Voting Values

The Rev. Alison Cornish & Martha Potter

November 5, 2006 – 

Unitarian Universalism has always had a spiritual center and a civic circumference. – The Rev. William Sinkford

Alison: Why we are here – yes, Election day coming – and yes, we hope you will vote, and encourage someone else to vote, too. That’s part of our reasoning. But only a part. Today Martha and I want to look a bit deeper at this thing called American democracy, this fragile, visionary, messy and precious wild experiment in which we are blessed to live – to be a part of. And, because we are a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and this is a Worship Service, we are going to focus our thoughts, our readings, this morning on this idea, coming from the words of William Sinkford, president of our Unitarian Universalist Association – “Unitarian Universalism has always had a spiritual center and a civic circumference.” What does that mean – for the way in which we have struggled to expand the right to vote to all people, for us, for those yet to come to our country? Today we want to look at some – a selected few of the many – Unitarians and Universalists that have acted from their spiritual center, their theology, their understanding of the world and of humanity, to help enlarge the democratic ideal. Olympia Brown, who we heard about earlier in the not for children only, is one of our historical and spiritual ancestors who worked to bring the right to vote to the women of the prairie state of Kansas, and beyond – but now we will hear some more voices that, like hers, called on the consciences of those in power, and for justice for the disenfranchised, so that all citizens might fully engage in the political process.

Martha: Voting at the beginning of our Republic was reserved for propertied men. Our founding fathers understood that enfranchisement was a gradual process and Alexander Hamilton felt that men with property would have a greater “stake in society”

Alison: But right from the beginning, there were other voices that championed enlarging the picture of who should participate in this fresh, new, country. Abigail and John Adams were active members of the First Parish in Quincy, Massachusetts, which was already Unitarian in theology by the 1750s, even though the official founding of the American Unitarian Association would not take place until 1825. Abigail’s theological views were clear, as she wrote to her daughter-in-law, “true religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or Creeds and tests.” It was perhaps this spirit that motivated Abigail to write her famous words in a letter to John – “I long to hear you have declared an independency-and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Martha: All was not perfect. The political reality of the John Adams administration and the possible war with France caused actions that were far from the democratic ideals of independency. During the Adams administration a series of acts known as the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed punishing those who spoke against our government and increasing the years for new immigrants to become citizens from 5 to 14. This was to disenfranchise new immigrants who might support Jefferson and the new Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson won the election known to historians as the “The Peaceful Revolution”. This is the first time a country changed political leadership and instituted a new political philosophy without bloodshed. The next major step toward enfranchisement was during the Jackson administration in 1828, which promoted the elimination of most property qualifications. This was accomplished in the majority of states by 1854. Poll taxes still existed in some states.

In 1888 the first secret ballot, known as the Australian ballot was instituted in Massachusetts. The first president to be elected by secret ballot was Grover Cleveland in 1892

Alison: Lucy Stone is another of our spiritual and historical ancestors – she has been called “the morning star of the women’s movement” because she was the first major public lecturer for women’s rights. She became a Unitarian after she discovered the Congregational church of her youth would not allow her to vote in its proceedings. That’s another way that Unitarians have held a “spiritual center” – fairness, justice and equity in our governance, in our polity. Stone distinguished herself from her colleagues in the women’s rights movement – especially Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – because she remained staunchly and publicly committed to full enfranchisement for African Americans, even if it meant securing rights for blacks before women. As we all know, taking a public stand can often cause estrangement between members of even the closest of families. Such was the case between Lucy and her mother. What to regard as highest – family loyalty, or conscience? Lucy wrote of her work to her mother, Hannah Stone, in 1846 … I know, Mother, you feel badly about the plans I have proposed to myself, and that you would prefer to have me take some other course, if I could in conscience. Yet, Mother, I know you too well to suppose that you would wish me to turn away from what I think is my duty, and go all my days in opposition to my convictions of right, lashed by a reproaching conscience … You would not object, or think it wrong, for a man to plead the cause of the suffering and the outcast; and surely the moral character of the act is not changed because it is done by a woman … I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex.

Martha: Amendments were needed to allow the national government to override state laws. The states had the power over voting regulations because the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserved for the states all powers not specifically delegated to the United States.

15th Amendment (1870)-voting shall not be denied by the United States or any State, on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

17th Amendment (1913) – Senators shall be directly elected by the people of the states and not the state legislatures.

19th Amendment (1920) – voting shall not be denied on account of sex

The women’s move toward enfranchisement begins with the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. The declaration uses the same language as the Declaration of Independence. The tyrant is the husband not the king.

Martha: African American men are the next group to gain suffrage. African American men gained suffrage with the 15th Amendment of the Constitution and lose it again after Reconstruction with the compromise of 1877. Samuel J. Tilden a Democrat from New York ran against Rutherford B. Hayes a Republican from Ohio. Tilden won the popular vote. During Reconstruction, Northern Radical Republicans had the majority in Congress. They set up 5 military districts to control the South and ensure African American Rights. Two had been removed by 1876. The three remaining were in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida representing 20 undecided electoral votes that would determine the majority. An electoral committee was set up to decided on the President. This committee gave the election to Hayes and all military districts were disbanded in the South literally destroying African American suffrage until 1965.

Literacy tests were instituted in Southern states with large Black populations.

Grandfather clauses exempted from literacy tests all voters whose grandfathers had voted.

Poll taxes were used until 1964 when the 24th Amendment was passed.

Alison: James Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister, living in Roxbury, Massachusetts in March of 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr.’s urgent call came to ask religious leaders and concerned citizens to join him in Selma, Alabama. It was just two weeks after a young black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, had been shot and killed by a state trooper during a night march in Marion, Alabama.

James Reeb had been in Alabama less than a day when white assailants attacked him and two other white Unitarian Universalist ministers on a Selma sidewalk, fatally injuring Reeb with a blow to the head. Four days after his death, on March 15th, MLK eulogized James Reeb at Brown Chapel in Selma, saying – “The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers.”

Later that same day, March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of congress which was televised. He began with these words: “At times history and fate meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” 45 minutes later he concluded his address, in which he urged Congress to help him pass a new voting rights bill.

Martha: The protests again the Vietnam War in the 1960’s highlighted the disenfranchisement of men who were drafted. The 26th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1971 lowering the voting age to 18.

Our Constitution laid the foundation for a working Republic. This Republic was not perfect. Our founding fathers knew that the Republic was fragile and that democracy is a gradual process. The people of this new country needed to be ready for each step.

Foremost, the country needed to survive and the propertied men were the backbone of this country. Changes in our Constitution provided for a more perfect democracy as our country grew and became more stable.

Popular Sovereignty in Kansas in 1854 is a perfect example of democracy forced upon a people before they were ready. The result was “Bleeding Kansas”

We cannot impose a perfect democracy. It is a government that develops when a culture can accept it.

Closing Words

Walt Whitman: “To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman-that is something.”

Jacob Needleman – “America was a new and original expression in the form of a social and political experiment of ideas that have always been part of what may be called the great web of truth. Explicitly and implicitly, the idea of America has resonated with this ancient, timeless wisdom and has allowed something of its power to touch the heart and mind of humanity. It is necessary to recover this resonance, this relationship, however tenuous and partial, between the teachings of wisdom and the idea of America.”

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