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Providence Voter Lists

Historical note

Freemen were owners of land who, unlike the proprietors of the town, were not entitled to any share in the division of common lands. Proprietors and freeholders, together with their eldest sons, constituted the voting class of the town of Providence. In order to qualify to vote, the freeman's land had to be worth a certain amount of money which varied from time to time. Eventually the value amount became fixed at $134.00, and only those meeting the set amount of value, and their eldest sons, were qualified to vote. Inhabitants on rare occasions could be admitted freemen "by courtesy." In his history Town and City Government in Providence, George Wilson stated that "A careful record was kept after a time of those admitted 'by producing deed' and as 'eldest son'"; and he quoted another historian's observation that the freeman system "...attached the franchise, 'not to the inhabitant,' but to the soil; and as a wrong principle always leads to error, it fostered family pride by a distant imitation of the English law of progeniture."

The freeholder system of voting changed in the decade after Providence was incorporated as a city (1832). The restrictions in the voting system meant that only about one-third of the male population over 21 years of age was qualified to vote. The estimation that only one-third of this group actually voted meant that the affairs of the city were controlled by merely one-ninth of those who, under more liberal qualifications, would be eligible to have a say. The city's population slowly grew after its incorporation, but many young men migrated out because of the restricted franchise. A conflict between the existing body of government and those who wanted to expand the voting franchise led to the Dorr War, which in turn led to a more liberal constitution. This constitution granted limited voting rights to any male qualified by residence and age, regardless of property ownership: upon payment of a $1.00 registry tax, they could vote for civil officers of state and towns, but those who did not own property valued at a minimum of $134.00 could not vote for Providence city council, propositions to impose taxes, or expenditure of money in any town or city.