RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Of the right of suffrage and of elections

ElectionIntegrity1The Rights of an American Citizen: With a Commentary on State Rights, and on the Constitution and Policy of the United States by Benjamin Lynde Oliver published 1832


CHAPTER I: Of the right of suffrage and of elections.

In governments, where the power is retained in the hands of the people, and is exercised in their name by such delegates as they see fit to appoint from time to time for that purpose, the right to take a part in such appointment or delegation, belongs to every constituent member of the social compact, upon which the government is grounded. This right, in whatever manner it may be exercised, is the right of suffrage. It also comprehends within it, the right which each member has of voting upon all subjects, in relation to which the people see fit to exercise their political power personally, and not through the medium of representatives or delegates.

ElectionIntegrity3The simplest form of a popular government, is that of a pure democracy, where the people meet together in primary assemblies and make such laws and regulations for the conduct of the members of the society, as they see fit. In the formation of any such government, a difficulty would meet them at the outset. For, as soon as any measure was proposed, it would immediately be found that some would be in favor of it, while others would be equally opposed to it. In this case, one party or the other must recede, or the society would be dissolved. Because each individual would think himself justified in saying that he did not intend, by joining the society, to have his feelings or interests made a sacrifice to those of others; that therefore nothing should be done without his concurrence, or he would secede. This, it is obvious, he would have a perfect right to do, until some regulation on this subject had been unanimously agreed upon by all the members. It would soon appear, therefore, since perfect unanimity could seldom be found among them, that the society would gradually melt away by the withdrawing of discontented individuals, unless some substitute for it were agreed upon by the society. They would therefore very naturally adopt the principle of mutual concession, and agree that the will of the greater number should bind the whole society, in the same manner as if they had all been unanimous. Not that this is always to be considered as conclusive proof, that the measure approved of by the majority, is really the most wise and expedient; for, perfect unanimity itself would afford no such proof. But as, according to the democratic theory, all the associates or members of society are equal in wisdom and virtue, as well as in their rights, the probability that a measure is wise and expedient, is in direct proportion to the numbers who vote in favor of it, and vice versa. It is true, only a few out of the whole number, really possess wisdom, but those few are perhaps more likely to be found in the majority of the whole, than in the minority. But, however this may be, experience teaches us, that every man supposes himself to have his share, and whether he have or have not, at all events he has a will, and this he will never yield to the control of another spontaneously, unless he finds it for his interest to do so.

It is very clear, therefore, that though it may be perfectly natural, in the familiar use of the term, that the members of a society should agree, at the first formation of it, that the express will or vote of the greater number, should always have the effect of perpetual unanimity, yet this effect has no other foundation whatever, in natural right. For, it is believed, a case can neither be put nor imagined, where, independently of a previous agreement, that the vote of the majority shall prevail, the greater number have any such right to control the whole society, that the smaller number, or minority, are under a moral obligation to submit to their decision. On the contrary, the right of self preservation, as well in the smaller number as in the larger, must always be paramount, in the absence of express agreement, to any such pretended right in others, whether more or less numerous. Each individual has a right to place his own safety on the exercise of his own judgment alone. , The man at the helm has as much right to steer a ship on Scylla, if he thinks self-preservation demands it, as all the rest of the crew have to compel him, if they can, to turn towards Charybdis. If therefore necessity itself acknowledges no such paramount right in the majority, it is clear that it can have no other just foundation, than that of convention or agreement. selves as well as their country, and so favorable a conjuncture will enable them to command the highest price.

The prevalence of the democratic notion, that the majority have a natural right to decide and govern the whole, has probably prevented an examination of the question, whether a better rule might not be adopted in public assemblies than the usual one, that the vote of a mere majority shall decide in all cases. That there are many inconveniences resulting from the adoption of it, is very clear; and that these inconveniences may not be obviated by a modification or qualification of this rule, is not easily demonstrable.

The inconveniences which result from the adoption of the rule, that a majority, however small, and though consisting of a single individual, more than the number of the minority, shall be sufficient to determine the rejection or adoption of all public measures, however important, are the following, viz.

1. The casual absence of one or two members, may enable the minority to pass laws or adopt other public measures, entirely contrary to the will of the majority.

2. If there is merely the difference of one between the majority and the minority, any single individual has it in his power to control the whole legislative body of which he is a member, and may turn the scale in all cases when the whole number is thus divided, at his caprice or discretion. Here the individual, having the least reputation to preserve, the least regard for principle; and who is most susceptible of corrupt influences, will be most apt to gain the ascendancy. For, men of character and principle will stand firm, out of a regard to duty and consistency. But unprincipled men will sell them

3. But, upon the improbable supposition, that there is not a single unprincipled individual in the legislative assembly, it follows, that the person possessing the most feeble intellect, and who consequently is the most wavering and unsettled, will immediately become of the greatest influence and importance. All the rest may be firm from a settled conviction of the justness of their views of the subject. But, this individual having less knowledge and discernment, will act from motives of ostentation and vain glory.

4. But, if they are all men of sense and integrity, still it is found by experience, that a public measure of any considerable importance, which is adopted by the vote of a small majority, is of doubtful expediency, and seldom attended with a good result. The reason is, not only because the minority is so numerous, that it may be considered an equal question, whether in reality the adoption of the measure is wise or not; but, because the people immediately become divided into factions in relation to the subject. The question, though settled for that time, will be brought up again and again. The public mind is kept in a state of excitement and exasperation in respect to it. Intrigue and corruption are resorted to. The public policy in relation to the great interests of the country, continue uncertain and wavering, because laws are first enacted, then modified, then repealed, then re-enacted with qualifications, &c. &c. The parties prevail alternately, but never without great heat, strife and animosity, and if the question is ever finally settled, it is through the influence of any considerations, rather than those of justice, wisdom or public expediency.

Many of these inconveniences would be avoided by requiring the sanction of a larger proportion, than a mere majority of a quorum. Let a decisive majority consisting of two thirds of a quorum, always be necessary to authorize a change in the existing state of public affairs, by the adoption of new measures, and there would be an end to most of the evils just referred to. For, unless the expediency of a law or other public measure, were very apparent, there would be no probability, that two thirds of the legislature would be in favor of its enactment or adoption; and, if so, the opposition would have but little prospect of success in any attempts, which they might make to procure its repeal. Thus public policy would be less subject to change. For, as it would require the concurrence of two thirds to enact a law, it would also require the concurrence of two thirds to repeal it. This would produce a proper caution in the enactment of laws; for, though a fraction over one third of the quorum, would be sufficient to prevent the enactment of a law, a majority of twice that number would be necessary to procure any modification of it. This rule is wisely adopted in relation to amendments of the constitution, where frequent changes would be absolutely intolerable; and it is believed, great advantages would immediately be perceived, if it were extended to the acts of the federal and state legislatures.

In the election of rulers and other public officers, different considerations will necessarily vary the conclusion. Here, a mere majority of voices ought to be allowed to prevail; because if two thirds were required, it would always be in the power of a numerou s minority to prevent the choice of any other candidate than their own. A plurality of votes, where there are more candidates than two, ought not to be sufficient to constitute a choice; because, in this way, there is a possibility that the individual most odious to a majority of the voters, may prevail in the election.

C-Voter-ID(1)In a republic, or any form of government more complicated than a simple democracy, of which a town meeting for the making of by-laws may be considered a fair example, all the voice or influence, which the people have in the regulation of public affairs, is exercised through the medium of senators, delegates, or representatives, whom they choose to act for them in the various capacities established by their constitution, or frame of government. If they would make the most advantage of their right in this respect, it is obvious that they should take care to select men of integrity, and well qualified to discharge the duties of the offices which they are expected to fill. For, since the people have a right to vote for any candidates whatever, who have the necessary legal qualifications, the advantage of the right of suffrage, depends upon the opportunities, which it affords the citizens, of excluding all who are incapable or unworthy, from stations of responsibility, and placing in them those only whom they esteem most deserving of their respect and confidence. Yet, in practice, it is found, that these two great objects of a democratic form of government, are but partially obtained, owing to the manner in which the people usually exercise their rights in this respect. The reason, why the people so frequently fail of obtaining full success in relation to these objects, will be best exhibited in answers to the two questions, Why are not the best men always chosen? and, Why are not unsuitable men always excluded?

In answer to these questions, it might be thought captious, to remark, that the people are not qualified to determine who are the most suitable candidates for public offices; for, though popular applause, or censure, is no decisive proof either of merit or of the want of it, yet there is usually some foundation for popular opinions. But, supposing the people to possess an unerring judgment of the merits of candidates, they must necessarily be deprived of the benefit of their superior discernment, by a certain course of measures, which frequently is adopted by influential persons, previous to the elections, and by which they attempt to secure the choice of the candidates whom they support.

ElectionIntegrity2Under a government of laws, it is true, that it is a matter of no great consequence, by whom the laws are executed, the sole object of government being to provide that they shall be properly enforced. Among these laws, however, must of course, be included every rule or regulation, adopted for the general defence and protection. Now to the great body of the people, being neither office seekers, nor office holders, and consequently having no other personal interest in the government, than what concerns their own safety, and the regular administration of the laws, it is a matter of no real consequence, whether the government is administered by A. or B., provided only that the public peace, as well as private tranquility, is preserved, and the laws are enacted with wisdom, and executed with prudence. But, in choosing persons for public offices, the people, according to the true theory of a republican form of government, should be guided by the characters of the respective candidates; and should elect those whom they consider to possess the best abilities, and the most industry, fidelity, and integrity. For, in the beau ideal of a republic, there are no parties or factions. Each individual aims at the general good, though not to the total exclusion or neglect of his own private interests. And therefore, though he will not be disinterested enough to sacrifice his private property to the public good; yet, if he is an office seeker or office holder, he will be so true a patriot, as immediately to relinquish his office in favor of some more able aspirant. Patriotism of a higher order than this, will be looked for in vain, in the present generation, any where but in eulogiums, theatrical exhibitions, obituary notices, or anniversary orations; and such as is here described, it is to be feared, will seldom be found, except in Utopia, or the Island of Formosa.

Experience shows, that there are always two or more parties or factions in a community, the well disposed part of each of which, equally seek the best interests of the whole. But, in all such parties or factions, those who make a pretense of the public good to bring about their own private views and selfish purposes, are far more zealous and forward, than those who aim only at the general good. By a show of greater zeal, they expect to be regarded as having a more ardent patriotism ; and among superficial observers, the single-hearted, and the inexperienced, they commonly obtain their aim. And though true patriotism, such as existed among noble and disinterested men of former days, who desired no other reward than an approving conscience, and the applause of such as are able to distinguish and justly value true merit, is a stronger motive than the sordid considerations of profit, office, or station; yet this quality is so infrequent, and office seekers so often assume the mask of it, while playing their parts before the public, that some hypochondriacs and misanthropes deny that there is any such thing as political integrity in any of those, who hold themselves up as candidates for public office. Yet it cannot be doubted, that there really exists such a virtue as disinterested patriotism, and that it may be distinguished from hypocrisy and imposture, by men of information and discernment.

Imagine a young man of good education, availing himself of every opportunity to bring himself before the public, by making speeches at conventions or assemblies of the people, and taking a conspicuous stand in relation to any of those subjects which are made use of by turbulent and ambitious men to. keep the public mind in a state of ferment; that, under a pretext of some crying grievance, whether real or imaginary, he proposes to insult or disturb congress, or the state legislature, by insolent and violent resolutions; that, though he may have outgrown the puerile desire of displaying a talent for declamation, which perhaps has gained him an academical prize, yet has not acquired sense enough to be ashamed to take up two or three hours of the time of a public assembly, in rehearsing those superficial views, those crude speculations, which usually occur to young men at a certain age; but which, for the most part, they have too much diffidence to express in public, until the same advance in years which gives them confidence, brings also juster views, and a more correct estimate of their own abilities; suppose him to have acquired sufficient knowledge of mankind to perceive, that in popular assemblies, the good opinion of the wise, being few in number, is of but little consequence, provided only, that the more numerous body, however giddy, rash, and inconsiderate, is prepossessed in his favor; since the vote of any of the latter has the same weight as that of any of the former; suppose him to be in the constant practice of the arts, by which an ill-disposed multitude are usually governed; that he leads them to such measures as suits his purpose, by exciting their animosity against their political opponents, and inspiring in them a confidence of their impunity, whatever they may do; that he boldly affirms among them that every one, who dissents from him is an aristocrat, and an enemy to the peopled rights; that among the ignorant and profligate, he calls the restraints of justice, religion and good order, priestcraft, superstition, and fanaticism; that he holds out to the selfish, necessitous, and sordid, that they will probably gain an office by joining in his measures; and lastly sets at defiance those persons of integrity, who, he is conscious, discern his true character, and asperses their reputations beforehand, both to disable them from exposing his artifices, and to deter others from opposing his schemes, &tc. &.c. &c. Can any one in his senses ascribe these arts to patriotism? Is there any one, however unprincipled, who will be so mere a simpleton as to support his measures without an expectation of the share of the public spoil; or to lend his influence in raising him to public office, without a hope, perhaps an express promise, of some inferior office in return?

But, how may that true patriotism, which is ready to sacrifice interests merely selfish, for the public good, be distinguished from the counterfeit, which, under pretense of seeking the public good, regards its own exclusively, and to them, however inconsiderably concerned, will sacrifice all other considerations,—the tranquility, the honor, and the safety of the country.

True patriotism comes forward when real dangers threaten the country, takes the lead in personal sacrifices, and risks not only ease, but health and safety, to protect it and insure its welfare. The test of it is self denial, or a disregard of personal interests where the general welfare is concerned.

False patriotism is most conspicuous where there is no real danger. The false patriot magnifies every public grievance, in order that his assistance may be called for to furnish a remedy. In this way he expects to gain power and distinction by instilling a belief that a crisis is at hand, where his superior abilities may be required. Some of the characteristic traits of false patriotism are, speeches and harangues, never ending but to begin again; inflammatory resolutions proposed to the people for adoption; abuse of the privilege of speech and of the freedom of the press, and of the right which the people have to assemble, by convoking them without any necessity or useful occasion. Further; the false patriot makes magnificent pretenses of doing, what the true patriot does without any pretense at all; and it is not unusual to find that the false pretenses of the former, obtain a credit with the multitude which the actual performances of the latter do not always receive. The principal aims of the false patriot are office and emolument; when these are obtained it languishes until there is a danger of a change in the administration, when it revives and proclaims the danger to which the country is exposed.

There is a third class of persons, who make no pretensions to patriotism true or false, but who think it a comfortable way of living to secure a public office, the duties of which are easy, and will afford them greater profit than the same quantity of labor in an independent calling, and at the same lime exempt them from that anxiety, which usually harasses all whose living depends on their own exertions. It is a characteristic of many of this class, that they may easily be brought over to join any party, which, there is a probability, will gain the ascendancy in political affairs, by any reasonable prospect of personal benefit. Such persons seem to be formed by nature, like parasitical plants, to depend and hang upon others, whom they flatter, and by whose course their own conduct is wholly guided. They are the flatterers of men of influence so long as they retain it; but when that influence appears to be on the decline, it is their apparently sincere change of opinion, which frequently gives the greater weight to the opposite scale of the political balance. It is one of the miseries attending popular governments where the people are divided into two parties or factions, that the preponderance of one or the other, should so often depend upon this third class.

That government alone can with propriety be styled free, where the political powers bestowed by it on their rulers, are limited to the necessary emergencies of society; i. e. to its safety and good order; and where the people have a right to select whom they please for their rulers, at periods recurring with sufficient frequency to enable them to remove all those public officers, whose duties are not performed in a satisfactory manner, and to elect others in their room. But though the powers of the rulers, as well as their term of office, are limited, and though the laws of the country may be the most mild and indulgent, still, if the people have not the uncontrolled exercise of their power and right of electing their own rulers, they can hardly be considered as living under a free government; since in that case they do not govern themselves, but are governed by that power, which virtually appoints their rulers by controlling their elections. For, if they cannot remove their rulers from office and elect others in their room, then the rulers will not be accountable to them. Thus, if the members of a state legislature were appointed by a foreign power, however just and equal the laws might be, the people would not live under a free government; because the rulers would be responsible, not to the people who had no hand in their appointment, but to the foreign power which placed them in office. Neither in strictness could the people be considered as free, if a foreign power had the right of nominating the rulers, and the people had merely the right to adopt or reject such nomination; since they must be very much at the mercy of the nominating power. Nor does it make any material difference, whether the nomination is made by a superior foreign power, or, by a domestic superior power; or, is exercised by a species of political legerdemain, by persons in whom no such superiority is acknowledged, in a manner so subtle as to escape observation, though practiced in the presence and before the eyes of the people. For, if the people are deprived of the free exercise of their right of suffrage, the effect is still the same, whether it is done by force or by fraud, by superior power, or by mere juggle. Because, at best, they merely elect those who are nominated for them by others; in which case they are no more free than those, who live under rulers whom others appoint without the ceremony of an election, which in any such case is as humiliating and mortifying, as it is unnecessary and tantalizing. An imaginary case may serve for illustration. Let it be supposed, that in a district where the people are divided into two parties, it has become necessary to elect a public officer ; that a preliminary meeting is thought necessary by the major party in order to select a candidate ; that in this party there is an individual of great political influence, who has usually acted as a leader, who is desirous that some friend or kinsman should be elected to the office; that this individual is a man of fair character, and has an average stock of abilities and acquirements. Under such circumstances, if this influential person has intimated his wishes on the subject, it is next to impossible that they should not be gratified; though there may be twenty individuals in his own party, who are better qualified for the office in every respect. For, this influential person will be consulted on all subjects of importance previous to the election; and, by means of his satellites and dependents, will know precisely at what time, and on what occasion, to bring forward the favored candidate to rehearse a speech before the public. A meeting being then called, agreeably to previous arrangement, and such persons being put upon the nominating committee, as are previously ascertained to be favorable to the candidate’s pretensions, he will of course be nominated by them unanimously, and it is probable the nomination will be received with the apparent approbation of all present. No further step will then be necessary than to insert the doings of the meeting in the next newspaper, with a notice of the nomination, and an account of the promising talents of the candidate, which, however, experiment has shewn, the people think ought not be written by any friend nearer than a brother. His election to office will then follow of course, though each voter of the party to which he belongs, is perfectly satisfied in his own mind, that there are many individuals in every respect Ijetter qualified for the office. They will not oppose the election of this candidate, however, because in every stage of the process, from the first preliminary meeting to the day of election, they feel that they shall be in a minority, if they make nny such attempt; besides, if they vote for any other candidate than the one, nominated for them by the leaders of the parlies to which they belong, they will break up the party, and then their opponents will gain the election; or, at any rate, their votes for persons whom they believe to be better qualified, will be merely thrown away.

To persons, therefore, who belong to parties, there is no other freedom of election, than, either to vote for a candidate nominated for them by the influential men of the party, or, to vote for a candidate nominated by the opposite party, or, to cast their vote for third persons, or, not to vote at all.

To vote for persons nominated by the influential men of a party, in most cases, differs but little from giving those influential persons the power of appointment. The other alternatives need no comment. What then is to be done? The embarrassment lies here, that the people suffer certain influential persons to nominate candidates for them, without being perhaps conscious of it at the time, and suppose that those candidates are the choice of a majority of the party, when it may be, that, with the exception of the leaden of the party, and a few retainers, every individual in the party may prefer other candidates. How does this happen? It happens because the people are deprived ol their power of nomination, and suffer the nomination of the influential men, made through the medium of a nominating committee, to go forth to the public as the voice of the majority of the party, his undoubtedly to considerations of this kind, in part, that the right of suffrage, as at present exercised, has become of little value or estimation among discerning men, who have no desire to lead others, and disdain to be led by them. This is apparent from the little interest, which seems to be taken in elections, demonstrated by the small number of votes given in, when compared with the whole number of qualified voters.

The single remedy for this evil, and which would immediately restore the right of suffrage to its proper value and estimation, is for every voter to throw off the badges of party, which are nothing more than the livery, by which the leaders of parties distinguish their followers from all others. They should also have the virtue and independence, to vote according to the dictates of their consciences, and with a view to the general interest, which is invariably sacrificed by a party to its. own interest, whenever they come into competition. For,- there is no one so simple as to imagine, that a party will not prefer the election of an individual pledged to support them, however incapable and however worthless, to the ablest and most honest man that can be found, who will give no such pledge. What is this but a sacrifice of the general good of the whole in order to further the interests of a part, or rather the private views of the leaders of a faction?

Let the people then throw off the trammels of party, and take care to secure to themselves the exercise of the right of nominating the candidates for public offices. To intrust it to a nominating committee, though apparently chosen by the people is in fact to throw it away ; for, if the committee are to nominate the candidates to be voted for by the people, why not permit them to appoint the rulers at once, and thus save the formality and trouble of an election, when they amount to the same thing in substance?

This evil might be obviated in practice, if the people at a preliminary meeting, held at a convenient time before the days of election, would adopt some such course as the following :— 1. Let them choose a moderator. 2. Let them choose a committee to assort and count votes for that meeting. 3. Let them bring in their votes in writing for candidates for nomination, which being sorted and counted, the most popular candidates would presently appear. 4. If any candidate had more than one half of all the votes, it would be unnecessary to proceed further. But, if there were many candidates, and neither of them had a majority of the whole, let a second ballot take place, to decide between the two candidates having the highest number at the preceding ballot, and casting out all votes given in for any others. The candidate having the highest number at the second balloting, would thus be the candidate nominated by the people or by the party, according to circumstances, and each individual would act without being controlled by the indirect dictation of others. After the vote was declared, those speakers who thought themselves qualified to instruct the people, might profitably employ the rest of the time in useful discourses; but it would be a very useful regulation to consider all rhetorical declamation as out of order, until the regular business of the evening had been transacted; so that no one might feel obliged to remain to hear it.

This course of proceeding would generally be distasteful to the leaders of the party, because their control over the proceedings of the people would be very much lessened, and their influence would be reduced to just what it ought to be, that is, the influence of superior talents, information and integrity, so far as they possessed these qualities. But the influence of intrigue and secret corruption would be almost wholly abolished.

In answer to the second question, why are not unsuitable persons always excluded from office? It may be answered, in relation to those offices, which are filled by popular elections, that the people seldom, if ever, elect a man to an office for which they know him to be unfit: if therefore such an individual is chosen by the people, it must be the result of mistake or misinformation. Party prejudice, it is true, often turns the scale against superior merit, but the people will not, with their eyes open, disgrace themselves by choosing persons known to be dishonest or incapable. The bad policy of such a choice is apparent; because it would take away from the citizens one of the inducements to correct conduct, t. e. the prospect of rising in the public estimation by a uniform course of good behavior, by showing, that the people attach no importance to the good or bad character of the candidates. But in fact, it is for the interest of the people, that all public officers should not only be capable of properly discharging their duties; but should be men of such integrity, that no inducements which can be offered, will be able to induce them, to betray the public confidence. For this purpose, it is absolutely necessary, that the officer’s integrity should be grounded on religious principle, not religious profession merely, for this is a mere counterfeit; nor upon honor, or pride, or reputation, or sense of character; for, all of these last have been found to fail, when exposed to the ordeal of supposed secrecy, impunity, the hope of office, &c. &.c., or, to personal danger or loss of office, &c. &c.

On the other hand, when unsuitable persons are appointed to offices by men in power, it may arise from a great variety of causes. It may be the result of erroneous impressions, made by recommendations given without proper caution or inquiry. It may also be, by way of grateful acknowledgment to the person so appointed, for services, of whatever nature, previously rendered by him to the person appointing. Where the tenure of the office depends upon the pleasure of the person making the appointment, and a man of unsuitable character is appointed, with a knowledge of his character, it may also be, because a person without reputation or principle, is much more obsequious to the commands of his superior, who can remove him at pleasure, and thus deprive him of his temporary standing with the people, and perhaps of his means of support, than a man of religious principles and respectable character, of whom any dishonorable compliance would be vainly required; because, if he were removed, he would be sustained by conscious rectitude, as well as the certainty that his character would support him, whether in or out of office.

This last suggestion, it is believed, furnishes the true reason, why men, well known to be incapable of a proper discharge of duty, are sometimes appointed to office. It is because services are expected of them, of a very different nature from their regular official duties, which they can, and perhaps they alone are known to be willing to perform. . The insufficient discharge of their official duties is therefore winked at.

Notwithstanding the popular theory of a democracy or a republican form of government, therefore, it is quite apparent, that, under the right of electing whom they please for their public rulers, according to the common practice, there is -no insurmountable obstacle to prevent men of bad principles and had character, and very limited talents and acquirements from attaining to the highest public stations. It is equally clear, that the people are deprived of the services of every man of experience and integrity, whose principles will not permit him to unite with any of the parties or factions which, under pretense of zeal for the public good, are constantly disturbing the peace of society, by their contests for power, office and emolument. For, the objects of a party or faction, from its nature must be merely selfish. The first class of leaders seek the highest offices for themselves. The second class, or parasites, endeavor to procure the election of the first, in order that they, the parasites, may be appointed by them, to such offices as the laws place under their control. The rest of the party are merely retainers or followers. The public then lose the services of all honest men, who refuse to join any party. Because no party or faction, will ever elect to office any individual, whose refusal to act under them, is an indirect reflection upon their political conduct.

If, however, the people have the independence and good sense, to secure to themselves the exercise of the right of nominating candidates, in the manner already suggested, no persons, whatever their wealth, standing or office, will be able to exert any improper influence over the voters; the office of parasite will cease, becoming equally ineffectual and contemptible, and the people will become, in fact, what perhaps they now suppose themselves to be, the real constituents of public officers.

But unfortunately for the good of society, it too often happens, that, while the ignorant, incapable, selfish and dishonest unite in the support of a candidate possessing a similar character, from the influence of sympathy, as well as from the envy which they feel towards men of principle and integrity—the honest and well meaning voters, from a belief, that superior merit will undoubtedly receive the preference at popular elections, do not feel the necessity of exerting themselves at all on such occasions. The consequence is, that the less deserving candidate frequently prevails; because in proportion to his want of merit, the more gross, shameless and unprincipled are the measures, which are resorted to, to secure his election.

In connexion with the present subject, it may not be amiss to make a few remarks in relation to the right, which is frequently claimed by the voters of districts, to give particular instructions to their representatives in the legislature.

It can hardly escape the observation of any reflecting person, that there are certain hackneyed propositions, which are continually made use of by public speakers and writers, by whom they are assumed as incontrovertible principles or axioms, behind which it is unnecessary to look, and yet which, on examination, are found to be wholly groundless and futile. These erroneous opinions are continued by the obsequious court which persons, who know better, frequently pay to popular prejudices, for the sake of ingratiating themselves with the people, or, from an apprehension of being denounced by demagogues, if they should attempt to set up any doctrine at variance with such opinions.

One of these is the pretended natural right, which, it is said, the majority in any society have to control the minority, which, when analyzed, is found to be grounded on consent, agreement or arrangement, or otherwise has no better foundation, than the mere brutal right of the strongest. Another of these pretended rights, is that, which the voters in particular districts claim, of giving instructions to their respective representatives in the legislature, which has no rational foundation at all. This is easily demonstrable from the following considerations.

A representative, from whatever part of a state he may be chosen, is the representative of the state, and not the agent of the town or district from which he comes, though as a convenient mode of designating him, he is frequently called the representative from such or such a town or district. It follows, of course, that such town or district has no greater right to instruct him, than any other part of the state. For, the mode of election by districts, is merely a mode of apportioning the representation.

It is not made the duty of a representative to obey any such instructions. It is true, he has a right to consult whom he pleases, and, for the same reason, any one may advise him, who thinks fit. But, as he is chosen on account of his own personal qualities, his talents and experience, it would be absurd to suppose, that he is not at liberty to follow the dictates of his own judgment. On the contrary, the whole community have a right to the exercise of his own understanding, unbiased by the limited and perhaps selfish views of the comparatively small number of his immediate constituents. Further, the exercise of such rights by a majority of such constituents, seems wholly inconsistent with the rights of the minority; because it appears to be the meaning of the social compact, by which the citizens agree to be bound to obey such rulers, as the majority shall choose, that those rulers shall be left to the exercise of their own judgment. For the minority are bound by the compact to obey the rulers, and not to obey the majority; but, if the representatives are bound to obey the instructions of the majority, then the minority become servants to the caprice of the majority.

It is one of the advantages of a legislative assembly, that the members confer together, and, by a comparison of their respective sentiments, and, by an interchange of such intelligence as each possesses, they become better informed, and consequently better able to legislate on all subjects brought before them. But, if a representative is bound to follow the instructions of his immediate constituents, who are but a small body of men in comparison with the whole state, and who have not had the advantage of hearing the subject debated, the public will lose the benefit arising from the discussions of the legislature; indeed, all discussion becomes superfluous, if the representative is bound to act agreeably to the instructions of his constituents.

But, if the representative is bound to follow such instructions, there is an end of all responsibility on his part. He becomes a mere tool or instrument, in whom the possession of knowledge or abilities, is merely a superfluous ornament. All that can be expected of him is, to have sense enough to understand what is required of him, and capacity enough to do it, and the responsibility must rest on those who made him their agent. All this is a violation of common sense.

But, on the supposition, that the representative is bound to obey such instructions of the majority of his constituents, how is this majority to be ascertained? There is no provision in any law, to hold meetings for any such purpose. What sanction or evidence, then, can any self-constituted assembly offer, to induce the representative to receive their resolutions, as the instructions of his constituents? Certainly none, that he is obliged to regard. Such irregular and informal assemblies generally afford conclusive evidence of the intrigue and management of a few influential individuals, and perhaps may be submitted to by an obsequious representative, who may be willing to compromise his personal dignity, rather than incur the risk of losing his office, through the influence which such leaders have over the rest of the constituents, who have less means of information. Such instructions however are always degrading to the representative personally, and consequently must tend to deprive the office both of respect and responsibility. A sure mode of preserving the independence of the representative, would be to lengthen his term of office, and render him ineligible a second time. The fear of losing his office, in that case, would never induce him to submit the exercise of his own judgment to the opinions of the leaders of the party which elected him; and, having no selfish interest to serve, he would be left wholly free from the influence of any other motive, than the conscientious discharge of his official duties according to the best of his ability.

Continued inPART II; CHAPTER II. Of the Liberty of Speech and of the Press.

See the other parts of this series:
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; Division One
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; Division Two
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: General Rights; The Social Compact
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Powers delegated to the General Government in the Federal Constitution
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Powers delegated to the State Governments
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Independence of the States
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The rights reserved to the people of the United States
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Of the right of suffrage and of elections
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Liberty of Speech and of the Press
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Power of Courts to punish for Contempts
RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The Law of Libel in relation to Public Officers

RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The mode of obtaining redress for infringement of civil or political rights

One thought on “RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: Of the right of suffrage and of elections

  1. Pingback: RIGHTS OF AMERICAN CITIZENS: The mode of obtaining redress for infringement of civil or political rights | Captain James Davis

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