The Fight to Vote
by Michael Waldman
Reviewed by Claire Hancock
It seems counterintuitive that this review of a history book would begin with "as of the date of this writing." But, as of the date of this writing, top national news stories include, among others, gerrymandering in North Carolina, felon disfranchisement in Florida, and voter suppression in Alabama. Michael Waldman's The Fight to Vote asks the questions: Was it always this way? Has it always been a fight to vote? How does this moment compare to the past? Answer: Today's fights are intense and controversial, but not new. The fight to vote has been at the center of American life from the beginning of our country, for over 240 years; this is not the first go-round of any particular political mechanism, it's just the 21st century's version of it.
The Fight to Vote comprehensively illuminates how the history of voting rights does not move in only one direction; that instead, there have been times of expansion and contraction. In illustrating how voting laws changes tend to follow seismic historical events leading to an expansion of democracy, Waldman vividly uses the example of Abraham Lincoln. All through his political career, Lincoln was against extending voting rights to blacks, but the Civil War changed him. After the surrender at Appomattox, from the second floor of the White House, Lincoln announced he was wrong not to extend voting rights to black men, and intended that to change. At least one person in the audience understood the significance of this change, John Wilkes Booth.
Waldman is also an intriguing storyteller of lesser-known characters from the "nooks and crannies" of our history. For example, there is Harry Burns, a 24-year-old state representative from Tennessee, who received a letter from his mother that read: "be a good boy and listen to your...