Our 250-Year Fight for Multiracial DemocracyHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Reconstruction, democracy, voting rights
In October 1829, some of the last surviving leaders of America’s founding generation gathered in Richmond, Virginia, for a state constitutional convention. Two issues dominated the gathering: suffrage and apportionment. Virginia’s 1776 constitution, drafted in the crucible of revolution, had limited the vote to white men who owned a certain amount of property. It also drew the General Assembly’s electoral districts to heavily favor the plantation-dominated Tidewater region in eastern Virginia, at the expense of the now-burgeoning western counties.
Presiding over the convention’s first session was James Monroe, who four years prior had finished his term as the nation’s fifth president. When the 71-year-old statesman took the chair, he was helped to his seat by James Madison, his 78-year-old predecessor, and John Marshall, the 74-year-old chief justice of the United States. Monroe’s opening remarks offered some support for reforms that drew upon a half-century of lessons in republican governance. He also underscored the urgency of their task. “All other republics have failed,” Monroe warned. “Those of Rome and Greece exist only in history. In the territories which they ruled, we see the ruins of ancient buildings only.” Reformers’ demands were modest by modern standards. They did not seek enfranchisement for women in any form; they denied their opponents’ allegations that they would eventually seek universal manhood suffrage and allow free Black residents to vote. But they struggled to persuade a majority of delegates to find a happy or workable medium. Eventually, they were forced to settle for a few concessions: a slight expansion of the franchise beyond freeholders to well-established renters, as well as some light redistricting to address the malapportionment in the General Assembly.
The fundamental view of the conservative bloc was best expressed by John Randolph, a dyspeptic and aristocratic slave owner who had served in Congress for decades. Randolph saw no need to open up the political system to more white male Virginians. Though only 56 years old at the time, he told the fellow delegates that he was too infirm to leave the commonwealth for good if the reformers succeeded. “But were I a young man, I would, in case this monstrous tyranny shall be imposed upon us, do what a few years ago I should have thought parricidal,” Randolph claimed. “I would withdraw from your jurisdiction. I would not live under King Numbers. I would not be his steward—nor make him my taskmaster.”
Nearly 200 years later, Randolph’s denunciation of “King Numbers”—his pejorative term for majority rule—sounds uncomfortably familiar. The right to vote is more contested now than at any point since the 1960s, when American democracy reached its modern apex. Can Democrats, equipped with the White House and a razor-thin majority in Congress, act decisively to protect majority rule in this country? Joe Biden’s presidency, and untold presidencies to come, may depend on it.
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