Property Requirements for Voting in Virginia, 1670-1850

When voting began in the colonial period with elections to the first General Assembly in 1619, adult white men not working as an indentured servant could vote. As servants conpleted their term of indenture, they received their "freedom dues" (some clothing and food) and gained the right to move to a ne place, negotiate the price for their labor, and purchase land.

The former servants also acquired the right to vote for burgesses to serve in the General Assembly, and for the initial members of the vestry when a Church of England parish was created by the General Assembly.

Starting in the 1630's, a few families began to establish large landholdings and become the dominant political force in different counties. The large numbers of indentured servants who gained their freedom struggled to acquire parcels of land. England shipped convicts to provide labor and empty the jails, and those who survived their term of service also became free men.

As Virginia became a colony with concentrated wealth and great income inequality, the emerging landowning gentry feared the potential in the mid-1600's that former indentured servants without land would become the majority of the colony's population. If every free white adult male had the right to vote, then the majority could elect people to the House of Burgesses who would impose high taxes on property and "soak the rich."

Wealth was tied to production of tobacco. Production of tobacco was tied to control of land, and control over enough indentured servants/slaves to grow the tobacco. Grants of land were controlled by the governor, his Council, and favored members of the House of Burgesses. To preserve their wealth and status, the few families who gained control over land and the political process designed a system where a large number of poor, landless freemen in a county could *not* control the vote.

In 1670, Governor William Berkeley restricted the right to vote to white males who owned enough property to pay local taxes. The property could be land, or a lease for land that was long enough to require paying property taxes.

The 1670 requirement was Virginia's first mass disfranchisement, the first time the right to vote was withdrawn from a major percentage of the electorate. Governor Berkeley had not dissolved the General Assembly since the 1661 election, so the new restriction had limited impact. It would be applied first in elections to replace members of the House of Burgesses from individual counties, after death or resignation.

The governor's objective was to exclude from voting those freemen who had completed their term of indenture, but had not acquired land to start their own farm. Those former servants had so little investment to protect by good governance that they showed:1

little interest in the country... [and did] make tumults at the election to the disturbance of his majesties peace.

Governor Berkeley was a royalist with a strong personal desire to increase his own wealth and status. He was concious of being in the "upper class," and not motivated to broaden the democratic process and provide more-equal opportunity. His priorities were to maintain a stable society that steered wealth to an elite few, and his restriction on the electorate in 1670 was to block the ability of poor farmers to elect burgesses who might oppose Berkeley's initiatives.

Nonetheless, there is a counter-argument that setting a threshold of property ownership, before allowing someone to vote, could have increased public accountability in the mid-1600's.

At the time, indentured servants who served their time often stayed with their former owner. They farmed for wages, or a percentage of the crop, until acquiring enough assets to move to the edge of settlement and finally purchase land there.

Those landless farmers, just like the indentured servants and the slaves, were dependent upon the landowner. The voting process was public; there was no secret ballot in colonial Virginia elections. If men without property could vote, then the dominant landowner might reward/punish them based on how they announced their decisions.

Freemen who owned land were more independent, financially, from the gentry. A minimum property threshold to vote limited the ability of a landowner to control a block of votes, by excluding primarily people forced to vote as directed by the dominant landowner. Establishing a property requirement before allowing a white male to vote certainly excluded the poor and thus limited who could participate in the decision process, but the property requirement also could have restrained oligarchy control.

Acccording to one school of thought, the minimum property requirement could have enhanced the democratic process. Restricting the electorate reduced the ability of a few powerful men in some counties to dominate elections for the House of Burgesses, by excluding dependent voters from the electorate.

Governor Berkeley chose to restrict the franchise when the frustrations of the poor white males were growing. High taxes approved by the General Assembly after 1660 were perceived as being wasted. Those taxes subsidized the already-wealthy gentry that the governor appointed to various offices. The appointees gained an additional salary for each office and the governor gained political support in the House of Burgesses and his Council from the emerging "First Families of Virginia," but the taxpayers saw no benefits.

Perhaps most significantly, the ability for the former servants to acquire land in 1670 was difficult. Settlers who moved into the backcountry along the Fall Line and north of the Rappahannock River felt threatened by the bands of Native American hunters.

Instead of forcing Native American groups to leave their land so new farmers could occupy it, the governor negotiated deals with Native Americans for trading furs. Settlers sensed that frontier security was secondary to keeping the peace despite raids by Native Americans, so the governor could get even richer from the fur trade.

In response, the General Assembly funded construction of forts for protection. The backcountry settlers saw fixed fortifications as useless for military purposes. There was resentment that the contracts to build the forts served primarily to give the genry another financial subsidy, at the expense of the small farmers paying the taxes.

Governor Berkeley attempted to generate popular support by calling an election in 1676 for a new House of Burgesses. It was the first time he had dissolved the General Assembly and allowed every county to elect new burgesses since 1661. The election was intended to re-establish the legitimacy of the colonial government, and the governor dropped the property requirement for voting that he had imposed in 1670 so all free white adult males could vote.

Holding an election with a broadened franchise was not a sufficient response to offset the built-up frustrations. A few opportunistic members of the gentry, including William Byrd II, organized disgruntled groups and Virginia experienced its first civil war in 1676. An "army" led by Nathaniel Bacon raided and looted homes of the wealthy, burned Jamestown, and forced the governor to flee to the Eastern Shore.

Bacon's Rebellion ended soon after Nathaniel Bacon died from disease. Troops from England arrived, Governor Berkeley was recalled, and commisioners sent by King Charles II restored order.

The king sent instructions to void many of the laws passed by the 1676 meeting of the General Assembly, which had been pressured by Bacon's rebels to rebalance opportunities to gain and retain wealth across class lines. One law passed by those burgesses had eliminated the minimum property requirement for voting. However, King Charles II specifically directed that a property requirement be adopted for future elections to the House of Burgesses.

It took eight years for the General Assembly to formally comply. In 1684, it finally passed a law to restrict the franchise as directed by the king.2

The threshold of minimum property required to vote was altered, but not eliminated, for another 175 years after Bacon's Rebellon. The discrimination against the poor continued even after the American Revolution.

The Fifth Virginia Convention that adopted the first state constitution in 1776 simply maintained the existing rights to vote. The leaders who declared independence from Great Britain did not expand the electorate when convertig the colony into an independent state, and did not increase the ability of the poor to participate in the democratic process of voting.3

Virginia's first constitution, adopted in 1776, ended British authority and reshaped the structure of government - but did not alter who had the right to vote
Virginia's first constitution, adopted in 1776, ended British authority and reshaped the structure of government - but did not alter who had the right to vote
Source: Library of Virginia, First Virginia Constitution, June 29, 1776

The property requirement exacerbated sectional tensions in the 1800's. The population patterns in Virginia changed substantially, but the boundaries of the 24 electoral districts created for election of State Senators were not updated. As a result, the Tidewater retained political power that exceeded its percentage of the population.

The property requirement discriminated against the small farmers, many of who lived west of the Blue Ridge. One third of the white men living in Virginia could not vote.4

If they gained control of the General Assembly, they could raise property taxes on slaves. Since slaves were concentrated east of the Blue Ridge, such a tax increase would impact the Tidewater and Piedmont disproportionally.

During the 1829 constitutional convention, representatives elected from east of the Blue Ridge retained political control. They blocked reapportionment of the electoral districts, and maintained a property requirement for voters. A detailed description was added to clarify what was considered suffcient control of property worth $25, to determine if a "white male citizen of the Commonwealth, resident therein, aged twentyone years and upwards" also met the minimum established for voting.5

By 1849, continued population growth in the west again forced the eastern leaders to authorize a convention to prepare Virginia's third constitution. The property requirement first established in 1670 was finally dropped completely in the constitution which was approved by voters in 1850 and went in effect starting in 1851.

Virginia's 1850 constitution dropped the requirement that voters had to own $25 worth of property
Virginia's 1850 constitution dropped the requirement that voters had to own $25 worth of property
Source: For Virginians - Government Matters, Virginia Constitution, 1851

Voting in Colonial Virginia

Voting in Modern Virginia

Disfranchisement in Virginia

Disfranchising Convicted Felons and Restoring Their Right to Vote

What Happens If the Vote Ends In a Tie?

Links

Virginia's 1830 constitution defined how to calculate if a voter owned $25 worth of property
Virginia's 1830 constitution defined how to calculate if a voter owned $25 worth of property
Source: For Virginians - Government Matters, Virginia Constitution, 1830

References

1. "Election of burgesses by whome (1670)," Encyclopedia Virginia, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_Election_of_burgesses_by_whome_1670 (last checked December 25, 2017)
2. "Election of burgesses by whome (1670)," Encyclopedia Virginia, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_Election_of_burgesses_by_whome_1670; Albert Edward McKinley, The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies in America, University of Pennsylvania, 1905, pp.33-34, https://books.google.com/books?id=6h0TAAAAYAAJ (last checked December 26, 2017)
3. "Constitution of Virginia, 1776," For Virginians: Government Matters, http://vagovernmentmatters.org/archive/files/vaconstitution1776_0366e939fc.pdf (last checked December 25, 2017)
4. Peter Wallenstein, Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History, University Press of Kansas, 2007, https://books.google.com/books/about/Cradle_of_America.html?id=mGd5AAAAMAAJ (last checked December 26, 2017)
5. Virginia General Assembly, "Virginia Constitution, 1830," in Virginia Civics, Item #518, http://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/518 (last checked December 27, 2017)


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