Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts




The poll tax occupies a unique place in Virginia's suffrage history. Basically a twentieth century device ostensibly originated to provide revenue for the state by requiring payment of a fee before the exercise of the franchise, there was probably no other practice quite as foreign to the expanding suffrage traditions of Virginia's history as the poll tax. The only precursor to this tax was a capitation tax levied intermittently, the first such tax appearing in 1623 in the form of a levy of ten pounds of tobacco to meet the debt arising from defenses against local Indians. Free Negroes and whites were required by law to pay a capitation tax until 1787. In 1813, a capitation tax on all free Negroes and mulattoes not bound out as apprentices was imposed in an effort to pressure the state's black population to either become apprentices or leave Virginia. By 1816, the tax was abolished, not to appear again until 1850 when another tax was imposed on free Negroes between the ages of twenty-one and fifty-five to finance the colonization then underway in Liberia. During 1860, an eighty cent capitation tax on all free male Negroes and whites twenty-one years of age and over was imposed. The following year, the discriminatory 1850 act was repealed, thus making capitation taxes uniform for whites and Negroes. Starting in 1876, a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting was levied in the state, but with the introduction of the Readjuster regime, the tax was removed, not having produced the anticipated revenues and not having become an effective controlling device. Thus when the new state constitution of 1902 containing a poll tax provision, among other franchise restricting features, was reclaimed, the state was making a departure from its historical traditions of taxation and of a legally unrestricted franchise. There was little solid evidence beyond conjecture as to whether the results would be those that were desired.

In chronicling the political history of the poll tax from its adoption until 1950, it becomes evident that it is a story of two different views of government and of the degree of participatory democracy allowed by each. It must be admitted that most arguments did not reach such an abstract plane of discussion, often being nothing more than a demagogic appeal to the fears and prejudices of the electorate. But even in these instances, a careful examination of the argument reveals the views of popular participation held by the speaker. This can be illustrated by reference to two statements of position delivered at a time when the poll tax was gaining increased attention.