Should You Own Property to Be Able to Vote? Even Thomas Jefferson Couldn't Make Up His Mind

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Matthew E. Crow is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA.

In recent years, we have seen conservative and populist originalism reasserted with great political effect. Tea Party thinkers like Judson Phillips and Elizabeth Price Foley have given historical, constitutional grounding and political direction to that reassertion, bemoaning the right of every citizen to vote regardless of property ownership, and writing democracy itself out of the collection of legitimate conceptual tools at the disposal of the citizenry. The most recent efforts to rewrite voter registration laws in multiple states draw on a naked quest for political advantage, it is true, but at least as important here is the no doubt deeply held belief that the people turned away from the polls as a result of such laws lack the independence and propriety to be voting in the first place. On his appearance before the NAACP, Mitt Romney summed up his message: no more “free stuff,” and we can assume that he meant things like education, access to health care, and perhaps more.

These events share a common theme of trying to define what kinds of people are worth recognizing as citizens. They prompt us to recall a history of using all sorts of criteria (wealth, race, gender, sexual identity, disability), to make the definition and the group allowed to actually do the defining as restrictive as possible. Restoring the virtuous republic, so the argument goes, demands abandoning any pretense to a democratic and egalitarian polity. We have in our history good reasons to doubt and resist that argument.

Thomas Jefferson thought long and hard about what it took to be a citizen, the relationship between the capacity for active citizenship and the holding of property, and what to do about economic inequality in a republic. In his correspondence with James Madison, he argued that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property,” and so “whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth,” Jefferson summarized, “is given as a common stock for man to labor and live in.” He also suggested a progressive tax scheme: “another means of silently reducing the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher proportions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” Property holdings, like constitutions, were subject to reconsideration and yes, redistribution.

But property as the gateway to civic capacity was and remains problematic. Jefferson could easily favor securing the right of women to own property, for example, but extending voting rights and eligibility for political office to women was out of the question entirely. Enslaved African Americans, of course, were property, property which guaranteed Jefferson’s own abilities to participate in political life. On the issue of slavery, Jefferson ended up thinking that even if slavery came to an end in the U.S., the formerly enslaved population would have to be sent elsewhere. Precisely because they had labored in intellectual and physical dependence on others, Jefferson supposed African Americans to lack the capacity for property, and therefore the propriety to be fellow citizens. By this logic, even if every African American male head of household got forty acres and a mule, the memory of slavery would poison the well of social bonds -- who could predict where the demands for justice would lead? Better to control access to the right of making such demands at the source.

Another illustration of the unresolved tension at the heart of the connection between citizenship and property is the fate of the Cherokee Indians. The inevitable amalgamation of Native Americans into the U.S. polity, for Jefferson, depended on their adoption of patriarchy and individual, agrarian property holding. The Cherokee did this, but it did little to protect themselves and others from settler lust for western land. They were not the first, nor were they the last, to find out that liberal values like the sanctity of contract and the rights of property can be relative.

When it came to the expansionist republic of property holders, including property in laboring human beings, Jefferson abandoned his argument about the common stock of the earth. “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers had acquired too much, in order to spare to others” who had not, in theory, been as industrious, Jefferson wrote, “is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.” The purposeful forgetting of collective rights to ensure an equitable distribution of property went hand-in-hand with the project of denying claims to citizenship and other legal rights and protections, even those predicated on the holding of property.

That we have arrived at a point in our history when the unemployed, the working poor, and large sectors of the middle class can be discussed in public as "freeloaders" demonstrates that the idea of the citizen as freeholder is inadequate to the point of being nonsensical. It clouds our judgment. Jefferson’s arrival at an uncontestable bond between property ownership and the capacity for civic life does not bear the brunt of his own commonwealth critique. To be perfectly old-fashioned, the lesson of history here is that without the maintenance of common stock in wealth and political power, the Jeffersonian prospect of democratic freedom falls flat on its face.

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