Only the Privileged Vote

An American voting booth.

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.

Thomas Fairfax (1693-1781)

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.

The poll list from the 1744 election for the House of Burgesses from Fairfax County. Samuel Harris is listed 17th below Colville and 5th below Ellzey. (Click to enlarge)

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!

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6 Responses to Only the Privileged Vote

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    The right to vote, it seems, falls into the same category as most other things in life. We’re willing to work — and even fight — for it. But often, once we acquire something, it loses its value. Excellent post, Kevin.

    • I guess that dynamic is what causes the cycles of history. We work hard for rights and privileges. Our descendants take them for granted and eventually lose them. Then eventually someone comes along who rediscovers them and leads a new generation to take hold of them.

      As I have aged, I’ve been struck by how tenuous our hold is on so many things that I thought were basic to our humanity. It makes those periods of history that were less human make more sense.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. I couldn’t agree more! And I’m so impressed that you know your seven-times great-grandfather. Wow.

    My kids are 3 and 4 years old, and even still, we take them to the polls with us for every election. It’s so fun, and I like to believe that they take a little piece of it home with them. Last year we brought them in our little red wagon, and they were so excited. We went at night (always a treat for them to be out after dark), and waited in line with all these other grown-ups. They were the only kids, and as such, everyone was smiling at them, and happy, it was great.

    Then, I took our daughter and my husband took our son and we each went to our own booths, and filled out the polls. It was one of the ones that you color in with a pencil. My son was able to color in the little dots, and I bet my daughter will be able to this year.

    It’s just so important, and you are right, such a privilege — I want my little ones to grow up with a respect for this country, and a respect for their own voices. Great post!

    • I think it’s really great that you get your kids involved. My wife and I always talk about the election–and the ideas and people behind it–with our kids. This year, they are actually proactively discussing it with us, because there’s an important school levy on the ballot and the school system is mobilizing the kids to get the levy passed.

      Our kids have always been interested in our voting, especially because my wife and I don’t always agree. I remember in the last presidential election, they kept saying “so, mom, who are you voting for?”…”so, dad, did you know mom’s voting for…”

      The first time I voted, I had the privilege of voting for my own father–to help elect him to the position of school board member. I think it’s great when families can share in the political process together.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Priya says:

    Kevin, why was it important for people to own a certain amount of land to be able to vote? I was watching a movie the other day on the history of Hawaii, where this same fact was mentioned, and I found myself wondering the same thing. Was it because people assumed that if you owned land, you’d be interested in the goings on, you think?

    Voting is a privilege and a responsibility. In our country, we are advised to see it as the latter, primarily because it is our duty to send the best to govern our land. Unfortunately, the best never stand for the elections!

    • I think the primary idea behind the land requirement for voting was that anyone with land would have a vested interest in what was going on. I think there was also a sense that anyone who owned land was from a higher class and was more capable of taking part in the political process.

      America became more truly democratic as time passed, but in the beginning (and even in the time of our founding fathers and the Revolution), there was a strong belief that only the “better men” were able to make the correct, enlightened judgments that would best lead the villages, towns, and colonies.

      That sense of class structure took a long time to overcome. But today, almost anyone can vote and take part in the political process that governs our country.

      I myself think of voting as a responsibility. It is our civic duty to take part in the process and do our best to assure good governance of our country.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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