Voting Reform: White Manhood Suffrage

The democratic ideal that every individual should have an equal voice in government was not completely reflected in the practice of the early United States. When the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, all of the original 13 states had economic qualifications that excluded poorer citizens from voting. The Constitution left the question of who should have suffrage, or the right to vote, to the states. Clamor grew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for expansion of the suffrage to all adult white males, regardless of economic status.

White Manhood Suffrage: Pros and Cons: Among the American champions of property qualifications was founding father Benjamin Franklin, who declared, “as to those who have not landed property, the allowing them to vote is an impropriety.” On the other side, the advocates of white manhood suffrage marshalled arguments of their own.

Arguments for Property Qualifications:

  • Property owners had a bigger stake in the community than their un-propertied neighbors, and therefore had a better claim to suffrage.
  • Property owners were usually better educated and better suited to making decisions.
  • Property owners were more likely to be moderate in their judgments, avoiding the rash, potentially catastrophic decisions the desperate poor might make.
  • Property owners, with their independent means, were less prone to corruption and manipulation by candidates promising rewards.

Arguments Against Property Qualifications:

  • In accord with the principles of the American Revolution, even un-propertied people should not be taxed without the right to vote for representatives.
  • As the Declaration of Independence (1776) stated, “all men are created equal”; therefore all men have an equal right to vote.
  • The legitimate wish to confine the franchise to community stakeholders and mentally and morally fit people could be addressed through other restrictions, such as residency requirements and exclusion of criminals and the mentally ill.
  • With states competing for scarce laborers, people would flock to states where they could vote rather than states where they could not.
  • In frontier states, land titles were often insecure, so it was hard to establish property qualifications. Also, social mobility was high, so today’s pauper could be a person of means tomorrow.
  • With sentiment increasing for white manhood suffrage, politicians could not win election without supporting that sentiment.

Source: Voting Reform: White Manhood Suffrage
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