Copyright notice

This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

Printer-friendly page

Free Suffrage

Free suffrage was a political concept heatedly discussed among North Carolinians in the mid-nineteenth century. The ownership of 50 acres of property or the payment of taxes had been a prerequisite for voting in certain instances since the colonial period. In the gubernatorial campaign of 1848, however, candidate David S. Reid accepted the proposal of leaders of his Democratic Party that this limitation on the franchise be removed, making free suffrage a key issue in his campaign against Whig candidate Charles Manly. Although Manly won a narrow victory, free suffrage had become important to many North Carolinians. In the 1850 governor's race, Reid won handily over Manly and the Democrats captured control of the state legislature. A free suffrage constitutional amendment continued to be debated in the General Assembly for several sessions until it finally became a reality in 1857, when it won in a popular referendum by a wide majority of 50,007 to 19,397. Estimates from the era indicate that 125,000 North Carolinians gained the right to vote with the state's adoption of free suffrage.


Lindley S. Butler, ed., The Papers of David Settle Reid (1993).

Paul D. Escott, Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 (1985).

Additional Resources:

1857 Session Laws, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Digital Collections:

Image Credit:

Govenor David S. Reid, ca.1861, in front of State Capitol, was instrumental in the free suffrage movement. Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives; N-55-10-16. Available from (accessed September 20, 2012).