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MVB, Speech on the elective franchise, 6 October 1821

Mr. Van Buren said, that as the vote he should now give on what was called the highway qualification, would be different from what it had been on a former occasion, he felt it a duty to make a brief explanation of the motives which governed him. The qualifications reported by the first committee, were of three kinds, viz: the payment of a money tax—the performance of military duty, and working on the highway. The two former had met with his decided approbation; to the latter he wished to add the additional qualification, that the elector should, if he paid no tax, performed no militia duty, but offered his vote on the sole ground that he had laboured on the highways, also be a house-holder; and that was the only point in which he had dissented from the report of the committee. To effect this object, he supported a motion made by a gentleman from Dutchess, to strike out the highway qualification, with a view of adding “house-holder.” That motion, after full discussion, had prevailed by a majority of twenty. But what was the consequence? The very next day, the same gentlemen who thought the highway tax too liberal a qualification, voted that every person of twenty-one years of age, having a certain term of residence, and excluding actual paupers, should be permitted to vote for any officer in the government, from the highest to the lowest—Far outvieing, in this particular, the other states in the union, and verging from the extreme of restricted, to that of universal suffrage. The Convention, sensible of the very great stride which had been taken by the last vote, the next morning referred the whole matter to a select committee of thirteen, whose report was now under consideration. That committee, though composed of gentlemen, a large majority of whom had voted for the proposition for universal suffrage, had now recommended a middle course, viz—the payment of a money tax, or labour on the highway, excluding militia service, which had, however, been very properly reinstated. The question then recurred; shall an attempt be again made to add that of house-holder, to the highway qualification, and run the hazard of the re-introduction of the proposition of the gentleman from Washington, abandoning all qualifications, and throwing open the ballot boxes to every body—demolishing at one blow, the distinctive character of an elector, the proudest and most invaluable attribute of freemen?

Mr. Van Buren said, he had, on the motion of the gentleman from Columbia, this day hinted at the numerous objections which he had to the proposition, which the other day passed the Convention, in regard to the right of suffrage: objections which he intended to make, had the committee reported in favour of that vote; and by which, when fully urged, he knew that he would be able to convince every member of this committee of the dangerous and alarming tendency of that precipitate and unexpected prostration of all qualifications. At this moment, he would only say, that among the many evils which would flow from a wholly unrestricted suffrage, the following would be the most injurious, viz:—

First. It would give to the city of New-York about twenty-five thousand votes; whilst, under the liberal extension of the right on the choice of delegates to this convention, she had but about thirteen or fourteen thousand. That the character of the increased number of votes would be such as would render their elections rather a curse than a blessing: which would drive from the polls all sober minded people; and such, he was happy to find, was the united opinion, or nearly so, of the delegation from that city.

Secondly. It would not only be injurious to them, but that injury would work an equally great one to the western and northern parts of the state. It was the present consolation of our hardy sons of the west, that, for their toils and their sufferings in reducing the wilderness to cultivation, they were cheered by the conviction, not only that they would be secure in the enjoyment of their dear bought improvements, in consequence of their representation in the legislature, but that any increase of that representation gave them a still greater influence there. That as far as it respected this state, their march, and the march of empire kept pace. This arose from the circumstance of the representation in the state being founded on the number of electors; and because almost every man in a new county was an elector, under the existing and contemplated qualifications: whilst in the old counties, and especially in cities, there were great numbers who would not be embraced by them. So great was this effect, that the city of New-York alone would, under the vote of the other day, have become entitled to additional voters, over those who voted at the election of delegates, equal, or nearly so, to the whole number of votes of Ontario or Genesee. The direct consequence of which would be, that the additional representation of fourteen members, which are next year to be distributed among the counties, would, instead of going principally to the west, be surrendered to the worst population of the old counties and cities.

And thirdly, The door would have been entirely closed against retreat, whatever might be our after conviction, founded on experience, as to the evil tendency of this extended suffrage.

The just equilibrium between the rights of those who have, and those who have no interest in the government, could, when once thus surrendered, never be regained, except by the sword. But, according to the present report, if experience should point out dangers, from the very extensive qualifications we were about to establish, the legislature might relieve against the evil, by curtailing the objects of taxation. By the establishment of turnpikes, the making of canals, and the general improvements of the country, the highway tax would naturally be lessened, and might, if the legislature thought proper, be hereafter confined to property, instead of imposing it, as they now do, on adult male citizens. For one hundred years at least, this would afford a sufficient protection against the evils which were apprehended. He would, therefore, notwithstanding his desire to have the qualification of house-holder added to the electors of the third description remained unchanged, accept the report of the committee as it was, with the addition of the military qualification, which he thought ought to be adopted, for the sake of principle, if for no other reason.

He thought the committee, constituted as they were, had done themselves great credit by their concession to the opinion of those from whom they differed, and he, for one, returned them his sincere thanks. Under all circumstances, he would be well satisfied with the right of suffrage, as it will now be established, and would give it his zealous support, as well in his capacity of delegate, as that of citizen.

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Source: Nathaniel Carter and William L. Stone, Reports of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of 1821, Assembled for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution of the State of New-York: Containing All the Official Documents . . . (1821)
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 3 (17 February 1815-2 December 1821)