August 7th: The “Freeholder” Debate

After having paused for about a month while the Committee of Detail composed a draft of the Constitution itself, the Representatives returned on August 6th to consider this draft. August 6th consisted of little more than reading the draft. On August 7th, they took up a more robust debate about the details of the new Constitution. Among other things debated that day, the question of who would have the right to vote in national elections arose. Gouverneur Morris, whose instincts had always seemed ahead of his time, made the controversial and seemingly outdated suggestion to “restrain the right of suffrage to freeholders.” That is, Morris suggested that only the propertied should have the right to vote in national elections. In the first place, several of them replied to this suggestion with the obvious problem that some of the states already allowed non-freeholders to vote. As James Wilson said: “It would be very hard & disagreeable for the same persons at the same time, to vote for representatives in the State Legislature and to be excluded from a vote for those in the Natl. Legislature.” Oliver Elseworth said: “The people will not readily subscribe to the Natl. Constitution if it should subject them to be disfranchised. The States are the best Judges of the circumstances & temper of their own people.” Several of them repeated this sentiment regarding the disconnect between a national Constitution that restricted the vote and state Constitutions that had already expanded it.

Those who argued against the restriction concentrated on the prudential question as to whether the people would accept it. Those who argued for it now advanced a couple of arguments worth at least considering, even though they sound so strange to our ears. Oddly enough, for Morris, the decisive problem with extending the vote beyond “freeholders” was that it would lean us toward aristocracy, if not in name at least in fact:

The sound of Aristocracy therefore had no effect on him. It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed, and one of his principal objections to the Constitution as it is now before us, is that it threatens this Country with an Aristocracy. The aristocracy will grow out of the House of Representatives. Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics & manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure & faithful Guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier agst. aristocracy? -He was as little duped by the association of the words “taxation & Representation.” The man who does not give his vote freely is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote. Children do not vote. Why? because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant & the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest. He did not conceive the difficulty of defining “freeholders” to be insuperable. Still less that the restriction could be unpopular. 9/10 of the people are at present freeholders and these will certainly be pleased with it. As to Merchts. &c. if they have wealth & value the right they can acquire it. If not they don’t deserve it.

Although this argument sounds outdated and bizarre to us, it’s worth noting the extent to which we now complain of the power of the rich in our politics and thus that we’re leaning towards a kind of “aristocracy.” Why are the rich so powerful in our politics? Morris’s argument here suggests that those who don’t own property will often find themselves duped by rich men who promise them things that they don’t have the means and thus prudence to judge properly. They vote for the rich because they “receive their bread from their employers.” If we take this claim metaphorically rather than literally, we might say that the landless public has insufficient freedom actually to judge the promises that rich people make to them.

I wouldn’t go so far as to now suggest that we restrict the right to vote solely to the propertied. There are good reasons for the expansion of the vote. But, as we think about why the rich are so empowered in the United States, Morris’s argument should give us some things on which to reflect.

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