The Franchise

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The Franchise


Origins. In general, American colonial franchise structures were patterned after English precedents. The requirement of landholding, for example, known as the forty-shilling freehold, was of English origin. The reasoning behind landholding requirements was connected to the complementary British precedents of individual interest and state benefit. That is, the person voting had to have stake in the outcome of the election and had to be one whose personal stake would be dependent on the overall political health of the colony. The 1716 South Carolina voting regulation stated that It is necessary and reasonable, that none but such persons who have an interest in this Province should be capable to elect... members of the commons House of Assembly.

Residency. Although as cities grew and as time passed landholding requirements lessened, it was generally assumed that apart from landownership one did not have an interest in provincial elections. It should be added that not all provincial franchise structures were English. Residence requirement is a case in point. The strict residence requirements that eventually developed in most colonies did not derive from English origin. In fact, when colonies first began to make stricter residence rules, litigation and protests were forthcoming that stressed the practice as non-British. In New York and Virginia, if someone owned property in a county, regardless of his residence, he could vote in that county. Actually, he could vote in any number of counties in which he owned property. In 1737 a major dispute arose in New York City over an assembly race there. Adolph Philipse, a candidate for an assembly seat, funneled in outsiders to vote for him against his challenger, Cornelius Van Home. Van Home protested, but the assembly allowed the votes to remain, citing English precedent. In time, residence did become a requirement in several colonies, but the change was of local rather than British origin.

The Disenfranchised. Each colony had a different voting structure, but there are generalities that can be made. Voting was limited by citizenship, residence, and


The following table shows the relationship between large landholdings and government appointments in early Pennsylvania. It demonstrates the accommodation William Penn necessarily made from his original ideal to political reality.

OfficeName Land Purchased (Acres)Religion
Source: Gary B. Nash, The Framing of Gobent in Pennsylvama: Ideas in Contact with Reality, William and Mary Quarterly, 23 (1966): 183209.
Deputy GovernorWilliam Markham5,000Anglican
AssistantSilas Crispin5,000Quaker
Deputy GovernorThomas Holme5,000Quaker
Commissioners for Settling the ColonySilas Crispin5,000Quaker
 William Haige500Quaker
 Nathaniel Allen2,000Quaker
 John Bezar1,000Quaker
Keeper of the SealThomas Rudyard5,000Quaker
 Thomas Lloyd5,000Quaker
Master of the RollsThomas Rudyard5,000Quaker
 Thomas Lloyd5,000Quaker
Receiver-GeneralChristopher Taylor5,000Quaker
Receiver-General for the Lower CountiesThomas Holme5,000Quaker
Register-GeneralChristopher Taylor5,000Quaker
Secretary and Clerk of the CouncilRichard Ingelo500Quaker
 Nicholas More10,000Anglican
TreasurerRobert Turner6,000Quaker
Chief Justice of the CourtSilas Crispin5,000Quaker
 Nicholas More10,000Anglican
JudgesWilliam Welch Quaker
 William Wood2,500Quaker
 Robert Turner6,000Quaker
 John Eckley1,250Quaker
Attorney GeneralJohn White?Quaker
Commissioners of PropertyJames Claypoole10,000Quaker
 Robert Turner6,000Quaker
 Thomas Lloyd5,000Quaker
 Samuel Carpenter5,000Quaker
Proprietary SecretaryPhilip Lehnman1,000Quaker
Proprietary StewardJames Harrison5,000Quaker

age. In the British American colonies there were several additional limitations that considerably lessened the number who could vote. The most common limitation, and the one that excluded the most people, was gender. Regardless of a womans status or landholdings, she could not vote. John Adams well represents the thinking of the time. Their delicacy, Adams stated, renders them unfit for practice and experience in the great businesses of life, and... the arduous cares of state. Besides,... nature has made them fittest for domestic cares.

Dissenters. Ones religious affiliations also played a significant role in voting eligibility. Prior to 1689 one generally (there were exceptions such as in Rhode Island) had to belong to a respective colonys established church in order to vote. During this time Protestant dissenters such as Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists were usually barred from casting their ballots. With the Glorious Revolution many of the limitations on Protestant dissenter sects were dropped. But as restrictions eased on these, they intensified on Roman Catholics and Jews. As to Catholics, this is not surprising since the Glorious Revolution involved the defrocking of a Catholic king, James II. In every colony where a collective Catholic vote posed a possible influence on a political outcome, Catholics lost the right to vote. In 1718 Maryland, with the largest contingency of Catholics, disenfranchised them, fearing their vote would tend to the Discouragement and Disturbance of his Lordships Protestant government. Other colonies that disenfranchised Catholics were Virginia (1699), New York (1701), Rhode Island (1719), and South Carolina (1759). Many Jews also lost suffrage rights during this time. At least seven colonies excluded the Jewish franchise. Enforcement of the exclusion was often lax, especially in New York City after the mid eighteenth century. The colony most lauded as being based on religious freedom, Rhode Island, had and enforced the strictest disenfranchisement of Jews.

Blacks. Race was another determinant of suffrage rights in colonial America. Black slaves were not allowed to vote. The same, however, is not true for free blacks. Although there is no record of free blacks voting in Northern colonies, there were no official statutes prohibiting them. Evidently the cultural reality made prohibitive statutes unnecessary. In the Southern colonies, however, free blacks did vote. In early-eighteenth-century South Carolina (1703-1704), for instance, Berkeley County petitions stated that free Negroes were received and taken as good Electors as the best Freeholders in the Province. Similar participation was recorded in Virginia and North Carolina. South Carolina disenfranchised free blacks in 1716 and Virginia in 1723; North Carolina did for a period between 1715 and 1734, after which free black suffrage remained until the Revolution. In Georgia free blacks could vote prior to 1761.


Robert J. Dinkin, Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 16891776 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).

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The Franchise

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