Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Right to Vote:1785

Mark Graber

Doing research for Vol. II of The Complete American Constitutionalism, I ran into this little gem from the New York Council of Revision.  The body consisted of the Governor, the Chancellor (head of the court of equity) and the judges of the Supreme Court.  They were authorized to veto all state laws, although the veto could be overturned by a two-thirds majority of both houses.  The veto was exercised aggressively and in interesting ways, but primarily on constitutional grounds.  The excerpt below is rather more liberal on voting (which is considered a fundamental constitutional right of citizen.  The Council also spoke of voting as a fundamental right of citizens when the New York legislature attempted to disenfranchise loyalists.) than Americans would be until the Voting Rights Revolution of the 1960s, and arguably more liberal than some Americans at present. 

March 21, 1785.

A bill entitled "An act for the gradual abolition of slavery within this State." . . .

1. Because the last clause of the bill enacts that no negro, mulatto or mustee shall have a legal vote in any case whatsoever; which implicatively excludes persons of this description from all share in the Legislature, and those offices in which a vote may be necessary, as well as from the important privilege of electing those by whom they are to be governed: the bill having in other instances placed the children that shall be born of slaves in the rank of citizens, agreeable both to the spirit and letter of the Constitution, they are as such entitled to all the privileges of citizens, nor can they be deprived of these essential rights without shocking those principles of equal liberty which every page in that Constitution labors to enforce.

2. Because it holds up a doctrine which is repugnant to the principles on which the United States justify their separation from Great Britain, and either enacts what is wrong or supposes that those may rightfully be charged with the burdens of government who have no representative share in imposing them.

3. Because this class of disfranchised and discontented citizens, who at some future period may be both numerous and wealthy, may, under the direction of ambitious and factious leaders, become dangerous to the State and effect the ruin of a Constitution whose benefits they are not permitted to enjoy.

4. Because the creation of an order of citizens who are to have no legislative or representative share in the government, necessarily lays the foundation of an aristocracy of the most dangerous and malignant kind, rendering power permanent and hereditary in the hands of those persons who deduce their origin through white ancestors only; though these, at some future period, should not amount to a fiftieth part of the people. That this is not a chimerical supposition will be apparent to those who reflect that the term mustee is indefinite; that the desire of power will induce those who possess it to exclude competitors by extending it as far as possible; that, supposing it to extend to the seventeenth generation, every man will have the blood of many more than two hundred thousand ancestors running in his veins, and that if any of these should have been colored, his posterity will, by the operation of this law, be disfranchised; so that, if only one-thousandth part of the black inhabitants now in the State should intermarry with the white, their posterity will amount to so many millions that it will be difficult to suppose a fiftieth part of the people born within this State two hundred years hence, who may be entitled to share in the benefits which our excellent Constitution intended to secure to every free inhabitant of the State.

5. Because the last clause of the bill, being general, deprives those black, mulatto, and mustee citizens who have heretofore been entitled to a vote, of this essential privilege; and under the idea of political expediency, without their having been charged with any offense, disfranchises them in direct violation of the established rules of justice, against the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and tends to support a doctrine which is inconsistent with the most obvious principles of government, that the Legislature may arbitrarily dispose of the dearest rights of their constituents.

The Senate passed the bill, but the Assembly refused; consequently it did not become a law.

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