A Matter of Suffrage

Noah Webster

Any serious discussion about why the “American Experiment” has failed will eventually come to the same conclusion: The problem is not who we have in positions of leadership – the problem is who votes to put those people into positions of leadership. In a word, the fate of America is determined by Suffrage – who is permitted to vote.

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.”
Alexander Tyler on the fall of the Athenian Republic

Why would we place the fate of the nation in the hands of those who do not have a concrete and well-established stake in the future of that nation? Why would we place the fate of the nation in the hands of those who base their decisions on kumbaya-style feelings rather than on solid moral principles? Why would we place the fate of the nation in the hands of those who receive direct financial support from the treasury?

The question of who has the right to vote has generally been decided by the individual states. Early criteria typically included white male property-owners over the age of 21. The vote of men was presumed to represent the corporate vote of a household, with the husband being the head of the household. Back when it was clearly understood that the family unit was the solid foundation upon which all civilized society is based, there was little or no controversy about having only men voting. Society recognized that by having one vote per family, there was a built-in incentive to vote for candidates who would support the family. Further restricting the voting pool was the requirement that the voter be a significant property owner – one who had a financial stake in maintaining the all-important legal concept of private property rights. One who owned property was not likely to support someone who might be in favor of taking away property to redistribute to others. Yes, it was “unfair” to single women and to poor men – at least that is the way today’s society would see it.

The election that carried Thomas Jefferson to the White House sent Noah Webster to the statehouse. In 1880, Webster was elected to the Connecticut legislature. He served until 1807. As a legislator, he chiefly occupied himself with attempting to block bills eliminating the property qualification for voting – in the hope that no more fools and knaves like Jefferson would ever be elected again. He called men without property “porpoises” (by which he meant that they would swim in a school, and not think for themselves). He himself had earned the right to vote, he was keen to point out, by writing his spelling books. “I am a farmer’s son and have collected all the small portion of property which I possess by untiring efforts and labors to promote the literary improvements of my fellow citizens.” He would not stand for political decisions to be made for him by men who had no similar stake in the world. “If all men have an equal right of suffrage, those who have little and those who have no property, have the power of making regulations respecting the property of others,” he reasons. “In truth, this principle of equal suffrage operates to produce extreme inequality of rights, a monstrous inversion of the natural order of society.”

Despite Webster’s best efforts, the United States grew more and more democratic, as more and more states lifted property restrictions on voting, and declaimed in favor of universal suffrage. “The men who preached these doctrines have never defined what they mean by the people, or what they mean by democracy, nor how the people are to govern themselves,” Webster complained. As he saw it, democracy is rule by the people and the people are, generally, insufferable idiots. In his 1828 dictionary, he put it this way:

PEOPLE, n…2. The vulgar, the mass of illiterate persons. The knowing artist may judge better than the people.

One lone legislator, however ill-natured, could scarcely slow the expansion of the franchise. As his home state grew more democratic, Webster insisted that he “wished to be forever delivered from the democracy of Connecticut.” He would even be willing to make the great sacrifice of moving to Vermont, if that state could be “freed from our democracy,” adding, “as to the cold winters, I would, if necessary, become a troglodyte, and live in a cave.”

Noah Webster’s worst fears have come to pass.


(Note: portions of this post were copied from a book about Noah Webster, but I cannot locate the original source. I will add the source credit if/when I find it again.)

About Stephen Clay McGehee

Born-Again Christian, Grandfather, husband, business owner, Southerner, aspiring Southern Gentleman. Publisher of The Confederate Colonel and The Southern Agrarian blogs. President/Owner of Adjutant Workshop, Inc., Vice President - Gather The Fragments Bible Mission, Inc. (Sierra Leone, West Africa), Webmaster - Military Order of The Stars and Bars, Kentucky Colonel.
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5 Responses to A Matter of Suffrage

  1. Sam Starrett says:

    Thank you for this, sir. I’ll be posting a link on The Rambling Royalist right away. The de-elitification of the electorate is a big problem for any democratic republic.

  2. James says:

    Dear Sirs,
    As cynical politicians in Ancient Rome used to say, give the plebeians, the mob, “bread and circuses”, and they will support us. Perhaps, at least, those receiving governmental charity should be denied the franchise, the privilege of voting. Even bolder would be raising the voting age to 21 (or older?). College “students” today, unfortunately, are, with very few exceptions, still kids. How many intellectuals are in the bleachers of a college football game? Even bolder still, would be limiting the vote, to one vote per household.
    Thank you.
    A New Jersey Copperhead

  3. It is true that people who hold different positions in society have different stakes in it, and therefore it is certainly unfair to give everyone an equal vote in the country’s representative body. The gravest problem, however, is that in modern democracy the elected legislative assembly fails, by its very nature, to be a representative body.

    Representation implies that those who are represented have a means of making their voices heard, that is, listened to by those who make a decision. By others. Since Congress calls itself representative, but at the same time makes legislative decisions, it unites two functions that by definition should belong to two different organs. (See http://firmusenglish.blogspot.com/2011/04/modernitys-myths-democracy-and-false_12.html )

    No matter who is elected, or who elects him, or by what method, a representative body simply does not exist in a democracy.

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  5. james wilson says:

    As the gentle Tocqueville wrote, universal suffrage is the most detestable element possible in a democracy, and is instead a powerful revolutionary instrument. At one stroke we raise up the stock of stupidity and lower that of deliberation.

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