MVB to William I. Tillinghast, Lawrence Richards, William Mitchell, Seth Luther, William Miller, and David Brown, 9 July 1833
July 9th, 1833.
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, requesting information concerning the manner in which the right of suffrage is regulated in New-York, together with my opinion upon the utility and practical operation of the system now in force there.
I can have no objection whatever to furnish the information you desire, but I feel some delicacy, under the circumstances of the case, in expressing an opinion on the several points to which you refer. The right of suffrage not only controls the election of the state functionaries, but that of the elective officers of the general government, is, by the federal constitution, made dependent on it; and in this respect, it is undoubtedly to be considered, not only as a matter of primary importance to those who are immediately interested in it, but as a subject of interest to all parts of the union. The settlement of all questions connected with this franchise in any particular state, has however, usually been regarded as belonging exclusively to the people of that state; and under ordinary circumstances any interference by a citizen of another state, would justly be considered as improper. Thus viewing the matter, I certainly should not have ventured an opinion upon any point bearing on the question now under discussion in Rhode Island, had it not been for the request contained in your letter, which the relations I hold to the people of the United States, make it my duty to respect.
By the first constitution of New-York, the possession of a freehold estate of the value of $250 over and above all debts charged thereon, was necessary to entitle a person to vote for governor, lieut. governor and senators-members of assembly were chosen by persons paying taxes, and possessing freeholds of the clear value of $50, or renting tenements of the annual value of five dollars.
The obvious injustice, and ascertained inutility of this regulation, together with other causes, led in 18221, to the call of a convention for the revision of our state constitution-of that convention I had the honor to be a member, and in the discharge of the duties imposed upon me by that situation I labored, and in conjunction with a majority of the convention, labored successfully, to abolish the freehold qualification. The principle which I then advocated and which was established by the amended constitution extended the right of voting for all elective offices of the state government, to every citizen who should contribute to the support of government, either by the payment of taxes in money, or by labor on the highways, or by service, according to law, in the militia. The result of experience and the progress of liberal opinions, soon led to a further extension and by an amendment to the constitution finally adopted in 1826, the right of suffrage was given to every male citizen of full age, who shall have been an inhabitant of the state for one year, and of the country for six months, preceding the election. This provision however, does not extend to persons of color, who by the constitution of 1821, are not allowed to vote, unless they have been for three years citizens of the state, and for one year before the election, seized and possessed of a freehold of the clear value of $250, and have been rated and paid a tax thereon.
The government of New-York has for several years, been administered under the liberal system established by the new constitution, and the still more liberal amendment of 1826, in a manner which appears to have been satisfactory to the people. It is possible, that there may be some who regret the extension of the right of suffrage, and who would be gratified by the revival of the old qualifications; but I do not believe that such a feeling is entertained by any considerable portion of our citizens. I am very sure that any attempt to restrict the exercise of the right, and more especially to restore the freehold qualification, would be put down by an overwhelming majority.
In acting upon this subject, my own course has never been influenced by any apprehension that it would be dangerous to the rights of property, to extend the rights of voting to those who were without property. Our experience has, I think fully demonstrated, that in a community like that which composes a great majority of every state in our confederacy, there is no reason for alarm in this respect.
At an earlier period of my public life, I was not entirely free from apprehensions of the influence of wealth upon so extended a suffrage as that which is now possessed in New-York. Upon this head, however, we are now able to speak from full and satisfactory experience; and it has given me the highest gratification to be convinced, that my fears were without adequate foundation. Numerous opportunities to test the firmness of our citizens, and their ability to resist the seductions of wealth, have have been furnished within the last twelve years; and although some local and temporary advantages have been occasionally gained through such means, the general incorruptibility of our citizens has been triumphantly established. Nor have I any doubt that such will long continue to be the history of our people: for although a greater disparity in their condition may naturally be expected from an increase of population and other causes, yet on the other hand it may be hoped that the means of education, and of moral improvement will be proportionably increased, and that under their influence the spirit of independence and of intelligent patriotism, which now prevails among all classes will be cherished and exhibited by every succeeding generation.
With my best wishes for your individual prosperity, and for that of the state to which you belong,
I remain, Gentlemen, your ob’t serv’t.
M. VAN BUREN.