From our earliest colonial times, society expected freeholders, those self-sufficient men, to participate in government. At a minimum that meant voting for local, colonial/state, and federal officials. Only those with a will of their own, those independent men who did not rely on anyone else for their sustenance, were thought capable of self-government.
The Framers were concerned with a voting franchise that in time would extend to the shiftless and angry masses. Those who work and pay taxes resent voting by those who don’t work, and don’t pay taxes. In recent decades is the added insult of the untaxed voting ever-more government benefits for themselves.
Our Framers wrestled with the question, “Who or what institution should set the qualifications of electors to the House of Representatives?” Like today, late 18th century America was very diverse. Should the Constitution set a nation-wide standard, or is the matter best left to the states?
On August 7th 1787, delegates to the Philadelphia Convention took up Article IV of the Committee of Detail report:
Gouverneur Morris (PA) motioned to restrict the franchise to freeholders, real estate property owners.
James Wilson, also a delegate from PA, believed the Committee of Detail arrived at the best alternative. Why was a uniform rule important? It wasn’t. Avoid unnecessary innovations. It would be very hard and disagreeable for the same person at the same time to vote for reps to his state legislature, and be excluded from a vote for those in the national legislature.
Several delegates chimed in. Oliver Elseworth (CN) said, “The people will not readily subscribe to a national Constitution that disenfranchises them.” George Mason noted that eight or nine states had already extended the suffrage beyond freeholders. Limiting the vote to freeholders was a British concept suited perhaps to subjects, but not to republican citizens. It is best to leave the power to alter qualifications with the states; it would be dangerous to leave this power in the hands of the national legislature.
Pierce Butler of SC agreed. The abridgement of voting in Holland led to an open aristocracy.
Delaware delegate John Dickinson agreed with Morris. Vesting the right of suffrage to freeholders was the best guardian of liberty. It was the best defense against future multitudes without property and without principles. He dismissed as chimerical, any unpopularity with this innovation. Since the great mass of citizens held real estate, they will be pleased with it.
With a view to a future America, Mr. Elseworth asked what of the emerging wealthy merchants and manufacturers? What of those who bear a full share of the public tax burdens? Taxation and representation ought to go together.
To Gouverneur Morris, an aristocratic House was certain if the property-less had the vote. They will readily sell their votes to the wealthy. The country will soon abound with mechanics and manufacturers who receive their daily bread from their employers. Employers will dictate the vote of the ignorant and dependent. Children and women do not vote because they have no will of their own. He didn’t believe defining ‘freeholders’ to be insuperable. Probably nine in ten Americans own land. Merchants and professionals who at present do not own land may easily acquire it.
George Mason thought everyone felt the remains of ancient prejudices and viewed things often through a British lens. A freehold is the qualification in England; it is imagined to be the only proper one. The true idea in his opinion was that every man having evidence of attachment to, and a permanent common interest in, the civil society ought to share in all its rights and privileges. Was this qualification limited to freeholders? Does no other kind of property but land evidence a common interest in the owner? Does nothing besides property mark a permanent attachment? Ought the merchant, the monied man, the parent of many children whose fortunes are to be pursued in his own country, to be viewed as suspicious characters, and unworthy to be trusted with the common rights of their fellow citizens?
If left to the discretion of legislatures, James Madison (VA) feared they would, in time, slowly restrict the franchise and establish an aristocracy. On the other hand, he believed the Convention should gauge the likely reception of a Constitution which restricted voting to freeholders in states where every description of people exercises the franchise.
Benjamin Franklin thought it of great consequence to not depress the virtue and public spirit of our common people; of which they displayed a great deal during the war. He related the honorable refusal of captured American sailors to redeem themselves from misery by enlisting in the Royal Navy. He contrasted their patriotism with a contemporary instance in which British seamen made prisoners by the Americans, readily entered on the ships of the latter on being promised a share of the prizes that might be made from their own country. This proceeded he said from the different way the common people were treated in America and Great Britain. He did not think that the elected had any right in any case to narrow the privileges of the electors. The sons of a substantial farmer, not being themselves freeholders, would not be pleased at being disfranchised, and there are a great many persons of the description.
On Gouverneur Morris’ motion to restrict congressional electors to freeholders:
New Hampshire no.
North Carolina no.
South Carolina no.
Georgia not present.
What emerged as Article I § 2 in the Constitution was a deep bow to federalism, of the recognition that the several state societies had long traditions regarding the franchise. Also, why jeopardize ratification? A restrictive republic-wide standard would serve as a handy club for the Anti-Federalists. The federal convention had an aristocratic feel; its delegates were the leading illustrious men of the states, and all were sworn to secrecy. Howls and accusations of a planned aristocracy were certain if they established a national voter standard.
This dualism of federal representatives, of being creatures of a nationwide Constitution, yet simultaneously subject to electors whose qualifications were set by the states, endured in modified form until a series of Scotus decisions in the 1950s.1 The upending of Southern Society from the shock of war, poverty, and three Constitutional amendments, transformed property into citizens and forever altered the federal to state governing relationship.
Delegates to the 1787 Convention found that a uniform, nationwide rule of voter qualifications was unimportant and possibly harmful. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, social justice judges eventually curtailed Article I § 2 into near-irrelevancy. In the next two posts, we’ll look at how Scotus corrupted the 14th Amendment, and set the stage for the tumult of today’s hyper-race conscious elections.
We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Government is the playground of politicians, but the Constitution is ours. Be proactive. Restore the American Tradition. Join Convention of States.
1. Amendments XIII-XV, XIX limited the states’ Article 1 § 2 authority to set voter qualifications.