Saturday, February 12, 2011

How The US Constitution Excluded The Poor, Women and African Slaves

The Call With Bruce Cockburn - Become America on Vimeo.

From the CD: The Best Of The Call

Since many of my fellow Christians have been caught up in the "Back To the Constitution Movement" espoused by many Conservative Fringe groups, I thought a pause should be taken to consider what this all may mean. What type of people originally founded this Country? What were their intentions in doing so? Whom did they say was in and who was out?

In thinking about all of this, I decided to comb the internet for some information. What follows is a compendium of Blogs, Essays and other Websites I deem worthy of consideration. To begin with, let's look at the issue of Voting Rights in the United States, as it has continually evolved over the years, and in terms of how older exclusions were eventually dropped:


During colonial times, the right to vote (also known as being enfranchised) was severely limited. Mostly, adult white males who owned property were the only people with the right to vote. Women could not vote, though some progressive colonies allowed widows who owned property to vote. After the United States gained its independence from Great Britain, the Constitution gave the states the right to decide who could vote. Individually, the states began to abolish property requirements and, by 1830, adult white males could vote. Suffrage (the right to vote) has been gradually extended to include many people, and the U.S. Constitution has been amended several times for this purpose.


In the period from the American Revolution to the Constitutional Convention (1776-1787), the big landowners, merchants, and bankers exercised a strong influence over politico-economic life, often dominating "the local newspapers which voiced the ideas and interests of commerce."1 In twelve of the thirteen states (Pennsylvania excepted), only property-owning White males could vote, probably not more than 10 percent of the total adult population. Excluded were all indigenous First Nation people ("Indians"), persons of African descent, women, indentured servants, and White males lacking sufficient property. Property qualifications for holding office were so steep as to exclude even most of the White males who could vote. A member of the New Jersey legislature had to be worth at least 1,000 pounds. South Carolina state senators had to possess estates worth at least 7,000 pounds clear of debt (equivalent to more than a million dollars today). In Maryland, a candidate for governor had to own at least 5,000 pounds of property. In addition, the absence of a secret ballot and of a real choice among candidates and programs led to widespread apathy.

The preceding article further details the situation in the Colonies leading up to the Constitutional Convention, and is worth reading in order to understand the type of Class Warfare going on at the time, and the fact that many of the Founders felt threatened by a potential uprising from the restless increasingly indebted populace. As such, they moved to take away the auspices of Democracy from the people, centralize power, protect the Institution of Slavery, and shut the poor and the average citizen completely out of the process. All in the interest of the Merchant Class.


Milestones of national franchise extension

How could the Untied States have taken so long to include so many of it's citizens into the Electoral Process? Further noted in the same article:

At the time of ratification of the Constitution, most states used property qualifications to restrict the franchise; the exact amount varied by state, but by some estimates, over half of white men were barred from voting. [12] In some states, free men of color (though the property requirement in New York was eventually dropped for whites but not for blacks) also possessed the vote, a fact that was emphasized in Justice Curtis's dissent in Dred Scott v. Sandford:

And for a definition of Dred Scott v. Sanford? Check the relevant Wikipedia entry on that:

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants,[2] whether or not they were slaves) were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens.[3] The court also held that the U.S. Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattels or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process.

Conservative Websites that attempt to refute what I have just posted, tend to focus on various quotes made by Adams, Franklin et. al against the Slave trade while ignoring the bigger picture; They did nothing to bring an end to the practice by including everyone as a US Citizen from the Get-go, and nothing that prevented the Dred Scott decision from happening. Or countless other incidents of mis-applied legislation as well as Affirmative Action for Whites. More on that, later.

A very intelligent website edited by a Mr. Javier Fernandez and his High School History Students, has a lot to say to supplement our understanding of these issues, as well as many not as often considered ones, as they relate to US History:

"The American identity during this time was not defined by race, nationality, or religion, but mostly by the national ideology floating around during the time period. Although the other factors did contribute, none was an influential as the ideological state of mind going around throughout the nation throughout all nationalities, races, and religions. This ideology that brought the nation together, also helped truly define what it meant to be American during this time."

Furthermore, Javier's class summarizes who was excluded from the Definition of what it meant ot be an American:

A major impact of being excluded from citizenship was the fact that many people could not vote. At this time, the main voters were wealthy white landowners who were obviously male. Slaves couldn't really vote because they were slaves and they were also hindered by the 3/5 compromise which counted 3/5 of the slave population as one vote which in turn didn't have any real effect in elections. Due to immigrants not being considered as American, they were unable to vote, and because of general suspicion they were unable to get jobs as well. Native Americans were not considered "American" even though they inhabited America before the colonists. The result of this was the Native Americans being pushed around by the "real" Americans which can be supported by the trail of tears and treaties that required the Indians to exhange their land to the white men. The results of people not being considered "American" varied depending on which group one belonged to; however, the idea was the same. They would be limited in many aspects of life and looked down upon by those who were considered "American".

OK so it's High school writing and could use some improvement. It's also very concise and easy to understand for getting our minds wrapped around the issues we are trying to understand.

Ideology? Why didn't that stay the defining point of being an American instead of Race or Place of Birth?

One wonders why especially in a time such as ours, when a certain group of people want to overturn the results of the last Presidential election on the simple basis of a piece of paper and the zip code of the hospital you were born in. Perhaps it is time to suggest that all residency/natural citizenship requirements be abandoned for the dated, Xenophobic ideals they really are?

Here's another website that gives us more information that brings the picture into focus. A Sharon Martinas writes in her essay:

How White Privilege has been Perpetuated in the U.S.

I believe that there are five major ways by which the system of white privilege has been perpetuated:

  1. The political economy of internal colonialism which laid the basis for the U.S. capitalist system;
  2. Three hundred years of affirmative action programs for white people, created by federal and state laws;
  3. Political demands of most white progressive movements (I call this *The Strategy of the Slave Owners*);
  4. Reproduction of white privilege in daily life: the treatment of white people because they are white, and the behavioral response of white people to this treatment;
  5. The culture of white supremacy.

"Affirmative Action for White People?" What is that, exactly? Martinas gives the following examples:

  • 1663: In Virginia, English female indentured servants are no longer allowed to work in the fields; they can only work in their master's house. African women still work in the fields.
  • 1680 - 1705: Virginia "servant" codes specify that white servants can testify in court, get "freedom dues," a plot of land, and the right to marry someone else who comes from Europe. (Racial intermarriage is banned.)
  • 1790: The Naturalization Act, the first act of the first U.S. Congress, guarantees that white immigrants can become citizens, which leads the way for them to become owners of land. "Non-white" immigrants are denied the right to be citizens. (This provision was not changed until 1952.)
  • 1830: The Indian Removal Act, initiated by President Andrew Jackson, removes the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole Indians from the most fertile land in the South. White slave owners take over the land, use enslaved Africans to grow the cotton that creates the wealth for both Southern and Northern ruling and middle class whites. Cotton becomes the major export of the new nation.
  • 1848: In the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, Mexico cedes half its national territory to the United States. Mexicans living north of the Rio Grande become U.S. citizens, but they no longer automatically own the land their families have tilled for centuries. Under U.S. law, the land goes to those with papers. Mexicans do not have papers. White lawyers "representing" Mexican land owners swindle millions of acres by taking land as their legal fees. Mexican-Americans become the first farm workers on lands their families once owned.
  • 1862: During the height of the Civil War, U.S. soldiers are also waging war on indigenous nations in the West. Millions of acres of Native land are taken by blooodshed. This land is distributed to white people only. The Homestead Act makes 50 million acres available, at low cost, to white working class homesteaders. The Morrell Act creates land grant colleges to build a new white middle class. And 100 million acres of Indian land are given free to the railroads.
  • 1880's - 1914: Millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants come to the U.S. They can bring their families, marry, travel to find work and eventually get citizenship. But during the same period, Chinese immigrants, except for merchants, are excluded from immigrating. Chinese workers are not allowed to bring their wives, nor to marry non-Chinese Americans, so they cannot create families.
  • 1887: The Dawes Land Allotment Act forbids communal land ownership by indigenous people, and encourages Indians to sell their lands to whites. As a result, millions of acres go to white squatters.
  • 1947 on: Under the G.I. Bill, the federal government authorizes the largest affirmative action program for white people in the nation's history. Millions of returning veterans get preferential treatment in jobs, suburban home loans, and college education. But these federal programs do not challenge institutional racism in employment, housing or education, so almost all the benefits go to white men and their families.
  • 1954ff: One of the most significant effects of Brown v. Board of Education is the firing of thousands of Black teachers and principals in southern Black schools, after these schools are integrated with white ones. School Boards say that white parents will not let their kids be taught by Black teachers. So the major beneficiaries of Brown v. Board of Education are the thousands of white (mostly female) teachers and white (mostly male) principals who got the jobs in these newly integrated schools.
  • 1994: The passage of "Three Strikes You're Out" in California leads to imprisonment for thousands of Black and Brown men while providing a major source of well paid jobs for mostly white working class men -- as prison guards.
  • 1996: The passage of Proposition 209 ends a brief interlude of 30 years of affirmative action for people of color. And California, which will be the first state in the nation to have a majority population of people of color, has led the way in returning to a 300 year tradition of affirmative action for white people.
Apparently the Racial Exclusion Practiced at the First Constitutional Convention carried far beyond the borders of the Institution of Slavery. In fact, Exclusion was obviously practiced at many Soicio-economic levels and in many ways. Despite the founders alleged good intentions of ending Slavery as an institution that Conservatives are quick to cherry-pick quotes to try and prove, the Structures of Institutionalized Racism in America were a long was off from being effectively challenged. Whatever their intentions may have been, by not conferring Citizenship on all humans born on American Soil or to American Parents, the American Founders squandered an opportunity to make America truly free for all of it's people. Think of the countless years of bloodshed, court cases, war, oppression and other general Social Injustices that could have been avoided.

So what can we gain from this short, but thoughtful walk through the history of the founding of the United States? Many will object to the unpatriotic picture that I have painted here, and there have been ideologically-driven books written to tried to refute these claims. But perhaps the best way to balance all of this out is to take the view of historians such as Gordon Wood, who have maintained that aspects of Democracy and Egalitarianism have effected and altered the complexion of American Society in terms of how it developed, and in spite of very Republican intentions by the US Founding Fathers.

Nevertheless, and over and against the objections of many Constitution Pimps that seem to populate the political landscape these days, a sober view would seem to at least consider these realities, and not ignore the obvious: 200+ years of history has seen the Civil War, the end of Slavery, the rise of electronic Mass-media and the Internet, two World Wars, the great Depression, Civil Rights movement, Women's suffrage, and a host of other things they couldn't have possibly foreseen.

To Try and lock up every single attempt at change, at doing social good works, at our simply being a people - inside a Prison that says 'You can't fart if it ain't in the Constitution' would be disingenuous at best. As of now, amending the Constitution is a lot more lengthy & tedious process than it was when 13 states were all that was participating.

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