We often hear the comment “we should return to the U.S. Constitution as created by our founding fathers.”
So I ask: What would it be like to live under the “original” U.S. Constitution? What voting rights would we have? Who would be denied the voting rights we enjoy today, if we lived when the Constitution was ratified in 1789?
Let’s look at the right to vote. Remember that the rules governing the right to vote were determined primarily by federal and some state laws in 1789. Originally, only white men who owned land or had sufficient wealth for taxation could vote. It is estimated that when George Washington was elected our first president only 6 percent of Americans could vote.
How would we fare today under those rules? Approximately 66 percent* of the United States’ “citizen” population of 284 million (92 percent of total population) owns their own homes. Therefore only 187 million could vote if the same rules existed today. Adjusting for those under 18 (23 percent of population), the number is reduced to 143 million.
What, that isn’t correct?
No. Remember women could not vote under the original constitution. If half the population is women, the number of eligible voters is reduced to 71 million. What that isn’t correct? No. African Americans could not vote under the original constitution. Today 13 percent of Americans are black. That would reduce the eligible citizens to vote to 62 million. What, that isn’t correct? No. Native Americans could not vote. Today, approximately 1.5 percent of Americans are classified as “native.” That would further reduce the number of eligible Americans to vote to 61 million.
We would only permit, under 1789 rules, 61 million of today’s Americans to vote. Today 234 million Americans are eligible (not necessarily registered) to vote compared with the 61 million who would be eligible under the original rules.
All Americans who rent their homes, women, African Americans and Native Americans would be prohibited from voting. Oh, I forgot. If you lived in our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, you would not be eligible to vote. Sorry.
Not officially, but permitted by some state laws and common practice, Jews, Quakers and Catholics were prohibited from voting in many areas. For example, the State of Delaware, required the following oath to be sworn to before being eligible to vote: “I (your name) do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore, and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.” That sure eliminated a lot of voters.
Perhaps the most disrespectful and degrading aspect of the colonial mentality created the need for the 14th Amendment that elevated a black from three-fifths of a person to a “whole” person. It took too many years, too many tears, and too many lives for white, land-owning Americans to extend the rights of American citizens to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and others — including Jews, Quakers and Catholics — to even think for one moment about returning to 1789.
What has made our Constitution such a grand document is the ability of our country to modify and amend without changing the basic concept of that great document — the longest standing national constitution in the history of the world.
We owe so much to great Americans such as Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglas and Miguel Trujillo who put their lives on the line to open America to all, regardless of race, religion or national origin.
* Population count and percentages are based upon the 2010 census and are rounded to simplify calculations. Note that different sources quote different numbers and percentages.
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