This country has changed. And it hasn’t. The power of the people remains intact.
“The right of representation in the legislature is a right inestimable to the people, and formidable to tyrants only.” Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776
Yesterday all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 had the right to cast their vote… to choose those that will represent and govern them, at both state and federal levels.
It is a right we should not take for granted, for it is the right to vote, more than any other, that defines our republic as a democracy. For universal suffrage, it’s worth noting, which means letting everyone vote, did not come easily or along side the ratification of our Constitution. Two hundred years ago, America’s voters were exclusively white, male, and wealthy. (Today, I suppose that would make them all Wall Street bankers.)
Throughout our history there have been many great Americans… people who we remember and honor for their contributions to our society… people that helped make the experiment that was America in 1776, the great nation it evolved into over more than 200 years. It may always be far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean it won’t always be great.
The road we’ve followed as a nation has not always been smooth, and in fact on many occasions we have found ourselves headed in the wrong direction. But, as Thomas Jefferson once said:
“Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights.” Thomas Jefferson, 1806
And so we have.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. Without question, he was also our nation’s greatest champion of representative democracy and the rights of man. And more than any other in our collective past, Jefferson and his words will never be forgotten as they are inextricably linked to the founding principles of American self-government.
Not all great Americans are as memorable as Jefferson, however, in fact there are many that have passed into relative obscurity as the years have passed and rights we fought for become second nature, or at times even taken for granted. The right to vote should never be thought of in that way, for again in the words of Jefferson:
“It is the people, to whom all authority belongs.” Thomas Jefferson, 1821
The last two years have been particularly difficult for millions of Americans, and the years ahead are all but certain to present significant challenges for working Americans as well. In fact, I believe that soon all Americans will come to understand that we have entered a time that history will one day view as having defined our nation’s future.
Over the last 30 years or so, the banking and financial services sector of our economy as grown in size and importance, both to our country and to the world. Some of that growth has occurred as a result of the bipartisan penchant towards deregulation, and the economic outcome should leave little question that the pendulum of deregulation has been allowed to swing too far.
Simon Johnson, who was Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund between 2007-2008, described the situation we face today better than I could ever hope to in an article published by The Atlantic in May of 2009, titled The Quiet Coup. (If you haven’t read it, you have truly missed out, and I highly recommend you do so.)
In that article’s introductory paragraph, Johnson says:
“The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: Recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.
It should be obvious to anyone paying even the least bit of attention to the events of the last two years that our banking industry has gained too much influence over our government. The financial sector spends more on lobbying than any other group by such a margin that there is really no number two, and the results of that spending can be seen in the trillions of tax-payer funded bailouts of Wall Street firms to the exclusion of all else. While working class Americans have seen much of their wealth evaporate as housing prices have fallen since 2007, Wall Street’s bankers have been paid record bonuses each year.
An “oligarchy” can be roughly defined as a group that uses its economic power to gain political power, and breaking an oligarchy’s hold on government, although never easy, is always necessary. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to do it during the 1930s, and we will have to do it again going forward if we are to preserve the middle class in this country and experience growth in our real economy, as opposed to hearing of growth in the financial economy.
I know that many people today feel helpless to affect change, pitted against the immense wealth and political power of our giant banking institutions, and if it were only money that was required to fight the battle, their feelings would be justified. Luckily, this is the United States of America and we the people in this country posses something far more valuable that mere money… we have the right to vote.
“The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.” Thomas Jefferson, 1823
It’s up to us to demand that our government represent the interests of the people… certainly the banking lobby is not going to do it. The banking lobby is why we have a credit card in this country today that charges 79.9% interest.
Sure, they have the money to send lobbyists to Washington D.C. in numbers so large that the challenge of being heard may appear insurmountable at first glance. But, while 4,000 lobbyists may sound like an army, it would shrink to insignificance standing next to 80 million Americans armed with the right to vote.
“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” Thomas Jefferson, 1787
In the years ahead, working Americans will struggle financially and it will be a long time before many of us feel economically secure. In truth, middle class incomes have been stagnant for 30 years in this country, and declining for the last 10, but we’ve coped by working longer hours and borrowing, made possible by easy credit and low interest rates.
But going forward, we can’t work more hours per week, unemployment will remain high throughout the next decade, and thanks to our bankers, it will be many, many years before obtaining credit is thought of as being anywhere near “easy”. It won’t be easy to adjust our lifestyles to make do with less as we watch the very small, yet highly visible segment that is made up of the wealthiest Americans only become that much richer. That is not how America was intended to operate, that is not what our founding fathers had in mind.
“We believe that… proximate choice and power of removal are the best security which experience has sanctioned for ensuring an honest conduct in the functionaries of society.” Thomas Jefferson, 1816
It is my hope that Americans will remember that although our country may have changed in some ways, it has not changed in others. The power to self-govern is still very much ours, and it is up to us to exercise that power. Members of the House of Representatives must still seek reelection every two years, and the House can still override a Presidential veto. And our constitution is still very much intact.
Now is not a time to concentrate on what’s changed, now is a time to remember what has not. Many Americans see our elected representatives as not being responsive to the needs of the people, and I think that’s a fair criticism. They’re being responsive to the banking lobby because they are the people offering to fund their campaigns, but that’s all they can do. They can’t re-elect them, only we can do that.
“The Legislative and Executive branches may sometimes err, but elections and dependence will bring them to rights.” Thomas Jefferson, 1821
The things said by Thomas Jefferson ring as true today as they did more than 200 years ago. And although we remember his wisdom and his contribution to our nation’s beginnings, there are so many American heroes that we don’t think of often if at all, but who also helped to make this country great, at times of great turmoil, when it was by no means assured that we would follow the right path.
Join me now for the stories of three such Americans. May their stories remind you of the power we all posses to serve our country and help it grow and prosper, so that our government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.
The place is Providence, Rhode Island.
It’s the month of June in the year of our Lord, 1842.
Two brass cannons stand on College Street. They are pointed at the city’s arsenal. A huge crowd stands in the dense fog that night, lined up behind the weapons. They are ready to march against their own government.
It had been roughly 60 years since the American Revolution was supposed to have established liberty across the United States, and the Declaration of Independence had declared “All men are created equal”.
Our government was to represent the people’s interests, but Thomas Dorr understood that tyranny still reigned in Rhode Island, and elsewhere, because in order to vote in America’s new democracy, you had to be white, except in a few Northern states, male, except in New Jersey, where women voted until 1807, and a landowner nearly everywhere. In some states, that meant that more than 85% of the adult population was being denied participation in the country’s political process.
Thomas Dorr, however, was not one being left out… as a white male, from a wealthy family, and a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, he had always had the right to vote in America. But he knew that it was wrong for others to be excluded, because he believed in our nation’s Constitution, which began, “We the People…”
Dorr and vote-less delegates from around the state met illegally in October of 1841, to create a state constitution granting the right to vote to all white males over 21 years of age. Six months later, in two separate elections, landowner voters elected Samuel Ward King as governor, while voters empowered by the “People’s Charter” chose Dorr. Rhode Island’s population had split right down the middle.
So, Thomas Dorr, his 3,000 followers, and two stolen canons stood there on that foggy June night in 1842, planning a coup… planning to disarm what Dorr called “the illegal government of Governor King”. An observer to the events that night said: “Residents were up all night with watchful eyes and aching hearts, to await in the most painful suspense the dread spectacle of our fair city wrapt in flames and her streets deluged with blood.”
Unfortunately, perhaps, the stolen canons were apparently rusty, failed to fire, and the crowd soon dispersed, leaving Dorr and something like 50 others to drag the canons back to their headquarters. In the morning, 1,500 armed men from the King government arrived to arrest Thomas Dorr, he was ultimately tried for treason and imprisoned for two years before being pardoned, after which he faded from public life.
At his trial he spoke eloquently, saying:
“The servants of a righteous cause may fail or fall in the defense of it. But all the truth that it contains is indestructible.”
And on that point he was right… his cause was indestructible and the states started dropping the requirement that one own land in order to vote the very next year, although the State of Rhode Island held out until 1888. By the time the Civil War started in 1860, just about every white man in the country was allowed to vote on Election Day.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there…
It was 1917, when Alice Paul, a demure but determined Quaker with a Ph.D. (always a dangerous combination), found herself incarcerated, and the leader of a very refined group of women imprisoned in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse for Women. Serving time along with Alice was a 60 year-old nurse, a wealthy widow from Philadelphia, and even a few wives whose husbands were prominent Washington D.C. newspapermen.
The women were sentenced for demanding, quite skillfully I might add, that women in this country be granted the right to vote. It was a fight that had been going on for many years by that time, the first Women’s Rights Convention having been held in Seneca Falls, New York back in 1848.
Men, it should come as little surprise, weren’t exactly quick to warm up to the idea of women’s suffrage in this country, in general believing that women were biologically unfit for participation in the political process. In fact, a speaker at a large meeting on the topic, held in Albany, New York at around the same time Alice found herself in the clinker, was quoted as having told the crowd:
“A woman’s brain involves emotion rather than intellect, which painfully disqualifies her for the sterner duties to be performed by the intellectual faculties.”
And a Massachusetts journal announced:
“Housewives! You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout.”
Women’s suffrage, as a result of such attitudes, was slow going. The State of Washington was the first to give women the right to vote in 1910 and California followed in 1911. Then the states of Kansas, if you can believe that, Oregon, and Arizona all followed suit in 1912. But, by 1917, Alice Paul had tired of waiting for the rest of the country to come to its senses and come along.
On January 10, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson found Alice Paul and a few dozen of her female followers standing silently outside the gates to the White House. The held banners proclaiming their intended purpose:
“Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
President Wilson, always the gentleman, smiled and tipped his hat to the women as he came and went… on one cold and rainy day, invited the women in for tea.
In April, however, the United States entered World War I, and having a group of women protesting in front of the White House became an embarrassment to the president. Police were told to arrest the protesters, and soon the sight of high-society ladies in manacles and prison garb being hauled off to serve time in prison was titillating the country.
Stories about the conditions in the prison started coming out in the press. The food was said to be nauseating, with worms swimming in the soup and infesting the oatmeal, and the women complained of the prison officials being inhospitable, if you can imagine that.
In October, Alice Paul began serving a seven-month term and launched a hunger strike. In response she was placed in the prison’s psychiatric ward, force-fed three times a day through a tube in her throat and awoken hourly throughout the night with a flashlight, all as the sounds of the truly insane echoed in the background. As one might imagine, it wasn’t long before President Wilson had quite the public relations problem on his hands.
In November, President Wilson pardoned all of the jailed women suffragists, and by the end of that year he came out in favor of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. The bill passed the senate in January of 1919, and on August 26, 1920, after two-thirds of the states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women had won the right to vote.
Of course, the story couldn’t end there either…
In 1961, Bob Moses, who had been teaching high school in New York, got an education on race relations when he went to Mississippi to work as a civil rights worker. It was in August of that year, when Bob was walking over to the courthouse with two black men who wanted to register to vote. Three white males intercepted them and in a flash, Moses was on the ground, several gashes on his head courtesy of the handle of a knife.
Moses got up and continued on to the courthouse, but wouldn’t you know it, the office had already been closed for the day. Speaking at a large gathering later that week, and with eight stitches in his head, he described Mississippi’s problem in very clear terms:
“The law down here is law made by white people, enforced by white people, for the benefit of white people. It will be that way until the Negroes begin to vote.”
Of course, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1868, gave blacks in Mississippi and everywhere else in this country, the right to vote, but ever since then, every state in the South had found ways to keep blacks from exercising that right.
Some states required blacks to interpret obscure sections of their state constitutions. Other states required black voters to pay half a week’s salary in order to register. White voters in the same state, of course, were only required to sign their names. So, Bob Moses and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to come to Mississippi where they went door to door for three years in the hot sun, in an effort to get people to register. During those years, reports of SNCC workers being arrested and beaten by police and/or others were filed every single week.
As of 1964, roughly 40 percent of black adults in the Southern states were registered to vote, but in Mississippi, that figure was 6.4 percent, the lowest of all. In February of 1963, while driving along a dark road in the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, Moses and two other organizers had thirteen .45-caliber bullets tear into their car. The car’s driver was wounded after being shot in the neck.
After three hard years, as the summer of 1964 was about to begin, their efforts to register blacks had produced just 4,000 new voters, but the soft-spoken Moses only stepped up his efforts. Thinking that he would either reduce the violent attacks on the SNCC workers, or at least increase the amount of national media attention, he brought 900 volunteers down from the North to spend the summer in Mississippi registering blacks to vote. The effort became known as “Freedom Summer”.
Freedom Summer started off with two white volunteers and a local black activist being killed, and the as Moses had hoped, the media descended on Mississippi now eager to report on the racial violence. Across the country, Americans would now hear about the horrors being endured by blacks trying to exercise a right granted them almost 100 years before.
Northern liberals were enraged over the news stories of Southern racism, and within a year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus committing the federal government to enforcing equal access to voting in the South.
Bob Moses returned to his home in New York. He was said to be tired and frustrated, not only at the slow pace of progress, but also because of increasing tensions between the white and black activists. But, Unita Blackwell, a Mississippian inspired by Moses to register to vote that summer, said the following:
“For black people in Mississippi, Freedom Summer was the beginning of a whole new era. People began to feel that they weren’t just helpless anymore.”
Bob Moses not only changed Mississippi that summer, he had pushed our country one step closer to realizing its founding vision. It is because of Americans like Thomas Dorr, Alice Paul and without question, Bob Moses, that “a government of the people, by the people and for the people” today means: ALL the people.
May it never perish from this earth. Amen.
So, did you vote yesterday? I sure do hope so, because I’m counting on you to care enough about this nation to help save it.
The 2012 Presidential Election is right around the corner, and it’s likely the most important election in my lifetime. I hope you’ll care more about it, than any other election in your lifetime.
“The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, which is the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” Thomas Jefferson, 1787