By Tom Lamia
In a review of 1774: The Long Year of Revolution by historian and former Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton (New York Review of Books, March 11, 2021) the statement that harsh measures against American colonists came because British officials “suspected that the Americans had absorbed a spirit of democracy,” caught my eye. What similarities might there be between that sentiment and Republican efforts to restrict voting rights at the state and local level? Do Republicans suspect now that voters have absorbed a spirit of democracy and harsh measures are needed to restore order?
A Republican fear of democracy in an expanding electorate does seem to be at the core of our voting rights issues. It was also at the core of differences between Loyalists and Patriots in 1774; the failure to bridge that difference was the essential cause of our revolution. Before the Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, and the Intolerable Acts there were a multitude of irritations flowing from the ordinary American’s lack of a voice in his government. This discontent was known to the British administration and small but inadequate steps were taken from time to time to address it. The failure to include the concerns of ordinary Americans in the British effort to deal with its American problem was a critical failure.
Loyalists (Americans of wealth and standing), while acknowledging the more egregious improprieties of British colonial rule, drew a line between modest, accommodating reform and revolution. Patriots (farmers, merchants, tradesmen and the landless laboring class) had no say in the debate over the pre-revolutionary governance of their country and they were not happy about that. Loyalists, on the other hand, were accepting of subordination to British rule. Favored appointments to positions in colonial government and eligibility for colonial titles, together with the social and commercial benefits of calm and good order, were sufficient for their continuing loyalty to the Crown. Patriots could not accept governance that left them out of deliberations over their future, regardless of putative benevolent intentions and their unlikely inclusion in royal grace.
Ordinary Americans in all thirteen colonies wanted a voice in any deliberations to address their grievances. A surprisingly simple solution proved to be elected committees in towns, cities and counties. These committees adopted guides for boycotts of British goods and published news of infractions reported to them, making the boycotts effective. Loyalists did not welcome this sort of voluntary pan-colonial action. Joint action among colonies of disparate interests was a risk and a threat to the British. Communication through these local committees had the effect of unifying colonial action and making it transparent.
In remote Gorham, a small town in backwater Maine, then part of Massachusetts, the townspeople resolved that they had “such a high relish for Liberty, that we all, with one heart, stand ready, sword in hand…to defend and maintain our rights against all attempts to enslave us, and joyn our brethren, opposing force to force, if drove to the last extremity, which God forbid.”
Contrast these sentiments of Patriot farmers with those of high ranking Loyalist clergymen: a New Jersey Episcopal minister [Chandler] asked, rhetorically, whether it was not the proper duty of “every American, to fear the Lord and the King and to meddle not with them that are GIVEN TO CHANGE?” Or, paraphrased, “stay out of things that are above your pay grade!”
A second Episcopal clergyman, this one in South Carolina [Bullman] expressed his adamant view that ordinary men were not capable of judging their betters, asking, rhetorically, whether a person “who cannot perhaps govern his own household, or pay the Debts of his own contracting, [should] dictate how the State should be governed?” Rev. Chandler, then asked whether any “ignorant men bred to the lowest occupations,” were “qualified for the direction of political affairs, or ought to be trusted with it.” The expected answer was “no,” of course, but the fight for independence, carried forth by all levels of colonial Americans, proved otherwise as democratic participation did not lead to chaos or failed government.
Loyalists did not give up their views easily. Some stayed in America, some decamped for British Canada, some joined their preferred society in London or in British colonies elsewhere in the empire. There was no sudden or even gradual recognition among Loyalists that a republican form of government based on democratic principles, was a welcome result of the American Revolution. It seems now that Republicans have adopted the Loyalist fear of democracy.
Republicans are comfortable in a society in which a limited group is running the show. To some extent our Constitutional framework allows a rural and small state advantage. We do not have a pure democracy. Republicans have the right to that advantage and I do not contest it.
However, attempts to expand this advantage by seeking to limit voting by non-European immigrants, Native Americans, felons, African Americans and a malleable range of low status persons goes too far. It is irrelevant whether Republican efforts at voter suppression come from fear of being “replaced,” as the fringe among them have been saying, or simply reflects an elitist (and unconstitutional) view of who is entitled to have a voice in our governance. That train left the station in the 19th Century on the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Attempts to derail it through voter suppression measures are contrary to those amendments. Legislation is needed to identify and prevent those measures. The Supreme Court, in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, ruled unconstitutional the requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that certain election districts continue to submit proposed election law changes for federal review. The basis for the decision was that conditions in those districts had changed and federal review was no longer justified. Now they are. A new Voting Rights Act is needed.
Loyalists did not trust ordinary Americans to govern themselves in 1774. Republicans have adopted a similar position today. Democracy can survive if all are included. It was so in 1774 and it remains so today.