In Whom is the Right of Suffrage?
"That these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independant"
Voting has always been a foundation of political life in America—but it has never been a wholly democratic process. Groups of disenfranchised Americans have fought for suffrage since the settlers landed at Jamestown.
Only six men—less than 6 percent of the population—participated in Jamestown’s first election in 1607. Although a marked departure from England’s political system, America’s early “democratic” practices were reserved for a privileged few. In 1619, the first legislative body in colonial America was formed in order to provide additional rights to landowning English white males aged sixteen and older. Although this move greatly extended voter rights, it also likely sparked the first labor strike on American soil. Polish artisans living in Jamestown, disenfranchised by this new government, appear to have organized in protest. Court documents from July 21, 1619, tell the story of the Polish workers fight for suffrage:
“Upon some dispute of the Polonians resident in Virginia, it was now agreed (notwithstanding any former order to the country) that they shallbe enfranchized, and made as free as any inhabitant there whatsoever: And because their skill in making pitch & tarr and soap-ashes shall not dye with them, it is agreed that some young men, shallbe put unto them to learne their skill & knowledge therein for the benefitt of the Country hereafter.”
Landownership served as the main barrier to suffrage for white males up through the American Revolution when the property requirement came under the scrutiny of our nation’s founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin famously argued against this practice with the following parable:
"Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"
Property restrictions for white men became increasingly rare in the nineteenth century, and by the 1850s, most white men had gained the right to vote regardless of their economic situation.