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Assaults on democracy are proliferating across the country in a variety of measures designed to reduce the electorate and defund public education. Political leaders who favor stricter voter ID laws that make it harder for poorer Americans and immigrants to vote, and who advocate drastic cuts to public education and to government-supported student loans, do so out of desire to keep the poorer classes alienated from the political system. This is nothing new in American history.
When the electorate was first expanded beyond the upper classes in the 19th century, elites openly disparaged the participation of poor and uneducated voters. First, working class white men—especially European immigrants—were enfranchised despite the outrage and disgust of many white Americans who feared the “corruption” of the ballot box by “ignorant” voters during the Jacksonian era. Then, after the momentous events of the Civil War, African Americans were enfranchised through state laws and Federal Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction. Opposition to blacks voting echoed earlier concerns about the white workers’ “unfitness” for the ballot box due to their lack of education, economic dependence, and supposed susceptibility to corruption and demagoguery.But the greatest fear of all was usually unspoken: that politicians might cater to their interests and popularly elected government might actually enact policies that favor someone other than the wealthiest elites.
I wrote a biography of Albion W. Tourgée, a forgotten civil rights champion who fought relentlessly in 19th century America to protect the right to vote for poor white and black Americans, and who advocated robust state and Federal funding to public education.
He believed these two issues were inseparable. Without serious public investment in the education of the electorate, the great democratic experiment of the United States would fail. How can the people rule without the literacy skills required to stay informed, and the civic knowledge of the law, the government and the economy needed to understand their situation? Tourgée wrote:
“if our Government is founded upon the true principles of democracy, if self-government is a possibility to any great nation, then it is of the utmost importance that every individual constituting the governing power in such nation should be not only honest and patriotic and courageous, but that he should have the knowledge to inform his honesty, knowledge to sustain his patriotism, knowledge to direct his courage. The ignorant man is as the breath of life to the nostrils of the demagogue. He is the material which the ambitious and unscrupulous leader uses to promote his own unrighteous ends.”
For decades, Tourgée fought to expand public education—especially among former slaves in the South. In 1868, he was one of the authors of the North Carolina State Constitution that requires that the state provide free public education from grammar school through university, open to all citizens of the state. Education fostered a common culture, as well as a more intelligent citizenry, and encouraged citizens to be active participants in civic life. Education was also to be an antidote to the feelings of alienation and resentment that came from exclusion and enforced ignorance.
Those in favor of placing restrictions on the ballot in Tourgée’s time argued for such devices as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent the ignorant and the poor from exercising the right to vote. By the 1890s, these restrictions became commonplace, especially but not exclusively in the Jim Crow South, and they were used to purge the particularly undesirable voters from the rolls—including most non-whites and known radicals. Supporters of these ostensibly “color-blind” voting restrictions claimed that they would protect the integrity of the ballot box while providing incentive for the “deserving” to get educated so they could attain voting rights. But, Tourgée knew better. The purpose was not to create an incentive to get educated, but rather to exclude, disempower and demoralize:
“The whole theory of republican government is based on the idea that the distribution of sovereign power enables every man to do something toward securing his own rights and remedying his own wrongs, or what he conceives to be his rights or believes to be his wrongs. It is a piece of protective armor, intended to equalize the weak with the strong. It is always the poor, the weak, and the ignorant who are the victims of oppression. To such the ballot is at once a sword and shield. The untrained soldier may injure his friend as often as his foe, or even hurt himself oftener still, with his weapon of celestial temper, but he will at least be able to defend himself . . . and the ballot is the only weapon with which poverty and ignorance may even blindly defend themselves. It is their only hope. Unfortunately, intelligence does not always imply righteousness or justice; and even against the best, the lowest and meanest of every land need always stand upon their guard.”
Once again, using transparently facetious arguments, the wealthy and powerful are trying to curb the voting rights and the educational opportunities of the poor. The struggles of a century ago continue today.
~ Mark Elliott is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Color Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford 2006) and co-editor with John David Smith of Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée (LSU 2010).