Van Ens: Protect voting rights this Constitution Day weekend
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed our nation’s founding document Sept. 17, 1787. Soon after, John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson about what was missing in the Constitution — now known as a “Bill of Rights.”
Using his customary in-your-face language, Adams asked, “What think you of a Declaration of Rights? Should not such a Thing (Bill of Rights) have preceded the Model (that is, the text of the Constitution)?
Adams realized our rights are precious and can easily be compromised or taken from us by governing officials who seize political power. Jefferson and Adams knew of precedent for attaching to the Constitution a listing of citizens’ rights, what Adams forcefully called a “declaration.”
These patriots were familiar with the 1776 Virginia Constitution, which included an introductory bill of rights. Following this precedent, why not boldly state in the Constitution freedoms such as the right to vote, to protest, to publish anti-government broadsides and to exercise religious liberties?
James Madison, the Constitution’s architect, at first rebuffed publishing a declaration of rights. He believed such personal liberties were already embedded in the text of the founding document. The Constitution stipulated separation of powers, rights reserved to the states and bicameral governance consisting of the Senate and House of Representatives. These deliberative bodies distributed political power among the many rather than reserving it for a privileged few.
Still, 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 piece of business of the new Congress guided by the Constitution would be to adopt a Bill of Rights to serve as a check on the national government’s power.
In February 1788, Jefferson proposed to Madison a two-part plan for attaching a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. The first step allowed nine states to ratify it, making this founding document operational.
Next, the second step invited an additional four states to reject its ratification, thereby forcing the new government, dependent on citizens’ support for their legislative work, to add a Bill of Rights. “We shall thus have all it’s good, and cure it’s principal defect,” Jefferson wrote. Like a pit bull’s grip on a piece of meat, Jefferson would not let go of getting a published Bill of Rights, which consequently was attached to the Constitution as the first ten amendments.
Mirroring our Founders’ enthusiasm for the Constitution, the late West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd in 2004 sponsored legislation and received rousing congressional approval for annually designating Sept. 17 as “Constitution Day.” On this special day, public schools and government offices were urged to set aside time for students and workers to study the Constitution and gain a better understanding of our rights.
Since 1974, dressed in authentic colonial garb, I have presented Thomas Jefferson to students in public, charter, and private schools. At first, even though Jefferson was an accomplished equestrian who rode as fast as a stiff breeze, I found it difficult 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 out that they incurred no financial penalty if they bypassed reserving time for study, reflection, and debate on Constitution Day.
What fills this void caused by overlooking Constitution Day? A surge of white politicians and their constituencies act as if voting rights are a privilege rather than a constitutional right.
The Bible speaks of us as precious, special, and worthy of dignity because we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Such favor is denied when stringent voting requirements are adopted that nicely fit into the voting habits of citizens in control of their work schedules. These voters don’t depend on public transportation. Some reside in gated communities with amenities making it easy for them to cast ballots.
Between Jan. 1 and July 14 of this year, at least 18 states have passed 30 laws tightening voter restrictions. On Sept. 7, Gov.Gregg Abbott signed into Texas law stringent voting measures affecting people of color and minority voters. These restrictions stipulate an in-person registration deadline 30 days before Election Day, a drastic reduction of polling stations in rural areas where people of color reside, a shortage of early voting alternatives, and barriers that block casting an absentee ballot.
Gov. Abbott exhibits audacity by congratulating himself for making Texas the “freedom capital of America,” when it has fallen into a fiefdom of wealthy Republicans who preserve their voting power.
In her Aug. 6, 2021, blog, historian Heather Cox Richardson reports results from a gameplan President Ronald Reagan favored in the 1980s to restrict voting. “(The 2020 Presidential Election) made it crystal clear that if Republicans cannot stop Democrats from voting, they will not be able to win elections. And so, Republicans are insisting that states alone can determine who can vote and that any federal (voting) legislation is tyrannical overreach. A recent Pew poll shows that more than two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think voting is a right and believe it can be limited.”
Ronald Reagan advocated a “New Federalism,” which “returned power to the states” and blocked the Feds from taking over governments. This President mistakenly declared he was following the “original intentions of the Founding Faithers.”
Reagan had a faulty memory of how our nation was established. He sounded like the states’ rights proponents — the anti-federalists who strongly opposed the Constitution in 1787. Most Framers of the Constitution and allies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported a strong national government elected by the vote of the people. Contrary to Reagan, who cherished state sovereignty as a noble ideal, these constitutional framers saw it as a fatal weakness that would dismantle the Republic.
On this Constitution Day, delve into it, study it and act on it. Restore the right to vote, not merely a privilege for white people, but a solemn promise distributed to every U.S. citizen.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.