So our old friend David Barton is back, pretending once again to be a historian. Appearing on WallBuilders Live he gave us all a dose of true Bartonesque theater of the absurd when he explained why women weren’t allowed to vote by the Founding Fathers. Having proven he knows nothing at all about Thomas Jefferson, he is apparently eager to demonstrate a matching ignorance of colonial history. According to Barton, the reasoning was 100 percent biblically based and it was all designed to keep the family together.
Listen courtesy of Right Wing Watch:
The family was the first and fundamental unit of all government. Actually, you have individual self government first, then you have family government second, you have civil government third, and have church government fourth. Those are the four levels of government in the order they are given in the Bible.
So family government precedes civil government and you watch that as colonists came to America, they voted by families. You look at the Pilgrims, when they finally moved away from socialism and moved toward the free enterprise system, they called the families together and gave families plots of land. Private property given to the families. And so that’s the way things work.
And you have to remember back then, husband and wife, I mean the two were considered one. That is the biblical precept. That is the way they looked at them in the civil community. That is a family that is voting and so the head of the family is traditionally considered to be the husband and even biblically still continues to be so …
Now, as we’ve moved away from the family unit – you need to be independent from the family, don’t be chained down and be a mother and don’t be chained down and be a father and don’t be chained down to your parents, you know, we’ve moved into more of a family anarchy kind of thing, the ‘Modern Family’ kind of portrayal – that understanding has gone away.
Clearly, what [the listener] has asked is a brilliant question because it does reveal that the bigotry we’re told they held back then, they didn’t hold and what they did was they put the family unit higher than the government unit and they tried to work hard to keep the family together. And, as we can show in two or three hundred studies since then, the more you weaken the family, the more it hurts the entire culture and society.
So they had a strong culture, a strong society and it was based on a strong family to preceded government and they crafted their policies to protect a strong family.
In fact, before the Revolution, women COULD vote in several American colonies, according to the National Women’s History Museum. A woman could vote in New York if she had the permission of her husband, and propertied women could vote in Massachusetts. Vermont even put women on their polling lists in 1724 if they were property owners (the same requirement made of men), and women appeared on polling lists in both Massachusetts and Connecticut up until 1775, the eve of the American Revolution. It wasn’t until after 1776 that “states rewrote their constitutions to prevent women from voting.” But that was the exception, admittedly.
Why you ask? Ed Crews writes in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal that “Colonial Voting restrictions reflected eighteenth-century English notions about gender, race, prudence, and financial success, as well as vested interest. Arguments for a white, male-only electorate focused on what the men of the era conceived of as the delicate nature of women and their inability to deal with the coarse realities of politics, as well as convictions about race and religion.”
The Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF) explains that women were far from the only excluded group:
For the most part, American colonists adopted the voter qualifications that they had known in England. Typically, a voter had to be a free, adult, male resident of his county, a member of the predominant religious group, and a “freeholder.” A freeholder owned land worth a certain amount of money. Colonists believed only freeholders should vote because only they had a permanent stake in the stability of society. Freeholders also paid the bulk of the taxes. Other persons, as the famous English lawyer William Blackstone put it, “are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own.”
As a result, only some 10 to 20 percent of the population actually had voting rights. No doubt this suits David Barton very well…but wait:
Naturally this means – and Barton has certainly not considered it – that if David Barton was living in a predominantly Catholic area, he would not have the right to vote, just as Catholics in Colonial America were often not allowed to vote (along with Jews and others). A whole bunch of Christians today might find themselves without voting rights if they lived in the wrong area. Oh for the good old days, eh, David?
According to Marylynn Salmon at the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History – you know, REAL historians – “state law rather than federal law governed women’s rights in the early Republic” and that there was, as a result, a great disparity in standards. But “in every state, the legal status of free women depended upon marital status.” They had many legal rights as single women but that changed when they got married, at which point “they still had legal rights but no longer had autonomy. Instead, they found themselves in positions of almost total dependency on their husbands.”
This was not a biblical principle, but something called “Coverture,” which “was based on the assumption that a family functioned best if the male head of a household controlled all its assets.” She suddenly had no control over her own wages. Coverture, by the way, is not biblical law, but English common law, the same basis for the U.S. Constitution. English common law, as I have repeatedly demonstrated here, has nothing to do with biblical law.
William Blackstone explained the principle in his Commentaries on English Law:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.
As for voting rights, Salmon writes that “gender alone was the basis for women’s exclusion from voting or holding office. Simply put, men with property had the right to vote in the early national period but women, no matter how wealthy, did not, even though women paid the same taxes as men.”
And yes, at least one woman, Margaret Bent, a Catholic by the way, protested in the mid-seventeenth century when she insisted on a right to vote, that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”
Salmon goes on to say, “The reasoning behind this discrimination rested on the assumption that married women were liable to coercion by their husbands; if a wife voted, legislators argued, it meant that a man cast two ballots. As one man put it, “How can a fair one refuse her lover?”
Men, Salmon concludes, “did not want to share their political power with daughters, mothers, and wives, just as they did not want to share it with freed black men or immigrants.”
And, of course, it wasn’t the Founding Fathers who said whether women could vote or not. They only left the matter up to the states, and it was the states who decided women should not vote. Barton could not even get that small detail right.
As usual, Barton has gotten everything mucked up, either because he lacks of basic understanding of American history or because he just doesn’t care, and prefers to make it up as he goes along in order to create support for his culture war agenda that does not, in fact, appear anywhere in the historical record.
It sounds like there IS very sound historical precedence for the modern Republican position of leaving all meaningful power in the hands of white folks of property, but the Bible doesn’t enter into it. It should also be noted, Barton’s flights of fancy aside, that women were allowed to vote in New Jersey after the Revolution (from 1790), admittedly thanks to a loophole in the state constitution – until 1807 when it was taken away by a man who almost lost an election because of those pesky women voters.
David Barton has, as he typically does, invented an argument out of nothing, proceeding from the false premise that the Founding Fathers decided anything about women voting, and then tendentiously injecting his biblical views into the equation while ignoring actual history, both English and American. While his fake history suits his purpose of shoring up his culture war pretensions, it has very little real value except validating the preconceptions of conservative voters.
The thing is, there is an easy solution: if conservative women want to be true to David Barton’s peculiar view of Christianity and history, they are welcome to eschew the vote in favor of their husbands. But because the First Amendment bans the establishment of state religion, it can go no further than this: neither Barton nor any other theocrat has a right to force his religious beliefs about voting or anything else down the throats of American citizens.
Image from History.org
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.