The Founding Fathers vs. the “Dangerous Influence of Those Multitudes Without Property”

Hi. Following up on my article The True Purpose of the US Senate

The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 are full of interesting information. Let’s read some of the commentary on the discussion concerning Article 4:

The legislative Power of the United States shall be vested in two (Branches a Senate and a House of Representatives;) each of which Bodies shall have a Negative on the other

The Members of the House of Representatives shall be chosen biennially by the People of the United States in the following Manner. 

Every Freeman of the Age of twenty one Years (having a freehold Estate within the United States) who has (having) resided in the United States for the Space of one whole Year immediately preceding the Day of Election, and has a Freehold Estate in at least fifty Acres of Land

Now that we understand the term “Freeholder”, lets dive into some very interesting conversations.

Madison’s Notes, Tuesday, August 7, 1787:

“Art IV. Sect. 1. taken up.”

[Article IV, Sect. 1. “The members of the House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year, by the people of the several States comprehended within this Union. The qualifications of the electors shall be the same, from time to time, as those of the electors in the several States, of the most numerous branch of their own legislatures.”]

Mr. Govr. Morris moved to strike out the last member of the section 〈beginning with the words〉 “qualifications” of Electors.” in order that some other provision might be substituted which wd. restrain the right of suffrage to freeholders.

Mr. Elseworth. thought the qualifications of the electors stood on the most proper footing. The right of suffrage was a tender point, and strongly guarded by most of the 〈State〉 Constitutions. The people will not readily subscribe to the Natl. Constitution, if it should subject them to be disfranchised. The States are the best Judges of the circumstances and temper of their own people.

Mr. Dickenson. had a very different idea of the tendency of vesting the right of suffrage in the freeholders of the Country. He considered them as the best guardians of liberty; And the restriction of the right to them as a necessary defence agst. the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property & without principle, with which our Country like all others, will in time abound. As to the unpopularity of the innovation it was in his opinion chemirical. The great mass of our Citizens is composed at this time of freeholders, and will be pleased with it.

Mr. Govr. Morris. He had long learned not to be the dupe of words. The sound of Aristocracy therefore, had no effect on him. It was the thing, not the name, to which he was opposed, and one of his principal objections to the Constitution as it is now before us, is that it threatens this Country with an Aristocracy. The aristocracy will grow out of the House of Representatives. Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them. We should not confine our attention to the present moment. The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics & manufacturers who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure & faithful Guardians of liberty? Will they be the impregnable barrier agst. aristocracy? — He was as little duped by the association of the words, “taxation & Representation” — The man who does not give his vote freely is not represented. It is the man who dictates the vote. Children do not vote. Why? because they want prudence. because they have no will of their own. The ignorant & the dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest. He did not conceive the difficulty of defining “freeholders” to be insuperable. Still less that the restriction could be unpopular. 9/10 of the people are at present freeholders and these will certainly be pleased with it. As to Merchts. &c. if they have wealth & value the right they can acquire it. If not they don’t deserve it.

Col. Mason. We all feel too strongly the remains of antient prejudices, and view things too much through a British Medium. A Freehold is the qualification in England, & hence it is imagined to be the only proper one. The true idea in his opinion was that every man having evidence of attachment to & permanent common interest with the Society ought to share in all its rights & privileges. Was this qualification restrained to freeholders? Does no other kind of property but land evidence a common interest in the proprietor? does nothing besides property mark a permanent attachment. Ought the merchant, the monied man, the parent of a number of children whose fortunes are to be pursued in their own 〈Country〉, to be viewed as suspicious characters, and unworthy to be trusted with the common rights of their fellow Citizens.

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 has been misconceived (by Col Mason). A very small proportion of the Representatives are there chosen by freeholders. 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.

And just for fun, here is are King’s Notes from the same Tuesday, August 7, 1787 meeting confirming Madison’t notes:

4. Art. — S. 1 — c. The clause of Qualifications of Electors — G. Morris proposed to strike out the Clause — and to leave it to the Legislature to establish the Qualifications of Electors & Elected — or to add a Clause that the Legislat. may hereafter alter the Qualifications —

Dickenson — It is said yr. restraining by ye Constitution the rights of Election to Freeholders, is a step towards aristocracy — is this true, No. — we are safe by trusting the owners of the soil — the Owners of the Country — it will not be unpopular — because the Freeholders are the most numerous at this Time — The Danger to Free Governments has not been from Freeholders, but those who are not Freeholders — there is no Danger — because our Laws favor the Division of property — The Freehold will be parcelled among all the worthy men in the State — The Merchants & Mechanicks are safe — They may become Freeholders besides they are represented in ye State Legislatures, which elect the Senate of the US — Elsuorth — Why confine Elections to Freeholders — The rule is this — he who pays and is governed ought to have a right to vote — there is no justice in supposing that Virtue & Talents, are confined to Freeholders

G. Morris — I disregard sounds — I am not alarmed with the word Aristocracy — but I dread the thing — I will oppose it — and for that reason I think I shall oppose this Constitution, because I think this constitution establishes an Aristocracy — there can be no Aristocracy if the Freeholders are Electors — but there will be, when a great & rich man shall bring his indigent Dependents to vote in Elections — if you don’t establish a qualification of property, you will have an Aristocracy — Confing. ye. Electn. to Freeholders will not be unpopular because 9/10th of the Inhabs. are Freeholders

Mason — I think every person of full age and who can give evidence of a common Interest with the community shd. be an Elector — under this definition has a Freeholder alone ys. [208] common Interest —? I think the Father of a Family has this interest — his Children will remain — this is a natural Interest — a Farm & other property is an artificial interest — we are governed by our prejudices in favr. of Engd — there a Twig, a Turf is the Elector —

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 —

I think you get the picture. The founding fathers are not fans of the popular vote. Instead, they are much more interested in the protection of property.

A year later, on October 15, 1788, Madison goes on to write to remark on Jefferson’s draft of a Constitution:

Electors. The first question arising here is how far property ought to be made a qualification. There is a middle way to be taken which corresponds at once with the theory of free government and the lessons of experience. A freehold or equivalent of a certain value may be annexed to the right of voting for Senators, and the right left more at large in the election of the other House. Examples of this distinction may be found in the Constitutions of several States, particularly if I mistake not, of North Carolina and New York. This middle mode reconciles and secures the two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons, and the rights of property. The former will be sufficiently guarded by one branch, the latter more particularly by the other. Give all power to property; and the indigent will be oppressed. Give it to the latter and the effect may be transposed. Give a defensive share to each and each will be secure. The necessity of thus guarding the rights of property was for obvious reasons unattended to in the commencement of the Revolution. In all the Governments which were considered as beacons to republican patriots and lawgivers, the rights of persons were subjected to those of property.

It is well understood that interest leads to injustice as well when the opportunity is presented to bodies of men, as to individuals; to an interested majority in a republic, as to the interested minority of any other form of Government. The time to guard against this danger is at the first forming of the Constitution, and in the present state of population when the bulk of the people have a sufficient interest in possession or in prospect to be attached to the rights of property, without being insufficiently attached to the rights of persons. Liberty not less than justice pleads for the policy here recommended.

In the end, Section 4 of the Constitution did not specify a qualification for voting for Senator and Representatives. Instead, it left the “times, places and manner of holding elections” to the State. We all know how that turned out 🙂

Suffice to say that at the time of the first Presidential election in 1789, only 6% of the population – white, male property owners – was eligible to vote.

FYI – The people did not get to vote for Senators till the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

Thanks for reading,


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