James Madison Papers

Suffrage Qualifications for Electing the House of Representatives, [7 August] 1787

Suffrage Qualifications for Electing
the House of Representatives

[7 August 1787]

The Committee of Detail report provided that the qualifications for voting in the election of the House of Representatives should be the same as for the largest branch of a state legislature.

Mr. Madison. The right of suffrage is certainly one of the fundamental articles of republican Government, and ought not to be left to be regulated by the Legislature. A gradual abridgment of this right has been the mode in which Aristocracies have been built on the ruins of popular forms. Whether the Constitutional qualification ought to be a freehold, would with him depend much on the probable reception such a change would meet with in States where the right was now exercised by every description of people. In several of the States a freehold was now the qualification. Viewing the subject in its merits alone, the freeholders of the Country would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty. In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of, property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation: in which case, the rights of property & the public liberty, will not be secure in their hands: or which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence & ambition, in which case there will be equal danger on another side. The example of England had been misconceived (by Col Mason). A very small proportion of the Representatives are there chosen by freeholders.1 The greatest part are chosen by the Cities & boroughs, in many of which the qualification of suffrage is as low as it is in any one of the U.S. and it was in the boroughs & Cities rather than the Counties, that bribery most prevailed, & the influence of the Crown on elections was most dangerously exerted.2

Ms (DLC).

1Gouverneur Morris had moved to limit the suffrage for congressional elections to freeholders. Mason had implied that the limitation of voting rights to freeholders was a holdover from the prevailing English practice, which he thought too narrow. In fact, since 1430 the minimum voting qualification for a rural Englishman was a freehold of real estate yielding forty shillings in annual income, but in boroughs eligibility ranged widely. Sometimes a voting male who had paid his taxes through “scot and lot” (church and poor rates) was eligible, and at other times and places every male resident voted “if he had control of a separate doorway to his dwelling, if he could provide his own sustenance, and if he had a fireplace at which to cook his meals” (George S. Veitch, The Genesis of Parliamentary Reform [Hamden, Conn., 1965], pp. 4–5). A 1780 report to the Westminster Association estimated that 92 county members were elected by 130,000 voters, compared to 421 members chosen from cities, towns, and universities by 84,000 voters (ibid., p. 2).

2King’s version:

“Madison—I am in favr. of the rigt. of Election being confind. to Freeholders—we are not governed by British Attachments—because the Knights of Shires are elected by Freeholders, but the Members from the Cities & Boroughs are elected by persons qualified by as small property as in any country and wholly without Freeholds—where is the Corruption in England: where is the Crown Influence seen—in the Cities & Boroughs & not in the Counties” (Farrand, Records description begins Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols.; New Haven, 1911–37). description ends , II, 208).

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