Who could vote in colonial Virginia?

In List of Voters for Elections of Burgesses, 1764-1769, author Marian Dodson Chiarito quotes from Henning’s Statutes at Large, Vol. 7, 1756-1763: Eligible voters were those “… who hath an estate of freehold … in at least fifty acres of land, if no settlement be made upon it, or twenty five acres, with a plantation and house thereon, at least twelve feet square….”

Those who couldn’t vote: “… no feme, sole or covet, infant under the age of twenty-one, recusant, convict or any person convicted in Great Britain or Ireland, during the time for which he is transported, nor any free negro, mulatto or Indian, although such persons be freeholders….” [Note: A “feme sole” refers to a married woman acting as a single woman. A “recusant” means a former Catholic.]

A person had to have legal title for a year before he could qualify to vote unless “… such lands or tenements came to such person within that time by descent, marriage, marriage settlement or devise.”

Although we often say people came to America to “be free,” to “own their own land,” and to “practice their religion freely,” that certainly wasn’t the case in colonial Virginia. Voting was restricted to white males who owned land free and clear. Besides excluding women — half the population —  this meant male indentured servants couldn’t vote since they owned no land during their time of indenture. Blacks and Native Americans, even if they owned land, were ineligible. Catholics or even former Catholics couldn’t vote, either. During this time, voting in Virginia was restricted to white male Protestants (mainly Anglicans and Presbyterians) wealthy enough to own land.


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