Elections in Colonial Virginia


Elections were an integral part of the colonial political system and used primarily to choose members of the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the General Assembly in Virginia, and less frequently to select members of the vestry in each Anglican parish. Building on customs and practices brought from England in the seventeenth century, Virginians developed their own unique electoral system, which allowed counties, towns, and colleges to be represented; defined who got to vote through an evolving franchise law; and governed the behavior of candidates and voters before and during elections. While wealthy planters won nearly all of these political contests, the electorate, which was composed of small-landowning and tenant farmers, responded to a variety of personal, neighborhood, parish, county, provincial, and imperial factors in deciding which members of the gentry to elect. In most places, incumbents easily won reelection, but in some constituencies at certain points in time, one set of elites challenged another, heated campaigning went on for months, members of the most prominent families suffered defeat, and outcomes were so close and contentious that they could only be resolved by the House of Burgesses in the capital at Williamsburg.


Early Buildings at the College of William and Mary

Virginia came as close as any American colony in duplicating the system of representation of the mother country. England’s forty counties each elected two “knights of the shire” as representatives to the House of Commons; in Virginia, two burgesses represented each county in the House of Burgesses. In England, towns or boroughs could petition the Crown to be allowed to send a single representative to Parliament; in Virginia communities could do the same, but because there were so few towns in the Old Dominion, only Jamestown (1684), Williamsburg (1723), and Norfolk (1738) received that privilege. In addition, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge sent a member each to the House of Commons; in 1718, the College of William and Mary was given that privilege in Virginia.

Where the two systems differed, however, was in their ability to expand and adjust to changing population patterns. Despite massive demographic shifts brought about by the early days of the Industrial Revolution, representation in the British House of Commons did not change from 1673 until the Reform Act of 1832. In Virginia, on the other hand, the westward expansion of population brought with it demands for the creation of new counties and, in most cases, Virginia colonial governments responded positively to these demands. There were just seventeen counties huddled along the Tidewater in 1660, but the number had grown to twenty-five in 1715 and fifty in 1755. On the eve of the American Revolution (1775–1783), sixty-one counties stretched to the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond. This fairly regularized creation of new counties did much to keep Piedmont and western Virginians relatively happy with the colonial government, something that did not occur in the Carolinas, for example.

As in England, Virginia’s constituencies varied considerably in size. By the mid-eighteenth century, the average Virginia county included about 350 voters, but a few were as small as 125 and some had more than 1,000 freeholders. Between 75 and 100 voters selected the single delegate from Williamsburg, while just a handful of faculty elected the representative from William and Mary. After the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699, Jamestown continued to elect a single burgess, but with perhaps fewer than 25 voters, it began to resemble the much maligned “rotten boroughs” of England.

First General Assembly

This system of representation did not begin with the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619, but evolved gradually over the following decades. In the beginning, men represented various geographical units, including hundreds (a division of counties), plantations, quarters, towns, counties, necks of land, and even regions like the entire Eastern Shore. By the 1640s, when the House of Burgesses began meeting separately from the governor’s Council, distinct county representation became the norm, although sometimes more than two burgesses sat for specific counties during the life of an assembly. By the 1690s, a more complete set of records makes clear that each county was represented by only two burgesses at a time and that Jamestown sent a single delegate.


Arrest of Nathaniel Bacon

The evolution of the franchise—the set of rules governing who could and who could not vote—developed gradually over the seventeenth century as well, and did not reach its final definition until the 1730s. These rules derived from old English principles that assumed that only those with a long-term economic stake in society should be considered full political participants. It is not known how representatives were selected or who did the selecting for the first few decades, but by 1646, and probably before, all freemen—those who were not slaves or indentured servants—could choose burgesses. In 1655, only “housekeepers,” or those who headed a household, could vote, but this rule was relaxed the next year and all freemen could again vote. Tightening of the franchise occurred once more in 1670, when the law stated that only “ffreeholders and housekeepers” could cast ballots. This in turn was rescinded briefly during Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) but reinstated after the insurrection collapsed. The law made clear in 1684 that tenants with life leases, not just outright landowners, could also participate in elections and that a person could vote in any county in which he held land.

The early laws never specified an amount of land or length of time owned, and so presumably one or two acres held for a day or two could potentially enfranchise an individual. There clearly had been abuses in earlier years, but the issue came to a head in 1735 when the sheriff of one county and a candidate of another county blatantly executed land deeds for only a few acres just days before the election. The following year, the House of Burgesses specified that 100 acres of unimproved land or 25 acres of improved land had to be owned for at least one year prior to voting. Although the House tried to reduce the unimproved acreage to 50 in 1762 and 1769, both laws were rejected in England and the 1736 law stood for the remainder of the colonial period.

While economic status in the form of land holdings became the central criteria for determining the franchise, other laws added restrictions based upon age, sex, race, and religion. The law excluded those under age twenty-one in 1699; that same year women also lost the vote, although it is unclear whether any had tried to vote previously as this ran counter to English custom of the time. The specific exclusion of blacks, mulattos, and Indians occurred in 1723; it is probable that a few of these persons had participated or tried to participate earlier. Technically, only members of the Church of England voted in the seventeenth century, but following the English Toleration Act of 1689, Quakers officially received the vote, although other dissenting Protestant groups participated in elections unofficially by the 1750s, if not before.

Although the electorate was ultimately restricted to adult white males, the percentage of such men in each county who could vote varied enormously. The economic and demographic characteristics as well as the settlement patterns of each county dictated the size and composition of the local electorate. In Fairfax County, for example, less than 25 percent of the adult white males owned enough land to qualify to vote, but another 20 to 30 percent qualified as life-lease tenants. In some counties, on the other hand, 60 to 80 percent of the adult white males owned enough land to vote, while only a handful of tenants had appropriate leases. On average, about 50 percent of adult white male Virginians qualified by outright ownership and another 20 percent entered the electorate as life tenants.


Resolves of the House of Burgesses

Following the English example, general elections for the House of Burgesses occurred irregularly, and resulted from the governor‘s dissolution of the sitting assembly. Various mechanisms triggered colony-wide elections, including the arrival of a new governor, the death of the monarch, the displeasure of the governor with the actions of the assembly, or, in a few cases, because eighteenth-century English law dictated that elections should be held at least once every seven years. By-elections also occurred in specific constituencies to replace a burgess who had died, confirm a burgess who had accepted an office of profit, or because the House had thrown out the previous election due to some irregularity. The twelve members of each parish vestry—the body that oversaw a variety of religious, social welfare, and economic functions in each Anglican parish—were also elected, but these elections, which included an expanded electorate of freeholders and householders, only occurred when a new parish was established or an old one split in two. Such elections could be 30, 40, or 100 years apart.

The more common general election season began with the governor and Council issuing writs to the sheriffs of each county; the sheriffs in turn set the date for the upcoming election in their jurisdictions—usually about four to six weeks in the future—and ordered that notices be posted at courthouses and read at religious services. Whether campaigning began immediately depended on the political climate in each constituency at the time of each election. In some places, where incumbents planned to run again or where the outcome seemed in little doubt, candidates did little or no campaigning and simply showed up on election day. In other places, where incumbents did not seek reelection or where local political conditions fostered challenges, campaigning began in earnest.

In highly competitive elections, candidates used a variety of legal and illegal tactics to garner the favor of the freeholders. They might do as little as travel about the county for a few weeks, greeting voters at church, appearing at the courthouse on court days, or mingling with the crowd at horse races or militia musters. If pressed to take a stand on a particular issue—like dividing the county or parish or lowering the tax on rum—candidates were supposed to decline an answer; a proper gentlemen did not make promises he could not keep and a 1705 law said it was illegal to do so. Some, of course, made such promises and some had their elections voided for these declarations. Voters in some places also expected treats in the form of liquor and food to be served by prospective candidates, but here again, abuses could occur. Legal treats could be served to voters before the sheriff read the election writ and after individuals voted on election day, but the weeks in between were to remain “dry.” Clever candidates got around such restrictions by absenting themselves from the event and having treats provided by a friend or servant or even their wives. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both provided legal treats to voters at several elections; Washington even hosted balls for all voters in Fairfax County in 1768 and 1771. The costs of such activities were substantial and made it nearly impossible for all but the very wealthy to conduct a campaign.

Exactly how each freeholder made their choice between the available candidates is not always clear, but local conditions and the personal characteristics of candidates played the largest role. Voters tended to select men they knew, men from their neighborhood, men they saw at church, men they borrowed money from or traded with, or men from their parish or section of the county. Candidates who had already served in local offices—justice of the county court, parish vestrymen, militia officer, or county sheriff—tended to be far more successful than those with little or no experience. Reputation too played a role: men who were successful plantation managers could also be trusted to manage the colony’s affairs in Williamsburg. Despite a ban on campaign promises, local issues also played an important role. A plan to divide a county or parish might mean greater access to governmental services for some, but it could increase taxes for all; the building of a tobacco warehouse or permission to operate a ferry might please some voters and not others; inattention by parish vestrymen to church property and other duties might bring retribution at the polls.

Although local concerns dominated the voting process, provincial and imperial issues did influence some elections. The unpopularity of the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 and the associated riots of 1732 helped defeat more than 40 percent of the incumbent burgesses in 1735; increased turnout in some western counties in 1758 may have been heightened by the frontier violence in the ongoing French and Indian War (1756–1763). Likewise, it seems clear that the developing imperial crisis after 1763 and the accompanying dissolution of assemblies by angry governors produced a kind of patriotic solidarity that reduced electoral competition and encouraged voters to return incumbents election after election.

On the surface, electoral politics was a game reserved for propertied white men only. Enslaved Africans, free blacks, Indians, indentured servants, landless white men, and all women were denied the right to vote or hold public office; by law they were not political actors. Yet most of these groups played some role in local elections, albeit indirectly. Non-voters milled about the courthouse green on election day, hearing and participating in political discourse; candidates’ slaves, servants, and wives often treated voters to food and drink following the election; and candidates clearly understood that exchanging pleasantries with a voter’s wife might be just as important as talking to the freeholder himself. Women also helped to enfranchise men: perhaps as much as 15 percent of the freeholders were only eligible to vote because of the land their wives brought to the marriage. And in some cases, wives, sisters, aunts, and mothers understood the inherent power they possessed and helped steer the voting behavior of their male relatives.

Patrick Henry Delivering His Celebrated Speech

This colonial electoral system did much to prepare Virginians and Americans in general for the independent state and federal governments established after 1776. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, and a host of others cut their political teeth as successful and unsuccessful candidates for House of Burgesses elections. When they helped construct the Virginia Constitution of 1776 or the Articles of Confederation in 1777, or when they debated the United States Constitution of 1787, they looked back to the campaigns and elections of the colonial period. The lessons each took from these experiences were not the same: a few, like George Washington, remained wary of overly active electorates, intense campaigning, and the abilities of average men to make political decisions, while Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee seemed to trust the masses to steer their state and nation along the right course. At the same time, more than 60 percent of the adult white men in Virginia entered the Revolutionary War period as experienced electors in local contests. As independence progressed, they hoped to continue and expand these opportunities while their less-fortunate white cousins with little or no land began to demand the same privileges as their landowning relatives. Neither would be completely satisfied for many decades to come.

July 30, 1619
The General Assembly holds its first meeting with Governor Sir George Yeardley, the governor's Council, and twenty-two burgesses in a unicameral session in the church at Jamestown.
October 1646
The General Assembly passes a law extending the right to vote to all "freemen," or any man who is not a slave or an indentured servant.
March 1655
The General Assembly passes a law restricting the right to vote to "housekeepers," or any head of a household.
March 1656
The General Assembly passes a law again extending the right to vote to all "freemen," or any man who is not a slave or an indentured servant. A year earlier, the assembly restricted the franchise to heads of households.
October 1670
The General Assembly passes a law, titled "Election of burgesses by whome," restricting the franchise from all free men to property-holding "freeholders and housekeepers."
June 1676
The General Assembly passes a law, titled "An act enabling freemen to vote for burgesses and preventing false returnes of burgesses," extending the franchise from all property-holding free men to all free men.
February 1677
The General Assembly passes a law, titled "An act declaring all the acts, orders and proceedings of a grand assembly held att James Citty, in the month of June, 1676, voyd, null and repealed," undoing the work of the session that met during Bacon's Rebellion.
May 16, 1684
The House of Burgesses passes a resolution affirming the right of tenants with life leases to vote and the right to vote in any county where a man owns land.
April 1699
The General Assembly passes a law, titled "An act for prevention of undue election of Burgeses," extending the franchise to Quakers but denying it to women and those under the age of 21.
October 1705
The General Assembly passes "An act for regulating the Elections of Burgesses; for settling their Privileges; and for ascertaining their allowances," setting out the rules for governing elections.
May 1723
The General Assembly passes the "Act directing the trial of Slaves," establishing laws with regards to the punishment of slaves and the overall government of slaves, free blacks, and Indians.
May 1723
As part of a long act devoted to "the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," the General Assembly declares "That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever." The law also restricts a master's ability to free his slaves.
August 1736
The General Assembly passes "An Act to declare who shall have a right to vote in the Election of Burgesses to serve in the General Assembly, for Counties; and for preventing fraudulent Conveiances, in order to multiply Votes at such Elections," outlining property requirements for voting.
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  • Kolp, John G. Gentlemen and Freeholders: Electoral Politics in Colonial Virginia. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • Kolp, John G. and Terri Snyder. “Women and the Political Culture of Eighteenth-Century Virginia: Gender, Property Law, and Voting Rights,” in The Many Legalities of Early America. Edited by Christopher L. Tomlins and Bruce H. Mann. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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APA Citation:
Kolp, John. Elections in Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/elections-in-colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Kolp, John. "Elections in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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