Don Carlson: Union’s perfection a work in progress
Our ideal “in Order to form a more perfect Union” is based on ballots, not bullets. Those revolutionaries, e.g., Hancock, Franklin, Adams, Hopkins (to name four of the 56 signers) established a basis for a nation (shared values, rules and goals) rather than a country (a land mass with people).
During Colonial America, five colonies excluded Catholics, while four prohibited Jews, from voting.
In 1790, only white male property owners (approximately 16 percent of the population) were voting. Finally by 1810, a religious prerequisite for voting was eliminated. By 1850, property and tax requirements were eliminated. Almost all adult white males, at this time, could vote — because of the greater inclusion.
However, the return to Colonial exclusionism was also on display. In 1855, Connecticut — followed by Massachusetts in 1857 — enacted literacy tests to exclude Irish-Catholics from voting. Nevertheless, in 1870, the 15th Amendment passed, giving former slaves the right to vote and protecting the voting rights of adult male citizens of any race.
Despite the inclusionary trend, Florida adopted a poll tax in 1889 and Mississippi adopted a literacy test to exclude voting by African-Americans in 1890. Many literacy-test states also adopted the grandfather clause, allowing those who could vote before 1870 to do so, regardless of tax or literacy. Question: Would an illiterate, white-male, renter-based military be loyal to an existing social order it felt apart from, rather than a part of?
The 17th Amendment, which called for the election of U.S. senators by popular vote, was enacted in 1913, while in 1910, Oklahoma was the last state to grandfather the exclusionary literacy requirement. In 1915, however, the U.S. Supreme Court (Guinn v. U.S.) ruled the Oklahoma statute was in conflict with the 15th Amendment. In 1920, women’s suffrage was enacted. Most noteworthy, however, women in Wyoming and Utah Territory and Colorado had full voting rights, and some women could vote, though only in school elections, prior to 1920. In 1924, the ultimate inclusion (ironically) was with the Indian Citizenship Act, providing the Native American the right to vote.
In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. It was the start of the Chinese inclusion. In 1946, Filipinos were included. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act provided for first-generation Japanese to be included. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 26th Amendment, granted the vote to 18-year-olds and the 1990 Disabilities Act required access to the polls and to the ballot, further illustrating our continuing effort to strive to our ideal.
Our Constitution does not speak to the inclusionary national efforts, such as Lincoln’s Transcontinental Railroad; Theodore Roosevelt’s National Park Service; FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration/Tennessee Valley Authority; or to Eisenhower’s National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. An exclusionary literalist who asks “where is it in the Constitution?” would conclude Ike’s interstate highway system, for example, is unconstitutional — and thus oppose and stifle “a more perfect Union.”
Don Carlson has been a resident of Carson City for nearly four decades.