The Right to Vote

The American Revolution and the Right to Vote

The American Revolution raised critically important questions about the nature and sources of legitimate governmental authority. Unsurprisingly, the right to vote was at the center of that debate. The increasing popularity of ideas of popular sovereignty—that the legitimacy of a government depends on the consent of the governed—then limitations on suffrage were intrinsically problematic.  Voting, after all, is the key mechanism for people to participate in the formation of their government. 

When the Continental Congress directed each new state to write its own constitution in the days following the Declaration of Independence, the question was raised in legislatures and conventions everywhere of whether or nor the colonial restrictions on the franchise growing out of the British tradition should be abolished. The debate raged on through the Confederation period until the Constitution was ratified in 1788 about how Americans should begin to define the franchise for themselves. 

The conflict over the franchise following the Revolution occurred along clearly defined political and ideological lines. On the one hand, the moneyed interests of planters and merchants who constituted a political elite understood that it was to their advantage to maintain control of a narrow franchise, making it easier for them to protect their economic and social advantages.

On the other hand, a larger portion of the population, which included small yeoman farmers, laborers, craftsmen, and others stood to gain dramatically from a democratization of political rights. The question of what was required for political power loomed large: landowners wanted freehold ownership of real property to remain the standard for entry into the political sphere, while city dwellers: shopkeepers, artisans, and lawyers could join the conversation if the qualifications were shifted towards taxpaying or ownership in personal property. 

Arguments For and Against Restrictions in the Franchise

Political leaders in every state advanced several different arguments justifying keeping traditional restrictions on the franchise. A unifying factor among these arguments was the idea that voting was not a right but a privilege: one that the state could legitimately grant or curtail in its own interest.

The idea that voters should have an established, concrete “stake in society” persisted from the colonial era, along with the conception that the most reliable way to establish such as stake was through ownership of real property. In some sense, the end of government is to protect security in property, and so it followed that those with property should be the ones to define it.  To strengthen the protection of elite interests, it was argued that not only could property owners be trusted because of their stake in society, but that if the propertyless were allowed a measure of political participation, it would spell the demise of civil society. The interests of the poor could also be protected even if they did not enjoy the right to vote—so followed the well-rehearsed argument of virtual representation. Elite white men could do a fine job of protecting not only the poor, but also women and children for that matter. 

Again the argument from the colonial era that those who lacked independence should not be allowed to vote played a key role in keeping the franchise narrow. Sir William Blackstone, the incomparably influential British jurist, argued this point forcefully his 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England

The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty. If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing those delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life. But, since that can hardly be expected in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications; whereby some, who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting, in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other.

American leaders also felt that to allow the poor and the propertyless to vote would threaten the interests of property. If men without property could vote, reflected John Adams, “an immediate revolution would ensue.” Laws might be passed invalidating debts and contracts, and the security of property could be thrown into question. 

James Madison also put a uniquely American spin on justifying the denial of the right to vote to the poor and the propertyless in a speech before the Constitutional Convention: 

in future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands: or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side.

This fairly pessimistic view of the nation’s future class structure reveals a fear held by many in the founding generation that future economic growth would bring greater financial inequality to the American population, further exacerbating the revolution foretold by Madison’s more hyperbolic colleague, John Adams. 

However, there was also a set of equally cogent, well-made arguments in favor of extending the franchise, particularly to white men who did not own property. The most appealing and straightforward of these augments was that voting, or political participation was a natural right that a state could not suspend except in the most extreme circumstances. This ran directly contrary to the supposition introduced earlier that voting was in fact not right but a privilege, and one that the state might have great interest in curtailing. 

To cast voting as a natural right was rhetorically powerful. It spoke directly to the Enlightenment brand of political philosophy that had helped give voice to the Revolution, and to the Lockean notions of popular sovereignty well-known in eighteenth-century America.  At the same time, however, if voting was a natural right, then the franchise had to be opened to everyone, which forced the confrontation of the uncomfortable prospect that not just poor white men, but women and African Americans would have to be allowed to vote as well. If voting were a natural right, or any kind of right at all, it would become much more difficult to exclude these groups from the franchise. 

Even those in favor of a broader franchise feared the implication of defining voting as a natural right, and so offered more limited and specific arguments for changing the voting laws. They frequently proposed replacing property qualifications with taxpaying, arguing that was an equally effective method of ensuring voters had a stake in society, and that they were affected by government decisions and policies. Not only would taxpayers be affected by governmental choices, but idea that voting provided an effective way for taxpayers to defend themselves against unfair levies, which struck a chord with the sentiments of the Revolutionary generation. 

A final set of arguments focused on military service. A large portion of veterans who had served in the French and Indian War and the Revolution did not enjoy the right to vote, nor would a large portion soldiers called to serve in any future conflict. It did not seem just to ask men to serve and lay down their lives for a country where they could not vote, and granting a political say was an attractive way to honor previous service. The proposition that soldiers would for the most part be excluded from the franchise was not politically palatable, and recruiting and retaining an army would be very difficult if the pools of men who were potential soldiers were prohibited from voting. The French and Indian War and the Revolution thus placed significant expansive pressure on the franchise, as would all subsequent wars. Franklin voiced this view most eloquently at the Constitutional Convention, in opposition to a call issued by some of the delegates for a national requirement for property holding. “It is of great consequence,” he said, “that we should not depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people; of which they displayed a great deal during the war, and which contributed principally to the favorable issue of it.”

The arguments put forth in favor and in opposition to expanding the right to vote threw the breadth of the franchise into stark relief, and focused attention of whether or not property-holding requirements should be eliminated. This debate played out in newspapers, colonial legislatures, town council meetings, and the constitutional conventions of the Revolutionary era. 

Pennsylvania’s Unique Constitution

The most influential and dramatic expansion of the franchise occurred in Pennsylvania at the outset of the Revolution. Philadelphia militias had seized the early initiative in Pennsylvania’s rejection of British rule, gaining some of the political limelight as a result, and pushed for the elimination of Pennsylvania’s property requirement. As early as March 1776, the Committee of Privates, speaking for rank-and-file militiamen drawn from the city’s “lower” and “middling sorts,” demanded that the provincial assembly enfranchise the “brave and spirited Germans and others” who had “cheerfully” volunteered for service, and yet were “not entitled to the privileges of freemen electors.” The Committee of Privates also demanded that militiamen be permitted to elect their own officers and to be allowed to vote for delegates who would draw up a new state constitution.

The militiamen enjoyed the support of Benjamin Franklin, and his newly-arrived friend Thomas Paine, who both wrote persuasively on their behalf. They allied with western farmers who had long been dramatically underrepresented in the Pennsylvania state legislature, and together they succeeded in electing delegates to their state’s 1776 constitutional convention dominated not by the traditional elites but rather by artisans, lesser merchants, and farmers. The constitution produced by that convention was easily the most democratic constitution in the thirteen original states: it abolished property requirements and enfranchised all taxpaying adult males as well as the sons of freeholders regardless of whether or not they were taxpayers. Pennsylvania had a poll tax—which had not yet acquired the discriminatory connotation it would come to hold during the Jim Crow era, but rather was merely an evenly-applied tax on every head of household—that effectively enfranchised the vast majority of adult males under the new constitution. The new Pennsylvania constitution had shifted the definition of the population regarded as having “a sufficient common interest with and attachment to the community.”

Revolution and a Broader Franchise in Some States

The political dynamics of revolution generated a broader franchise in a half dozen other states as well—Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and Vermont all broadened their franchise in the 1770s and 1780s. But even the partial liberalization of voting requirements in states like Pennsylvania was by no means universal: in five states, there was little or no change at all during the Revolutionary era, and in some places the franchise actually contracted. Rhode Island and Delaware, for example, retained their colonial laws virtually unchanged, and Connecticut kept theirs in force even in the face of pressure for reform from militiamen much like what was seen in Pennsylvania. 

As we have seen, a broad array of arguments, interpretations, and legal changes pertaining to the breadth of the franchise spanned the Revolutionary era. The right to vote was an issue of crucial importance to the citizens of all thirteen colonies (and Vermont) as they became states and debated how to create their own governments. In every state, there was pressure for reform that was met with conservative opposition to a more inclusive franchise. The outcomes of these conflicts followed no clear regional pattern; they seem instead to have been shaped largely by the strength of local elites and by the particular political processes that unfolded in each state. The overall result was a mixed bag of substantial changes, cosmetic alterations, and preservation of the status quo.

During the Revolutionary era, the greatest strides in suffrage reform took place on issues unrelated to economic standing. Roman Catholics and Jews could now vote almost anywhere, although in South Carolina it remained necessary to “acknowledge the being of a God.”  Free people of Color were tacitly enfranchised in North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Vermont. And notably the revolutionary-era constitution in New Jersey permitted women the right to vote.  

Several important legal and jurisdictional issues were also shaped during the Revolutionary period. First, suffrage was defined as a constitutional issue: all of the early state constitutions except for Delaware treated the right to vote as a matter of fundamental, constitutional law, rather than normal statute law. Implicit here was an understanding that voting requirements should be durable and difficult to change; in an era of great legislative power, state lawmaking bodies were notably not entrusted with the power to tamper with the right to vote. The franchise could only be broadened or narrowed significantly through constitutional revision or amendment.