Very soon the Political Silly Season will be in ultra high gear and people will be once again running loudly for public office. They’ll be after our votes, and will tell us whatever it is they think we want to hear and will, in the process, paint a gorgeous , glorious picture of a country that never was.
If we will just give them our vote, they promise to “Take Our Country Back”, which I suspect may well be a trademarked phrase by now.
Back to the time when Everything Was Wonderful.
Just how far back?
Perhaps back to the days of “The Founding Fathers Who Were Always Right - In a Country That Was Always Right - Until THEY (insert target group here) Messed It All Up.”
So, who gets to vote on this stuff?
Surely, in the “Greatest Nation On Earth That Ever Was – Bar None”, all of us acting collectively have always been asked to make the choice of who should lead us. Right?.
Well, not really…
In the dim recesses of our collective memories, we know that voting rights for women and blacks were things that People Fought About A Long Time Ago, and sometimes for a long time. Still, the “Founding Fathers Were Perfect and Omniscient” crowd has a singularly curious one-note view of history.
The Past was always Better Than Now. We need to go Back to Better.
Back to Better...
If you can follow their logic, back in those early days of the Republic, everything was rosy and peachy-keen. People lived without lots of gub’mint interference in their lives, and everything worked fine – just like God intended.
After all, our nation was designed to be all about Private Enterprise and We, The People – no King for us! Give us leaders with real business experience in meeting payrolls – like, say, plantation owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Oh, wait…Washington and Jefferson didn't actually PAY their workers...
We, The People?
So, let’s take a look at this “We, The People” thing. In fact, let’s look specifically at voting – at who could and who couldn’t vote. One of our esteemed Founding Fathers – John Adams of Massachusetts – had some very definite views about who should (or should not) be able to vote. He wrote, in a letter to James Sullivan on May 26, 1776:
“Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”
Imagine the societal dangers if “all ranks” were prostrated “… to one common level.” Sheesh, the next thing you know, they’ll want to use our bathrooms…!
But when it comes to voting, that’s not all!
Sure, we all know there were some minor age and residency qualifications on the books back in olden times: in some places, you had to be 21 to vote, in others, 24. In some places, residency could mean two years in the same place. Plus, for starters, you had to be white. And male. Still, no big deal. Besides, that's all gone now.
Otherwise, things were pretty much as they are now, as some folks would have you think.
So let’s take a closer look on how easy it actually was to vote in early America, in the days of the Founding Fathers. If, of course, you were free, white, male, and a long-term resident over 21...
Secret Ballot? - Hardly!
During the colonial period and into the early Federal period, elections were public events. Both voters and candidates gathered at the appointed time, usually at the local courthouse, and the voters publicly indicated their choice of candidate. My own experience with Virginia records shows that for early 19th century Presidential elections, lists showing the candidates’ names and the names of those who voted for them, can sometimes – but not universally – be found in the county clerk’s record books.
A Religious Test – Really?
During colonial days – and prior to the adoption and widespread acceptance of the first amendment to the Constitution – if you happened to be a Roman Catholic or a Jew, you were pretty much out of luck when it came to voting in many parts of North America. Even if you weren’t specifically banned from voting (as you were in early 18th century New York), you couldn’t in good conscience take the required oath to the monarch as both head of state and head of the established (official) church. And while it didn’t affect voting itself, many states adopted a provision in their constitutions that prohibited all but those who believed in a Supreme Being from holding elected office. No agnostics or atheists need apply. Some states still have this clause in their constitutions.
Give Me Land, Lots of Land … Otherwise, No Vote
When it came to voting, our Founding Fathers were very concerned about riff-raff (see John Adams above). Heaven forbid the landless and unemployed have a say in running things. That’s why they wrote into law basic minimum property requirements for voting.
For example, at one time in Virginia, you needed to actually own (not rent) 25 acres of land in order to vote. This “landowner” provision was very effective in disenfranchising lots of the folks who lived on the western frontier (i.e., present-day West Virginia) from messing things up by voting, since a great many of them simply squatted or leased their “back-of-beyond” land. In colonial New York, it wasn’t so much about acreage as it was about land value. If what you owned wasn’t worth at least forty pounds (big, big bucks in those days), fuhgeddaboutit. New Hampshire was the first state to abolish the “minimum property” voting requirement in 1792.
Readin’ and Writin’ and … (Well, Readin’ Anyway…)
We all know about the "Jim Crow" literacy tests that were put in place to make sure that former slaves (who were prohibited from learning to read by many “slave-state” statutes prior to Emancipation), could not vote. However, not as well known is the fact that many Northern abolitionist states enacted literacy provisions to ensure that the unlettered Irish Catholics flooding the shores of the United States to escape conditions in mid-19th century Ireland couldn’t spoil things by voting. Connecticut adopted a literacy test in 1855; kind of a “No Irish Need Vote” provision. After the Civil War, a number of states discovered that there were adult white Protestant males who were (wait for it…) illiterate, so many laws got modified to “grandfather” in those who could legally vote before the poll tax provisions were put in place.
Poll Taxes – Goodness me, what’s that all about?
As the 19th century progressed, and Congress by fiat declared that former slaves (all of whom happened to be black, or nearly so) were actually Real People and Citizens of these United States, lots of local governments suddenly decided that education was a Good Thing. So, they enacted a tax to support it and made paying it a requirement of voting (i.e., a Poll Tax).
Don’t have enough cash to pay the poll tax this year, Mr. Son of Former Slave? Not to worry…Mr. Rich White Guy here will do your voting for you. Don’t worry though; he’ll be looking out for your interests, and that will save you all the hassle of voting.
Turning Back The Clock of History?
I could go on and on about this, but I think you get my point. Nearly universal suffrage – almost all of us being able to vote for our leaders - is a Good Thing – in spite of what most of the Founding Fathers believed.
Our ancestors – the ones we spend so much of our time researching – gave both blood and treasure so that we could do this.
So, when I hear folks like a Texas Governor suggest that the 17th Amendment (direct election of US senators by popular vote) wasn’t such a good idea, I get a little bit uneasy. Yeah, right. I’m sure the folks in the wildly popular and efficient New York State Legislature would pick just the right US Senators for me and thus save me the trouble of thinking about it…
And then, what can I say to those who advocate the return to the days of the all-wise and all-knowing Founding Fathers, when only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population could vote because the rest were … well, riff-raff…
As we say around here – fuhgeddaboutit!