Van Ens: Protect voting rights this Constitution Day weekend
Delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention signed our nation’s founding document on September 17, 1787. Shortly thereafter, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson about what was lacking in the Constitution – now known as the “Declaration of rights ”.
Using his usual language, Adams asked, “What do you think of a bill of rights? Should not such a thing [Bill of Rights] preceded the Model [that is, the text of the Constitution]?
Adams realized that our rights are precious and can easily be compromised or taken away from us by government officials who seize political power. Jefferson and Adams knew of a precedent for attaching a list of citizens’ rights to the Constitution, which Adams forcefully called a “declaration.”
These patriots were familiar with the Virginia Constitution of 1776, which included a preliminary bill of rights. Following this precedent, why not boldly affirm in the Constitution freedoms such as the right to vote, to demonstrate, to publish anti-government messages and to exercise religious freedoms?
James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, initially refused to issue a bill of rights. He believed that such personal freedoms were already written into the text of the founding document. The Constitution stipulated the separation of powers, the rights reserved to states and bicameral governance composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. These deliberative organs distributed political power among the greatest number rather than reserving it for the privileged few.
Yet Jefferson, urged on by Adams, wanted to safeguard our freedoms by posting a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. These colleagues, along with other colonial leaders, struck a deal. They promised that the first task of the new constitutionally guided Congress would be to adopt a Bill of Rights to serve as a check on the power of the national government.
In February 1788, Jefferson proposed to Madison a two-part plan to attach a bill of rights to the Constitution. The first step allowed nine states to ratify it, making this founding document operational.
Then the second step invited four more states to reject its ratification, forcing the new government, dependent on citizens’ support for their legislative work, to add a Bill of Rights. “In this way we will have all that is good, and cure its main fault,” wrote Jefferson. Like a pit bull’s grip on a piece of meat, Jefferson was unwilling to let go of the publication of a Bill of Rights, which was therefore attached to the Constitution as the First Ten Amendments.
Reflecting the enthusiasm of our founders for the Constitution, the late West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd sponsored legislation in 2004 and received enthusiastic approval from Congress to designate September 17 each year as “Constitution Day.” “. On this special day, public schools and government offices were invited to set aside time for students and workers to study the Constitution and better understand our rights.
Since 1974, dressed in authentic colonial attire, I have introduced Thomas Jefferson to students in public, charter and private schools. At first, even though Jefferson was an accomplished horseman who rode as fast as a stiff breeze, I struggled to honor a whirlwind of invitations to appear as Jefferson in schools.
Today, the former abundant number of invitations to present Jefferson has been drastically reduced. Schools found that they did not incur any financial penalties if they bypassed the time allotted for study, reflection and debate on Constitution Day.
What fills this void caused by forgetting Constitution Day? A wave of white politicians and their constituents are acting as if the right to vote is a privilege rather than a constitutional right.
The Bible speaks of us as precious, special and worthy of dignity because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Such a favor is denied when strict voting requirements are enacted that fit well into the voting habits of citizens who control their working hours. These voters do not depend on public transport. Some live in closed communities with amenities that allow them to easily vote.
Between January 1 and July 14 of this year, at least 18 states have passed 30 laws tightening electoral restrictions. On September 7, Governor Gregg Abbott signed into Texas law strict voting measures affecting people of color and minority voters. These restrictions include an in-person registration deadline 30 days before election day, a drastic reduction in polling stations in rural areas where people of color reside, a dearth of early voting alternatives, and barriers that block postal voting.
Governor Abbott is daring in praising himself for making Texas the “freedom capital of America” when he has fallen into a stronghold of wealthy Republicans who preserve their right to vote.
In her August 6, 2021 blog post, historian Heather Cox Richardson reports the results of a game plan President Ronald Reagan favored in the 1980s to restrict voting. “[The 2020 Presidential Election] made it clear that if Republicans can’t stop Democrats from voting, they won’t be able to win the election. Thus, Republicans insist that only states can determine who can vote and that any federal government [voting] legislation is a tyrannical excess. A recent Pew poll shows that more than two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think voting is a right and think it can be limited.
Ronald Reagan advocated a “new federalism,” which “returned power to the states” and prevented the feds from taking control of governments. This president wrongly stated that he was following the “original intentions of the founding believers.”
Reagan had a bad memory of how our nation was established. He resembled the defenders of state rights – the anti-federalists who strongly opposed the Constitution in 1787. Most of the constitutional drafters and allies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported a strong national government elected by the vote of the people. Unlike Reagan, who cherished state sovereignty as a noble ideal, these constitutional drafters saw it as a fatal weakness that would dismantle the Republic.
On this Constitution Day, deepen it, study it, and act on it. Restore the right to vote, not only a privilege for whites, but a solemn pledge distributed to every American citizen.
Reverend Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian pastor who leads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed at giving life to the history of God.