“World’s Oldest Democracy”: The Myth & The Reality

Part 2

“Manifest Destiny” and the Fate of America’s Original Peoples

The self-serving belief that the United States was divinely ordained to expand across the North American continent or what came to be known as Manifest Destiny was used by its advocates to justify territorial acquisitions as well as the genocide of the Native American populations, who were standing in the way of its believers and supporters.

As the population of the original 13 U.S. states grew with the ever-increasing inflow of immigrants from Europe, economic need and greed necessitated widespread expansion into the western frontiers. According to census data, the U.S. population grew from about 5 million in 1800 to more than 23 million by 1850. It is estimated that nearly 4 million settlers moved to western territories between 1820 and 1850 by displacing the America’s Original Peoples who were herded into designated reservations. For the colonists, appropriation of land represented potential wealth and opportunities for self-advancement.

By the 1840s, technological innovations such as steamboats and network of railroads and telegraphic lines ushered in the modern long distance transport and communication systems, which along with the aid of superior firearms had quickened the pace of conquest and occupation. Southerners anxious to enlarge the slave empire were among the most ardent champions of the crusade for more territory. New slave states were expected to enhance the South’s political power in the U.S. Congress and, equally important, serve as an opening for exploiting its growing slave population.

One of the important – but less-discussed – documents in American history is the Royal Proclamation of 1763 issued by Britain’s King George regarding the settlement line in North America. King George had divided his colonies in North American into three ethnically based enclaves: his English-speaking subjects in the thirteen colonies on lands east of the Appalachian Mountains, his French-speaking subjects in what is now part of Canada, and his American “Indian” subjects on lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Para 12 of the Proclamation, which was issued on 07 October 1763, stated that:

And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds…. any Lands whatever, which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians, or any of them.

Para 14 of the Proclamation also stated that:

And We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved, without our especial leave and Licence for that Purpose first obtained.

In effect, the Proclamation of 1763 introduced the idea of a geographical place called “Indian territory,” to mean the lands that Indian tribes occupied and held without disturbance or trespassing from outsiders. The King’s proclamation anticipated that the British could acquire lands from Indian Country but only by an agreement directly between a tribe and the King or his representative; it was illegal for individual Englishmen to buy lands directly from Indian Country. Furthermore, the way in which new states would be created out of the western lands and then admitted into the Union was instituted through the Northwest Ordinance that was promulgated on 13 July 1787. The U.S. Congress spelt out its Indian policy in Article 3 of the Ordinance, which was as follows:

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

Contrary to the flattering sentiments that were expressed about America’s Original Peoples in the Northwest Ordinance of 13 July 1787, the U.S. Constitution that was adopted just a month later on 17 September 1787 did not contain any such lofty notions. Instead,

the Constitution had only one direct and one oblique reference to the conduct of Indian affairs. The direct reference stated that Congress shall have the power to regulate trade with the Indian tribes. The indirect reference acknowledged that “Indians not taxed” were outside the American polity and presumably kept their own limited sovereignty within U.S. borders. ((Jon Parmenter: “American-Indians: British Policies”, in Paul Finkelman, ed., Encyclopedia of the New American Nation (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 2007).))

Therefore, it is apparent that, unlike the Northwest Ordinance, there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution to either protect the rights of the “American-Indians” or to prevent any wrongs being done to them; they were left completely at the mercy of the marauding settlers, who were intent on usurping the Indian territories.

In gross violation of the Proclamation of 1763, widespread European American population movement to the west of the Appalachian Mountains took place unabated. The advance of White settlers, with their reckless slaughter of the buffalo herds on which the Original Peoples depended for their livelihood and as well as dispossession of their traditional hunting grounds ultimately lead to the outbreak of bloody warfare between the Original Peoples and the English-speaking settlers. Wanton transgression of peace agreements by prospectors seeking valuable minerals in tribal lands was another major cause of disaffection among the Original Peoples.

The U.S. government pursued a policy of removing the indigenous population to reservations across West of the Mississippi River with such success that by 1860 the great majority of the America’s Original Peoples had been relocated. Hostilities between the U.S. Army and indigenous tribes reached its height between 1869 and 1878, when over 200 pitched battles were waged. Although the Original Peoples fought fiercely and courageously, the continuing flow of settlers to the West with advanced transport & communication systems, and sophisticated arms made their resistance ineffectual. After 1890, the vastly decimated tribes could hardly carry on the fight.

Civil War and After

As the United States expanded westward, the dispute over slavery intensified. The question of whether Missouri, which was part of the territory of Louisiana that was purchased by USA from France in 1803 and which sought statehood in 1819, would be admitted to the Union as a “slave” or “free” state set off a fierce debate between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the U.S. Congress. To end the controversy, a compromise called the “Missouri Compromise” was worked out in 1820. It was agreed that Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while another state named Maine would be carved out of the State of Massachusetts and be admitted as a free state, thereby maintaining a balance of 12 “slave” and 12 “free” states. In addition, as per the compromise, the rest of the territory of Louisiana, which lay north of the 36 degree 30 minute north latitude, was to remain free of slavery. The balance was finally disrupted in 1850, when Southerners permitted California to enter as a free state in exchange for laws strengthening slavery such as the Fugitive Slave Law. This balance was further upset with the additions of free Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859).

The widening gap between “slave” and “free” states was also symbolic of the different economic systems in each region: while the South was devoted to an agrarian plantation economy, the North had embraced industrialization. Similarly, while in the South the growth in population was relatively slow, the Northern states were experiencing high birth rates and a large influx of European immigrants. This differential growth in population threatened the domination of the Southerners over the Union government and the election of a Northerner, and a potentially anti-slavery advocate, as president. In 1861, the population in the North was about 22 million (including 500,000 slaves) while in the South it was around 9 million (including more than 3.5 million slaves). Thus, the South’s white population was outnumbered by a ratio of more than four to one when compared with that of the North.

The conflict between the Northern states and the Southern states on the question of slavery was symbolic of the struggle between the pro-slavery landed gentry in the South and the pro free-labour industrial bourgeoisie from the North for political supremacy. With the growth of large-scale industry in the North, the Northern bourgeoisie were eager to clip the wings of the landed-gentry, who enjoyed power disproportionate to their real strength since under Article I, Section 2, Paragraph iii of the 1787 Constitution they had representation in proportion to the number of slaves that they owned. The opportunity came when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850. To oppose the repugnant Law, a group of former members of the Democratic Party and some other smaller parties founded the Republican Party in Wisconsin in 1854. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to expansion of slavery into new territories, as its candidate for the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln managed to narrowly beat his pro-slavery opponent at the polls. Lincoln’s victory symbolised the ascending power of the bourgeoisie.

Within three months of the election of Lincoln, when the landed-gentry found that power was slipping from their hands, seven slave-owning Southern states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas – seceded from the Union and founded the Confederate States of America on 08 February 1861. While, Lincoln took a conciliatory position and stated that he did not intend to abolish slavery where it already existed and that his aim was only to maintain the unity of the Union, the Confederate leadership tried to forcibly occupy the federal forts, which were situated in areas under their control. Attempts at such forcible occupation resulted in armed conflict, which broke out on 12 April 1961. On 15 April 1861, Lincoln directed the Northern states to provide militia to put down the insurrection. However, four more slave-owning states – Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee, which were until then part of the Union, spurned Lincoln’s directions and, instead, opted to join the Confederacy. Two other slave-owning states, Kentucky and Missouri, were also unwilling to supply men for the Union Army but chose to remain neutral in the conflict. The outbreak of war provided the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of slaves to escape to Union lines.

Among the army commanders leading the Union Army there were pro-slavery as well as anti-slavery generals. Pro-slavery generals were averse to taking decisive action against the Confederate Army because of the adverse impact such action would have had on the institution of slavery. On the other hand, the anti-slavery generals were intent on freeing the slaves and enlisting them into the Union Army to fight the war. Ultimately, the compromising attitude of the pro-slavery generals towards the Confederate Army compelled an unwilling Lincoln to act decisively. Not only did Lincoln remove such generals from their posts but, on 22 September 1862, he also issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all slaves would be declared free in those states that continued the rebellion against the United States after 01 January 1863. By implication, this proclamation did not apply to those Southern states that would be under occupation of the Union Army before 01 January 1863, which was a way of mollifying Lincoln’s conservative supporters. Nevertheless, thousands of slaves were freed by the operation of the Emancipation Proclamation as Union armies marched across the South.

By January 1863, it also became clear that the Northern states could not find enough volunteers to join the Union Army and, therefore, were forced to resort to conscription. The rich people were able to avoid the draft by paying a certain sum to hire a substitute, thereby, forcing the poor Whites alone to carry on the war. This questionable practice ultimately led to outbreak of “draft riots” in the northern cities, which targeted anti-slavery activists. Under pressure from his radical supporters, Lincoln finally agreed to enlist former slaves into the Union Army. As a result, no less than 190,000 Black soldiers and sailors served in the Union forces, a decision that had far reaching implications since it provided a big impetus towards the goal of abolition of slavery.

The bill to abolish slavery throughout the United States was reintroduced in the U.S. Congress on 14 December 1863 (after the unsuccessful attempt by Representative John Quincy Adams way back in 1839). The Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery on 08 April 1864 and the House of Representatives passed the same on 31 January 1865. President Lincoln signed the Joint Resolution on 01 February 1865 and submitted the amendment to the states for ratification. Soon afterwards, on 09 April 1865, the main Confederate Army was forced to surrender. Two days after this surrender, Lincoln, while addressing a gathering outside the White House, stated that he was of the opinion that voting rights should be granted to the Blacks. Lincoln’s would-be-assassin, who was present on the occasion, was infuriated by the suggestion. Three days later on 14 April 1865, Lincoln was shot, while watching a play, and he died the next day due to serious head injuries he had suffered in the attack. Lincoln paid dearly for a cause that he was initially reluctant to uphold. ((Of the first fifteen presidents of the United States until Abraham Lincoln took office, eight owned slaves during their presidency. They include well-known names such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. The rest, barring John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were supporters of slavery. It may be added that both Washington and Jefferson were, reportedly, opposed to slavery; however, they could do nothing to abolish slavery during their lifetime and had opted to remain prisoners of their circumstances. It may also be noted that while the initiative for abolishing slavery was taken during Lincoln’s presidency, Lincoln, who was known to be a moderate Republican, was initially neither a champion of racial equality nor was he averse to the idea of sending the African-Americans back to Africa. The credit for pioneering the cause of abolition of slavery in USA must primarily go to the Quakers, who began to oppose slavery as early as 1688 and who took the initiative in founding in 1775 what later became the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery with Thomas Paine as one of the founder-members. A host of others, including Benjamin Franklin – a slave owner turned abolitionist – also made significant contribution to the cause. The final phase of the movement began with the establishment of The American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833 led by William Lloyd Garrison and later joined by Frederick Douglass, Susan Anthony and others. David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and William Still are just few of the African-Americans who led the road to freedom. Other important people in U.S. history who were Abolitionists include Henry David Thoreau, Thaddeus Stevens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.)) There were strong indications that the pro-slavery forces had conspired to eliminate Lincoln, however, there was no way they could stem the momentum against abolition of slavery. Emancipation as a reality came to the remaining Southern slaves after the surrender of all Confederate troops.

Slavery was formally abolished in the whole of USA only after the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the various states on 06 December 1865. Section 1 of the amendment stated as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Freedman’s Bureau

Soon after the U.S. House of Representatives had passed the Thirteenth Amendment for abolition of slavery on 31 January 1865, the U.S. Congress on 03 March 1865 established the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands”, popularly known as the “Freedmen’s Bureau” to assist the four million freed slaves in making the transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau had also to take care of a large number of Whites in the South, who were uprooted and impoverished because of the devastation caused by the Civil War. The tasks of the Bureau were to provide food, medical care, support resettlement, administer justice, manage abandoned and confiscated property, regulate labour, and establish schools.

Although it was to function only for a year, the Republican controlled U.S. Congress managed to extend the term of the Bureau despite the attempted veto by the pro-slavery Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, who was elevated as the U.S. President following the assassination of Lincoln. Nonetheless, President Johnson worked actively to undermine the Bureau’s operation by appointing mainly racist White officers, although Major General Oliver Howard who headed it turned out to be a non-racist. While the Bureau was expected to play a major role in resettling the emancipated slaves, it could do little apart from its work in the field of education primarily because the U.S. Administration never provided the requisite funds for fulfilling its other missions.

The Bureau’s attempt to re-distribute the hundreds of thousands of acres of abandoned and confiscated land from the Confederates to freedmen too failed because President Johnson pardoned the Confederates and returned the land back to them. The Bureau also tried to find work for the freedmen on plantations, but it only resulted in oppressive sharecropping and tenancy arrangements. Although its operations were curtailed after 1869, the Bureau managed to remain active as an educational agency until 1872, when it was finally wound up. Since the Bureau could not satisfactorily fulfil any of the missions for which it was set up, the freedmen were left with the onerous task of fending for their needs without any resources of their own and without outside help (other than some charity) after being enslaved in the “world’s oldest democracy” for no less than ninety years.

The well-known abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) described the situation regarding the fate of the freedmen most poignantly. Douglass wrote that the freedman no longer had an individual master, but that he was

…the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and the frosts of winter. He was, in a world, literally turned loose naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.

He further added:

History does not furnish an example of emancipation under conditions less friendly to the emancipated class, than this American example…. When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty-handed without money, without friends, and without a foot of land upon which to stand. ((Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (De Wolfe & Fiske Co, Boston, 1892) at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/dougl92/dougl92.html (pp.458-459 & p.613).))

As the freedmen had attained “freedom” and “equality,” they were being treated on par with those who controlled all the resources!

Expansion of Franchise

Through a variety of treaties, purchases, predatory wars, and Acts of the U.S. Congress, by 1867 the territory of the United States had expanded by about eighteen times from what it was in 1776 to nearly its present-day size. Since there was no legal definition of the term “citizen of the United States” in the original U.S. Constitution, the Original Peoples, who inhabited North America for several millennia and whose entire lands were usurped by the White settlers through deceit and subterfuge over the years had been denied citizenship rights. ((One of the most controversial issues regarding colonization of the Americas is about population estimates. Ronald Wright, in his well-acclaimed book “Stolen Continents”, states that: “It is impossible to say exactly how many people were living in what is now the United States and Canada in 1492. But it’s clear that the old guess of around 1 million is absurdly low-a guess cherished for so long because it reinforced the myth of the empty land and hid the enormity of Native America’s depopulation. Good modern estimates range between 7 and 18 million.” The Original Peoples of the U.S., whose population was drastically decimated by foreign diseases and conquest, were deprived of almost their entire land by the 1870s and were confined to desolate reservations totalling less than 0.4% of the continental United States. According to the 2000 census, they constituted 2.5 million (less than 1%) of the total U.S. population of 281 million: about one-fifth of them were in the reservations and the rest elsewhere in the U.S. Another 1.6 million of them are of mixed-dissent. Even the 0.4% of the land, which is theoretically in their possession, is not free of disputes.)) A definition of citizenship was introduced in the U.S. Constitution only on 09 July 1868 through the Fourteenth Amendment, which stated 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.”

However, strange as it may seem, despite the Fourteenth Amendment, most of the Original Peoples, African-Americans and women continued to be denied the right to vote. This was partly because, while the slaves were freed after the Civil War, it was claimed that there was no legal basis to recognize them as having any rights. Therefore, yet another change had to be brought about on 03 February 1870 through the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Fifteenth Amendment, in theory, provided succour to the adult male Black population at best; the rights of America’s Original Peoples and women were never addressed. Women, who constituted half the population in the “world’s oldest democracy,” were denied the right to vote as late as 1920. (On the other hand, in Russia, soon after the Revolution of February 1917, women were granted the right to vote.) Women in the U.S. had to wage a long and ardent struggle between 1848 and 1920 before they attained that right. Known as the Suffragette Movement, it was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Fanny Garrison Villard, Ida Bell Wells, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and others. Women were enfranchised in the U.S. through the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 26 August 1920, which stated that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In short, for all practical purposes, fifty per cent or more of the adult population in the “world’s oldest democracy” were legally denied the right of franchise well until 1920. Later, by virtue of the Indian Citizenship Act of 02 June 1924, which included the right to vote in federal elections, all American-Indians born in their homeland theoretically became citizens of USA. (However, while many States continued to deny them voting rights, among the Original Peoples, the issues of nationality and citizenship became matters of serious debate, which has not yet been resolved. ((See, e.g., Republic of Lakotah.)) ). This was the state of affairs during the first 148 years of U.S. history.

Disfranchising Laws

With the growth of industrialization, the ranks of the working class had begun to swell with millions of immigrants arriving from Ireland, Southern & Eastern Europe and Asia to work in the expanding network of factories, mines, railroads, roads and cities. As mentioned earlier, the male White immigrants – a sizable section of whom were from the working class, had managed to acquire voting rights in the antebellum era. Granting citizenship rights and voting rights to the African-Americans in 1868 and 1870 respectively turned out to be yet another radical step when African-Americans in some of the Southern states not only began to get elected to office but also they became a significant force in many electoral contests elsewhere. While in the Northern states, labour unions were in a position to exert sufficient influence to promote pro-labour political parties and pro-labour legislations. However, this liberal atmosphere resulting from the power of enfranchisement of the working people and poor people did not last long. According to Alexander Keyssar, the growing political clout of the working class and the peasantry (including the former slaves) had:

…spawned a significant reaction against democracy and universal franchise in certain strata of American society. Southern white leaders came to believe, with good reason, that they could not control their region if the black population remained enfranchised…. The buoyant optimism about popular participation, so visible in the 1830s and 1840s, gave way to apprehension and fear by the late 1870s and 1880s…. The result was a long period, stretching into the second decade of the twentieth century, marked less by the exuberant forward march of democracy than by often mean-spirited battles and skirmishes over suffrage: while various social groups and political factions supporting them fought to broaden the franchise, others struggled, sometimes frantically, and often with success, to block the road to the polls. ((Alexander Keysser, The Right to Vote – The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp.78-79))

The broad set of strategies for denying the Blacks voting right was introduced in roughly three overlapping phases. During 1868-1888, patently illegal means were adopted as the principal techniques of disenfranchisement. The attempt to enfranchise the African-Americans was strongly resisted by various terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Knights of the White Camellia, etc., which were founded in the mid-1860s by veterans of the Confederate Army, who lamented the loss of White supremacy following the formal abolition of slavery. Through violence, intimidation and ultimately by resorting to massive fraud in the vote counting process, they were intent on preventing the Fifteenth Amendment, which was enacted in 1870 to grant voting rights to Black men, from being enforced. The enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, did help to check the menace of the KKK to some extent but not entirely. New mutations of KKK emerged in the form of White League and Red Shirts in 1874 and 1875 respectively and functioned openly as the “military arm of the Democratic Party” with the specific goal of overthrowing the Reconstruction Government headed by the Republican Party.

The next phase began in 1877, when the State of Georgia decided to pass the cumulative Poll Tax as a statutory method of disenfranchisement. Georgia, which had initiated the Poll Tax in 1871, made it cumulative in 1877 (requiring citizens to pay all back taxes before being permitted to vote). Finally, between 1889 and 1910, the Southern states, where the bulk of the African-Americans were located, amended their constitutions and enacted a series of laws intended to re-establish and entrench White political supremacy. Apart from the Poll Tax, these disfranchising laws typically included “literacy test,” “property ownership” criterion, vouchers of “good character,” and disqualification for “crimes of moral turpitude.” These disfranchising laws were collectively nicknamed Jim Crow Laws after a comic character called Jim Crow, who was the butt of racist jokes in the 1850s.

The introduction of the disfranchising laws was a masterstroke of perverted ingenuity. “Poll Tax” was a special tax levied equally on every member of a community. Citizens who failed to pay were deemed ineligible to vote. Although this tax of $1-$2 per annum may seem small, it was then beyond the reach of most poor Black and White sharecroppers who rarely dealt in cash. Since the imposition of these requirements had an adverse affect on the number of poor Whites voting, Southern legislatures included a Grandfather Clause in 1895 that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted prior to 1867 to vote without paying the tax. The amendment was solely intended to benefit the Whites who had immigrated to the U.S. before 1867 since almost all fathers and grandfathers of African-Americans were not even considered citizens of USA prior to 1868. Similarly, poor Whites who immigrated to the U.S. after 1867 also could not benefit from the Grandfather Clause. Thus, the imposition of the Poll Tax effectively prevented a sizable section of U.S citizens – especially the bulk of working people and poor people – from exercising their franchise.

In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Grandfather Clause unconstitutional because it violated equal voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. However, it may be noted that, while the said Supreme Court ruling effectively withdrew the concession granted to the pre-1867 poor Whites, the striking down of the Grandfather Clause in no way benefited the African-Americans or the post-1867 poor Whites because they still had to pay the Poll Tax. The U.S. Congress, by adopting the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 27 August 1962, formally prohibited the States from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a Poll Tax or other types of taxes. The States ratified the amendment on 23 January 1964. However, the matter was finally settled only through a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Harper vs. Virginia Board of Elections. On 24 March 1966, the Court ruled that all state poll taxes (for both state and federal elections) were unconstitutional, because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The 1960’s also witnessed abolition of another economic restriction on suffrage: the disfranchisement of paupers. The Harper decision apparently had far wider repercussions: it had also made it clear that pauper exclusion laws could no longer withstand judicial scrutiny. Consequently, necessary changes were incorporated by the various states into the legal codes and constitutions to meet this requirement. Thus, economic restrictions on voting were abolished in all general elections in the “world’s oldest democracy” almost two centuries after USA was founded.

Literacy Test

South Carolina is reportedly the first state to introduce the implicit literacy test in 1882 through the infamous “eight-box” ballot system. Voters had to cast their ballots for separate offices by inserting the ballot papers in separate boxes. A ballot for the Governor’s race inserted in the box for the senate seat would have invalidated the vote. The stratagem was to continuously shuffle the order of the boxes so that literate people could not assist illiterate voters by arranging their ballots in the proper order. Another implicit literacy test was the adoption of the secret ballot system since it prohibited anyone from assisting an illiterate voter in casting his vote for the candidate of his choice, whose name is printed on the ballot paper without (unlike, for example, in India) a symbol against the name that an illiterate voter could recognize.

Explicit literacy tests to disenfranchise potential voters began to be adopted by the Southern states in 1890. Such tests had a definite differential racial impact since at least 57% of Blacks were illiterate as compared to 30% of Whites in the Southern states as per the 1890 census. To placate poor, illiterate Whites who opposed the tests realizing that they too would be disenfranchised, Southern states adopted an Understanding Clause or a Grandfather Clause, which would potentially benefit primarily the Whites. The Understanding Clause entitled a voter who could not pass the literacy test to vote provided he could demonstrate his understanding of the meaning of a passage in the U.S. Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. The Grandfather Clause, like in the case of the Poll Tax, entitled every illiterate voter, who had descended from someone eligible to vote in 1867 – the year before the former slaves attained the franchise, the automatic right to cast his vote. By definition, those who would benefit from this waiver were almost exclusively Whites, who were born in or had migrated to the U.S. before 1867.

Similarly, racially biased administrators would always ensure that African-Americans were never able to take advantage of the Understanding Clause. They would invariably declare that the African-American applicant, whose perception skill was being assessed, could not demonstrate his understanding of the passage in the U.S. Constitution that was read out to him by the administrator conducting the test. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the Grandfather Clause in 1915 on the grounds that it violated the Fifteenth Amendment, the State of Oklahoma quickly found a way to circumvent it by passing yet another law, which again unduly favoured the Whites. The new law required all those who had not voted in the 1914 election (when the Grandfather Clause was still in effect) to register to vote within 11 days, or forfeit the franchise forever.

This new law effectively protected all the Whites who were earlier covered by the Grandfather Clause, while ensuring that all the unregistered African-Americans applicants would be effectively prevented from registering within the stipulated time. Although in 1939 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated this arrangement as well, it was only in 1949 that it struck down discriminatory administration of a literacy test. However, far from placing any bar on the States from conducting literacy tests, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959 actually went to the extent of upholding the constitutionality of literacy tests despite their differential racial impact. This ruling in effect meant that while the tests would be equally applicable to illiterate Whites as well, the actual impact of the tests would be far greater on the African-American population since the level of illiteracy among them was considerably higher.

Read Part 1.

N.D. Jayaprakash is the Joint Secretary of the Delhi Science Forum & National Coordination Committee (NCC) Member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), India. He can be reached at: jaypdsf@gmail.com. Read other articles by N.D..

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  1. Don Hawkins said on March 15th, 2009 at 11:31am #

    Great history lesson. Just for the heck of it what are the chances of a new way of thinking? We are at the crossroads and without a new way of thinking there will be history in the short term in very basic terms. “First one assumes then tries forever to prove that the assumption is forever valid” That was very good Bozh. To continue to prove that the assumption is forever valid in just the next few years will take us all back in time, history. Deep into the rabbit hole. That was a figure of speech. This is no longer climate change but a climate breakdown thanks George Monbiot. It is well under way and to late to stop some of the changes, destruction. For me now one consideration is to just see the nut cases I see on TV and policy makers come out of dreamland. To watch these people anymore is painful to say the least and yet many still go blindly where many have gone before. Yes to go blindly where many have gone before. There are a few who are trying there best to get that new way of thinking started and there are many who assumes then tries forever to prove that the assumption is forever valid.

    One can imagine that God created the universe at literally any time in the past. On the other hand, if the universe is expanding, there may be physical reasons why there had to be a beginning. One could imagine that God created the universe at the instant of the big bang, or even afterwards in just such a way as to make it look as though there had been a big bang, but it would be meaningless to suppose that it was created before the big bang. An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job! [Stephen Hawking}, A Brief History of Time

    To go blindly where many have gone before and to assume then try forever to prove that the assumption is forever valid seems so meaningless but very sure some will try. “It’s 117 degrees in the shade here in New York City”, “don’t worry listen to your leaders and watch your parking meters”. Thank you Dylan.

  2. Don Hawkins said on March 15th, 2009 at 12:41pm #

    Time to Change “Climate Change”

    What’s clear from Copenhagen is that policymakers have fallen behind the scientists: global warming is already catastrophic.

    The more we know, the grimmer it gets.
    Presentations by climate scientists at this week’s conference in Copenhagen show that we might have underplayed the impacts of global warming in three important respects:
    • Partly because the estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) took no account of meltwater from Greenland’s glaciers, the rise in sea levels this century could be twice or three times as great as it forecast, with grave implications for coastal cities, farmland and freshwater reserves.
    • Two degrees of warming in the Arctic (which is heating up much more quickly than the rest of the planet) could trigger a massive bacterial response in the soils there. As the permafrost melts, bacteria are able to start breaking down organic material that was previously locked up in ice, producing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane. This could catalyse one of the world’s most powerful positive feedback loops: warming causing more warming.
    • Four degrees of warming could almost eliminate the Amazon rainforests, with appalling implications for biodiversity and regional weather patterns, and with the result that a massive new pulse of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Trees are basically sticks of wet carbon. As they rot or burn, the carbon oxidises. This is another way in which climate feedbacks appear to have been underestimated in the last IPCC report.
    Apart from the sheer animal panic I felt on reading these reports, two things jumped out at me. The first is that governments are relying on IPCC assessments that are years out of date even before they are published, as a result of the IPCC’s extremely careful and laborious review and consensus process. This lends its reports great scientific weight, but it also means that the politicians using them as a guide to the cuts in greenhouse gases required are always well behind the curve. There is surely a strong case for the IPCC to publish interim reports every year, consisting of a summary of the latest science and its implications for global policy.
    The second is that we have to stop calling it climate change. Using “climate change” to describe events like this, with their devastating implications for global food security, water supplies and human settlements, is like describing a foreign invasion as an unexpected visit, or bombs as unwanted deliveries. It’s a ridiculously neutral term for the biggest potential catastrophe humankind has ever encountered.
    I think we should call it “climate breakdown.” Does anyone out there have a better idea? George Monbiot

  3. bozh said on March 15th, 2009 at 12:58pm #

    don, tnx for noticing the statement about assumptions.
    some people may confuse assumptions with facts; i.e., evaluate guesses, beliefs, faith as facts and not for what they are: assumptions.

    faith may be classed as theoretical, inferential, etc., knowledge. and i do not see how it can be harmful to any degree to any human as long as the fact is kept in mindbody that an inference, conclusion, or premise is not factual knowledge.

    once the knowledge, that the fact is not inference, gets deeply embedded in one’s bodymind, it never ever goes away; this knowledge is astoundingly beautiful and it is in every cell of one’s body including the brain.

    people who evaluate that ‘god’ exists have absorbed this knowledge also in their body and not just the mind; thus, talking to them about this issues is almost useless.
    to illustrate what a fact is or not, we can say that the statements, I’ see you tomorow or, Sun will rise again, are not factual statements. tx

  4. Barry99 said on March 15th, 2009 at 3:13pm #

    How about ‘climaticlysm’?

    I have seen less neutral terms than climate change – and if I could only remember where is saw a very good one.

  5. HR said on March 15th, 2009 at 5:06pm #

    The Bob Dylan lyric reads, “Don’t follow leaders
    Watch the parkin’ meters.”