January 12th, 2016
The Power of Our Vote
The following is an excerpt from Road Map to Power, Chapter 4: Engineering the Great Society
Jefferson City, only 30 minutes from my adopted home of Columbia, was no stranger to me. Many times, I had made the climb up the state capitol building’s white steps to gaze upon the murals lining the rotunda depicting important moments in Missouri history. With my wife and three-year-old child accompanying me, however, this visit was different. This day was personal. Standing in front of a black-robed judge in this house of democracy, I took the oath to become a United States citizen. What my spouse and son had gained as a birthright, I had achieved through an elaborate process set forth by the U.S. State Department. The rules of the day required a wait of five years after receiving my green card to apply for full citizenship. Since my card arrived in 1971, it set me up for an historical happenstance: I would become eligible for this honor in 1976. The significance was not lost on me or the nearly 100 people who joined me in taking this oath. As we congratulated one another, complete strangers embarking upon the American dream, we reflected on our good fortune to complete this journey in the year the United States was celebrating its bicentennial.
Later that fall, I exercised one of my newly established rights. Standing in line at Fairview Elementary School, I cast my vote in the election pitting Jimmy Carter against Gerald Ford. I remember paying extra attention to the diversity of people engaging in this act. If you don’t vote by mail, the next time you queue up waiting to fill out your ballot, I encourage you to also take a look at the composition of your fellow voters. I can safely assume that it will be made up of men and women of a variety of races, some born in the United States, others from countries around the world. Some will be well-to-do and own their homes; others will live on someone else’s land and have little prospect for work or savings. We can also assume that a large portion of the population will be absent from this line because they choose not to participate. In national elections during a presidential year, voter turnout will barely exceed 50%, whereas in years where the next commander-in-chief is not on the ballot, turnout is almost always less than 40%.
Maybe if we all had a better understanding of the evolution of suffrage and the efforts to allow such a broad swath of Americans the opportunity to engage in this civil process, the right to vote would not be taken so much for granted. During the time of the inking of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and later, the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, women and people of color were not allowed to vote (although in four states, freed slaves were allowed). White men who did not own property were also excluded. In some states, there were religious tests not only for the privilege to vote but also to hold political office.
From a contemporary perspective, these restrictions certainly pour cold water on the principles of equality and the right to pursue liberty advocated in the Declaration of Independence. However, no issue served more to undermine the radical and revolutionary principles of our most cherished and historic documents than the treatment of the African slave. That is not to say there didn’t exist loud voices decrying this horrific practice. In fact, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence listed this grievance:
“He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.… [determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”
Jefferson doesn’t mince words regarding the abhorrence of slavery; it represents a high profile example of how many of the founding fathers recognized the hypocrisy of a burgeoning government promoting equality while accepting the enslavement of a people. Unfortunately, many of the framers of the document had a vested interest in slavery and viewed this statement as an accusation not only against the king but also against themselves. How could they criticize the king for this action when they condoned the system? Faced with losing a large contingent of supporters, this grievance was left out of the final draft. One can only imagine how the alternative choice of including this objection in the Declaration of Independence may have shaped history differently.
Instead, the issue of slavery housed within a democracy continued to plague the framers of the Constitution when facing the issue of taxation and representation. Southern states wanted slaves to be counted in their census and thus increase the proportion of seats in the House of Representatives. Thus, they unabashedly supported the idea of blacks being included in their numbers for proposals to widen their influence while working to ensure these same people would be barred from the opportunity to send their representatives to Congress. Naturally, not everyone was on board with the proposal and a compromise was approved: Slaves would count as “3/5 of all other persons.” If being forbidden the right to vote wasn’t defaming enough, now black slaves in this country were considered less than a whole person.
In retrospect, many of today’s teachers and historians have attempted to debunk the egalitarian and infallible mythos of our early leaders. With the record described above, and even without touching on the plight of Native Americans, immigrant populations, and women of all races, they certainly have a valid argument. It is just as important, however, to understand the cultural and political context in which they were operating. Here were 13 loosely affiliated states with competing motivations and agendas attempting to create a fledging nation. Distrustful of powerful, central governments, coming up with agreed upon rules and regulations was an uphill battle. Many of the big-picture questions that would threaten to break up this alliance, such as slavery, were put on the back burner.
While our founding fathers’ record on human rights was certainly mixed, their genius came in the form of a legal document that could be changed and address the contentious issues as circumstances and viewpoints evolved. In fact, of the 17 Constitutional Amendments enacted in the more than 200 years since the Bill of Rights was ratified, nine either directly increased the number of people allowed to vote, eliminated slavery and similar practices, or widened the scope of who was protected by the laws of the land.
This commitment to inclusion remains the legacy of the American experiment: A government’s primary purpose is to protect the rights of its citizens and promote their opportunities for success.