Saturday, July 15, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson (continued)

The Grassroots Founders series continues.

Our society has had long running issues with the founders. There have been two main schools of popular thought. They are either demigods, whose purported instruction we must obey if we are to be well-behaved children who prosper, or they are the standard issue racist, cynical dead white males to be dissed and hissed. Votinglinks thinks that recently the demigod school has been dominant, at least in the popular media, and it periodically issues very gentle, sometimes subliminal, scoldings and tsk-tsks for deviations from Founder Right Thought.

Pundits remind us that the US is a republic, not a democracy, that mass citizen participation in government was not intended by the founders, they feared it, etc, etc. We are reminded that only respectable people with property could vote at the founding. I once heard one pundit who claimed to be a historian (!?) actually say that the founders envisioned the US to be run by rich respectable people, so that is the way things were supposed to be (Votinglinks actually heard this as a child, and was mislead for a time, and believes it was George Will who said it on national TV). One would hope this nonsense was harmless, but just to make sure it is harmless, we will check the record and debunk it.

This nonsense may not be harmless if it produces an implicit feeling that perhaps progressive, citizen grassroots mass action is not quite All-American, not quite right, perhaps even a little subversive, a departure from the way things have always been, and always should be. Lets check out good old Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1776, an auspicious year for this kind of record-checking.

" observations do not enable me to say think integrity the characteristic of wealth. [I] In general beleive the decisions of the people, in a body, will be more honest & more disinterested than those of wealthy men: & I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family & peculium in it: -- Now as to the representative house which ought to be so constructed as to answer that character truly. I was for extending the right of suffrage (or in other words the rights of a citizen) to all who had a permanent intention of living in the country. Take what circumstances you please as evidence of this, either the having resided a certain time, or having a family, or having property, any or all of them. Whoever intends to live in a country must wish that country well, & has a natural right of assisting in the preservation of it. think you cannot distinguish between such a person residing in the country & having no fixed property, & one residing in a township whom you say you would admit to a vote. "
Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, August 26, 1776. Papers 1:504
[bold emphasis added, and Jefferson wrote this in a hurry, so the pedantic 'sic' is omitted.]

Besides he Declaration of Independence gig, Jefferson was submitting suggestions for a new Virginia Constitution at the time he wrote this. Note that the founders did not speak to voting qualifications very much through official documents, since almost all voter qualifications were left to the states to decide, but here Jefferson wanted to democratize the Virginia state constitution. This passage indicates that Jefferson did not think the vote should be restricted to the rich for the lower house of the state legislature at all. He lists owning property as a possible requirement, but shows no particular favor for it, and suggests requirements that do not include any test of wealth at all.

Earlier in the letter Jefferson comments that the terms 'upper' and 'lower' house should really be reversed, which I am including just so you know where his heart was.

But this was in 1776, maybe Jefferson was all swept away, excited, hot-headed and all. He was young, and, to be quite blunt, he was a notorious revolutionist at the time. Later posts will check the record on what he thought when he was a much older, wiser man, with a status quo to defend.

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