The right to vote is something that we Americans increasingly take for granted. Today pretty much anyone over the age of 18 can go to the polls and select their governmental leaders–from school board members to judges to mayors, governors and national officeholders.
America’s vast democratic freedom is touted around the world as a unique system where all have input into governmental process. It’s hard to imagine that it could be any other way. But universal suffrage hasn’t always been a given.
Before the American Revolution, the colonies were governed by Britain and followed British customs and rules. In England in the 17th and 18th centuries, only adult males who owned a certain amount of property had the opportunity to give input into the political process.
The first representative body in America met in July of 1619 and was called the House of Burgesses. This assembly was able to make laws that governed the colony, even though they could be vetoed by the governor, the council or the directors of the Virginia Company back in England.
As the population of Virginia grew, new counties were created and the size of the House of Burgesses grew. In 1742, Fairfax County was formed out of the northern portion of Prince William County. It was named after Thomas Fairfax, the only member of the British nobility who actually lived in Virginia and personally oversaw his enormous property holdings.
Fairfax County included land along the Potomac River, most notably the plantation called Mount Vernon owned by Lawrence Washington. When an election was held in 1744 to choose two members of the House of Burgesses to represent Fairfax County, Captain Lawrence Washington (step-brother and mentor to future President George Washington) ran against Colonel John Colville, Captain Lewis Ellzey and John Sturman.
My seven-times-great grandfather, Samuel Harris, had purchased a 640-acre parcel of land from Thomas Fairfax in 1742. Samuel’s land lay along the north fork of the Beaverdam Branch of Goose Creek, which fell in the new county of Fairfax.
In the poll list for the election for the House of Burgesses from Fairfax County of 1744, Samuel Harris, Sr. is listed as voting for Colonel John Colville and Captain Lewis Ellzey.
Samuel’s choices are interesting, particularly because Lord Fairfax chose Colville and Washington (both of whom actually won the election). Samuel’s selections were also different than men who were clearly his friends. Amos Janney, a fellow Quaker who surveyed the lands that Samuel bought and other land transactions that Samuel witnessed, chose Washington and Ellzey. Jacob Janney, who was named temporary overseer of the local Quaker meeting along with Samuel in 1745, also voted for Washington and Ellzey. Thomas John, another fellow Quaker whose daughter Mary was married to Samuel’s son Samuel, selected Colville and Washington.
One more notable fact about the poll list from 1744 is that Samuel’s son William, my six-times-great grandfather who had purchased 670 acres next to Samuel’s in 1742, is not listed. I wonder why he didn’t vote.
Samuel Harris and his friends got to vote because they were adult males who owned land. They were the privileged.
In the elections coming up one week from today, all United States citizens over the age of 18 will have the privilege of voting. Get out and exercise your right to vote–be one of the privileged!