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Democracy Was Not What They Had On Their Minds (Read 557 times)

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Democracy Was Not What They Had On Their Minds
Oct 6th, 2003 at 10:10pm
Democracy Was Not What They Had On Their Minds

by Marquita Hill

America is a land of myths - tall tales and downright lies told and
retold until they seem to carry the weight of history. And they're not
just any old stories, good for entertainment. They have a serious
purpose, which is to persuade us not only that we live in the best of
all possible worlds but that the world we live in is the only one

One of the most powerful of these myths has to do with democracy. It
starts with the authors and their supposed devotion to a government "of
the people, by the people and for the people." The truth is that the
authors were wealthy white men of property who wrote a Constitution that
legally defined a Black person as three fifths of a human being and
restricted the vote to men like themselves.

Having won, by force of arms, their independence from England, the
authors, Slaveholders, bankers, merchants, lawyers and land barons set
about the task of fashioning a state in their own image. For inspiration
they turned to their older bourgeois cousins in Europe. Author Alexander
Hamilton was an ardent admirer of England's House of Lords (a body of
Britain's filthy rich which exists to this day) as a bulwark against the
pernicious innovation" of the masses. "All communities divide themselves
into the few and the many, " this aristocrat told the Constitutional
Convention. "The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of
the people. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent
share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second
... nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy."

From the very first presidential elections, this philosophy of keeping
the masses in check was carried out in practice. The much-lamented "low
voter turnout" is in fact an institutionalized part of America's
political machinery. While in some years some states chose their
Presidential electors by popular vote (electors are the people who to
this day actually choose the President), for many decades it was common
for the electors to be selected by the state legislatures that is, rich
white folks.

The first genuinely contested election in United States history took
place in 1796 and 1792 (George Washington was unanimously chosen by the
electors) when John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson. The popular vote
counts were 18,017 for Adams -- a Founding Father who six years before
the Declaration of Independence had served as a lawyer for British
troops after the Boston Massacre -- to 12,306 for Virginia slaveholder
Jefferson. Less than 1% of the population actually voted in that

For the next three decades, the number of states holding popular
presidential elections increased, until by 1828 only two states,
Delaware and South Carolina, continued in the old way. The popular vote
rose slowly but steadily during those years, as more states were added
to the Union and as political agitation by small white farmers and
workers, gradually forced the elimination of property ownership as a
requirement for voting eligibility. In 1800, Jefferson beat Adams in a
rematch, 11,694 to 7,891. Jefferson was re-elected four years later when
he defeated fellow slaveholder Charles Pinckey, 76,421 to 35,953. Total
votes didn't top a million until Native American killer Andrew Jackson's
defeat of John Quincy Adams in 1828.

As popular participation slowly broadened, new methods of control were
needed to keep the masses of Americans locked out of power while
maintaining the myth of democracy. In the 1830's, the two party system
was invented to accomplish this purpose. The parties would guarantee
voters a "choice" between two candidates chosen behind dosed doors by
the ruling elite: a further modification -- party primaries -- was still
many decades away.

The struggle for enfranchisement continued also. African Americans were
not granted the vote until 90 years after the American Revolution and
then only to have it effectively taken away for nearly another century
after the defeat of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow. Women did
not receive the vote until 1922. Native Americans, who were not
"granted" citizenship until the 20th century was well underway, got the
vote even later.

The early history of American elections lays bare the foundations of
presidential politics. Handfuls of white, male propertied voters
established the precedent that only their kind would sit in the White
House. That precedent, 204 years later, remains unshaken
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