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An Act for the Prevention of Undue Election of Burgesses,” 1699, in William Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislation in the Year 1619 (Richmond, 1809-1823), 3:172, reprinted in Carol Berkin and Leslie Horowitz, eds., Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices: Documents in Early American History (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 161-162.

In colonial America, as in England, the right to vote was far from universal.  Economic independence was an important criterion for suffrage. The idea behind this requirement was that only those who possessed economic independence were equipped to exercise independent political judgment and will, free from coercion or corruption; their votes could not be bought or obtained through threat. Accordingly, whole groups of people who lived in conditions of dependence, such as servants, the enslaved, and children, could not vote.

In this excerpt from a late seventeenth-century Virginia law, legislators clarify where women, regardless of whether they held property in their own right, fit into the sphere of voting. The House of Burgesses was the colony’s legislative assembly, the first one founded in the colonies. Here, the term “freeholders” refers to those individuals who owned land.

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Document excerpt:

“...no person or persons shall be enabled to give a vote for the election of a burgess or burgesses to serve in the general assembly hereafter to be called but those who are freeholders in the respective county or town for which the said burgess or burgesses shall be elected and chosen, and if any person shall presume to give his vote for the election of a burgess or burgesses in any county or town who is not a freeholder in such county or town he shall forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred pounds of tobacco for every such offence. Provided always, and it is the true intent and meaning of this act that no woman sole or covert, infants under the age of twenty-one years, or recusant convict being freeholders shall be enabled to give a vote or have a voice in the election of burgesses any thing in this act to the contrary notwithstanding.”

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