Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson (continued)

Did Jefferson change his mind about the unimportance of property rights and voting or was his opinion in 1776 a result of youthful rashness and revolutionary fervor? Well, here he is 40 years later, and it looks like he has even more fervor than before:

" half of our brethren who fight and pay taxes, are excluded, like Helots, from the rights of representation, as if society were instituted for the soil, and not for the men inhabiting it; or one half of these could dispose of the rights and the will of the other half, without their consent.

'What constitutes a State?
Not high-raised battlements, or labor'd mound,
Thick wall, or moated gate;
Not cities proud, with spires and turrets crown'd;
No: men, high minded men;
Men, who their duties know;
But know their rights; and knowing, dare maintain.
These constitute a State.' "

Jefferson To John Taylor, May 28, 1816

Virginia retained its property requirement for voting rights until 1829, and then substituted a wealth requirement in order to keep impoverished landowners from voting. In the passage above it's odd to see an ardent agrarian such as Jefferson say anything disparaging of 'the soil' but here he does. In the contest between agrarian landowners and voting rights, it looks like voting rights won. He compares those without the vote to Helots, the slave laborers of the ancient Spartans. He is moved to include some poetry, though I don't know who wrote it. He raises other objections to the property requirement, not mentioned before, which are the injustice and social division that exists when one segment of society is ruled without its consent. As we will see soon, these also seemed to be the same concerns of James Madison and John Marshall when they expressed their reservations about the property requirement.

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