One of the things I was taught starting in elementary school was that the founding fathers of the United States broke from England seeking freedom and a desire to see the Americas ruled democratically, with the people represented by a vote. Anyone would be able to run for office and could be chosen to represent their peers. As I got older, of course I learned about the inherent prejudices and injustices of the time.
I’ll be talking about our actual constitution itself here and its context at the time, as opposed to what we’ve come to think of it. A mythology has sprung up around it, with its writers being granted near-divinity. While it is a wonderfully written one, it remains simply a document put on parchment and its framers were only human. They were not infallible, they were not necessarily altruistic, and in some cases were self-serving.
We are not, in any way, living in the nation that the founding fathers envisioned. In some ways this is good and in others bad, but the simple idea that we should make their intentions our primary concern when deciding law or policy is foolish.
The Right to Vote
There isn’t even any mention of an individual’s voting rights in the Constitution until the addition of the fourteenth amendment in 1868. Previous to that point, the only mention of how voting would take place was in reference to the electoral college in the twelfth. Everything else was left up to the individual states.
Some voting laws can be understood. Age restrictions were put in place to help ensure that people choosing their leaders were mature enough to weigh the decision. A literacy requirement, in historical context, was meant to keep the process accessible to those who could be informed of the issues in a time before radio and television (this is a “benefit of the doubt” view, as the laws were terribly misused later). A requirement that a voter be a citizen made, and still makes, sense. Then, there are the other laws.
Black men weren’t guaranteed the right to vote by federal law for nearly a century after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, though some states did provide the right on their own. Women did not receive federal protections for their voting rights until 1920, though again there were already some states and territories that recognized women’s votes. Asians, Mexicans, and native Americans didn’t get the right to vote until years later, with Japanese immigrants being the last to be specifically provided the rights of citizenship in 1952 and all naturalized immigrants from Mexico getting to vote in 1975.
I learned about all of those things during my schooling, even if some were only presented as a footnote. Do you know what I didn’t learn until I did my own research? Citizenship and voting rights were tied to property ownership. It took 44 years for the ownership of land to be removed at the federal level as a requirement for the vote. However, the requirement was not barred at the local level.
It’s barely been 50 years since poll taxes were forbidden in the Constitution, and fewer since a federal law was put in place that banned literacy tests. Though neither expressly forbids the requirement of property ownership as a pass to vote, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively barred it by assumption.
Why Does This Matter?
Americans are raised being told that at the root of our system of government is our inalienable right to vote. “No taxation without representation!” was the rallying cry of the American Revolution and every citizen deserved to be heard. We’re told that our system of government was designed of the people, for the people, and by the people.
I submit the above as evidence that that has never, ever been true. It began with only the wealthy being enfranchised. In today’s terms, that means approximately 30% of Americans could not cast a vote based on property ownership. No one you know who is a renter would be heard.
The Continental Congress was made up of old rich white men and they framed a system of government that they could control through voting rights.
- Old – one had to be at least 21 years of age to vote. At the time the life expectancy was not yet 40 years. I feel it is important to note that the minimum age for impressment or conscription at the time was sixteen.
- Rich – only the owners of property could cast a vote.
- White – only white people could vote. Asians, native Americans, and free blacks received no protection of that right under federal law.
- Men – if you didn’t have a penis you did not choose your representation.
These truths are self evident. While it had been written that all men were afforded the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, only the wealthy ones were allowed to vote on what those things meant. Instead of nobility, our new nation was ruled by a wealthy elite. The argument that the Congress did not wish to infringe on states’ rights to govern themselves rings hollow when one considers that the first amendment provides the right of all citizens to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So, the poor were allowed to ask, but the rich were allowed to tell.
I’d like to say that there are innumerable individuals with more knowledge than I on this subject. I claim no expertise on state or federal law or precedent, and this is based entirely on my interpretation of the little I am familiar with.
*http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html The Constitution of the United States. I nearly didn’t link this, because it can be found so easily. Personally, I have it on my phone.
*http://archive.fairvote.org/righttovote/timeline.htm my primary source for changes to voters’ rights, outside of those in the US Constitution.
*I was unable to locate a solid source confirming the age of conscription/impressment during the Revolutionary War. I found a few references to fifteen-year-olds fighting and being eligible to join the Continental Army, but most stated sixteen.