A couple of weeks ago, while doing research for a subject we were discussing on the blog I write for the Payson Roundup Web site, I ran across something you just have to hear -- some comments made by our founding fathers while they were debating who should, and should not, be allowed to vote. I'll bet they startle you as much as they startled me.
Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution defines who is allowed to vote for members of the House of Representatives. As originally written, it states:
"The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature." In other words, the question of who could vote was left up to each individual state. If you could vote for state representatives, you could vote for federal ones.
In 1787, while the Constitution was being written, the committee which was studying that article held a debate. A delegate from New York named Gouverneur Morris (that's his first name; he was not a governor), proposed that the article be changed to read that only "freeholders" could vote. A freeholder is someone who owns land, and, at that time, it referred to someone who owned a considerable amount of land, not just a home or small piece of property.
Two things startled me as I read the reference.
You've probably heard of John Jay. He was, among other things, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was also a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
What was his attitude toward giving the vote to the same people who took up arms and fought and died during the Revolutionary War?
Listen to this motto: "Those who own the country ought to govern it."
In other words, if you're nothing but a homeowner, a businessman, a banker, a doctor or lawyer, or, heaven forbid, an ordinary working person, you don't get to vote. Even worse than that, our friend Gouverneur Morris, and others like him, referred to the ordinary people as "poor reptiles."
And listen to just a few of the remarks made during the debate:
MR. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS (N.Y.): "Give the vote to people who have no property and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them."
MR. JAMES MADISON (Va.): "In future times, a great majority of the people will not only be without land, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation. In which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands. Or, what is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition, in which case, there will be equal danger on another side."
MR. JOHN MERCER (Md.): "The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than [this article as it now reads]. The people cannot know and judge of the characters of candidates."
And there were other, equally hair-raising comments made about our ability to run our own country, but the most startling thing of all is that, despite all the badmouthing of the common man, the vote taken in committee after the debate was 8-1 against making "freeholders" the only voters. Maybe they realized in the end that the vote was exactly what the common people had fought and died for. And maybe they realized that the common people might just be willing to fight and die for it again it if were taken away.
Next week: Another surprising insight into our early history.