George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 1 December 1768]

Decr. 1. Went to the Election of Burgesses for this County, & was there, with Colo. West chosen. Stayd all Night to a Ball wch. I had given.

The election, held at the county courthouse in Alexandria, had been called by the new governor, Lord Botetourt. White adult males who owned a minimal amount of real property were allowed to vote. This property restriction satisfied two convictions long held in English tradition: only a man who owned property would be free from being influenced at the polls by an employer or landlord, and those who held property held the interests of the society at heart. Free Negroes and mulattoes, whether they owned property or not, lost their franchise in Virginia in 1723 (hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends , 4:133). Although many women in colonial Virginia owned real property in their own right (Martha Custis, for instance, while she was a widow), their sex barred them from the polls.

In accordance with the English belief that secrecy bred corruption, all voting was done in public. The election proceedings were the responsibility of the county sheriff. As the clerks (one provided by each candidate) sat together at a table, each voter would step forward and announce his two choices, which were then marked down by the clerks on their respective poll sheets. As each vote was given and recorded, the candidate chosen would often thank the voter, and toward the end of a close election, when every vote would elicit a round of cheering, the crowd sometimes got rather unruly. During the voting in the 1755 Fairfax County burgess poll, GW got into a violent argument over the candidacy of his friend George William Fairfax (freeman description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 2:146).

In this election GW and Col. John West were standing for reelection. A third candidate was GW’s neighbor and fox-hunting companion Capt. John Posey, who was trying for the second time to unseat West, possibly because West’s nephew, John West, Jr., was pressing Posey over an inheritance left to Posey’s wife by her first husband, George Harrison, who was John West, Jr.’s uncle. The final poll this day was: GW, 185; John West, 142; John Posey, 81. GW spent about £25 on his election, including cakes and drink (unspecified) and £1 each for his clerk, John Orr, and his “fidler [at] the ball” (freeman description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 2:146, 3:141; Posey to GW, 25 May 1771, DLC:GW; ledger a description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 1, 1750-72, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 281, 287; hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends , 4:476, 7:518). For detailed descriptions of elections in colonial Virginia, see sydnor description begins Charles S. Sydnor. American Revolutionaries in the Making: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia. 1952. Reprint. New York, 1965. description ends .

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