Sedition·com (mature content)
History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY · The New Democracy Enters the Arena·»

The Democratic Movement in the East

The Aristocratic Features of the Old Order.—The Revolutionary fathers, in setting up their first state constitutions, although they often spoke of government as founded on the consent of the governed, did not think that consistency required giving the vote to all adult males. On the contrary they looked upon property owners as the only safe “depositary” of political power. They went back to the colonial tradition that related taxation and representation. This, they argued, was not only just but a safeguard against the “excesses of democracy.”

In carrying their theory into execution they placed taxpaying or property qualifications on the right to vote. Broadly speaking, these limitations fell into three classes. Three states, Pennsylvania (1776), New Hampshire (1784), and Georgia (1798), gave the ballot to all who paid taxes, without reference to the value of their property. Three, Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode Island, clung firmly to the ancient principles that only freeholders could be intrusted with electoral rights. Still other states, while closely restricting the suffrage, accepted the ownership of other things as well as land in fulfillment of the requirements. In Massachusetts, for instance, the vote was granted to all men who held land yielding an annual income of three pounds or possessed other property worth sixty pounds.

The electors thus enfranchised, numerous as they were, owing to the wide distribution of land, often suffered from a very onerous disability. In many states they were able to vote only for persons of wealth because heavy property qualifications were imposed on public officers. In New Hampshire, the governor had to be worth five hundred pounds, one-half in land; in Massachusetts, one thousand pounds, all freehold; in Maryland, five thousand pounds, one thousand of which was freehold; in North Carolina, one thousand pounds freehold; and in South Carolina, ten thousand pounds freehold. A state senator in Massachusetts had to be the owner of a freehold worth three hundred pounds or personal property worth six hundred pounds; in New Jersey, one thousand pounds’ worth of property; in North Carolina, three hundred acres of land; in South Carolina, two thousand pounds freehold. For members of the lower house of the legislature lower qualifications were required.

In most of the states the suffrage or office holding or both were further restricted by religious provisions. No single sect was powerful enough to dominate after the Revolution, but, for the most part, Catholics and Jews were either disfranchised or excluded from office. North Carolina and Georgia denied the ballot to any one who was not a Protestant. Delaware withheld it from all who did not believe in the Trinity and the inspiration of the Scriptures. Massachusetts and Maryland limited it to Christians. Virginia and New York, advanced for their day, made no discrimination in government on account of religious opinion.

The Defense of the Old Order.—It must not be supposed that property qualifications were thoughtlessly imposed at the outset or considered of little consequence in practice. In the beginning they were viewed as fundamental. As towns grew in size and the number of landless citizens increased, the restrictions were defended with even more vigor. In Massachusetts, the great Webster upheld the rights of property in government, saying: “It is entirely just that property should have its due weight and consideration in political arrangements.... The disastrous revolutions which the world has witnessed, those political thunderstorms and earthquakes which have shaken the pillars of society to their deepest foundations, have been revolutions against property.” In Pennsylvania, a leader in local affairs cried out against a plan to remove the taxpaying limitation on the suffrage: “What does the delegate propose? To place the vicious vagrant, the wandering Arabs, the Tartar hordes of our large cities on the level with the virtuous and good man?” In Virginia, Jefferson himself had first believed in property qualifications and had feared with genuine alarm the “mobs of the great cities.” It was near the end of the eighteenth century before he accepted the idea of manhood suffrage. Even then he was unable to convince the constitution-makers of his own state. “It is not an idle chimera of the brain,” urged one of them, “that the possession of land furnishes the strongest evidence of permanent, common interest with, and attachment to, the community.... It is upon this foundation I wish to place the right of suffrage. This is the best general standard which can be resorted to for the purpose of determining whether the persons to be invested with the right of suffrage are such persons as could be, consistently with the safety and well-being of the community, intrusted with the exercise of that right.”

Attacks on the Restricted Suffrage.—The changing circumstances of American life, however, soon challenged the rule of those with property. Prominent among the new forces were the rising mercantile and business interests. Where the freehold qualification was applied, business men who did not own land were deprived of the vote and excluded from office. In New York, for example, the most illiterate farmer who had one hundred pounds’ worth of land could vote for state senator and governor, while the landless banker or merchant could not. It is not surprising, therefore, to find business men taking the lead in breaking down freehold limitations on the suffrage. The professional classes also were interested in removing the barriers which excluded many of them from public affairs. It was a schoolmaster, Thomas Dorr, who led the popular uprising in Rhode Island which brought the exclusive rule by freeholders to an end.

In addition to the business and professional classes, the mechanics of the towns showed a growing hostility to a system of government that generally barred them from voting or holding office. Though not numerous, they had early begun to exercise an influence on the course of public affairs. They had led the riots against the Stamp Act, overturned King George’s statue, and “crammed stamps down the throats of collectors.” When the state constitutions were framed they took a lively interest, particularly in New York City and Philadelphia. In June, 1776, the “mechanicks in union” in New York protested against putting the new state constitution into effect without their approval, declaring that the right to vote on the acceptance or rejection of a fundamental law “is the birthright of every man to whatever state he may belong.” Though their petition was rejected, their spirit remained. When, a few years later, the federal Constitution was being framed, the mechanics watched the process with deep concern; they knew that one of its main objects was to promote trade and commerce, affecting directly their daily bread. During the struggle over ratification, they passed resolutions approving its provisions and they often joined in parades organized to stir up sentiment for the Constitution, even though they could not vote for members of the state conventions and so express their will directly. After the organization of trade unions they collided with the courts of law and thus became interested in the election of judges and lawmakers.

Those who attacked the old system of class rule found a strong moral support in the Declaration of Independence. Was it not said that all men are created equal? Whoever runs may read. Was it not declared that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed? That doctrine was applied with effect to George III and seemed appropriate for use against the privileged classes of Massachusetts or Virginia. “How do the principles thus proclaimed,” asked the non-freeholders of Richmond, in petitioning for the ballot, “accord with the existing regulation of the suffrage? A regulation which, instead of the equality nature ordains, creates an odious distinction between members of the same community … and vests in a favored class, not in consideration of their public services but of their private possessions, the highest of all privileges.”

Abolition of Property Qualifications.—By many minor victories rather than by any spectacular triumphs did the advocates of manhood suffrage carry the day. Slight gains were made even during the Revolution or shortly afterward. In Pennsylvania, the mechanics, by taking an active part in the contest over the Constitution of 1776, were able to force the qualification down to the payment of a small tax. Vermont came into the union in 1792 without any property restrictions. In the same year Delaware gave the vote to all men who paid taxes. Maryland, reckoned one of the most conservative of states, embarked on the experiment of manhood suffrage in 1809; and nine years later, Connecticut, equally conservative, decided that all taxpayers were worthy of the ballot.

Five states, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, remained obdurate while these changes were going on around them; finally they had to yield themselves. The last struggle in Massachusetts took place in the constitutional convention of 1820. There Webster, in the prime of his manhood, and John Adams, in the closing years of his old age, alike protested against such radical innovations as manhood suffrage. Their protests were futile. The property test was abolished and a small tax-paying qualification was substituted. New York surrendered the next year and, after trying some minor restrictions for five years, went completely over to white manhood suffrage in 1826. Rhode Island clung to her freehold qualification through thirty years of agitation. Then Dorr’s Rebellion, almost culminating in bloodshed, brought about a reform in 1843 which introduced a slight tax-paying qualification as an alternative to the freehold. Virginia and North Carolina were still unconvinced. The former refused to abandon ownership of land as the test for political rights until 1850 and the latter until 1856. Although religious discriminations and property qualifications for office holders were sometimes retained after the establishment of manhood suffrage, they were usually abolished along with the monopoly of government enjoyed by property owners and taxpayers.

Thomas Dorr Arousing His Followers
Thomas Dorr Arousing His Followers

At the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the white male industrial workers and the mechanics of the Northern cities, at least, could lay aside the petition for the ballot and enjoy with the free farmer a voice in the government of their common country. “Universal democracy,” sighed Carlyle, who was widely read in the United States, “whatever we may think of it has declared itself the inevitable fact of the days in which we live; and he who has any chance to instruct or lead in these days must begin by admitting that … Where no government is wanted, save that of the parish constable, as in America with its boundless soil, every man being able to find work and recompense for himself, democracy may subsist; not elsewhere.” Amid the grave misgivings of the first generation of statesmen, America was committed to the great adventure, in the populous towns of the East as well as in the forests and fields of the West.

«·JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY · The New Democracy Enters the Arena·»