civics, government, politics

A Look Back at the Constitution or, How America Was Great When Only Property Owning White People Could Vote

I’ve spent the last two days going through the GOPs 2016 political platform on a continuing journey to understand what the hell happened to America on November 8th, 2016. During my research I happened upon a very interesting paragraph from their agenda:

“We affirm that all legislation, regulation, and official actions must conform to the Constitution’s original meaning as understood at the time the language was adopted (1).”

Given that a couple of centuries have passed, I submit the following for your consideration.

In 1787 there were less than 4 million people (and with the exception of 700,000 of African descent who were almost all salves) these are white, English speaking, Protestants. You read that right – nearly 20% of the population in 1787 were slaves. I would also like to point out that the Founding Fathers were well aware of slavery and seemingly went to great lengths to leave any mention of that tidbit out of the Constitution. (Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 49% owned slaves) (2). But I digress.

There were 13 States and the largest city had 50,000 people living in it. Almost everyone in the U.S. lived on a farm, and most thought that bathing was an unhealthy act. Almost the entire country was made up of farmers, tradesmen, or artisans and almost all lived with their extended families (3).  It took three days by coach to travel by wagon from Philly to New York. Life expectancy for white males was 38 years. (Getting info on slave life expectancy is a little harder, and believe me, don’t go snooping around Google with the word ‘slave’ in your search because the alt-right apparently spends a lot of money on SEO). One source says that during this time a slave might only live 7-9 years after getting to a plantation. (4)

The United States Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible (5). Because of this ambiguity, in 1787 voting laws were not uniformly applied across the states. Generally, white property owning males where allowed to vote. (6) Fun side note, women were allowed to vote in New Jersey from 1787 until 1807, when male legislators officially outlawed women’s suffrage (7). The search for the conditions of women in 1787 is complicated by the fact that each state made its own determinations about how to limit women from participating in society with regards to inheritance, employment, etc.

Anyway, my point is that things were quite different. When your stated agenda is to bring America back to the way life was in 1787 what am I to assume you mean? People of Color and women aren’t allowed to vote? The Federal Government is only allowed to make rules that relate to travel by horse or donkey? States get to make their own voting laws?  This statement by the GOP is ridiculous. It plays into this narrative of “Make America Great Again”, essentially a myopic view of history. An irrational regressive worldview prompted by fear.

It also goes without saying that it is remotely possible to misinterpret what these guys were thinking 230 years ago. As a result “…must conform to the Constitution’s original meaning as understood at the time the language was adopted” might be an impossible standard to hold yourselves to.

Daniel Cashman, EAMP, MS (AOM), NCCAOM Dipl, Acup


  6. Ibid.

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