Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Only white men

“All Men are created equal”, might have been the wording and even the intent of the American Declaration of Independence, as they saw it.

But the Founding Fathers, who wrote the Constitution in 1787, were not all-inclusive. “We, the people” became rather less.

The debates in the Philadelphia Convention and beyond drew their strength from the world view of the representatives, but they also mirrored their limitations.

Classical education

Democracy in Athens belonged to free, male citizens. Aliens, women and slaves were excluded. The Roman republic followed the same principles. In addition, real power was in the hands of the patricians, whereas the common people (plebs) mainly had the power to veto obnoxious legislation.

Modern examples

Universal voting rights were not a common occurrence internationally. The provinces of the Netherlands had rid themselves of autocratic rulers, but power was in the hands of the wealthiest merchants. The House of Commons in Britain gave parts of the population a share in power, alongside a monarch and the lords of the realm.

The best models of rule by the people were to be found in the colonies’ own pre-constitutional history.


Writers of the Enlightenment, like Locke and Montesquieu, formed a third ingredient of the world view of the leading representatives.

Slaves and wealth

Many of the representatives of the Southern states owned vast plantations based on slave labour, and quite a few had acquired large speculative “uninhabited” land holdings.

In general, the Founding fathers were educated and prosperous men, who wanted to safeguard property and temper the passions of the people at large.

Still, a revolutionary outcome

Still, the outcome of the Convention was revolutionary for its day. The Constitution did away with monarchs and hereditary nobility, and laid all political decisions in the hands of bodies deriving their powers directly or indirectly from the people.

The people entitled to vote was more or less the whole white male population of those who were of age.

…but not without its limits

”Indians not taxed” were outside the group of voting citizens.

Voting rights for women became an issue much later, advancing on state level from 1910, until Amendment XIX (ratified in 1920) enshrined:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The slave population in the Southern States was excluded from the category of free persons and thus from suffrage, but three fifths of their numbers were to be included in the apportioning of Representatives and Taxes among the States.

The union could be preserved only at the expense of allowing the Southern States to persevere in slave ownership. The Northern States could only achieve the possibility to tax the importation of slaves and a clause to empower Congress to prohibit the importation of slaves in 1808, at the earliest (Article I, Section 9). (Euphemistically, the word “slave” was not written into the Constitution.)

The question of slavery came back to haunt the Union, when the South seceded. Only the armed victory of the North preserved the Union and led to the abolition of slavery, by Amendment XIII, ratified in 1865.

In spite of this, and the XVth Amendment (ratified in 1870) on the right to vote regardless of “race, color; or previous condition of servitude”, segregation based on race continued with impunity in the South for a century, effectively denying black persons their rights as citizens.

Further reading

Michael Kammen has edited an interesting compilation of documents and illuminating correspondence between leading personalities in: The Origins of the American Constitution – A Documentary History (1986).

Two Signet Classics (2003) shed light on the battle for and against ratification of the Constitution, namely Clinton Rossiter (ed.): The Federalist Papers (by Hamilton, Madison and Jay) and Ralf Ketcham (ed.): The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates.

In The Unknown American Revolution – The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (Viking, 2005), Gary B. Nash describes the struggle for independence from the point of view of the marginalised groups: women, Indians, Negroes and the poor.

Kelly, Harbison och Belz: The American Constitution – Its Origins and Development, Volume I (Norton, 7th ed., 1991) leads the way from constitutional pre-history in the colonies to the landmark decisions which shaped relations within the federal system.

Hugh Brogan: The Penguin History of the USA (Penguin, 2nd ed., 1999) is a superb general history of the USA.

Ralf Grahn