The Arts: Poetry," 1898

Joseph Keppler, colored lithograph, "Nevermore" (President William Henry Harrison), Puck magazine, 1890

Howard Pyle became well-known for his illustrations in Harper&rsquos Monthly Magazine and his illustrated children&rsquos books. He told the story of the legendary Robin Hood in an illustrated novel and revealed the world of pirate lore to readers of his illustrated short stories. In the 1890s he decided that he wanted to teach what he had learned through experience. At the time there were no courses in any schools or colleges for studying illustration, so he offered his services to the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and in 1896 began teaching there. In that first year he had five students of extraordinary talent&mdashthree women and two men: Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Maxfield Parrish, and Frank Schoonover. Pyle&rsquos classes grew from year to year as his reputation as a teacher spread. He created a special summer course for his most promising students that was held in an old mill along the Brandywine River in the village of Chadd&rsquos Ford, Pennsylvania, and in 1900 he opened his own, tuition-free school in Wilmington, Delaware. The training he provided produced a crop of confident and supremely skilled young artists whom Pyle personally shepherded into their first professional work. The narrative realism that Pyle and they practiced became the primary approach to illustration of the early 20th Century and would come to be called the &ldquoBrandywine Tradition.&rdquo

Howard Pyle, oil painting, "Walking the Plank," later engraved for Harper's Monthly Magazine, 1887

Howard Pyle, oil painting, The Flying Dutchman, 1900

What voting rights issues remain today?

While voting rights in America have come a long way toward ensuring equal ballot access for all, many scholars and activists argue that the overtly racist Jim Crow laws of the past have given way to discriminatory policies, like voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, polling place closures, and limits to pre-registration.

Strict voter ID laws and other restrictions enacted by Texas and North Carolina in the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder were struck down in federal court, with one federal appeals court finding that North Carolina's law targeted "African Americans with almost surgical precision."

Among voting issues and controversies in recent years, in 2018, former Georgia Secretary of State and current Governor Brian Kemp was accused of putting 53,000 voter registration applications "on hold" for mismatched names, and incorrectly purging 340,000 voters from the rolls.

In North Dakota, where most Native Americans who reside on reservations only have a PO box, the US Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring voters to bring an ID to the polls with a residential address. The ruling left Native communities scrambling to obtain proper IDs just weeks before the election.

Along with the predominately non-white citizens of American territories like Guam and American Samoa, almost 6 million taxpaying Americans with felony convictions were barred from voting in the 2018 midterms due to state-level felon disenfranchisement laws.

In November 2018, voters in Florida approved a constitutional amendment overturning the state's disenfranchisement law for good, allowing around 1 million formerly disenfranchised residents to vote. The following year, the Florida Legislature passed a law that requires people with felony convictions to pay off any court fines and fees before they can register to vote, which critics say discriminates against poorer residents who cannot afford to do so. In July 2020, the Supreme Court allowed Florida to keep this law in place — it continues to be appealed.

Watch the video: Sozialer Strukturwandel beim Übergang zur Industriegesellschaft im 19. Jahrhundert