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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Voting in Colonial America

Not only is 2020 an election year, it is also the 100th anniversary U.S. women winning the right to vote. In recognition of this milestone, I will be writing a series of blogs on the history of the vote. This is the first one.

In 1607, the first permanent English colony in North America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia. From that time on, voting rights have been all over the map – literally.

As the colonies were established, common English beliefs about race, gender, judgement, wealth, religion, and property ownership influenced who was considered eligible to vote. There was much variability across time and place. These beliefs did not manifest as universal suffrage in any of the colonies. In some places, free blacks, Native Americans and/or women who owned property could vote, but these were the exceptions.

“Bacon’s Rebellion” resulted in far-reaching and long-lasting changes in the social order and enfranchisement. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of disgruntled frontiersmen, indentured servants, free blacks and enslaved people in a revolt against the colonial governor, Sir William Berkeley. Bacon alleged that the governor was corrupt and protected the Indians for his own benefit 
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After chasing Berkley from Jamestown, and eventually burning the Virginia colonial capitol, forces sent from England ultimately suppressed the rebellion.

The government was put under stronger royal control. Property requirements for voting were restored. Indentured servitude was eliminated, while hardening the codes for African slavery and restricting the rights of free blacks. This was done in an effort to divide the races and prevent coalitions that could lead to future uprisings. Within a few decades, all colonies had enacted similar laws preventing enslaved persons and free blacks from voting.  

 Colonies with large Protestant majorities often denied the vote to Catholics and Jews. After 70 years of the Maryland Toleration Act requiring religious tolerance, Maryland barred Catholics from voting in 1718. Nearly three decades later, in 1737, the New York General Assembly disenfranchised Jews. At that time, four colonies prevented Jews and five prevented Catholics from voting.  

By 1732, each of the 13 colonies had imposed some type of restrictions requiring voters to be landowners, taxpayers, and/or men who owned a substantial amount of personal property.

Voters in colonial times often had to travel long distances to a courthouse or other polling place, which meant incurring expenses for food and lodging while losing time from earning their livings. Presumably, this discouraged turnout, especially of rural voters. However, election days became social occasions in many places. Amidst much eating and drinking, the qualified voters would gather and designate their preferences by standing or voice votes, making each person’s choices public. Some colonies published lists showing how each person had voted.

More formal voting procedures were enacted in some colonies. Charles S. Sydnor described Virginia’s practices in his book, Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington's Virginia, this way:
 As each freeholder came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote. The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference. The appropriate clerk then wrote down the voter's name, the sheriff announced it as enrolled, and often the candidate for whom he had voted arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.

Initially only a few colonies used some form of ballot, but over time, secret paper ballots replaced public voting.

To be continued in my February blog.

Ann Markim

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  1. What a fascinating and informative article! Voter suppression in Colonial America! I thought I was familiar with American History, but reading this is an eye-opener! To me, it serves to underscore how men in power have employed, and continue to employ devious and divisive methods to pit people against one another! Their greatest fear is people uniting for a common cause: Abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, an end to segregation, to name a few. I fear we, as a Nation, have grown too complacent, too comfortable in our “economic prosperity,” with our smart phones, our tablets, our busy lives. Being “too busy” to vote, or “it’s not convenient,” or “my vote doesn’t matter,” abdicates our power to change what we know is wrong and to make our Country better!

    1. Thank you for you comment and insight. I hope everyone will make voting a priority this November.

  2. So many people have no concept of this history. Thank you for reminding us. It is important. Doris

  3. How shocking these early practices of voter discrimination were, but it seems there are still problems with voter discrimination today.
    Thank you for this piece of colonial history. It certainly helps with my own pre-American Revolution research. This was such a fascinating blog.
    I wish you great success with THE LEGACY. All the best to your corner of the universe, Ann!

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Sarah. My February blog will go through the rest of the pre-revolutionary period up to the early years of the nineteenth century.

  4. Wonderful article. The past was most certainly NOT fair or democratic. So very interesting to me as we were only given an overview of American history in Scotland, but so much of the very early history is related to what went on over here. Thanks for posting.

  5. Thank you for your comments. As I was researching this topic, I began to feel that I had learned only a sanitized overview of the period in my U.S. schools.