As I recounted yesterday, New Jersey’s 1776 constitution gave women who headed households and owned £50 worth of property the right to vote. This became significant, in a limited way, as American politics evolved naturally into a two-party system in the 1790s. Federalists and Republicans complained about the other side’s female voters, but, seeking any advantage, praised their own.
In an essay for Publick Occurrences Prof. Rosemary Zagarri discussed this political sniping:
In the heat of party conflicts, members charged that their opponents had taken sexual advantage of the women whom they accompanied to the polls. Others suggested that the women had been coached about their choice of candidates. Still others maintained that the women had been physically coerced into voting. In 1803, New Brunswick Federalists were accused of “rallying the petticoat electors and hurrying them and others to the polls.” In 1802, “whole wagon loads of the ‘privileged fair’” were said to have been brought to the places where ballots were cast.There seem to have been more complaints from the Republican side, which might mean that wealthy, unmarried women favored the Federalists. Or it might simply reflect how the Republicans were gaining in strength and had more newspapers.
In 1804, moderate Republicans started a centrist third-party movement, shaking up the system. The party also split over where to put a new Essex County courthouse: Elizabethtown or Newark? There was a vote on that question in 1807, and Zagarri reported:
The election itself witnessed unprecedented voter turnout. Newark prevailed. However, supporters of the other site quickly challenged the result, pointing out that the number of ballots cast was three times larger than the eligible voter population.Even in New Jersey, that looked suspicious. The legislature set out to address the problem. Their solution appears to have involved a lot of yelling.
In the next session of the assembly, legislators hurled charges and countercharges about corruption and fraudulent behavior at state elections. Much of the misbehavior, it was clear, came from white men who voted even though they were not qualified or who voted at different polling places more than once.National Republican leaders stepped in to broker a compromise and keep their party intact. Newark got the courthouse in exchange for a new election law that protected voting rights for all taxpaying white male citizens. The state’s outnumbered Federalists went along with this because they felt that keeping a property requirement on white men would make up for the loss of their few black and female votes. And no one was left to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.
The solution, however, focused on marginal populations: women, foreigners, and free blacks. Because women’s dress “favoured disguise,” it was said, some women “have repeated the vote without detection.” More generally, women, blacks, and foreigners had “no interest in the welfare of the state” and were “mere instruments of parties in the state, or the agents of executive designs, formed out of it.” Perhaps most frightening of all, if women, free blacks, or aliens could vote, they might also be able to serve in public office.
(The picture above shows the Salem County, New Jersey, courthouse, built in 1735, since the controversial courthouse in Newark no longer exists. The photo by Jimmy Emerson comes via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)