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For a Few Decades in the 18th Century, Women and African-Americans Could Vote in New Jersey

Then some politicians got angry

A voting sign from the 2008 election. (Flickr)
smithsonian.com

In the early days of the state of New Jersey, women and black people could vote. They just had to be  “free inhabitants of [the] State” who were over the age of majority, had more than fifty pounds of wealth and had lived in New Jersey for more than six months.  The process of revoking these rights, which took place in the early 1800s, represented a narrowing of American potential.

New Jersey was unique in permitting women to vote. The other twelve original states all had constitutions specifically stating that voters had to be male. But in New Jersey, the framing of the state constitution, which occurred in 1776, permitted women to vote. Later editions of the voting law, which changed slightly as the state established its own distinct politics, referred to voters as  “‘he or she,’” writes New Jersey Women’s History.

The remarkably progressive law lasted almost 30 years. Then, that portion of New Jersey’s constitution was modified by the passage of an election law that “‘reinterpreted’ the constitution’s suffrage clause and passed an election law that redefined voters solely as adult white male taxpaying citizens,” write historians Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis. That law was passed on this day in 1807.

Historians have been “puzzled” to explain how and why New Jersey came to write the suffrage laws of 1776 in the first place, the pair write. “No historical trace of public agitation could be found either for or against the voting rights of single women prior to their enfranchisement in 1776 or disenfranchisement in 1807.”  The voting rights for free blacks is slightly less puzzling, as more than half of the new states in the U.S. allowed free black adult men to vote, although that vote was typically implied rather than made explicit. Most states began to roll back that right in the late 1700s and early 1800s, just like New Jersey.

As the state settled into political norms, the Democratic-Republican party successfully campaigned to have the 1807 law removing women and black people from the voting population passed–with no vocal protest, although that doesn’t mean that the newly disenfranchised weren’t angry.

Historians believe that the politicians pushed for this bill because of who women and black people were voting for–in other words, not them.

It can't have been easy to be a woman or black voter, though, even during this short period. “The legal barrier was but one of the many barriers that prevented women from mobilizing effectively in defense of their political rights,” write Klinghoffer and Elkis. “Marital status, class and color probably presented even more formidable obstacles to the coalition building that would have been necessary to mount a successful challenge at the state’s legislature.” 

The vote for women did have limitations, writes Bob Blythe for the National Park Service: existing marriage and property laws, known as “coverture,” meant that married women technically did not own anything, so they couldn't have met the wealth requirements. Therefore, only single, relatively wealthy women could vote. As for free black New Jerseyians, evidence exists that they did vote, but with slavery legal in New Jersey until 1804, it can’t have been easy to be a black voter.

“This placed suffrage on a clear taxpaying basis, creating a very broad franchise for white men but disenfranchising women and African Americans,” writes historian Donald Ratcliffe. “As a mark of white male hegemony, apparently neither group protested.”

Editor's note: This article originally misstated the name of the political party that voted to disenfranchise women and free blacks. It was the Democratic-Republican party, not the Republican party.

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