Some facts about early suffrage might shock you! |HBR Talk 303

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Last week, we learned quite a bit about how voting rights came to exist under English common law, and how that history intrinsically connects them with civic duty and military obligation, but that only brings us to the point where 1%-3% of the population even had voting rights. We learned some things that contradict conventional “knowledge” about the franchise and who had it. We’re going to continue to do that in this episode. To learn more, tune in to HBR talk on Thursday, April 4, 2024, at 7PM, or find other viewing and listening options in the dropdown menu at the top of this page.

Show Notes

In our last discussion on the history of western suffrage, we went over how and why voting rights began with the evolution of common council into the concept of Parliament through the bloody struggles of the noble class for representation in and influence on the King’s decision-making. We discussed how the inclusion of representatives of commoners began, and how a very loose system for elections expanded voting rights to a very small percentage of non-noble landowners. 

Finally, we discussed how this history shows that in the UK and all nations that began as English colonies, the very existence of voting rights was born out of military service and civic duty, including acts of service to King and country, payment of proto-taxes, and the nobles defense of their interests and those of the people of their lands against the abuses of tyrannical leaders. The concept of suffrage can no more be divorced from men’s historical obligations than a person could be surgically separated from his DNA.

So, what happened next? According to several sources, in terms of voting rights, very little. I’m not going to link to many, but the following was mentioned on several sites, including parliament’s historical pages.

From Anglotopia.net’s  “The History Of Voting Rights In The United Kingdom” by John Rabon:
https://anglotopia.net/british-history/the-history-of-voting-rights-in-the-united-kingdom/
However, even at this time, it was an incredibly small number of people who were able to elect these representatives, who were referred to as the “Knights of the Shire”.  The Knights of the Shire Act in 1432 was the first parliamentary legislation to establish who was enfranchised to vote for the members.  The act gave the right to vote to “Forty Shilling Freeholders”, meaning that only owners of real property who paid taxes to the Crown of at least 40 shillings per year (roughly £2,500 in today’s money).  This remained the status quo for another 400 years, even after the passage of the Bill of Rights 1869 that provided for regular parliamentary elections.  A survey from 1780 revealed that the number of enfranchised voters amounted to only 3% of the United Kingdom’s population.

From Kettlemag’s “Suffrage in the UK – a brief study of the history of the vote”
A real parliamentary difference occurred with The Glorious Revolution of 1688 when King James II of England was overthrown by a union formed between English Parliamentarians and William III, Prince of Orange. Before William could ascend to the throne with James’ daughter, Mary II of England, they both had to accept the Bill of Rights which was released in 1689. This Bill guaranteed certain rights of England’s citizens and protected them from the power of the crown. It also established the principles of having frequent parliaments, free elections and freedom of speech within Parliament. The Bill was also supplemented later by the 1701 Act of Settlement. Together, they reduced the powers of the crown and contributed to parliamentary sovereignty, which is what makes Parliament the most powerful government institution in the country.

It was only in the 19th century that there was a radical change in suffrage and even further reform within parliament. Very few people could vote in early 1800’s Britain – in England and Wales, this was less than 3% of a population of nearly 8 million and in Scotland, only 4,500 out of 2.6 million.

The UK Government’s National Archives website summarizes the conditions that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832 as follows: “The Reform Act became law in response to years of criticism of the electoral system from those outside and inside Parliament. Elections in Britain were neither fair nor representative. In order to vote, a person had to own property or pay certain taxes to qualify, which excluded most working class people. There were also constituencies with several voters that elected two MPs to Parliament, such as Old Sarum in Salisbury. In these ‘rotten boroughs’, with few voters and no secret ballot, it was easy for those standing for election to buy votes. Industrial towns like Manchester or Birmingham, which had grown during the previous 80 years, had no Members of Parliament to represent them. In 1831, the House of Commons passed a Reform Bill, but the House of Lords, dominated by the Tory party, defeated it. This was followed by riots and serious disturbances in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter and Bristol.” The page further states that the act itself only gave the franchise to middle class men. 

Some context can be added by Ryan Miller’s paper “A Dire Need for Parliamentary Reform: or, the Role of Elite Fears in Britain’s Great Reform Bill of 1832.” In it, he writes, that examination of parliamentary debate between the pro-reform party (Whigs) and the anti-reform party (Tories), supplemented by private correspondence and other public documents, demonstrates that “...fear of revolution, launched by France and catalyzed by Bristol, by the British elite was the primary motivator for reform.” Before discussing the material in more depth, he explains in his abstract, “Whig M.P.s insisted Britain reform or face revolution, but Tory M.P.s downplayed any immediate threat. When massive unrest materialized at Bristol, the conversation radically shifted. Bristol exploded because the House of Lords rejected an earlier form of the bill, giving the Whig’s argument substance. Direct resistance to the bill faded as Whig urgency increased. While some contemporary and modern historians doubt the reformers’ true fear of revolution, the speeches and letters reveal that preventing disaster was the sincere objective.”

He went on to cite the expansion, enrichment, and developing social power of the middle class due to the industrial revolution, and their discontent with having their interests ignored by elites in parliament, all during an international environment of growing unrest and violent protest among commoners as further context. Debate regarding the 1932 reform act took place soon after the 2nd French Revolution, known as the July revolution. Between this context and the social context in Britain, as Miller states, “The British aristocratic elite feared that they too might fall victim to revolutionaries, and electoral reform became the best option to prevent a revolution.”

In other words, if the middle class were not given a voice in their government, their government feared that they, and their less economically fortunate countrymen, would fight for it. 

So, what can be laid out here is that standards linking voting rights with status that was historically associated with military obligation and civic duty remained in place, with small variations expanding the franchise further among men who faced and upheld those obligations, until 1832. Then, due to an international pattern of uprising among the middle and poorer classes, the franchise was expanded from men and women who were responsible for communities, to men who were responsible for their tenants or their businesses and their families, to working men who were responsible just for their families. 

Preceding this change was the comparative levels of power the people’s elected representatives had, vs those of the monarchy, an evolution which ultimately flipped the system over, leading to today’s system of government in which the parliamentary system works with an elected executive officer, the Prime Minister. 

Also of note is an article written in 2013 about a document from 1843 which showed that women did have the right to vote after the 1832 Reform act supposedly excluded them from the franchise, but prior to the 1918 Representation of the People act that gave the right to some women. And this is where we take a break to read that if time allows: https://archive.is/5QG0k

We’re going to break here for the week, because we’ve got some concurrent history to discuss, as 3 nations formed from British colonies while the concept of suffrage was evolving in the UK; The United States (1776,) Canada (1867,) and Australia (1901.) I’m still deciding whether to focus on one at a time, or describe events in order, which would have us jumping from country to country, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. See you next week!

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Hannah Wallen
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Hannah Wallen

Hannah has witnessed women's use of criminal and family courts to abuse men in five different counties, and began writing after she saw one man's ordeal drag on for seven years, continuing even when authorities had substantial evidence that the accuser was gaming the system. She is the author of Breaking the Glasses, written from an anti-feminist perspective, with a focus on men's rights and sometimes social issues. Breaking the Glasses refers to breaking down the "ism" filters through which people view the world, replacing thought in terms of political rhetoric with an exploration of the human condition and human interactions without regard to dogmatic belief systems. She has a youtube channel (also called Breaking the Glasses), and has also written for A Voice For Men and Genderratic. Hannah's work can be supported at https://www.minds.com/Oneiorosgrip

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