Everyone in that public place would know which candidate he voted for.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

Tune in to your local public radio or join the 1776 Club to hear this episode of What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Listen to this week's episode.

The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:00 Good day, citizens and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good Day to you, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 00:15 Good day to you, citizen.

DS: 00:16 I would like to talk to you sir this week about voting. It's the season for that and I thought perhaps you could share what it was like during your time, sir.

CSJ as TJ: 00:26 Well, much different in my time than in yours. The voting was done in public. Ballots were usually not secret. In fact, there usually were two ballot boxes, one for candidate a and one for candidate b. These votes usually took place on a green or a town square or some other park and people would have picnics and there would be festivals and parades and vans and fireworks and so on. I have to say there was a fair amount of drinking involved in these things. And then at a certain point the local justice of the peace or the sheriff would say, line up to vote. How do you vote citizen? And the person would come up and put his ballot, his vote into a box, into a slot in a box, and everyone in that public place would know which candidate he voted for. So there was not the same anonymity that we have in your time.

DS: 01:18 Americans nowadays have a tendency to just think, well, everyone has the right to vote, but that's not necessarily true during your time

CSJ as TJ: 01:26 Let me say who didn't vote in my time. American Indians didn't vote because they were part of other sovereign nations, just as if they had been French or Portuguese. Women didn't vote; briefly, they voted in New Jersey after the war, but that was then rescinded. But women were thought in my time to be subordinate to the males in their life. And so they didn't vote. Most black people didn't vote, a handful did, who were free black citizens in northern states, but no slave voted ever. And so even amongst the white men, the group that was more central to the franchise in my time, most of them were not able to vote because there were some severe property qualifications in most states. You had to have x acres of property or x thousands of dollars of net wealth in order to qualify to vote. So on any given election, let's say the election of 1800, which I was elected by the American people to replace John Adams as president, probably no more than 10 or 12 percent of the American people voted, and that might just be 10 or 12 percent of the white males in the United States.

DS: 02:40 Most Americans, and I guess I should say most idealistic Americans, believe that every citizen should have the right to vote. I certainly do, sir. And I encourage people to vote, but in our most recent election, there's been impediments put up that seem to favor certain citizens votes over others. How would you react to that, sir?

CSJ as TJ: 03:01 It it all depends on what you mean by citizens. In my time citizen meant a white man. It did not mean an American Indian, did not mean a slave, or in most cases, a former slave. So once you've decided what the embrace of the social contract is, who's really regarded as a citizen in your culture, then my view is that every one of them should have the capacity.

DS: 03:24 You're not going to match my idealism then Mr Jefferson?

CSJ as TJ: 03:28 I'm certainly believing that, that we should expand the franchise and in my time I was a radical. I said we should not have property qualifications for voting amongst white men and if we needed them, if that was some sort of sign of stability then we should grant 50 acres of land in the West to every property-less man, so that he would then become a citizen and an elector.

DS: 03:49 You not only match my idealism, sir, you supersede it.

CSJ as TJ: 03:53 Well, not really because we did not certainly believe that women or people of color were citizens of the United States in the full sense of the term. And that would, I think, in your era, brand us as pretty narrowly focused.

DS: 04:08 Well, I would, I would anticipate that we could both agree that the right to vote is one of the most important of citizens' rights. And in fact, in my estimation, a duty sir.

CSJ as TJ: 04:21 When are we citizens? We're citizens when we vote every second year or how often; we're citizens when we pay our taxes, that's an important civic duty. We're citizens when we're called to jury duty or other public responsibilities, and we're citizens when we go to war and we are asked to join as volunteers or sometimes conscripted into our armed forces. That's the sort of array of citizenship responsibilities, but the primary one, the one that is most obvious, important, and automatic is the right to vote.

DS: 04:54 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:56 You are welcome, sir.

More from the Thomas Jefferson Hour