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freeholder. Technically any outright owner of land is a freeholder, but the most regular use of the word historically has been in the context of voting rights. Freeholders were those people who owned property worth 40 shillings (£2) a year and were thus entitled to vote in county elections, at least until the franchise extensions of the 19th cent. The ‘freeholder’ was thought of as an independent voter exercising his legal rights unconstrained by the lure of political parties or threats.

The link with landownership has also led to the term being used in conjunction with social status. Gregory King referred in his social table of 1688 to greater and lesser freeholders, and in this he was followed by later commentators such as Joseph Massie (1760) and Patrick Colquhoun (1804). Unfortunately, King was not clear what he meant by a freeholder. In his published work he seems to have followed Thomas Wilson in regarding a freeholder as, in effect, a yeoman, but in some of his unpublished estimates he seems to have wavered between including only those who qualified on tenurial grounds, and all of those who were freeholders by virtue of having the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This latter group was rather wider than genuine landed freeholders.

The difficulty both for contemporaries and for historians has been to find a term suitable for describing landowners below the ranks of the gentry (see also peasantry; yeomen). Freeholder has been used because it implies an individual who owned the land he worked, but as our knowledge of the complexity of tenure increases it is apparent that while the term had an effective currency in King's day, this was not so by the 19th cent. A ‘freeholder’ in the 19th cent. could be anyone who owned a small parcel of land, and the link with independent farming was increasingly detached, partly because so many freeholders were renting land to create a viable holding.

John Beckett


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FREEHOLDER. A freeholder is the owner of a land or estate, either for life or with inheritance rights. Tenure of land by giving service or paying rent is the common law equivalent of absolute ownership and became the prevailing system in the colonies. The colonial laws, influenced by the county franchise system of England and Wales, attached great importance to the possession of a freehold both for suffrage and officeholding. The democratic forces released by the American Revolution soon attacked such restrictions on the right to vote, and while the freeholder retained his privileged position in a few states until the Jacksonian era, universal suffrage became dominant in American politics.


Cantor, Norman F. Imagining the Law: Common Law and the Foundations of the American Legal System. New York: Harper-Collins, 1997.

Nelson, William Edward. Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachussetts Society, 1760–1830. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.

W. A.Robinson/a. e.

See alsoCharter of Liberties ; Feudalism ; Primogeniture ; Republicanism ; Suffrage, Colonial .

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