The United States was founded by a group of men who wanted to do away with hereditary rulers. Leaders were supposed to come from out of the group of men naturally qualified to lead—the well-established, well-educated elites. They were to be
the voters who chose the best among them to lead the country. The population of the country was small, just below 4,000,000 in 1790 when the first census was taken, so perhaps it was not strange that various members of the same family became leaders. John Adams, the second president, was eventually followed by his son, John Quincy Adams, who became the country’s sixth president. It was a long time before the next father/son pair took the presidency—George H.W. Bush became the 41st president in 1988 and his son George W. Bush followed became the 43rd to hold the office in 2000. By this time the population of the country had grown to 180,000,000. With so many people to choose from the chances of seeing many more such pairs seems slim.
Until recently, I had never seen a study of how fathers and sons who governed the same community have influenced one another, but now we have an account of how a father-son pair of governors in California did that. Miriam Pawel’s book The Browns of California tells the story of Pat Brown and his son Jerry Brown who were governors during half a century of California’s history.
When Pat Brown became governor of California in 1959, the population of the state was ten and a half million—more than twice as large as the entire country was when John Adams served as president. California was a relatively young state, at least compared with states on the Eastern Seaboard. The infrastructure had to be developed and a young population was eager to have a strong educational system. Pat Brown united the state, or at least enough of the voters, to develop a viable water system for the parched state and a system of highways connecting the large and diverse population. Under his leadership California instituted the country’s largest university system
and a strong pre-college school system to prepare students for higher education.
By the time Pat Brown left office in 1967, the mood of the country had changed. The Vietnam War highlighted cultural divisions and led to unexpected violence. The mood of the country was shifting from the euphoria of post-WWII to the resentment and fears of a growing and ever more diverse population. By the time Pat’s son, Jerry Brown first became governor in 1975, some of his father’s policies seemed to be outdated and doomed. The population of the state had doubled again to over 23 million and taxpayers were beginning to revolt against the high taxes needed to support the state’s services.
Jerry Brown’s second tenure as governor, which will end this year, brought even more dramatic changes. Governor Jerry Brown has been a strong voice in the country and the world to call attention to the dangers of climate change and the need for new and less destructive ways of life. It is fascinating to see in this book how some of his father’s positions continue to dominate the state and how the son has changed and modified others to meet the current situation. His experience in local politics, perhaps especially his experience as mayor of Oakland, led him to value local control of some policies, while others, such as climate change, need to be supported internationally.
For anyone concerned with government and policy, whether in California or elsewhere, I strongly recommend The Browns of California. It is easy to read and filled with valuable insights into the way our world works.
With a national election coming up soon, there has been much talk about whether or not the national election might be “rigged”. When Donald Trump said, during the third presidential debate, that he wasn’t sure he would accept the results of the election, reporters and the social media went wild. The idea that an election must be fair and accepted by the country is basic to maintaining a democracy. Trust in elections has worked well for American voters and there have not been serious challenges to a national election for many years. But if you look back in history, the struggle for free and fair elections has been long and hard.
The American way of voting was based largely on the British system, but that was badly flawed. Only men who owned property were allowed to vote at all. Men who were elected to Parliament were not paid for their service, so you had to be wealthy if you wanted to run for a position in Parliament. Actually, the British don’t say they “run” for office; they “stand” for election. I guess that sounds more genteel.
The elections, however, were not very genteel. Even though an important reform bill was passed in 1832 to do away with some of the most obvious unfairness in elections—like having a member of Parliament who represented no one but himself –the elections were still not honest. Candidates would bribe men to vote for them. Pubs were filled on election day with representatives of the candidates who would buy drinks for any voter who promised to cast his vote for their candidate.
During the 1840s, a surge of protest against the way things were for the average working man began to grow. The Chartists was an organization formed to take power away from the aristocrats and make sure that average people would get fair treatment. They had six demands:
Manhood suffrage. Every man, regardless of class or property, should have the vote.
An end to the regional differences in the electoral system.
Secret ballots (no one else would know for whom you voted).
The end to property qualifications for MPs. This would mean that a man wishing to be an MP would no longer have to own property or land worth a set amount of money.
Payment for MPs. This would enable men who were not already wealthy to stand for election to Parliament.
Both men and women joined the Chartist struggle and women were especially scorned by many anti-chartists in the media. Here is one view from the opposition:
The struggle was hard and long. I’ve been living with it for the past year and more as I’ve been writing my newest Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Calls at the Palace. Finally my book is about to appear and you will be able to buy it on Amazon.com in plenty of time for holiday gifts. I’ll announce its appearance as soon as it becomes available.
Yesterday was a tumultuous day for politically-minded Americans. First came the shocking announcement of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And then within a few hours of that news, we were confronted with another debate among Republican candidates for the presidency. The debate participants paid a short tribute to Justice Scalia, but soon moved on to rancorous disagreement. For many viewers the level of insults and name-calling made the debate unwatchable after the first hour or so. Surely this is not the way a democracy should elect its leaders. There must be a better model for giving opinions and navigating different ideas. Perhaps we can get some clues from the Supreme Court.
Justice Scalia has been one of the most important and well-known members of the
Supreme Court, a man who was well-known not only to the legal profession, but also to the general public. Unlike many earlier justices, Scalia was not afraid to make his opinions known both inside and outside of the Court. He was an active and energetic participant in the Court activities and in his private life right up until the day before he died in his sleep while on a hunting trip in Texas. His bereaved family must still be struggling to accept the fact of his loss, and the our usual news commentators and reporters have been scrambling to write appropriate statements about his life and achievements.
Justice Scalia was an outspoken supporter of the concept of originalism—the belief that the United States Constitution meant what the men who signed it thought it meant at the time. He claimed that neither he nor other judges should interpret the Constitution so that it meets modern questions and needs. The Constitution he told a Southern Methodist University crowd in 2013 is “not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”
Many observers have suggested that Scalia might claim to honor the beliefs of the authors of the Constitution but that in fact many of his opinions changed accepted interpretations of the Constitution in a very activist way. The most notorious example was his support of changing the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s statement on the right to bear arms to enlarge its scope to include individual citizens as well as militias, which had been the standard interpretations for a hundred years.
Justice Scalia was genial and well-liked. He enjoyed the controversies he inspired. As he once pointed out to an interviewer from the New York Times, “I love to argue. I’ve always loved to argue. And I love to point out the weaknesses of the opposing arguments. It may well be that I’m something of a shin kicker. It may well be that I’m something of a contrarian.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ideological spectrum on the Court is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been a strong voice for examining the ways in which the Constitution can meet the challenges of modern times. Before she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she proved herself a brilliant lawyer and a staunch advocate of the rights of women and of all citizens to equal treatment before the law. Unlike Justice Scalia, she does not believe that the Constitution is an unchanging text set in stone, but rather a document written by
humane leaders setting forth the basic principles of democratic government. As the world and society changes, Justice Ginsburg believes that interpretations of the Constitution should not be bound by the 18th century meaning of words but rather by the deepest values of our ever-changing population. Perhaps it is almost inevitable that women would tend to take this view because it is difficult to believe that the Founding Fathers gave much thought to the rights of women of their time, much less to the challenges that women face in the 21st century.
Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—two very different people with opposing ideas and yet they were never known to call each other names or to question the motives of their opponents. In fact, over the years, they became friends, visiting one another’s homes and families as well as attending operas together. Both of them had close, happy family lives and seemed able to enjoy social events even while they disagreed on many issues in their shared work life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of our public servants and politicians could handle their differences as well as they did?
So on this Valentine’s Day, let’s offer a Valentine wish to two colleagues who liked one another and who worked together for many years in a spirit of friendship that I am sure St. Valentine himself would approve. And let their lives be examples for all of us today—candidates, voters, and all Americans.
When I was ten years old, I decided I wanted to grow up and be the first woman president of the United States. My teachers encouraged girls with all the stories about how women, having finally achieved the vote, and having served in so
many capacities in World War II, were destined to be leaders just as men were. And we had great role models in Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn who portrayed strong, capable women in the movies. Somehow my life didn’t turn out that way and neither did the life of any other woman of my generation. Now, more than half a century later, we are still waiting to see the first female president.
I remembered those optimistic feelings when I read Gail Collins’s thought-provoking column in today’s New York Times about “Hillary in History”. Collins goes through the list of women who have come close to the presidency or attempted to reach it, starting with Victoria Woodhull in 1872. who I have written about in this blog. There have been other contenders over the years, including Shirley Chisholm and
Margaret Chase Smith, but none was ever taken as seriously as Hillary Clinton. Millions of women will be cheered by her victory if she wins—cheered perhaps even if they don’t agree with all of her positions and policies. It’s wonderful to think that at last a woman is being taken very seriously as a potential threat to the old-boy network that has run the country, and the world, for so long.
An yet, nothing is perfect. When President Obama was elected in 2008, the media and many of us ordinary citizens engaged in an orgy of celebration. With an African American in the White House, we must surely have seen the end of racism in the country. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? We still have to struggle with the everyday racism that affects so many Americans despite the great achievements of individuals members of minority groups.
No doubt it will be the same with women. If Hillary takes over the White House, we can expect she will have the successes and failures that all presidents have encountered. There will not be a sudden rise of women to executive positions in the top corporations; Silicon Valley firms will still hire more men than women; and media commentators will still believe it’s appropriate to critique a woman’s fashion choices instead of her policy statements when she gives a speech.
Golda Meir was one of the most powerful leaders of Israel and Margaret Thatcher one of the notable British leaders of recent years, but as we look at the pictures of powerful leaders in Israel and England today, the women are notably absent (except for Scotland, of course, which carries on its independent ways). The election of Hillary Clinton will not change the entire fabric of women’s position in society, but if it happens, it will be an important step toward the eventual goal of having every individual given a fair and equal place in the world.
Although it will be more than a year before we face another presidential election, the media is already filled with stories of men and women who have declared themselves candidates. You may think we have quite a few colorful and unusual candidates in this cycle, but have you ever heard about the candidate from the past who spent Election Day in jail and who wasn’t allowed to vote?Victoria Woodhull
The year was 1872, and the candidate was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of
the United States. Her presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote. The argument persuaded some people, especially women who had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.
And who was Victoria Woodhull? Born in Ohio in 1838, she had grown up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spirituality and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sexual appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage. During the late 19th century when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, while married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Who knew that these women in their long skirts and corsets were asking the same questions we are asking today? Certainly I had never known how much Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs influenced the women’s rights movement. She was not the only member of the group who believed that spirits speaking to them from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign. Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year of the first Women’s Rights Convention, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed firmly that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York. Victoria and Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers. Their unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money for themselves. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, strong supporters of women’s right to vote, supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue, because it was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
While the three different suffrage groups were arguing among themselves, the traditional political parties also struggled over their candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. After the turmoil of nominations the campaign itself was one of the most bitterly-fought campaigns in American history.
Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sisters had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had many secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives as well as their mistresses. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as many of the suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This is what led to her arrest and was the reason she spent Election Day in jail rather than at the polls. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted and she was given a $100 fine for the attempt. The election which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights proved to be a miserable failure for them.
Today, as we look back from the enormous new freedoms in sex and marriage that have been gained over the last hundred years and more, it’s hard to know what to think of Victoria Woodhull. She pioneered many of the ideas we now accept as desirable. Who would go back to the bad old days when women weren’t allowed to vote or manage their own money or divorce their husbands and keep custody of the children? At the same time, we have to admit that Victoria would have been a terrible president. Going into trances and listening to the voices of spirits got her a long way, but they probably wouldn’t have provided a clue about how to reconcile the North and South after the long destruction of the Civil War. We can admire her spirit in making public some of the sins of hypocrites who were running the country, but we have to admit that her unsavory activities (and her disreputable family) set back the suffrage by decades. Women didn’t finally get the vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment 1920.
My next book, the second in the Charlotte Edgerton Mystery series, Death Visits a Bawdy House, which will be published later this month, dips into some of the same issues that plagued Victoria Woodhull. Charlotte discovers that New York City in 1843 was called Sin City because of the visibility of sexually free women on city streets. Victoria Woodhull would have felt right at home.
Nelson Mandela, who brought democracy to South Africa 1994, thought everyone over the age of 14 should be allowed to vote. Young people had fought against apartheid with him and he believed they should be able to vote in their new country. He didn’t win that argument and the voting age was set at 18 as it is in the majority of democracies around the world.
But are young people in the United States losing that right? A group of students in North Carolina claim that young people are losing their right to vote because of new voter ID laws passed in several Republican-dominated state legislatures.
According to a New York Times report, under the North Carolina law passed last year, the period for early voting was shortened and same-day registration was eliminated. Beginning in 2016, voters will need to show photo identification, and student ID cards, including those issued by state universities, will not be acceptable. In most instances, neither will an out-of-state driver’s license. In Texas, voters must show a photo ID. A state handgun license qualifies, but a state university identification card does not. Other states have suggested even more restrictive laws.
The history of voting in the United States has been a history of letting more and more citizens vote. The men who wrote the constitution thought voters should be successful men who had experience as farmers or businessmen. Voters should be at least 21 years old and own property. Servants and slaves could not vote and neither could women. During the first few years of the new country, only about half of all white men were allowed to vote in some states.
No one is sure why 21 was chosen as the time when a man became an adult. During the middle ages in England, a young man could become a knight at the age of 21, because he had gained his full strength and could wear heavy armor. Gradually that age was accepted as an appropriate time for taking on adult responsibilities, including voting.
Slowly and painfully the right to vote was extended to men who did not own property, to former slaves and even to women. Each extension was gained after a long, hard battle. For more than a hundred years it looked as though democracy was winning and more and more people were given voting rights. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, allowing voting to young people across the country.
The history of the twentieth century was a history of broadening people’s rights to vote, but the twenty-first century has reversed the trend. Instead of taking advantage of an infrastructure that makes it easier for people to vote—voting machines that count votes automatically, mail delivery that is safe and secure, ballots that are accessible to people with disabilities—some jurisdictions are intent on decreasing voting rather than expanding it.
How much does this have to do with the increasing inequality in our society? Making voting difficult is one way to stifle
democracy. Lines like the ones that have appeared in recent elections in states such as Florida and Ohio discourage voting, so do unreasonable voter ID laws. Voting is a right, not a privilege to be doled out only to people who can be counted on tovote to support the privileges of those who hold power. Every citizen who cares about the future of America should support the right of all citizens to vote no matter which candidates or parties they are supporting. That’s what democracy is all about.