In every colony but Rhode Island and Connecticut, the choice of a representative to the assembly was the only occasion when voters participated in a colonial-level contest. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware elected a new lower house each year. In the other eight colonies, governors had complete discretion of calling for a new assembly as they saw fit, as long as no house sat for more than seven years, and they usually scheduled elections about every three or four years.
By the 1750s, legal qualifications for voters were fundamentally similar in all the mainland colonies. Every colony restricted political participation to white, adult, male property owners, but relatively few possessions were needed to qualify as an elector. The usual stipulation was that a man either had to have negotiated a mortgage on at least 50 acres or have accumulated other property worth 40 to 50 pounds. Most married men would have owned tools, household furnishings, or livestock valued at 50 pounds by age 30, if not before then, and the majority of farmers probably had saved the down payment for 50 acres by age 35 or shortly thereafter. Property qualifications primarily excluded young men from the polls, but over the course of their lifetime, likely nine-tenths of adult, white males acquired enough wealth to vote by age 40. The main effect of property qualifications was to keep most men from becoming enfranchised for a decade or more after they turned 21, but not to block them from exercising the suffrage permanently.
Only four colonies set property qualifications for sitting in the legislature that were beyond the means of most persons with middle-class status (500 acres in South Carolina and Georgia, 1,000 acres in New Jersey, and real estate worth 300 pounds in New Hampshire; total net worth of 500 pounds also qualified a person in all the preceding except Georgia). In eight colonies, including all six with the largest populations, anyone who could vote was eligible to serve as a representative. It was nevertheless not practical for ordinary citizens to perform assembly duty, because the position placed a heavy burden on an individual’s time and resources. Legislators received no salary for their services and only a modest living allowance, which was set at minimum level and did not always cover full costs, while at assemblies. Assembly sessions rarely lasted less than one month, often two, and sometimes three, and, during this time, members could not pursue their usual employment. Few middle-class persons would have been able to afford the sacrifice of time and money, particularly if the governor summoned the legislature for business at planting or harvest seasons, when even wealthy planters with overseers tried to personally supervise the work on their estates.
As a consequence, it was virtually foreordained that colonial legislatures would be overwhelmingly comprised of the economic and social elite. By the end of the colonial period, the typical member of Virginia’s lower house owned 1,800 acres and 40 slaves. Two-thirds of all South Carolina assemblymen after 1750 were planters who worked their estates with eighty or more slaves. Nearly three-quarters of all New Jersey representatives held 600 acres or more and ranked among the wealthiest 5 percent of that colony during the quarter century prior to the Revolution.
The assemblies also began to spawn dynastic groups like the First Families of Virginia, which were notable for sending successive generations of kinsmen into the legislature. In South Carolina’s lower house, for example, about half the members were related to other representatives as sons, fathers, or brothers in the half century before 1775. Similarly, John Adams once remarked that in most Massachusetts towns, the office of assemblyman usually rotated among a circle of extended relatives descended from or connected by marriage to just three or four distinct family groups.
The manner of conducting elections acted as a deterrent to high turnout among voters. Eight of the colonies had no regular schedule for balloting. Governors could issue the writs at any time, and the law directed that sheriffs need give only a few weeks’ notice by posting announcements at commonly frequented sites, such as taverns. In rural areas, where few or no newspapers circulated, many electors were not likely to learn that a new assembly was to be chosen until after the fact. The county courthouse generally served as the only polling place, so that outlying voters had to travel long distances over unpaved, narrow roads, and some would have to bear the expense of overnight lodging. These circumstances made it inevitable that numerous freeholders would be left uninformed of elections and many others would find it personally inconvenient, time consuming, and even expensive to get to polls.
Turnout at elections consequently remained low during colonial times. It was unusual for a majority of adult white males to cast ballots, although participation rates sometimes ranged from 67 percent to 80 percent on rare occasions when hotly contested issues were at stake. The usual level of turnout ranged from 25 percent to 40 percent of adult white males. Assuming that 25 percent to 40 percent of free males over 21 were likely without sufficient property to exercise suffrage at any given moment, such a rate of turnout would suggest that slightly less than half of qualified voters went to the polls on average.
Colonial elections usually resulted in a high percentage of new members being freshly chosen. Turnover among assemblymen was lowest in Delaware, at about 20 percent, and highest in Rhode Island, at over 60 percent. Elections in the colonies produced significantly more change than in Great Britain. Turnover in the House of Commons alternated between 27 percent and 35 percent, while most colonial assemblies had approximately 35 percent to 50 percent of their membership change during most of the period after 1760. As the eighteenth century progressed, however, elections in America became less volatile. Turnover in many colonies began to approximate that of Britain’s House of Commons. As the colonial period came to an end, only in Rhode Island did elections routinely send a majority of newcomers to the legislature.
The explanation for early America’s high rate of legislative turnover does not seem to have been a high level of partisan rivalry (unlike Great Britain, no organized parties existed in the colonies), but rather a tendency for most representatives to retire voluntarily after two or three terms. In large part, legislators seem to have left public office after relatively short tenures because of the inconvenience to their private lives and the interruption of their financial affairs caused by attending lengthy sessions at the capital. Politicians consequently found themselves shouldering a public burden that offered little monetary or personal award save recognition of one’s abilities in a society that offered few other chances to win esteem from the community at large and, not surprisingly, most of them tired of its demands after a few years.