THE RIGHT TO VOTE

The issue of requirements for voting and officeholding proved far more contentious. Conservative patriots struggled valiantly to reassert the rationale for the old voting restrictions. It was ridiculous, wrote one pamphleteer, to think that “every silly clown and illiterate mechanic [artisan]” deserved a voice in government. To John Adams, as conservative on the internal affairs of America as he had been radical on independence, freedom and equality were opposites. Men without property, he believed, had no “judgment of their own,” and the removal of property qualifications, therefore, would “confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.” Eliminating traditional social ranks, however, was precisely the aim of the era’s radical democrats, including the most influential promoter of independence, Thomas Paine.

The provisions of the new state constitutions reflected the balance of power between advocates of internal change and those who feared excessive democracy. The least democratization occurred in the southern states, whose highly deferential political traditions enabled the landed gentry to retain their control of political affairs. In Virginia and South Carolina, the new constitutions retained property qualifications for voting and authorized the gentry-dominated legislature to choose the governor.

Maryland combined a low property qualification for voting with high requirements for officeholding, including £5,000—a veritable fortune—for the governor.

The most democratic new constitutions moved much of the way toward the idea of voting as an entitlement rather than a privilege, but they generally stopped short of universal suffrage, even for free men. Vermont’s constitution of 1777 was the only one to sever voting completely from financial considerations, eliminating not only property qualifications but the requirement that voters pay taxes. Pennsylvania’s constitution no longer required ownership of property, but it retained the taxpaying qualification. As a result, it enfranchised nearly all of the state’s free male population but left a small number, mainly paupers and domestic servants, still barred from voting. Nonetheless, even with the taxpaying requirement, it represented a dramatic departure from the colonial practice of restricting the suffrage to those who could claim to be economically independent. It elevated “personal liberty,” in the words of one essayist, to a position more important than property ownership in defining the boundaries of the political nation.

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