New Jersey’s Foundation of Democratic Exclusion

The impact of New Jersey’s current law, particularly on people of color, cannot be properly understood outside of the racist history from which it grew.

By the 1830s, New Jersey was home to more enslaved Africans than all of New England combined.[xxxvi] Though it formally banned the importation of enslaved Africans in 1786, the state maintained slavery in some form until at least March 27, 1865, two weeks before the Confederacy surrendered.[xxxvii

While slavery was common, free Black people in New Jersey were initially permitted to vote. Under the state’s first written Constitution of 1776, all “inhabitants…of full age” could vote as long as they met the property and residency qualifications.[xxxviii] 

That changed in 1807 when the state passed a law limiting the franchise to white male citizens over 21 years of age.[xxxix] New Jersey was the first state in the Northeast to limit the franchise to white residents. At the time, only seven other states explicitly prohibited Black people from voting: Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Ohio.[xl]

With little debate, [xli] New Jersey wrote its restrictions on Black suffrage into its 1844 Constitution, crystalizing racial exclusion in its foundational governing document. New Jersey did not ultimately extend the right to vote to Black people until the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted in 1870. Even then, the state legislature refused to ratify the amendment.[xlii] Ironically, and despite New Jersey’s reticence, the first Black person to vote after the Fifteenth Amendment became the law of the land was Thomas Mundy Peterson in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.[xliii]

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