John Adams Explains Why People Without Property Should Not Be Able to Vote

James Sullivan, a state court judge in Massachusetts and colleague of John Adams, was often sympathetic to those who thought women and non-elite men should have a voice in the new nation’s government. Adams disagreed, explaining to Sullivan why men without property and women should be excluded. Some spelling changes and edits have been made to improve clarity.

May 26, 1776 

It is certain in theory, that the only moral foundation of government is the [agreement] of the people, but to what an extent shall we carry this principle? Shall we say, that every individual of the community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must [agree] to every act of legislation?... 

Is it not equally true, that men in general in every society, who [are poor and do not own property], are also [unfamiliar] with public affairs to form a right judgment, and too dependent upon other men to have a will of their own? …Few men, who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest. 

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open [such a] source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to [change] the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a [dime], will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and [surrender] all ranks, to one common level.

Source | John Adams to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776; from Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854).
Creator | John Adams
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | John Adams, “John Adams Explains Why People Without Property Should Not Be Able to Vote,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 26, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1645.