Sources of Expansion

“The Memorial of the Non-Freeholders of the City of Richmond”

One of the most elegant expression of protest coming from disenfranchised urban residents was the “Memorial of the Non-Freeholders of the City of Richmond,” which was composed and presented on October 13, 1829 to the Virginia Constitutional Convention—notable as the last political body in which James Madison served. Chief Justice John Marshall, who was far from sympathetic with the nonfreeholders, delivered the petition before the convention, without comment. The memorial charged that Virginia’s freehold requirement was an unjust violation Virginia’s celebrated Declaration of Rights, arguing that it:

creates and odius distinction between members of the same community; robs of all share, in the enactment of the laws, a large portion of the citizens bound by them, and whose blood and treasure are pledged to maintain them and vests in a favored class, not in consideration of their public services, but of their private possessions, the highest of all privileges. 

The nonfreeholders, “comprising a very large part, probably a majority of male citizens of mature age,” critiqued the notion that possessing land made a man any “wiser or better,” arguing forcefully that “virture” and “intelligence” were not among the “products of the soil.” The memorial, as had so many other petitions for the right to vote from earlier years, also drew the connection between the right to vote and the capacity of military service. The Virginia government did not find landless men too “ignorant” or “depraved” to serve in the militia, after all:

In hour of danger, they have drawn no invidious distinctions between the sons of Virginia. The muster rolls have undergone no scrutiny, no comparison with the land books, with a view to expunge those who have be struck from the ranks of freemen. If the landless citizens have been ignominiously driven from the polls, in times of peace, they have at least been generously summoned in war, to the battle-field. 

The Nonfreeholders of Richmond drew an interesting and important distinction in the course of their argument: they conceded that the right of suffrage was a “social right” rather than a “natural right” and that it “must of necessity be regulated by society. For obvious reasons, by almost universal consent, women and children, aliens and slaves, are excluded.” But they contented that such exclusions were “no argument for excluding others”—economic barriers to voting were not rational regulations of the franchise in society. 

As powerful as their argument might have been, the nonfreeholders of Richmond were not successful in gaining the franchise. The 1829 constitution of Virginia created a complex set of suffrage requirements that effectively preserved a threshold of property ownership for another two decades. 

It may seem counterintuitive that political elites—those who enjoyed the right to vote and thus the power of political decision-making—would ever chose to enlarge the franchise and let others share in the power they enjoyed. But in many cases, political elites saw themselves as having a direct interest in enlarging the electorate. Part of their reasoning had to do with security: In the wake of the Revolutionary War and again after the War of 1812, many middle class citizens concluded that extending the franchise to the “lower orders” would enhance their own security and help preserve their way of life, by assuring that such men would continue to serve in the army and the militias, and would not be given to unrest or hostility to the new government. 

During the War of 1812, the federal government had great difficulty recruiting and retaining and army, eventually having to call on militia forces to bolster the army—in a sense validating the utility of a broader franchise. Military service was repeatedly invoked in debates over the right to vote—both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of security for the higher orders. 

In the South, there was an added layer to the issue of security. Enfranchising poor whites was a way of deepening the divide between white and black society. By guaranteeing the political rights of poor whites, the social elites hope they could count of the support of all whites in the event of a slave rebellion 

In the Midwest, the promotion of settlement and economic self-interest played a major role in expanding the franchise. As the western territories began to organize themselves into states, inhabitants of sparsely populated regions established a broader franchise in an effort to attract more settlers. As more people flowed into a particular region, land values increased and the pace of economic development quickened. Competition amongst states on the frontier only served to further broaden the franchise. Granting full political rights to immigrants appeared to be economically advantageous as well as democratic, a testament to the desirability of the franchise.