A few posts ago, (which is also unfortunately now a couple of weeks ago — where does the time go?) I wrote about how in ancient Rome the Roman senators, all part of the “ancient and venerable patrician elite,” did not consider the common people fit to rule along with them. In the post, I drew comparisons to some people in our present day government who seem to hold to the same opinion regarding the so-called common people. The middle class, lacking an Ivy League degree, common man American. The Tea Party, if you will — those bitter clingers to their guns and religion.
Considering further, however, I can see some justification for the Roman patrician’s views. The people they considered unfit included freed slaves, foreigners, and middle class plebs, all mostly illiterate, all having to work all the time (they had no weekends off, not even Sundays and only a few yearly festivals for rest). Many of them lived in the Roman equivalent of tenements, or scratched out a living on rented farm property. The vast majority owned next to nothing, had no education but what they picked up on the job, and had no time to consider much of anything except where their next meal and entertainment might be coming from.
If you have people who own nothing voting alongside people who own something, it’s just human nature that those with nothing are going to vote to force those with something to “share.”
That’s one reason why in early America one of the conditions for being eligible to vote was that you had to own property. In this way people “without so much as a farthing” wouldn’t be able to vote in a legislature of Robin Hoods — making laws that take from the rich and give to the poor. Plus it was thought that those with property would be more likely to have a vested interest in doing what was best for the community in which their property was located.
This came under attack however with the onset of the Revolution and particularly in the time between the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. There were many reasons for objection – concerns about veterans, concerns about the effects of increasing the scope of the electorate, and even concerns about how valid property rights were as a means of determining quality voters.
Ben Franklin made an excellent point in the latter regard:
“Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time 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?”
Ultimately, property ownership was deemed undesirable and was replaced by the paying of taxes as a qualification to vote, and as we all know, the franchise has expanded greatly from there — and not altogether to the country’s benefit, I fear.
Because voting is not so much a right as it is a privilege, something to be conferred with care and received with gratitude and a sense of sober responsibility. Today it seems to be taken for granted, given and received as an entitlement, a means of bribery, or of gaining power, a pain in the neck, or something other people will do, because it really doesn’t matter and “I’m just too busy doing my own thing.”
Everyone born in America today has always had it. We’ve never lived in a time when we didn’t. And yet… the entire institution seems to have been so corrupted, it’s hard to remember what a privilege it is. Not that the politicians are necessarly less upstanding today than previously, nor that the process is any less vitriolic, but that the people… a lot of people don’t really pay attention. Or is it that they’ve been distracted by things that don’t matter?
During all the hooplah with Tim Tebow last month, I read that he was number five on some list of the most influential people in America. I don’t recall who assembled the list, only that it wasn’t all athletes. Tebow was seven places (if I recall correctly) ahead of Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots. He was however, still five below the most influential person on the list… Lady Gaga.
Originally the media, the fourth estate, was to work as a check for political processes. That’s long gone out the window, but worse, what I’m seeing today is the incessant barrage of messages, accusations, stories, speculuations, promises, claims, innuendo, and out and out lies. From the news outlets, the radio, Internet, and TV. Especially radio and TV. Whoever has the most ads wins, because the poplulace has heard those the most and simply through repetition of hearing has come to believe what those ads say.
Reminds me of the Hitler salute back in the beginning of his regime talked about in Eric Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts: How people at first resisted it, but after awhile, when it was constantly an issue, they gave in, even though they didn’t believe in it, didn’t really hold with it… but then after awahile, all that endless saluting and Heil Hitlering eventually brought them around to where they did believe it, and wanted to do it and bought into the whole package without ever realizing what exactly was happening.
I see that happening so much today. Everywhere. In everything. And it’s sobering.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Abraham Lincoln
Karen, thank you for taking a look some of the history of voting, and commenting on the present day! This was interesting and helpful.