In 1776, New Jersey’s new constitution defined voters as adult inhabitants who had lived in the state for a year and were “worth fifty pounds” or more. For women, this essentially meant the unmarried, since a woman’s property became her husband’s on marriage.
Other state constitutions drafted between 1776 and 1777 specified voters as “male person,” “male inhabitant,” “man,” “freeman,” “white male inhabitants,” and “free white man.” According to historians Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis—who wrote about this anomaly in early American suffrage back in 1992—New Jersey “stood at the cutting edge of the political continuum, and its laws represented the furthest reach of possibilities for female citizenship during the revolutionary period.”
Some historians have argued that New Jersey legislators rushed their wording into law without realizing its implications, but Klinghoffer and Elkis reject these claims. They trace the suffrage clause through three successive Provincial Congresses during the pivotal year of 1776, proving that legislators knew exactly what they were doing. Just as they did in 1807, when they restricted suffrage to adult white male taxpaying citizens.
The reason the legislators opened up suffrage: politics. Three successive political parties—the Patriots in 1776, the Federalists (a.k.a. the Junto) in 1789, and the Republicans in 1797—sought to gain control of the state’s politics in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and wanted more votes to do so:
The fierce political battles that preceded their successful takeover of the state’s political machinery forced them to draw new population segments, including women, into the political process in the hope of securing their future loyalty. Women, along with others, lost the franchise when the state’s ruling elite concluded that their vote represented a political liability rather than a political asset.
While detailing this history, Klinghoffer and Elkis note that Tories—those who supported the British Crown—were not allowed to vote, and that the Continental Congress did consider women to be persons when it came to committing the crime of treason.
The scholars argue that New Jersey’s legislators, like “their counterparts in other states and nations, believed not only that those who possessed the necessary property were entitled to representation, but also that the property qualification would prevent an overdemocratization of the voting process.”
But did many New Jersey women actually vote? Until recently, the evidence was scanty. But researchers at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, after much combing of archives around the state, found that this was the case.
When the pendulum reversed, Klinghoffer and Elkis point out, New Jersey wasn’t alone in restricting suffrage in the early years of the 1800s. A wave of other states rewrote their constitutions to deny suffrage to African Americans, aliens, and, in some cases, the poor. In New Jersey in 1807, the ruling “Republicans did what needed to be done to hold on to power.” Once they had wanted the votes of single woman of means. Now they longer did.
It would take a few more decades to include poor and working-class white men in the suffrage ranks. It would take more than century before women’s suffrage became the law of the land. It took even longer to guarantee voting rights to African Americans. Voting rights remain the focus of political struggles. The instrumentality of suffrage has been a fact of life of our democracy since its birth. Those in power may need suffrage expanded…or they may need it reduced.