Today we celebrate the official signing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of us have forgotten that the Declaration states a justification for the Continental Congress’ decision to withdraw from British rule and itemizes reasons why such a withdrawal is rational.
For me, the pivotal language wasn’t about redress of grievances. I understood that long list to be justification, but not explanation. Instead, I read and re-read the language about governance: that governance only works with the consent of the governed; that governmental change should not be undertaken lightly but that, from time to time, such change is necessary.
The really great thing the founding fathers did was to try to devise a system that would allow for governmental change at the will of the governed — through annual or semi-annual elections. We have amended their vision, but still follow the concept that the governed decide which of us governs.
Once upon a time, there were more rules about who could vote. Those rules weren’t really created to keep some folks from power and involvement; they were based on assumptions about which people would know enough to actually make effective decisions.
Property owning men were presumed to be educated. So those men who owned a certain amount of property could vote. Some men who owned businesses made certain that property wasn’t defined as real estate — because they were educated, too.
Voting was restricted if you belonged to the wrong religion (or no religion) until 1810. By 1850, the rules that stated you had to own property and pay property taxes had been removed. But that didn’t make government more open. States imposed literacy tests as early as 1855 — and these tests were intended to keep immigrants from voting. (Later such tests were applied to other minorities, including blacks and native Americans.)
Giving the vote to women, immigrants, native Americans, indentured and enslaved servants, and the poor wasn’t part of the Founding Fathers’ vision of the world. Now, of course, we think everyone over 18 should be educated enough to help guide the government by voting.
Sometimes I think about a perfect world, where each of us embraces the value of being politically informed. I envision that peaceful, Utopian world that Thomas Jefferson espoused and resist the more partisan views of Samuel and John Adams. We won’t even talk about Andrew Jackson.
But really. History is clear.
The media was never unbiased. Our electorate was never perfectly educated or perfectly interested in an unselfish version of what was best for our country. One neighbor subscribed to a Democratic newspaper and another to the Republican press. Candidates were called names, lied about and had their positions misrepresented. Sometimes opponents and their supporters brawled. So did elected officials. Politicians took bribes and were accused of committing sins and illegal acts.
Not so much has changed in the past 236 years. Still, we muddle on, working hard every year or two to decide how much we want to change our government. Do we stick with the incumbent (or someone from the same ideology) or do we switch to the opposite side? Do we want to see things continue in a specific direction, or do we trust that the change offered will benefit us, our families, our cities, our states?
I’m grateful for the small mercies of government. And while I’ll continue to dream about that more perfect world where we all abide peacefully with our neighbors, sharing a view that respects others and treats others as equals, I’ll accept that democracy is untidy, unruly, and sometimes downright rude. It’s still a pretty good system.
I hope you’ll plan to vote in every election, even if you don’t personally know the players and have to rely on the press and your neighbors to provide guidance.