Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Jefferson, hypocrite?

This is a note on Jefferson's private feelings and public actions on property qualifications for voting in 1776. We have seen in one of his letters that Jefferson had no particular preference for a property requirement for voting (link). But it turns out that the draft constitution he suggested for the new state in 1776 retained a property requirement. He also submitted a bill while in the Virginia legislature that retained the property qualification.

So, what gives? How do you square his private opinion with his public actions? I think three things explain it. First, he proposed property qualifications that were far lower than most other legislators wanted, and his wouldn't have restricted the vote only to the truly rich. Second, he was passing several reform bills that were considered radical at the time: on religious freedom, a reformed criminal code, state education system, etc. I think he realized what he could pass and what he could not. Third, he also attempted to pass a bill that ensured required Virginia to provide every white male adult with enough land to meet the requirement. So, even though his proposal retained the requirement, the goal was that everyone would be able to vote.

But the notion that all the founders wanted to restrict the vote to only the wealthy dies hard Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, (p 179) assumes it, and assumes that the legislation Jefferson introduced indicates his true opinion. More on this topic when Votinglinks gets to the 'social context of democracy' section of Grassroots Founders.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, NY, Vintage 1999.

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