Suffrage is overrated

I’m reading the book  “Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States” by Daniel Ruddy. In the book Ruddy takes direct quotes from the plentiful historical writings of TR to create a general history of the USA.  In the section on James Madison I ran across this interesting quote (italics mine):

“He did not believe that the ignorant and dependent could be trusted to vote, thinking the freeholders the safest guardians of our rights. On the suffrage his views are perfectly defensible. It is simply idle folly to talk of suffrage as being an ‘inborn’ or ‘natural’ right. There are enormous communities totally unfit for its exercise, while true universal suffrage has never been, and never will be, seriously advocated by anyone. There must always be an age limit, and such a limit must necessarily be purely arbitrary. The wildest Democrat of Revolutionary times did not dream of doing away with the restrictions of race and sex which kept most Americans from the ballot box.” — Theodore Roosevelt

I realize in this current age, possessing as I do, demographically, the position of a white male, that group which historically in the USA has had the most certain and easy access to suffrage, it could be rather dangerous of me to suggest the right to vote isn’t really the all-important thing it is made during elections in our modern democracy (excuse me, I mean republic). After all, there are so many people, from so many groups, who have systematically been excluded from the suffrage, suppressed.

Nevertheless, TR’s assertion that the franchise isn’t one of our ‘natural’ rights intrigued me. I went back to the Declaration of Independence, where our forefathers put forth their understanding of our “unalienable” rights:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, the right to vote, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I hope you noticed my little editorial comment above. Because the right to vote is not listed in the declaration. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an unalienable right in this context — the declaration does say “among these are,” indicating only a partial list — though one might suggest they attempted to list what they thought were the most important. On the other hand, the views of Madison, as reflected by TR, would indicate that it wasn’t in their list.

Which led me to the personal question of what would make me willing to give up my right to vote, or what right is more important than my right to vote. I think it all turns on the question of what is a “natural” right and what isn’t.

Segue to quote from Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog here on  According to Hoyt on Nov. 17, 2012 (italics mine):

“Abortion is, of course, one of those complex things.  It is not a natural right.  It can’t be a natural right because a human woman in a state of nature who tries to abort will more often than not end up offing herself along with the child.  You could say infanticide is a natural right, as it has been practiced by most civilizations throughout the ages, less so in Judeo Christian lands, but impossible to stamp out just like murder is impossible to stamp out.  Of course it violates another person’s natural right to life, but in the case of infants that is always iffy as “natural” as they require someone else to defend them.  So, it is a very complex thing, not from a moral but from a NATURAL point of view.”

Hoyt made some excellent points in her blog about how rights like the “right” to an abortion can have unintended effects on other “rights”. Which made me consider that I should be less concerned with how many rights I have, and more concerned with having the most important rights. And quite honestly, is voting one of them?

In our current setup I would say probably yes, but only from a negative standpoint.

I feel the most important rights are the triumvirate of the declaration: Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness. All the other rights link to these in one way or another.

Actually Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration, took that trio out of John Locke, though he changed Locke’s third point, which was Property, not Pursuit of Happiness.  But I see that as a mere expansion of property. The right to security in one’s property is the key to the pursuit of happiness. As Susan Bradley (played by Judy Garland), said in the movie Harvey Girls:

“After all, the Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness, but it’s up to me to do the pursuing.”

Even if Susan confuses the Declaration with the Constitution, she has the point right: the guarantee of equal opportunity (not equal results), and the lack of interference from government in its pursuit, is the true measure.

So, I see the right to vote as necessary to protect those other rights, attempting to use it as  my individual veto on the encroachment of government into my liberty and property.

Other than that, democracy really doesn’t mean that much to me. I much prefer a representative republic.  When those two words are used, people usually concentrate on the word representative, when they should concentrate on republic, because that is where the true key lies.  Democracy is the rule of the majority, i.e. the mob. A republic is the rule of law. If the law preserves my triumvirate of rights, then whether I have the vote or not, I am still free.

Food for thought? Comments?

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