Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Universal Suffrage for Free People in New Jersey 1776-1807

                  At the time of the famous duel, women and blacks had the vote in New Jersey

The year 1807 was a very bad year for civil liberties in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was president, and he very nearly got passed a law to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. General James Wilkinson was on the rampage in New Orleans, establishing a de facto if not de jure state of Martial Law. Aaron Burr, once he was cleared of the charge of treason, was a penniless debtor, who would eventually be forced to flee the country in disgrace.  And in New Jersey, women and blacks lost the vote.

I bet that you didn't even know that women and blacks ever had the vote in any state of the Union prior to the Civil War! I bet you think that constitutional amendments on the Federal level were necessary for getting blacks and, later, women the vote. I bet they told you that in the civics class you took in high school. That is what certain "progressives" would like you to think. But back in early America, every state could decide for itself who was to have the right to vote in that state. In New Jersey, the qualification were as follows:

All inhabitants -- not all men, or all white men -- who were full age and owned property were allowed to vote. Now, it is true that married women did not own any property, because they were deemed to have given that over to their husbands, but all unmarried women who were of age and did own an estate worth fifty pounds were allowed to vote. And there was no racial designation for any of the inhabitants, so free blacks could vote.

How was New Jersey so forward thinking so early? Historians attribute it to the Quaker influence. The Society of Friends always believed that all people were equal. Among them, there were many women preachers and they had equal standing with men.

In order to vote in New Jersey, you had to be a free person and to own fifty pounds, to be over twenty-one and to have been a resident of the county in which you were voting for at least one year. That's it. No race or sex requirements. If anyone questioned your right to vote at the polls, here is the declaration you needed to be able to make:

Aaron Burr was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1756. After the death of his parents and grandparents, he went to live in Elizabeth (town) in 1760. He grew up steeped in the belief that women and blacks should have equal rights as they were endowed with souls and minds like anyone else. When we realize that everyone in the state where he was raised seemed to be of the same belief, Burr's feminist and egalitarian views do not appear so unusual.

However, the year 1807 was a year of general corruption and disharmony in the union, and one of the results was that after a fixed election full of voter fraud, the rights of women and blacks were taken away.

By general corruption throughout the land, the people in New Jersey suffered a great loss. This situation was never subsequently reversed, for when blacks and women came to have the vote under the Federal constitution, the idea that they should not be unfree, in debt or the dependent member of someone else's household was no longer remembered. Therefore, debtors were allowed to vote away the rights of creditors and dependents were able to vote against the rights of the people who supported them financially, and eventually employees got to vote away the rights of employers. This is a loss of rights that very few are willing to even mention today.

A woman or a black person today is expected to be thankful for the progressive influence, without which no rights could have been granted. But in fact women and blacks who are not in debt lost their advantage over women and blacks who are in debt to vote for fiscally responsible policies.

1807 was a very bad year in America.


  1. Women and minorities also later had the vote in western territories before becoming states, but I do feel there are amendments needed on the federal level to ensure that all people can vote. There are amendments to the Constitution passed later on that I think are good, but the amendment that I think is the most useless is number 27. I do not believe amendments that are proposed today are any less enlightened than back in 1791 when the first ten were officially added to the Constitution. Since the Republican party was created to abolish slavery I am not sure why anyone would be arguing that conservatives are against equality. I think there is a narrow group of conservatives who want their version of liberty passed, but there is also a narrow group of liberals who want their version of liberty pass. Actually, I am tired of political groups who seem to think only their agenda is right. Today's politics on the news is not enjoyable to watch. Growing up twenty years ago it was exciting to be civicly minded, and I knew a lot of high school kids who wanted to be pages on the House floor. With the discontinuation of that program and continued political bickering, do not Americans see they are turning the next generation off of politics, and open the door for groups who only think they are right?

    1. Thanks, Julia, for mentioning the western territories. If you would be interested in doing a guest blog post about that or writing an article for Historia Obscura on this topic, I would certainly welcome it.

      I don't believe that any amendment passed after the bill of rights was of the same caliber as those passed before, and most people agree that the 18th amendment, in 1920 was downright oppressive. The fact that we have the 18th and the 21st repealing it on record as part of our constitution does show that some amendments are very foolish indeed, and that the caliber of US voters has changed over the years from those who sought to give individuals freedom of choice to those who wanted to impose their values on others. At the time of its passage, the 18th amendment was considered "progressive."