Voting Rights

Teaching Civics through History


In this unit, students will develop knowledgeable and well-reasoned points of view on the history of voting rights in the United States.



Image Source: “The First Vote” in Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.09, p721)

Illustration from 1867 issue of harper's weekly showing an African American voting for the first time
  • Grades: 7-12

  • Class Time: 1-2 Weeks

How has the right to vote changed throughout US history?

Today, voting is the fundamental right of American citizens, for it is the guardian of every other right in American society. However, the right to vote was not conceived of as an “inalienable” attribute of citizenship by the nation’s founders; it was often viewed as a privilege restricted to groups of Americans with specific economic, gender, racial, or social characteristics and qualifications.

The framers of the US Constitution left the right to determine suffrage eligibility to the states, not the federal government. The history of voting rights has not been a smooth, uninterrupted train of progress toward universal suffrage. Suffrage has expanded and contracted throughout our nation’s history, with periods of exclusion and inclusion for different groups of people.

Formal group portrait of the Supreme Court Justices in robes, ca. 1940 (GLC02929)

The County Election by George C. Bingham, published by Goupil & Co., New York, 1854 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC04074)

Core Lesson Plans

Unit Supplements

  • 5 Lessons
  • Middle School
by Steve Schwartz

Women and the Right to Vote

Students will learn about the long struggle for women’s suffrage from Abigail Adams to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Connecting Historical Lessons to Current Events

The Gilder Lehrman Institute has worked with to pull up current articles* in the news media related to this topic written from different perspectives. Students can use these articles to develop their understanding of how history has shaped current events. Click on “Latest News” to see a range of articles from left, center, and right perspectives.

*The articles shown here update regularly, so if you find articles you are particularly interested in sharing with your students, keep track of the links to the original publications.


Additional Gilder Lehrman Resources