When I was younger, I thought I would be a diplomat. When I graduated, I took the Foreign Service exam and later worked for former diplomats who were then consultants. Since I didn’t really know what skills I needed to become a diplomat, and realized quickly that my meagre bachelor’s degree in international affairs was not enough for such a position, I figured I needed to find out what exactly diplomats did and how they were able to achieve their goals. So I paid attention to how they spent their time, what they did with their money, and how they fit in the world.
These diplomats ranged along the political scale from liberal to conservative, yet, they were able to work together and achieve personal and professional success after their service with the government. I learned much from them.
Fast forward to today. At Steam at Harper’s Ferry I have a copy of an original Harper’s Weekly, dated November 26, 1859. There are comic illustrations in the back depicting John Brown holding a rifle and handing a now infamous pike to a black man who apparently wasn’t willing to go with Brown to fight. Another shows two black men discussing the ridiculousness of Brown’s actions by suggesting that Brown was not acquainted with the neighborhood of Harper’s Ferry, implying that blacks were relatively well-off and owned property and therefore didn’t need what Brown was offering. It is true that there were quite a few free blacks in Jefferson County in 1860.
“Some thirty years ago – then a young man of great promise, bouyant in spirits, and looking at the bright side of all the scenery of life, he was an unsuccesful candidate for the State Senate. That disappointment disturbed the heretofore ‘even tenor of his way,’ and tinged the future of his whole life. … From an ardent Colonizationist, he became an ultra Abolitionist; and his persuasive zeal for Temperance changed to coercive measures in favor of Prohibition. Of his ample fortune, he dispensed in aid of Abolitionism and Temperance with more liberality than wisdom. Both his perverted talents and his misapplied money injured the objects he sought to promote.
Mr. Smith has lived for nearly thirty years in a state of political hallucination. The delusion culminated last year, when, greatly excited, he devoted his time and money to a canvas which he believed was to result in his election as Governor, while every other person in the state knew that he was wasting his strength and means. …
The Harper’s Ferry insurrection was an attempt to carry the teachings of prominent Abolitionists into practical effect. It was foreshadowed in a letter from Mr. Smith to the ‘Jerry Rescuers.’ That he ever really intended slaves should rise, rob, and murder, we do not believe; but in speeches and letters heindulged in language which bears no other construction. Unfortunately, ‘Osawattomie Brown,’ driven to madness by Slavery oppression and outrage, was too ready to carry into practice the principles which others were only reckless enough to teach.”
Then in the very same issue, there is a small article about how important it is to exercise the voting franchise:
” ‘In good old colony times’ there was a law which compelled every body to vote. The recusants were roundly fined – upon principle that a citizen had no more right to be recreant to one social duty than another, and that least of all should he be excused for indifference to the most fundamental of the whole list.
It is very easy to ask, Why should a man vote if he don’t want to? But it is just as easy to ask, Why should he serve on juries, or do military duty, or to be taxed for schools, if he does not want to? And the answer is, that it is a common venture, and the voice of all is necessary for the moral weight and prestige, without which skepicism may endanger success. … Where men work with conscious sympathy, they work with a will, and produce results worth someting; and in a country of popular institutions, in which the welfare of the whole depends upon the proper administration of the government, it is the duty of every man to insist that his neighbor shall not shirk his share of the responsibility.
If a man have no opinion about men and measures – if he betray so little interest in the means by which personal liberty is secured and the ends of the government fulfilled – as to pride himself upon knowing nothing about the matter, then he is just the person to be bribed by interest or prejudice, and is so much bad material in the State.
An actual compulsory law to vote would be rather despotic, and the object sought might better be achieved in another way. But every young man in the country ought to understand that there is nothing more ludicrous and contemptible than the idea that it is ‘gentlemanly’ not to use the rights and fulfill the duties of a free man.”
Gerrit Smith must have been insane, for in 1846, he called upon his friends to help him identify poor people to whom he could give away about 3,000 acres of land. He chose specifically amongst the poor to give the land to poor blacks because:
I could not put a bounty on color. I shrank from the least appearance of doing so: and if I know my heart, it was equally compassionate toward such white and black men as are equal sufferers. In the end, however, I concluded to confine my gifts to colored people. I had not come to this conclusion had the land I have to give away been several times as much as it is. I had not come to it, were not the colored people the poorest of the poor, and the most deeply wronged class of our citizens. That they are so, is evident, if only from the fact, that the cruel, killing, heaven-defying prejudice of which they are the victims, has closed against them the avenues to riches and respectability—to happiness and usefulness. That they are so, is also evident from the fact, that, whilst white men in this State, however destitute of property, are allowed to vote for Civil Rulers, every colored man in it, who does not own landed estate to the value of two hundred and fifty dollars, is excluded from the exercise of this natural and indispensably protective right. I confess, that this mean and wicked exclusion has had no little effect in producing my preference, in this case. I confess, too, that I was influenced by the consideration, that there is great encouragement to improve the condition of our free colored brethren, because that every improvement in it contributes to loosen the bands of the enslaved portion of their outraged and afflicted race.
What is the connection? If you pay attention to what is important by those who have some measure of power, or in my example, have positions you want to attain, purposes reveal themselves.
Let’s look at the spending. Another indication of how important voting is. No one would put up the kind of money being spent if that person did not take seriously that he or she had an obligation to “use the rights and fulfill the duties of a free man” or woman.
In 1859, perhaps the editors didn’t see the irony in this single edition of their newspaper. On one hand, ardent, fevrent advocacy supporting a man’s duty to vote, and on the other the apparent lunacy of those among them who were working to secure for others the same opportunity.
During my undergraduate days, I read both Ayn Rand and W.E.B. du Bois. At the time, I didn’t find it strange.
Ayn Rand (thanks to workingminds.com): “The right to vote is a consequence, not a primary cause, of a free social system – and its value depends on the constitutional structure implementing and strictly delimiting the voters’ power; unlimited majority rule is an instance of the principle of tyranny.”
W.E.B. du Bois at Harper’s Ferry, August 1906: “First, we would vote; with the right to vote goes everything: Freedom, manhood, the honor of your wives, the chastity of your daughters, the right to work, and the chance to rise, and let no man listen to those who deny this. We want full manhood suffrage, and we want it now, henceforth and forever.”
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum with regard to voter identification issues, it is pretty clear that those currently in a position to make decisions about the country’s future are spending a lot of money to get your votes and some are working to change existing voting laws.
Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?
The November 26, 1859 issue of Harper’s Weekly is available for sale at Steam at Harper’s Ferry.