History | Political History | Social History
The roots of franchise reform in the seventeenth century are of interest to historians both of Britain and of America. In the new world and in England important steps toward democratic suffrage were taken in the first half of the century. The Virginia charter of 1619 granted voting privileges to all adult male inhabitants regardless of property. Later governments qualified this liberality, but an important precedent was established. In England Leveller tracts and the classic Putney Debates aired arguments that bore no immediate practical fruits but that foreshadowed later reforms. 130th developments are startling enough to raise urgent questions about origins. Where did such striking innovations come from? Were they altogether unprecedented, or were they, as seems more probable, modifications of already existing ideas about suffrage? Neither the Virginia charter nor the Putney Debates are rightly understood unless still another factor is kept in view: franchise reform was a significant, if muted theme in Parliament through a large part of the century, especially in the 1620s. Many of the major figures in the anti-Court party in that decade favored a broader suffrage. Because of unfortunate obscurities in the record the connections with Virginia and with the Levellers and Putney must remain for the present imprecise. But research designed to illuminate the origins of either the Virginia charter or the soldiers' proposals should certainly look toward the prolonged suffrage reform movement in Parliament.
© 1963, University of Chicago Press, http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/ET/home.html
This article first appeared as Richard Bushman, "English Franchise Reform in the Seventeenth Century," The Journal of British Studies, III (November, 1963), 35-56, and can be found online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/175047.pdf.