Response to Editorial “The Voice of the Unheard”

The following is a response to an editorial titled The Voice of the Unheard by Managing Editor Nathaniel Arroyave, published in the Desert Review.

In his June 9th editorial The Voice of the Unheard Mr. Arroyave made some excellent points regarding the low voter turnout in our local elections, and the importance of voting to make our voices heard. As a high school civics teacher, I preach the same thing to high school seniors – know what is going on in your community, state, and the nation then cast an informed vote in every election. I do however wish to question his assertion that ancient Greece is a “good benchmark” for assessing the progress of humanity as it relates to American suffrage and the expansion of human rights in general. I would suggest that July 4, 1776, or perhaps September 17, 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was signed, are better reference points for this important subject.

Mr. Arroyave appears to suggest that ancient Greek democracy is worthy of imitation, and that human rights and democracy degenerated in the western world between 754 BC ancient Greece when “all citizens” could vote and 1776 AD North America where “only white men who are 21 years old or older who own land” could vote. This is an oversimplified, anachronistic interpretation of the historical record. Ancient Greece was indeed the seedbed of democracy, and to a smaller degree, republicanism in Western culture. We teach this important development in our history classes, however Greek democracy was a far cry from the Lockean concept of a God-given right to Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.

The Ephors of Sparta were certainly a unique development in early human history. For a period of a few hundred years the Ephors, a council of five elected men, represented the interests of Spartan citizens and wielded great power – they could fire the king. However not all Spartan citizens, as Mr. Arroyave suggests, could vote for the Ephors, or in any other election for that matter. Spartan suffrage was limited to a very small and excusive group – male citizens between the ages of thirty and sixty. This at a time when, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, approximately eighty-five percent of the Spartan population was composed of non-citizen Helots – or slaves. Based on this, an estimated four to eight percent of all Spartans could vote in elections – if you include women, free men under thirty years of age, and slaves in the total number of residents. On a side note, Ancient Greeks practiced chattel slavery on a massive scale, as did the rest of the world at that time. The great historians of antiquity – Herodotus, Thucydides, and later Cato and Josephus during the Roman era documented in a very matter of fact way that slavery (and numerous other forms of barbarism) existed as a normal aspect of daily life. Spartan citizens could kill a Helot whenever they wanted. An elite Spartan Hoplite warrior’s training often included having the young man kill a slave. Periodically Sparta would send out its army to kill off Helots to keep the slave population in check. Things like this were just business as usual in the ancient world.

Ancient Greek democracy is often held up as a standard worthy of imitation. Again, the negative aspects of democracy are often overlooked. Pure, direct democracy goes hand in hand with mob rule and oppression – tough luck if you happen to be in the minority. In ancient Greek city states a simple majority vote could despoil a person of all their personal property or banish them forever. You could literally just “vote someone off the island” if they were unpopular. A simple majority vote could even result in capital punishment – 500 male Athenian citizens condemned the Greek philosopher Socrates to death by a vote of 280-220. For these reasons the Framers of our Constitution were wary of democracy and carefully tempered it with republicanism, clear limitations on governmental power, and guaranteed basic rights.

The birth of the United States and the principles enshrined in our founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (which includes the Bill of Rights) were a turning point for humanity. Never had any society, empire, or nation been founded on the concept that all human beings are born with the inalienable right to life, individual sovereignty, self-determination, and personal property. To put it in perspective, for millennia a person’s birth and station in life decided what opportunities and quality of life they would have. Most people barely eked by and suffered from oppression and want. If you were born a poor peasant, you died a poor peasant. Freedom of the individual and opportunity for self-betterment have never been more accessible for more people at any other time in human history than they have in the United States.

Clearly, as Mr. Arroyave pointed out, the guarantee and access to these rights has been slowly expanded during our nation’s existence through longsuffering toil. However, the historical events relating to the privation of the rights of various marginalized groups did not occur in a vacuum; each is a complex topic that could serve as the subject for a series of lectures or journal articles. When it comes to suffrage, who could vote at various times in nation’s history varied from state to state and from locality to locality. Under British common law in the American colonies, married women did not vote as their interests and those of rest of the family were represented legally by the male head of household. This precedent continued in the fledgling United States. There are however examples of single, land-owning women, free blacks, and native Americans voting in early American elections. New Jersey enshrined women’s voting rights in its first state constitution in 1776 (and later revoked it in the early 1800s). Kentucky enacted women’s suffrage in 1838. In the mid-late 1800s into the early 1900s many western states followed suit starting with Kansas granting women’s suffrage in state and local elections in 1867. Many non-slave states allowed free African American men to vote after the Revolution, some later restricted it as did most new states as they joined the Union. Several New England states however allowed all men to vote regardless of their race or ethnicity prior to the Civil War without significant restrictions including Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Mr. Arroyave is correct when he says that these rights were “hard won” for many. The 14th and 15th Amendments which guaranteed, among other things, citizenship and voting rights for freed African American slaves were the product of the Civil War. Americans who opposed slavery in the United States waged the bloodiest civil war of the 19th Century to end the evil practice once and for all, rather than concede the issue. Our nation was willing to allow itself to be torn apart, spend millions of its treasure, to destroy a good part of its economy, and to sacrifice three quarters of a million lives on the battlefield to end slavery – roughly five percent of the nation’s male population at the time. Not to mention the millions who were orphaned, widowed, maimed, or made destitute and homeless. There is no other example in history of a nation state or society with a similar number of enslaved people living within its borders that was so divided over the issue and took such extreme measures to end the practice and guarantee basic human rights as the United States.

America’s flaws and shortcomings in fulfilling the promises of liberty are not what makes it unique in the timeline of humanity, rather it is the relentless effort to guarantee those rights for all that makes America the greatest anomaly in human history – the early abolitionists, the suffragettes, sacrifices of the Civil War, civil rights movement, and more. As a nation our measuring stick should be our founding principles and whether we are living up to them as we should. Not some whimsical concept of ancient Greek democracy. And an important part of this, as Mr. Arroyave rightly pointed out, is exercising our right to vote – even when it sometimes seems pointless to do so.