Election Fraud and Voter Suppression: 18th-century Style

Prewar Politics (<1775)

October 20, 2016
by Michael Cecere Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

There was certainly no love lost between two of the three Virginia gentlemen from Prince William County who stood for office in the county’s 1761 election for the House of Burgesses. Five years earlier, in 1756, Henry Peyton’s petition to the House of Burgess accusing Henry Lee II of electoral misconduct (specifically that “he had treated the Freeholders [of Prince William County], to engage their votes” prior to the election) resulted in Lee’s humiliating resignation from that body.1 While it is unclear how Lee specifically “treated” the freeholders, it is likely that he broke the law by providing them with refreshment prior to the closing of the poll on election day.

It was perfectly acceptable for candidates in Virginia to provide the residents of their county with food and drink after an election. In fact, it was expected that the winning candidates do so.   Immediately following his election to the 1st Virginia Convention in 1774, Col. George Washington provided the populace of Fairfax County with a hogshead of toddy and sponsored a ball in the evening.2 Henry Lee likely made the mistake of “treating” the freeholders of Prince William County too soon, and thus, when Henry Peyton accused him of breaking the law via a petition to the House of Burgesses, Lee admitted fault and resigned.

Henry Lee’s absence from the House of Burgesses was brief; just two years later, in 1758, he was elected (along with Henry Peyton) to represent Prince William County in the colonial assembly. A petition was submitted to the House of Burgesses from a freeholder of Prince William that claimed that Mr. Peyton had received ineligible votes, but the petitioner failed to pursue his claim and his complaint was dropped.3 Three years later, Henry Peyton and Henry Lee ran for re-election. The entrance of a third candidate, John Baylis, created a three man contest for two seats.

The days prior to the 1761 election in Prince William County were very rainy, making passage over the county creeks and streams difficult. On the eve of the election two of the candidates, Henry Peyton and John Baylis, paid a visit to the county sheriff, who was charged with overseeing the election. Henry Peyton asked the sheriff if he would keep the polls open a second day to allow those who might find it difficult to reach the courthouse in Dumfries more time to do so.4 The sheriff was willing to do so, but Mr. Baylis, who was either unaware that Mr. Peyton had planned to make this request or had a change of heart about it, announced that since the third candidate, Mr. Lee, was not present, he could not agree to the change. Undeterred, Henry Peyton sent messengers to the far reaches of Prince William County with the false news that the polls would be open an extra day.5

With many of the creeks still swollen on election day, Henry Peyton made arrangements to bring some of his supporters across one particular flooded creek by boat. When they had all crossed he offered to buy the boat from its owner, who asked why Peyton wished to purchase it. Peyton answered that, “if he could get it he would split it to Pieces, to prevent the other Freeholders [presumably Lee and Baylis supporters, from] getting over.6

As the sun set on election day and it appeared that all of the freeholders who desired to vote had voted, the sheriff was urged to close the polls, but he refused, declaring that he intended to keep the poll open until midnight. When one of the poll takers objected, the sheriff whispered to him that he would close the poll as soon as express riders that Mr. Peyton had sent out that day had returned. Mr. Lee, who was unaware that messengers had been sent out, overheard the sheriff and complained that he was not behaving impartially.7 Lee declared that had he known about Peyton’s messengers, he would have sent out his own messengers. As it turned out, several hours passed with no new voters, so the Sheriff announced the poll’s closure sometime after midnight.8

The next morning, approximately fifteen supporters of Henry Lee II, believing that the poll had been extended a second day (thanks to Mr. Peyton’s messengers) arrived at the still-flooded creek in hopes of making their way to Dumfries to vote for Mr. Lee.9 We don’t know whether Mr. Peyton had successfully destroyed the boat that his supporters used the day before, but it didn’t matter anyway; the poll had closed and the election was over.

The results of the election were close and challenged by the losing candidate. It took the Committee of Elections and Privileges a year to resolve. When the votes were initially counted, the county clerk announced that John Baylis and Henry Lee II had won (Lee succeeding by only three votes over Peyton).10 Peyton challenged the results in a petition to the House of Burgesses and after their investigation (in which they chose to ignore the shenanigans pulled by Mr. Peyton concerning the misleading information and desire to prevent Lee supporters from reaching the poll) they found that seven of Henry Lee’s votes were invalid because they were cast by persons who did not meet the requirements to vote.11

However, the House of Burgesses also found that ten of Henry Peyton’s votes were invalid for similar reasons, so in the end, the House of Burgesses found that Henry Lee II was the victor by a margin of six votes.12

Henry Lee II would keep his seat in the Virginia legislature through the American Revolution and into the early years of Virginia’s new state government. He served in the House of Burgesses, the five Virginia Conventions, and the Virginia State Senate until his death in 1787. Of course, Lee’s other claim to fame was to be the father of several prominent children, his most famous being a dashing cavalry officer in the Revolutionary War and future governor of Virginia, Light Horse Harry Lee. There is no word on whether Light Horse Harry Lee borrowed any of the election tactics used in his father’s generation, but it is certainly clear that other politicians, up to today, have.


1 H.R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1752-58 (Richmond, VA: Colonial Press, 1909), 8:352.

2 Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-77 (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 27-28.

3 McIlwaine, Journals of the House of Burgesses, 9:98.

4 John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-65 (Richmond, VA: Colonial Press, 1907), 10:129.

5 Ibid., 129.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 129-130.

8 Ibid., 130.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *