Art 1 Sect 2 – The House of Representatives
David Ray Bowman
Over and again these days we face the fusillade of assaults on the value of the Constitution, usually phrased in terms expressing the idea that the Framers were a bunch of rich, bigoted, slave holding, misogynist, old white males from another time, antiquated and unenlightened and who had nothing in mind other than securing their own fame and fortune. The general thrust of the idea is that since the men who wrote the Constitution were such failures – in modern eyes – the entirety of the Constitution should simply be junked.
In 1971, with the nation embroiled in the Vietnam War, came the movement to extend the franchise to the eighteen year olds who were being drafted. The proposed amendment was ratified by the requisite number of States in just four months. The will of the people had been irresistible and was clearly demonstrated in the swift execution of an “explicit and authentic act” by them to change the Constitution. It remains the clearest demonstration of the Framers intention AND more importantly of their understanding of what they had been trying to do. Regardless of how any of them might have felt about the suffrage of eighteen year olds, they would have smiled on the manner in which the will of the People had been carried out.
The simple fact avoided by those who would abandon the Constitution (at least on the basis of the factors listed above) is that from the beginning, the Framers knew one fact would matter above all else: the ultimate fate of the Constitution lay in the hands, and in the will, of the People.
In deciding the qualifications for the House of Representatives, a great deal of discussion regarding the standard – of the day – ideals was presented. The ownership of real property which gave a citizen an investment in the structure and defense against any form of government was the standard of the day.
Of course in our times, we disagree. We have been conditioned to do so. But who was it that provided that conditioning? Was it the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s? Or perhaps it was simply the expansion of politically liberal ideologies? Maybe even it was the Supreme Court ruling of “one man, one vote” that seemed to overturn the idea of a gentrified voting system?
As the Convention weighed the different ideas, many of the leaders and the wise returned to the simple idea that the proposed Constitution would need the support of, and in one completely Democratic election, the votes of, the People. Anything that might dissuade them from support for the republican ideals the Framers sought, would spell doom for the Constitution.
Gouverneur Morris, as discussed previously, felt that the qualifications should be limited to property owners. Only a single State, Delaware, supported his position. As the debate swirled, eyes and ears turned to Benjamin Franklin. The aged philosopher, eyes still bright and twinkling reminded his compatriots that not that long ago, the “common people” and the “lower classes” of the American People had answered the call to arms and had fought heroically and effectively in the Revolutionary War. “If,” he argued, “Such men had enough virtue and public spirit to fight” for America, should they not also be allowed to vote?
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut further reminded the convention that “The people will not readily subscribe to the Natl. Constitution, if it should subject them to be disenfranchised.”
In the vein of thought moving through the Convention, the realization that the People would be the ultimate arbiters of the Constitution led men who’s natural inclination was to lean towards the traditions and practices of the day, to look to more enlightened and democratic forms for the proposed government. This included, as was ultimately decided, to provide for only three conditions to serve in the Peoples house: (1) twenty-five years of age, a reasonable requirement for ensuring a person is of sufficient maturity to serve others; (2) seven years a citizen, to ensure that anyone in the House had long ago left behind any loyalties to another nation or sovereign; and (3) be a inhabitant of the State in which he shall be chosen – to prevent the Parliamentary practice of seat shopping and prevent professional office seekers from simply finding an easy seat.
In a master stroke, the Convention had hit upon a solution that insured that the People would see that no encumbrance to which they had been accustomed would prevent anyone of purpose and character from rightly seeking and taking a seat to represent the People in the new Government. Furthermore, the wide variance in individual State qualifications for Office now faced new pressures. If any man was now “good enough” for the United Stated Congress, how could he not be good enough for the State House? Indeed, the effect was exactly as foreseen, and State after State, following ratification, adopted more democratic qualifications for their own legislatures.
Leading by example, the Framers sought to shine the enlightenment ideals of Rousseau and others on the People. By liberalizing the requirements, the set the example that an “explicit and authentic act” of the People could later again, liberalize them further.
It can hardly be true then that the Framers had the idea of limiting any man from voting or service in the new government. Their concession to the realities of the day meant that they understood that there would be resistance in favor of traditions, but Article V insured that when the People were ready to change, they could make the changes that they sought.
Is that the Framer of hatred? Is that the Delegate who failed to consider that tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis?
Of course it is not. But those who would have us “dump the Constitution” (and replace it with what?) never seem to want to talk about the process by which enlightenment occurs. Nor will they ever acknowledge that the Constitution enables the People to change and mold it as they will. They simply decry the “old, white, slave holders from another time” who they neither understand, nor attempt to understand. The great thing which the Framers were trying to accomplish and the very fact that the complaints can be made today about their work proves that what the accomplished was the proper and correct course.
There was of course, an additional consideration in the establishment of such liberal qualifications for office. Ben Franklin reminded the delegates of one further fact – the Constitution, should the People of the United States accept it, would be widely read, especially in Europe. There the enlightened and the not-so-enlightened would both read what the American People had chosen to establish without bloodshed.
Many, Franklin believed, would see a shining light on a hill. A place where democratic ideals and republican practices would welcome anyone who freely chose to be a part of the new nation. He reminded the Convention that a Constitution that favored only the rich would discourage emigration from Europe to America.
The People of America would vote with their hands. The people of Europe would approve of the new Constitution with their feet.