The Right to Vote

The Received Legacy

The deference to the states with regards to voting displayed in the Constitution is, in part, a result of the fact that individual states had been writing their own suffrage laws for more than a decade since the Declaration. Suffrage laws in the thirteen states were shaped by English conceptions of political participation colonial precedents. Voting in England had long been restricted to adult men who owned property, and that tradition had extended naturally to the American colonies. 

At this time, property qualifications for suffrage were quite common, and all states had instituted some kind of property qualification.  Some of the requirements were relatively small, and perhaps only required that a voter pay some sort of tax in the previous year. But on the eve of the Revolution, in seven colonies men had to own land of certain amount of acreage or monetary value in order to participate in elections; elsewhere, the ownership of other personal property of a designated value (or in South Carolina, the payment of taxes) could substitute for real estate. 

Property requirements for voting had long been justified on two grounds:

  1. Men who possess property supposedly had a unique “stake in society,” meaning that they make for more committed members of the community, and that they had a personal interest in the policies of the state, in particular taxation. Only men with property, preferably real property, were sufficiently attached to the community and sufficiently affected by its laws to have earned the privilege of voting.
  1. Owning property, in theory, afforded an individual independence so that their voice and vote in society could not be unduly influenced. The best was to ensure that one was no dependent on anyone else was if that person owned his own property. The ballot was not to be entrusted to those who were economically dependent because they could too easily be controlled or manipulated by others.

Henry Ireton, a leader of the English Civil War wrote in 1647 “if there be anything at all that is the foundation of liberty, it is this, that those who shall choose the lawmakers shall be men freed from dependence upon others.” 

Six of the thirteen colonies voted viva voce—by voice—usually at an appointed time at the local courthouse, so it was reasonable to assume that a debtor or a tenant could feel pressure to vote a certain way in the presence of their creditor or landlord. It was not until much later that the secret paper ballot became widely used. Several colonies formally barred servants and paupers from voting for the same reasons. 

Other common restrictions on voting grew out of the colonial era: it was typical for colonies to institute residency requirements that excluded transients and other individuals who had not been living in a particular location. For the same reason property was seen as giving someone a state in society, so too did residency contribute to their investiture in the colony’s affairs and to their knowledge of issues and candidates. At the same time, however, Absentee landowners were enfranchised in Virginia in 1736. 

In some places, further limitations were put in place based on social factors like race or religion. Free blacks were legally disenfranchised very early on in much of the south, and Native Americans we likewise denied the right to vote. In seventeenth century Massachusetts, only members of the Congregational Church could vote; in Virginia only members of the Church of England could vote for a time; and in the eighteenth century, Catholics were disfranchised in five states and Jews in four states. 

Women were kept from the polls in many places for a combination of the reasons explained above. Because they were supposed to follow the will of their husband, they could not practice independent decision-making of their own. Women in most cases could not own property, and so lacked the required stake in their community, and finally, their “constitution” was supposedly too delicate to equip them to participate in the serious affairs of politics. Women were barred from voting explicitly by law in several colonies, including Virginia, but statutes elsewhere made no reference to gender, and in at least a few Massachusetts towns and New York counties propertied widows did legally vote.

While these general principles help us to understand the rough outlines of the franchise in colonial America, they were far from hard-and-fast rules. There were always exceptions, and the ways in which voting rules were structured and applied varied in every way imaginable. Catholics and Jews, Native Americans and free blacks, and even non-naturalized aliens could vote in some places but not in others, and the right to vote was given to some groups as quickly as it was taken away from others. In practice, moreover, the enforcement or application of suffrage laws was uneven and dependent on local circumstances. Of equal importance, the qualifications to vote in local elections—especially in cities and larger towns—often differed from those needed to vote for colonial or provincial officers.