Thursday, July 15, 2021

John Brown Farm and New York’s Voter Suppression History

voter suppressionThis year we are celebrating New York State’s acquisition of John Brown Farm 125 years ago.  And it is good that we are.

But let us also recall a 200th Anniversary linked to the John Brown Farm – a connection that has particular importance this year as we witness a voter suppression spree around our country.  Two hundred years ago, that was us–our New York ancestors–enacting explicit rules to keep blacks from voting.

John Brown and his family came here to the Adirondacks as part of an effort to counteract New York State-sponsored suppression of voting rights for black men.

We are now seeing a wave of voter suppression efforts in states controlled by Republican legislators fearful of losing their majority power.  Well, guess what?  That’s exactly what was going on here in good old New York back in the early 1800’s.  We New Yorkers apparently were leaders in voter suppression.  We even put it into the state constitution!  That’s more than the states are doing today.

Here’s our New York story.  After the Revolution, New York allowed white and black (free) men to vote (not women, of course) if they had $100 worth of property.  The idea (not unique to NYS) was that if you didn’t have some wealth, you weren’t really qualified to make decisions about the government.  In 1821, as the idea of a broader democracy was gaining power, and the farming/working people were demanding more say in the government, the New York Constitution was amended to eliminate the property requirement for white men.  But at the same time, the bar for black men was raised to $250.

Slavery in New York was nearly abolished by then, but obviously granting full citizenship rights to black people was a different issue than eliminating slavery.  The political party in power was afraid that black voters would go against them.  Sound familiar?  Five years later, only 16 black men qualified to vote in New York City.

Here’s where John Brown Farm comes in.  Supporters of black voting rights tried for years to eliminate this discrimination.  They managed to force a statewide vote on the issue in 1846, but lost overwhelmingly, winning only 30% of the vote.  Interestingly, here in the Adirondacks, the vote was the exact opposite.  Essex County was 71% in favor of black voting rights, and Clinton County 73%.  Other northern and western counties were also positive.

Gerrit Smith, abolitionist leader and wealthy landowner, was deeply involved in that 1846 effort, and was deeply disappointed. He decided to help black men vote another way – by getting them land worth $250.  He created the Timbuctoo experiment in present day Lake Placid.  John Brown came to help out.

Everyone knows that Brown turned his attention to the front-line battle against slavery elsewhere in the country, first in Kansas and then at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  But his family stayed, as part of the free black community, and his body was brought back here to be buried.

The year after Brown was buried, the same year New Yorkers gave a majority of their votes to anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln for President, they again rejected equal voting rights for black men.  The statewide referendum was defeated 60-40.   Once again, Essex County went the other way, with 58% in favor.

Fast forward to 1869, after all those legendary New York State contributions to the Union victory – most men, most deaths, tons of armaments, finance – and New Yorkers still rejected the idea of equal voting rights for blacks.  It wasn’t until the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1870, guaranteeing black men the right to vote, that New York was forced to stop this Empire State voter suppression.

John Brown Farm endures not just as a memorial to one man’s ferocious opposition to slavery.  It also symbolizes the complicated history of our own politics and democracy.  Three times our ancestors had the opportunity to correct an obvious offense against democracy, and they didn’t do it.  The struggle for freedom and equal rights is always with us—all of us.

(John Brown State Historic Park 125th Anniversary Commemoration will be held at the John Brown Farm, Lake Placid, NY, July 17, from 3-5 pm, sponsored by John Brown Lives!)

Photo: A voter page from the 1860 election, the referendum on black voting rights, from the Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown. Provided by Peter Slocum.


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Peter Slocum lives in Keene and is a trustee of the Essex County Historical Association and a volunteer at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm.      

45 Responses

  1. Dave Pietkiewicz says:

    Your story is an informative little slice of history; however, with all due respect, voter suppression, which occurred 200 years ago (and was pretty much universal at that time for multiple reasons), has nothing at all to do with the drive to require voter identification today. Proper identification is required for just about everything in life today. Why not to vote? According to our Constitution, one must be a citizen to vote, correct? This idea that the move for requiring identification is aimed at “voter suppression” is political propaganda.

    • Susan Weber says:

      We have a fine system of voter identification here already. When you register to vote, you have to prove who you are and that you are qualified to vote in your district. You have to sign the book to register, and every time you go to the polls, the poll worker requires you to sign the book right below your previous signature. Then she compares them. this is all the voter ID we;’ve ever needed. It’s just fine.

  2. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    Thanks Peter Slocum for a very informative article.

  3. Keith Hofler says:

    Voter suppression by Republicans Really? Love the history hate your misplaced opinions!!!

    • Dana says:

      Yes, voter suppression by (gasp!) Republican legislators! Making it harder to vote is voter suppression. You can polish these legislative turds by calling them something else, but they are still turds.

    • ADKresident2 says:

      Stop lying. You’re not fooling anyone.

  4. Harv Sibley says:

    Agree, excellent historical article. But please skip the current day voter suppression narrative. Its hogwash. We are a nation of laws and regulations. Register, vote. Its not hard. And for all the talk of voter suppression these days, where are these suppressed people? I do not see them on CNN or other outlets, just the flapping gums who continue to push this falsehood. Its really quite simple: when you show up to vote, show ID or give the last of your SSN. For those voting by mail, register early and do your thing, perfectly ok. Voting is one of the most important rights pf our citizenry. Lets honor it and preserve its integrity.

    • Dana says:

      Yes Harv – let’s ignore the elephant in the room. If we can ignore 1/6, we can certainly ignore the return to Jim Crow being championed by the GOP as well.

      • Harv Sibley says:

        You miss the point, unfortunately. This is about voting rights for all citizens. Not the 1/6 debacle

        • Jim S. says:

          You miss the point Harv, adding more requirements to our simple voting process (that has worked for hundreds of years without any widespread fraud) is textbook voter suppression.

          • JohnL says:

            Jim, you talk about ‘adding more requirements’ to vote. These ‘added’ requirements were/are necessary because of the ‘adding’ of mail in ballots to anyone who wanted them, ostensibly because of COVID? That was a drastic change and anyone with a scintilla of common sense knows it offered multiple new opportunities to cheat. Opportunities that needed to be addressed, and were, in many states.
            You talk about changing what’s worked for hundreds of years. We used to register to vote (with identification), go to the polls on election day, show your identification, and vote. Here’s the only point I agree with you on. COVID’s over. Let’s go back to that.

            • Jim S. says:

              There was no cheating. I have not needed to show ID to vote ever. The republicans are making it more difficult for people to vote in the hopes that fewer people have access.

              • JohnL says:

                Point by point.
                Yes there was cheating. No question. Settled science. Probably enough to change the election.
                You certainly know whether or not you’ve been asked to show ID or not. If not, either your polling people weren’t doing their duty or you live in a small voting district where you’re well known.
                Not making it harder to vote. Making it harder to cheat. Again, NQ..SS.
                Have a nice day, Jim.

    • EDP says:

      It’s worth keeping an open mind and understanding some of the specific changes that are being rolled out, with sudden urgency (motivations largely ascribed depending on where you source your news) in all of the various red states. Before dismissing this effort as a simple voter ID exercise, consider those things that may not directly impact you, but are relevant to others such as the prospect of standing in line for 7 hours, travelling (sometimes without a car) to remote polling stations as yours has been removed, having a smaller window to coordinate taking time off from a second or third job in order to vote, just to name a few. It’s not hard to imagine that, at the margins, this will have a very meaningful impact, which is exactly the point.

    • ADKresident2 says:

      Nothing but voter suppression, by Republicans and only Republicans (gee, I wonder why?) if you’re honest about it and know your history.

  5. Hazel S Fern says:

    My grandfather worked on farms in Dover, NY and Millbrook. NY, Millerton, NY Wingdale, NY Connecticut, Poughkeepsie, NY Amenia, NY and many others. Farm hand’s delivered my grandmothers children maids, and farm owners, all 17 children. Frank Brothers was the last place they worked.

  6. Pat Smith says:

    It was the Republican Party that passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The Democrats wanted to continue slavery and expand it into the new states joining the US.

  7. Peter says:

    Asinine articke written by an unifuemed lefty. A) John Briwn was a murderer, not a hero. Mentally ill. Get your facts right. B) Thetevis no voter suppression, period. This belongs with your Rusdian collusion rants. Zero proof. Much more proof of voter cheating in the last election. Why not talk about the recent findings in GA and AZ? Fraud and gas lightibg cretin

  8. Peter says:

    Asinine article written by an uninformed lefty. A) John Brown was a murderer, not a hero. Mentally ill. Get your facts right. B) There’s no voter suppression, period today. Asking for ID is too much now? Please. This belongs with your Russian collusion rants. Zero proof, all lies. Much more proof of voter cheating in the last election. Why not talk about the recent findings in GA and AZ? Fraud and gas lighting cretin

  9. Vanessa B says:

    Oi I figured I’d wait and see how people received this one. Only thing I can add is that lots and lots of citizens don’t have ID! You’re not gonna hear about that on Faux News or wherever.

    My right to vote if I’m too old or young for a drivers license is just as important as everyone else’s. Another thing Republicans are not saying is that the current slate of new laws, which indeed are very much tied to their resounding election loss in 2020, and 1/6, go far beyond requiring voting ID. Say you’re home bound, and cannot drive to polls or a mailbox to drop off your ballot. I believe Republicans in Texas are making it illegal for someone to drive your ballot to a drop box, or to even have the drop box at all!

    You all gotta come at us with something besides what you heard Tucker say for me to engage further here. Republicans absolutely 100% know they cannot win a fair national election in modern America, so they are scrambling to change the rules.

  10. Kelly Nessle says:

    Wow–interesting information about NY suppressing the vote for black Americans. Sure takes a lot of time to change attitudes, doesn’t it?

  11. Joan Grabe says:

    This is what happens when you dictate your message into your phone. So thanks for the translation
    But there was no cheating in the last election even if you can not reconcile your mind to the fact that Joe Biden won by 7 million votes, the former AG Wm. Barr says there was no fraud in the last election, the former federal election official said it was the cleanest election ever, over 60 lawsuits filed by allies of the former President were thrown out and there were NO recent findings in either Georgia or Arizona. Other than those facts for you to consider, this lefty sympathizes with you as she felt the same way when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton did not get elected.

  12. Susan says:

    The only voter suppression being done by the GOPers is the suppression of ILLEGAL votes, which what the dems need to actually “win”.

  13. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Dave Pietkiewicz says: “This idea that the move for requiring identification is aimed at “voter suppression” is political propaganda.”

    Whatever you say Dave! Some of us know better! What about not being able to hand voters refreshing water while they’re waiting in long hot lines hey Dave! Political propaganda?

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Dana says: “Making it harder to vote is voter suppression.”

    > But of course Dana. If it were the democrats doing this we wouldn’t be hearing the end of it. All of those right-wing propagandists radio hosts would for once be telling their audience the truth and their flock would be praising them for it. No difference when they’re being lied to, or being told partial truths. Hypocrisy they call that.

    Dana also says: “Yes Harv – let’s ignore the elephant in the room. If we can ignore 1/6, we can certainly ignore the return to Jim Crow being championed by the GOP as well.”

    > They know their ideas aren’t popular Dana, or do not fit in with what most Americans value. They’re scared, and they don’t want to lose their power, so how do they solve that? Suppress the black vote for one. Or the poor! Change the laws! Some of us are of the mind that this may just backfire on them come election time. We shall see time will tell. One thing is for sure – If things were reverse and the left were trying to suppress Evangelicals at the polling booths, or whomever the bloc may be which leans red… can bet they’d be raising a storm. We can only hope the ignorance in this country reverses its course sometime soon.

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    EDP says: “…..the prospect of standing in line for 7 hours, travelling (sometimes without a car) to remote polling stations as yours has been removed, having a smaller window to coordinate taking time off from a second or third job in order to vote, just to name a few. It’s not hard to imagine that, at the margins, this will have a very meaningful impact, which is exactly the point.”

    > Biden won by at least 8 million votes in the last election EDP. The neocons figure if they can wipe out a certain percentage of the voters before the next election, they can win and make up for that 8 million vote deficit which they now are up against. They’re desperate! Just look at their actions! It’s pitiful! And they’re getting away with it (so far) which makes no sense to me. I would have never guessed that this country would sink so low in my lifetime! And O’ the hypocrisy!

  16. Charlie Stehlin says:

    ADKresident2 says: “… know your history.”

    > We only know the history we want to know ADK. Half the population can’t even read, or they read ‘Business Daily’, or ‘Golf Digest’, or ‘Oprah’…. and they’re to know our history! Yes we’re in trouble and it’s not what 71 million voters think!

  17. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Pat Smith says: “It was the Republican Party that passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The Democrats wanted to continue slavery and expand it into the new states joining the US.”

    > Too much information distorts the mind Pat…so I won’t bother trying to fact-correct you by having to look this up. What comes to mind immediately though is how long ago were these amendments enacted? And how are things different today compared to then? One thing is for sure…..the democrats of them days, and the republicans, are not what they are today, so this statement is very irrelevant to what is being talked about here on this thread.

    Without having to do much fact-checking on today’s political arena, one generally knows which party is more beneficial to blacks, gays, the poor, equal rights, the environment… name it, all things good. Anybody who is in their right mind, and hasn’t been living in a cave the past some years, knows which party benefits that partial list! But we’ll have someone jump on board and twist the truism which this is. Just watch!

    • Pat Smith says:

      Charlie Sterling says “Blah, blah, blah…” Reference my response to Vanessa for clarification, then find something more productive to do with your spare time.

  18. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Peter says: “Much more proof of voter cheating in the last election.”

    How is that Peter? Bring it forth! Both conservative and liberal judges (non-partisan)
    dismiss what you say as hogwash, but we’re to believe you. You’re a broken record which I hope is fixed soon for your grandchildren’s sake!

  19. JohnL says:

    Glad to see you’re back in force Charlie. Must’ve been away for a long weekend. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

  20. louis curth says:

    Peter Slocum’s article sheds the light of truth on America’s record of denying all kinds of people the right to vote. Maybe it would help if we could all just hit the pause button and reflect on the complicated history of this America that we are all part of. The facts are that we Americans have done some pretty wonderful things, but we’ve also don’t some pretty horrible things.

    The question for all of us, conservative or liberal, is how can we get our elected leaders to stop their lies, their silent approval of lies, and their hateful bombast and start honoring their oaths to the Constitution, and their pledges to work for the good of the people – all the people – and not just the zillionaires?

    Voting rests at the heart of our democracy, and it is crucially important! When we deny or impede some people their legal right to vote, we are hastening the end of America’s freedom for all of us – especially our children.

    Yes, voting needs to be safe and secure, but equally important, voting needs to be made as easy as pie so that every eligible voter can exercise their sacred right to vote freely and easily.

  21. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Yes thank you Louis, but your comment:
    “voting needs to be made as easy as pie so that every eligible voter can exercise their sacred right to vote freely and easily.”

    How do you get that bunch who are going in the opposite direction of this to “Stop!” Come hell or high water you just can’t fix them people. Unless of course their base was just a little more educated, stepped away from their ego’s, and were all for their country and the Constitution like they claim themselves to be!

  22. JoAnn Leichliter says:

    Please stick with history in such articles. A critique of 21st Century voting legislation is something your readers can do for themselves. Let them draw their own conclusions, no matter how great the temptation may be to pontificate or proselytize. They are, after all, adults, and I doubt that you have so many that you can afford to alienate half of them.

    • louis curth says:

      In the words of George Santayana; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

      Peter Slocum shed a light upon the squalid history of America’s voting discrimination, and the conclusion to be drawn is inescapable; Self-serving politicians must NOT be permitted to repeat the past by obstructing the right to vote of marginalized people, yet again, in today’s America.

  23. Mike says:

    which party objected to giving Blacks the right to vote?

  24. louis curth says:

    Which party?

    The racism of both political parties is irrefutable. Therefore, the neutrality of racism is a sad and shameful reality to be faced by all of us. We can either look this fact squarely in the eye and try to do better, or we can look away in uncomfortable silence, just as many of our elected north country Republicans continue to do in response to the lies and twisted fantasies spun by their leaders.

    If the arc of history truly does bend toward justice, then we must give credit to Brandon Loomis, Melissa Hart and their associates, and to other journalists like them, who persevere to bring us thought provoking articles involving racism, misogyny, poverty, environment, and much, much more. Their efforts help us all to better understand the racial and class inequalities that threaten America’s freedom and democracy, and endanger that precious legacy for ALL of America’s children.

    So, kudos and thank you for providing these venues that educate and empower, refine and rekindle the feeling of belonging among all of us who fancy ourselves to be part of this Adirondack north country “community.”

  25. John boy says:

    The Democrat shenanigans in the Battleground States in certain democratic controlled voting districts can be seen if one looks carefully. The Dems learned a lesson from when Hillary lost in 2016 so they were ready/prepared this last time to make Battleground voting go there way.for place holder Biden….. IMHO

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