Art 1 – Sect 1 – Qualifications for Voting

 David Bowman

As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.

Federalist #52 (James Madison)

The question of who should choose the Representatives for the House of Representatives occupied a good debate at the Convention. Even today the arguments rage over the evils of the Framers who “excluded” persons from the vote which was eventually corrected via Amendment or conflict, but in any case never forgiven.

Like most things, one has to go back to the source to determine if that was the truest intention of the Framers. Certainly we would and do see things differently today with regard to who can vote. But rather than assume that the Framers “hated” any particular persons or group, why not look into the history and see if that was really the “original intention” of the Constitution?

The debate over the qualifications for Members of the House was intense, but the qualifications for the voters was equally heated. Amazingly enough however, it seems that after beating their head against the walls for time, the Framers at the Convention had an epiphanic moment and realized that the entire purpose of the Constitution in the first place was to limit the power of the Federal Government.

That being the case, wouldn’t it best, they asked, to simply allow the States to decide who would choose their Representatives?

It’s not as simple a question as it appears at first, nor is it quite the brilliant solution that it might have seemed at first either. Indeed, the Framers were clearly wrestling with the ideology of whether to permit slavery as well as who would be allowed to vote, specifically with regards to property ownership. The idea to limit voting isn’t as farfetched as it would seem to us today.

The property owner was seen as having an investment in the society and a vested interest in insuring that rights and liberty were maintained. One Framer, Gouverneur Morris, actually feared that the “poor,” if allowed to vote, would simply sell their votes to “the rich.” Whether he believed that to be a physical selling or a functional selling via influential promising of benefits is not clear to us today, but certainly he would have understood the idea that voters (of all stripes) could and would be influenced by money.

Still, the argument came back to the idea of the limiting of the Federal Government, and while any number of ideas for qualifications could have been adopted, the overwhelming belief was very simply that the wisdom of the People of each State was preferable to the imposition of outside standards which could have resulted in scenario in which a person in a given State had the right to vote for a State representative, but NOT a Federal one. That, as James Wilson wrote, “would be very hard & disagreeable for the same person” to be included in one election, but excluded from another.

Indeed, as Madison wrote in Federalist #52, the simple and best way to protect Liberty AND establish a stable central government with sufficient powers to function was to allow each State to set the criteria for voting. That hardly sounds like the “evil white slave holders” we’ve been pounded with for decades. Granted, they – in some cases – may have been slave holders or may have believed that the poor should not vote[1], but in their WISDOM the recognized that ultimately the power of the People to decide these issues was at the State level.

In fact, given the history of the States, it was clear that Government at the lowest possible level was preferable and seen, as Madison said, as the best defender of Liberty.

However, a problem remained. That was the States had both widely variant qualifications and the simply idea that the proposed Federal Congress still needed to have the gravitas to function appropriately and with the trust of the People and the States.

Looking at each of the various States, the solution to allow them to set their own criteria was tacked on to a simple requirement – that anyone allowed to vote for the most numerous branch of the State Government, was automatically allowed to vote for the House of Representatives. It was a masterful stroke. Some States (Pennsylvania and Georgia) had no “upper house” and most State Legislatures appointed Governors and Judges. Indeed, only two States, Massachusetts and New York, did Governors have any veto privileges whatsoever. [2]

By setting the standards for the House Electors ostensibly to the States and requiring that anyone who could vote for the Legislature could vote for the House, the Framers knew two things would happen. First the people of any given State would have a greater say and a greater reason to become involved in the State Government. Secondly, I believe that they understood that voting rights would ultimately be expanded as the States began to compare themselves one to another. I have come to believe that the Framers, unable to solve the issue of slavery, and equally concerned about suffrage, had subtly maneuvered the Constitution to encourage the States to solve the issue themselves. Ultimately they failed, but one has to admire their attempt.

Still, they came upon a valuable and workable solution. Put the issue back in the hands of the States with a simple requirement that anyone who could participate in the States government was eligible to participle[ate in the national government. That would insure that the people and the governments would have the common interest of liberty, dependent upon one another and the government would rely upon the sympathy of the People.

Dave Sig copy

[1] I love this story of Benjamin Franklin when asked about property and voting: “Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. In the mean time the man has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers – but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now, gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass? “  – The Words We Live By, Linda R Monk, pg 28

[2] America’s Constitution – A Biography– Akhil Reed Amir, Chap 2, pg 59


Posted on January 26, 2013, in Art 1 Sect 2, Article 1, Constitution, Dave, Electoral Qualifications and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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