(A reflection upon our election…and what the Founding Fathers of our nation thoughts were towards voting and how important it was)
Americans HATE electoral politics. How else can you explain the low turnout year after year and the immense relief that comes on the first Wednesday of November (the day after Election Day)? They are continually bombarded with ads on the television, the radio, in their mailbox and their neighbor’s front yard. Once Election Day passes, they won’t have to worry about being called at night for the sixth time in seven days asking them who they plan to vote for or why they should vote for this candidate over the other. For many, they simply cannot wait until this is over, for life to return to normal. They either don’t plan to vote or they go into the voting booth and check off the most familiar names they see without really thinking about the consequences.
With Congressional approval well below 20 percent one would think that Americans would be energized for change. Perhaps the problem is that they just don’t feel that their votes will matter or they don’t know who or what these candidates really are. Others lament the “dirty politics” of negative ads. The truth though is that negative campaigning has been around almost as long as the nation has existed.
The Founding Fathers had a clear concept of where this nation should go and who should lead it.
In 1788 James Madison, father of the Constitution, stated that “[A] popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both…a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” While much has changed since 1788, Madison’s quote remains true. Voters must arm themselves with knowledge of the candidates and issues if they are to have any power over the government itself. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, clearly felt the same when stating that “government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” Montesquieu’s 1748 statement – “[T]he tyranny of a prince is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy” – just further reinforces this notion.
What is important to remember though, and needs to be taken into account when voting, is the Government – as Henry Clay said – “is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.” Voters should not feel that they only have two choices when voting either. After all, the Founding Fathers explicitly went out of their way to avoid mention of political parties when creating the foundation of the United States. It was only after the government was created and instituted that parties became a cog in politics…and that was mainly due to personal beefs.
Furthermore, the Founding Fathers were keenly aware of the dangers that a federal government with too much power could pose for the nation. In a day in age when this is very much an issue, it could serve voters well to go back and see how this idea was viewed at the beginning of the nation.
The Federalist can serve as a sort of roadmap for today’s voters to show just why the United States was created and what the respective governments (state and national) should strive to achieve. In particular, James Madison’s Federalist 45 is of significant importance regarding this matter. A few passages stand out when contemplating government’s role in society.
Madison starts off by asking “[W]as, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished…that the government of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power…with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty?” He then goes on to state that “the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.” And he clearly advocates that “[T]he State government will have the advantage of the Federal government…to the weight of personal influence which each side will possess; to the powers respectively vested in them; to the predilection and probable support of the people.” He continues, “[T]he State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former” and “[T]he number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular States.” Perhaps most importantly he declares “[T]he powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State…operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security.”
One singular final point; today elected officials and candidates who change their stances on issues of the day are often labeled as flip-floppers which can become almost a political death sentence. However, Benjamin Franklin one of America’s most cherished citizens felt that changing one’s opinion on a subject was a natural occurrence as more and new information came to light. When writing about the Constitution itself, he said “I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them…having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”
When Americans go to the polls, they must educate themselves on the candidates and issues before them. They should not be dissuaded from voting for someone who has changed their stance on an issue because they have become enlightened; in fact, they should welcome the candidates who seek to know more so they can better serve their constituencies. And, above all – regardless of what party a voter or candidate may affiliate themselves – those who embrace the ideals that Madison and others espouse in The Federalist will help to preserve the belief that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” remain foundations of the United States and the American spirit.
While the world of today is much different from that of the nation’s birth, Americans would do well to remember why the nation was created in the first place. The sacrifices of those who have come before end up being all for naught if the freedom and rights they stood for are not exercised at every available opportunity by those of today and tomorrow.