Page images

Yet they have taken a lead in our political affairs; are the most strenuous supporters of state rights, and seem most to regard the sovereignty of the people. There is nothing that can be urged in favor of perseverance in a practice so insulting to the dignity of human nature a practice as intolerant as any of the acts passed by the parliament of Great Britain, which united America resisted "taxation without representation," which should be resisted by every honorable man.

But Maryland and Virginia, though they agree in principle as to the formation of their legislative and executive authorities, are on the opposite extremes as to the way in which that principle shall be brought into action. In the former, every man may vote who has (or says that he has) resided in the state or county such a length of time, if a citizen; and, as in Baltimore, where the places for voting are adjacent, he may vote half a dozen times or more (if he is determined to carry his point), as many have done; for we have nothing that partakes of even the character of a registration of voters not anything to serve as a check upon the unprincipled; and he who can gain the most of such to his side has the best chance of being elected, when a brisk opposition exists and the passions are excited. On the other hand, none but freeholders vote in Virginia, and none but freeholders ought to fight or pay taxes. But, be the requisition to possess the right of suffrage what it may, it should be so guarded that it cannot be abused and the voter, in one county or district, ought to have the same influence as a voter in another. And even if a regard to population is waived, and respect is had to wealth only, — the counties should be represented according to the several amounts which they pay into the state treasury, either by direct or indirect taxation. "Equality is equity, conformity is justice," - and there cannot be either equity or justice, when neither population or wealth, severally or jointly, are regarded in a delegation of the power to make laws. All laws so made are repugnant to all the principles that appertain to the rights of man.


irregularities with regard to the


How nonfreeholders are shut

out of all political life.

33. An Appeal for the Right to Vote

Although the Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776 declared that "all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people," the Constitution framed at the same time restricted the suffrage to freeholders, and when a new constitutional convention met in 1829, a lengthy memorial from non-freeholders asking for the ballot was laid before the body. This document illustrates the spirit of the wider democracy that sprang up early in the nineteenth century.

The Memorial of the Non-Freeholders of the City of Richmond respectfully addressed to the Convention, now assembled to deliberate on amendments to the State Constitution, 1829.

Your memorialists, as their designation imports, belong to that class of citizens, who, not having the good fortune to possess a certain portion of land, are, for that cause only, debarred from the enjoyment of the right of suffrage. Experience has but too clearly evinced, what, indeed, reason had always foretold, by how frail a tenure they hold every other right, who are denied this, the highest prerogative of freemen. The want of it has afforded both the pretext and the means of excluding the entire class, to which your memorialists belong, from all participation in the recent election of the body they now respectfully address. Comprising a very large part, probably a majority of male citizens of mature age, they have been passed by, like aliens or slaves, as if destitute of interest, or unworthy of a voice, in measures involving their future political destiny; whilst the freeholders, sole possessors, under the existing Constitution, of the elective franchise, have, upon the strength of that possession alone, asserted and maintained in themselves, the exclusive power of new-modelling the fundamental laws of the State: in other words, have seized upon the sovereign authority. . . .

To that privilege [of the suffrage], they respectfully contend, they are entitled equally with its present possessors. Many are bold enough to deny their title. None can show a better. It

for the

rests upon no subtle or abstruse reasoning; but upon grounds Grounds simple in their character, intelligible to the plainest capacity, and demand such as appeal to the heart, as well as the understanding, of all for the who comprehend and duly appreciate the principles of free Gov- suffrage. ernment. Among the doctrines inculcated in the great charter handed down to us, as a declaration of the rights pertaining to the good people of Virginia and their posterity, "as the basis and foundation of Government," we are taught,

from the


Bill of



"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have Extract certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity: namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people. That a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish the Government. That no man, nor set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges, but in consideration of public services.

That all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to the community, have a right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed, or deprived of their property, without due consent, or that of their representative, nor bound by any law, to which they have not, in like manner, assented, for the public good."



to the

principles of equality.

How do the principles thus proclaimed, accord with the exist- Restricted ing regulation of suffrage? A regulation, which, instead of the equality nature ordains, creates an odious distinction between members of the same community; robs of all share, in the enactment of the laws, a large portion of the citizens, bound by them, and whose blood and treasure are pledged to maintain them, and vests in a favored class, not in consideration of their public services, but of their private possessions, the highest of all privileges; one which, as is now in flagrant proof, if it does not constitute, at least is held practically to confer, absolute sovereignty.

34. An Argument against Popular Suffrage (1829) *

When the proposition to establish white male suffrage came before the Virginia convention, Mr. Trezvant opposed the inno

A radical change incurs a risk of great


Most people are satisfied with

things as they are.

The extent of the

change to be effected by the new law.

vation with the following arguments, and in his position he was sustained by a large number of his colleagues. The radical proposal was therefore defeated, but a concession was made to the democratic element by a slight extension of the suffrage.

What is the question under consideration? The object of the amendment is to abolish the present modification of the Right of Suffrage, and to substitute in its place, one entirely new to us. When a people undertake to make a change in their political institutions, affecting the foundation of Government, it behoves them to proceed with the utmost caution and circumspection. We should recollect that we are about to introduce an experiment which is to operate upon the affections, prejudices, and longestablished habits of the community, and the consequences cannot be distinctly foreseen or foretold. A numerous population, falling not much short of a million, cannot at once throw off their old usages and customs, and accommodate themselves to an entirely new order of things, radically different from that under which they have lived in peace and tranquillity, without incurring the risk of many and great evils.

This Government has existed for more than fifty years, and under it, the people have enjoyed happiness and contentment. There are, it is true, occasional clamors arising from local causes and prejudices, and not from any real defects in the form of Government; and I hope this amendment will not be adopted to allay such complaints. In that part of the State in which I reside I have not heard of any serious complaint touching the Right of Suffrage. The people there, in this respect, at least, are satisfied; why then adopt this new qualification of the Right of Suffrage, which in my poor opinion, would put to hazard the best interests of the country, and even endanger the liberties of the people?

We are called upon to substitute for the Freehold Suffrage, that which, if it be not Universal Suffrage, falls but little short of it. It is proposed that those who are twenty-one years of age, who bear arms, and have resided twelve months in the county in which they propose to vote, should have this right, and the adoption of

the principle amounts in effect, to what I call Universal Suffrage. I was told by one gentleman, (to the correctness of whose statistics I do not, however, feel myself bound to subscribe), that the adoption of this measure would add to the number of voters in the State more than 60,000, the present number being somewhat more than 40,000. Thus, the power of the Government is to be transferred from the hands of the 40,000, who have the deepest interest at stake, to the 60,000, who have comparatively but little interest.


possession of land

evidence of


in the


It is no idle chimera of the brain, that the possession of land furnishes the strongest evidence of permanent, common interest with, and attachment to, the community. Much has been already the best said by gentlemen on both sides, demonstrating the powerful influence of local attachment upon the conduct of man, and I cannot interest be made to comprehend how that passion could be more effectually brought into action, than by a consciousness of the fact, that he is the owner of the spot which he can emphatically call his home. It is upon this foundation I wish to place the Right of Suffrage. This is the best general standard which can be resorted to for the purpose of determining whether the persons to be invested with the Right of Suffrage are such persons as could be, consistently with the safety and well-being of the community, entrusted with the exercise of that right.

35. The Doctrine of Rotation in Office

Among the first principles of Jacksonian democracy was the doctrine that all public officers should be elected for short terms and their reëligibility carefully restricted, so that "an office-holding aristocracy" could not be created. In the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837, Mr. Earle summed up the arguments in favor of a short tenure of office.


unfits the

What is the reason that we place any limitation at all upon the Long term of office? I would ask for reasons why we should ever turn a good man out of office? Is it because the officer has accumulated officer for wealth, and has arrived at a period of life, when retirement and


his duties.

« PreviousContinue »