An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States/Chapter IV

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Chapter IV
Property Safeguard in the Election of Delegates[edit]

Under the protection afforded by these outward signs of regularity, the leaders in the movement for the new Constitution set to work in their respective legislatures to secure the choice of delegates prepared to take the heroic measures which the circumstances demanded. The zealous and dynamic element, of course, was favored by the inertness, ignorance, and indifference of the masses, and the confidence of the legislatures in their ability to exercise the ultimate control through the ratifying power. No special popular elections were called to complicate the problem of securing the right kind of a Convention and the leaders were confronted with the comparatively simple task of convincing the legislatures of the advisability of sending delegates. Naturally the most strenuous and interested advocates of change came forward as candidates.

The resolution of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation calling for the Convention provided that the delegates should be "appointed by the states." The actual selection was made in each case by the legislature, both houses participating, except in Georgia and Pennsylvania, which had unicameral assemblies. That is, the delegates to the federal Convention were selected in the same fashion as were United States Senators under the present Constitution, in all states, previous to the adoption of the principle of direct election. This fact in itself removed the choice of delegates one degree from the electorate.

A further safeguard against the injection of too much popular feeling into the choice of delegates to the convention was afforded by the property qualifications generally placed on voters and members of the legislatures by the state constitutions and laws in force in 1787.[1] In order to ascertain the precise character of the defence afforded to property by this barrier to universal manhood suffrage, it is necessary to inquire in detail into the qualifications then imposed.[2]

The New Hampshire constitution of 1784 was in force when the call for the election of delegates came. It provided that "no person shall be capable of being elected a senator who is not of the Protestant religion, and seized of a freehold estate in his own right of the value of two hundred pounds."[3] Members of the lower house were required to " possess an estate of the value of one hundred pounds, one, half of which to be a freehold." The suffrage was widely extended, for freeholders, tax payers, and even those who paid a poll tax could vote. Massachusetts conferred the suffrage upon all males possessing a freehold estate of the annual income of three pounds, or any estate of the value of sixty pounds. A senator was required to be " seized in his own right of a freehold within this commonwealth, of the value of three hundred pounds at least, or possessed of a personal estate of the value of six hundred pounds at least, or of both to the amount of the same sum." Every member of the house of representatives was required to be "seized in his own right of a free hold of the value of one hundred pounds, within the town he shall be chosen to represent, or any rateable estate to the value of two hundred pounds; and he shall cease to represent the said town immediately on his ceasing to be qualified as aforesaid."

Like the neighboring state of Rhode Island, which sent no delegates to Philadelphia, Connecticut had continued after the Revolution under the old royal charter form of government without taking the trouble to draft a constitution. Under this old system, the suffrage was restricted to holders of real or personal property of a certain value. According to McKinley, "The forty-shilling freehold, translated later into seven dollars income from land, was retained as one of the alternative qualifications of the suffrage until the amendment in 1845 of the constitution of 1818."[4] The alternative qualification here spoken of was the ownership of forty pounds' worth of personal property, which was established in 1702 and remained until after the Revolution. The Connecticut Register of the time thus quaintly describes the franchise: "The qualifications for freemen are that they be at least twenty-one years of age, possessed of freehold estate to the value of 40s. per ann. or £40 personal estate in the general list of estates in that year wherein they desire to be admitted Freemen; or are possessed of estate as aforesaid and by law excused from putting it into the list; and being of quiet and peaceable behaviour."[5]

New York gave a special position to the rights of property in the senate. Senators were required to be freeholders, and were chosen by freeholders "possessed of freeholds of the value of one hundred pounds." With regard to the of voter for members of the lower house, it was stipulated that "he shall have been a freeholder, possessing a freehold of the value of twenty pounds within said county, or have rented a tenement therein of the yearly value of forty to shillings, and been rated and actually paid taxes to this be state." An exception to this rule conferred the suffrage on all who were freemen in Albany, and in New York City, on or before October 14, 1775.

These qualifications worked an extensive disfranchisement in New York. "The census of 1790 shows that out of a population of thirty thousand [in New York City], there were but 1,209 freeholders of £100 valuation or over; 1,221 of £20, and 2,661 'forty-shilling' freeholders. Property interests - something like a landed aristocracy - controlled municipal elections."[6] Some notion of the extent to which the adult males would have voted if permitted, is afforded by the elections of 1788, at which members of the state ratifying convention were chosen under the universal manhood suffrage rule,[7] and members of the assembly were chosen under the regular property qualifications.

For example, Richard Harrison received 2677 votes as member of the convention, and 1500 votes as member of the state assembly.[8] In Albany County the vote for members of the assembly ran about 1600 under that for members of the convention.[9] It looks as if one could safely guess that about one-third more voters would have been active participants in elections if they had not been shut out b the prevailing property qualifications in New York.

New Jersey had a legislature of two houses, a council and a general assembly. Every member of the former had to be a freeholder and " worth at least one thousand pound proclamation money, or real and personal estate within the same county;" and every member of the latter body was required to possess at least half as much in real and personal property. As for the suffrage, the constitution provided " that all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money clear estate in the same. ..shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly."

The Delaware constitution of 1776 provided that members of both branches of the legislature should be chosen from among the freeholders of the county, and that " the right of suffrage in the election of members for both houses shall remain as exercised by law at present." The election law which then governed the suffrage in Delaware was the act of 1734 which enfranchised freeholders owning "fifty acres of land, with twelve acres cleared and improved, or otherwise worth £40 lawful money."[10]

The first constitution of Pennsylvania established in 1776 was the work of a radical party, and it provided for a single chambered legislature based on a widely extended suffrage. "Every freeman of the full age of twenty-one years," runs the instrument, "having resided in this state for the space of one whole year. ..and paid public taxes during that time, shall enjoy the right of an elector: Provided always that sons of freeholders of the age of twenty-one years shall be entitled to vote although they have not paid taxes."[11]

In Maryland a distinction was made between town and county in the choice of delegates to the lower house of the state legislature. Generally every freeman "having a freehold of fifty acres of land," or " having property in this state above the value of thirty pounds current money " could vote in the county in which he resided for members of the house of delegates. All persons qualified by the charter of Annapolis to vote for burgesses could vote for delegates from that city; and in Baltimore persons "having the same qualifications as electors in the county" could vote he for delegates. County delegates in the state legislature in were required to possess "real or personal property above the value of five hundred pounds current money." The senators were chosen indirectly by electors selected by the qualified voters for delegates. These senatorial electors of were to possess the qualifications of delegates, and senators themselves had to possess "real and personal property above the value of one thousand pounds current money."

The Virginia constitution of 1776 stipulated that members of both houses of the legislature must be " freeholders or duly qualified according to law;" and added that "the right of suffrage in the election of members of both houses shall remain as exercised at present." Under this provision, persons owning twenty-five acres of improved land or fifty acres of unimproved land were admitted to the suffrage, " together with certain artisans residing in Norfolk and Williamsburg."[12]

At the time of choosing delegates to the Convention, North Carolina was under the constitution of 1776, which prescribed property qualifications for members of the legislature and for voters as well. Each member of the senate was required to possess "not less than three hundred acres of land in fee," and each member of the lower house "not less than one hundred acres of land in fee or for the term of his own life." A freehold qualification of fifty acres of land was required of voters for senators, and the suffrage for voters for members of the lower house was extended to all freemen who paid "public taxes.” In the towns entitled to representation the possession of a freehold or the payment of a public tax qualified for voting in the election of members of the lower house.

The legislature of South Carolina, that chose the representatives of that state to the Philadelphia Convention, was elected under the constitution of 1778 which prescribed high property qualifications.[13] "No person who resides in the parish for which he is elected shall take his seat in the senate, unless he possess a settled estate and freehold in his own right in the said parish or district of the value of two thousand pounds currency at least, clear of debt." Non-resident senators were required to be the holders of such an estate worth at least seven thousand pounds, clear of debt. The member of the lower house was required to possess an estate and slaves or realty worth one thousand pounds,[14] while each non-resident member of that house had to own a freehold estate worth at least three thousand five hundred pounds, clear of debt. The suffrage was restricted to persons owning fifty acres, or a town lot, or paying taxes equivalent to the taxes on fifty acres of land.

In 1787, the Georgia legislature consisted of one chamber, under the constitution of 1777, which stipulated that members of the house of representatives "Shall be of the Protestant religion, and of the age of twenty-one years, and shall be possessed in their own rights of two hundred and not fifty acres of land or some property to the amount of two hundred and fifty pounds." The suffrage was widely extended to every white male having in his own right property "of ten pounds value and liable to pay tax " or " being of any to mechanic trade."

From this review it is apparent that a majority of the states placed direct property qualifications on the voters, on and the other states eliminated practically all who were not taxpayers. Special safeguards for property were secured in the qualifications imposed on members of the legislatures as in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Further safeguards were added by the qualifications imposed in the case of senators in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

While these qualifications operated to exclude a large portion of the adult males from participating in elections, the wide distribution of real property created an extensive electorate and in most rural regions gave the legislatures a broad popular basis.[15] Far from rendering to personal property that defence which was necessary to the full realization of its rights, these qualifications for electors admitted to the suffrage its most dangerous antagonists: the small farmers and many of the debtors who were the most active in all attempts to depreciate personalty by legislation. Madison with his usual acumen saw the inadequacy of such defence and pointed out in the Convention that the really serious assaults on property (having in mind of course, personalty) had come from the " freeholders."[16]

Nevertheless, in the election of delegates to the Convention, the representatives of personalty in the legislature were able by the sheer weight of their combined intelligence and economic power to secure delegates from the urban centres or allied with their interests. Happily for them, all legislatures which they had to convince had not been elected on the issue of choosing delegates to a national Convention: and did not come from a populace stirred up on that question.[17] The call for the Convention went forth on February 2, 1787, from Congress, and within a few months all the legislatures, except that of Rhode Island, had responded. Thus the heated popular discussion usually incident to such momentous political undertaking was largely avoided, an, an orderly and temperate procedure in the selection delegates was rendered possible.


  1. On the suffrage and elections in general in the eighteenth century, see the state constitutions in the well-known collections of Poore and Thorpe; A.E. McKinley, The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies; Paullin's "The First Elections under the Constitution," Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. II; Jameson, ., Did the Fathers Vote," New England Magazine, January, 1890; Thorpe, Constitutional History of the American People; S.H. Miller, '.Legal Qualifications for Office;' American Historical Association Report (1899), Vol. I; F.A. Cleveland, Growth of Democracy; C. F. Bishop, History of Elections in the American Colonies; see below, Chap. IX.
  2. The data on the constitutions here given are taken from Thorpe's collection, Charters, Constitutions, etc.
  3. Senators were apportioned among the respective districts on the basis of public taxes paid by the said districts.
  4. The Suffrage Franchise in the English Colonies, p. 414.
  5. Greene's Register for the State of Connecticut, for the Year 1786, p. 4.
  6. Magazine of American History, April, 1893, p. 311.
  7. See below, p. 241.
  8. New York Journal, June 5, 1788.
  9. Ibid.
  10. McKinley, The Suffrage Franchise in the English Colonies, p. 270.
  11. Tench Coxe fixes the number of "taxables" in Pennsylvania at 39,765 in 1770 and 91,177 in 1793. A View of the United States, p. 413.
  12. Ambler, Sectionalism in Virginia, p. 29, note 11; for details see McKinley, op. cit., pp. 40 ff.
  13. Schaper, "Sectionalism in South Carolina," American Historical Association Report (1900), Vol. I, p. 368.
  14. Statutes at Large (S.C.), Vol. IV, p. 93.
  15. See below, p. 242.
  16. Ibid., p. 167.
  17. Some of the states selected delegates before Congress issued the call. Bancroft op. cit., vol. I, pp. 269 ff.