31 inspired by these sentiments william sullivan

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31 Inspired by these sentiments, William Sullivan wrote a letter in May 1776 to his friend John Adams in which he made the case for universal suffrage. Responding with alarm, Adams pointed out that all societies operate on the basis of ‘‘general rules,’’ or commonly agreed-upon con- ventions. These conventions may or may not have a rational basis. With regard to voting, Adams said, many groups were excluded from the fran- chise, including women, children, and those who were not mentally sound. Some of these exclusions were somewhat arbitrary. He pointed out, for example, that while a twenty-one-year-old man could vote, an equally qualified man who was only ‘‘twenty years eleven months and twenty-seven days old’’ could not. Such norms and distinctions, Adams claimed, were necessary for society to maintain order and prevent chaos. He defended the property qualification because, among other things, it represented a clear and distinct line of demarcation. Those who pos- sessed enough property could vote, and everyone else was excluded; there was no ambiguity. Adams, however, had a bigger fear—a suspicion that revolutionary ideology might produce a larger movement to eradi- cate distinctions between the social classes. Without property qualifica- tions, he believed, there would be no sound basis for excluding other groups in society from the franchise, including women. The elimination of property qualifications, he said, would ‘‘confound and destroy all dis- tinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.’’ Significantly, Adams instinctively grasped what many other people at the time did not: that the rationale for excluding women from government rested on cer- tain agreed-on social conventions rather than any inherent reason. Thus even before women agitated for the vote, Adams perceived the direction in which revolutionary ideology might lead. 32 Before the Revolution, questions had seldom arisen about whether women could or should be able to vote. At the same time, although all voters were men, voting itself was not necessarily defined as an exclu- sively male prerogative. In fact, fewer than half of the colonies— Pennsylvania, Delaware, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina—used the word ‘‘male’’ in their election statutes or otherwise specifically excluded women. Women’s exclusion may have been regarded as so self- Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash : Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from gsu on 2019-01-28 09:41:30. Copyright © 2008. University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.
The Rights of Woman 29 evident that it did not require a specific prohibition. Because of the legal doctrine of coverture, married women, under the guardianship of their husbands, could not own property. Although widows and single women could own property, they constituted just a small fraction of the popula- tion. Hence the question of women voting did not often arise. Even so,

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