OUR FREEDOM TO VOTE
When did we all actually gain the freedoms we celebrate as Americans?
Was it with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, or had it actually occurred earlier, as we had been British subjects whose rights were secured by the Magna Carta of 1215?
Certainly not. Even here in East Andover in the early 1800’s, some white-skinned people were indentured or even declared “paupers” due to poverty, disability, “indolence or intemperance”, whose servitude and labor was then auctioned off to wealthier citizens as if they were enslaved chattel. [Eastman’s History of the Town of Andover NH, pg. 226-7 ]
Did all Americans finally become free people, enjoying all the rights of citizenship with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863? Or was it later, on Juneteenth 1865 that American freedom became universal?
Or did American “freedom for all” have to wait until 1868 after the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing “equal protection under the law” to all Americans born here, as well as to naturalized Americans who came here as immigrants?
Certainly, no freedom is more important than the freedom to vote. Was this freedom for all Americans finally achieved in 1870, with the ratification of the 15th Amendment? This Amendment guarantees “that right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude…”
But in fact did all Americans finally gain their freedom even later than that, when American women finally became voting citizens in 1921? Or was it more recently yet, when Native Americans received their freedom to vote in 1924? Or did freedom actually arrive even later, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1965 to disallow voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests and other such means?
Unfortunately, the worthy vision of the Founding Fathers has been slow in arriving to all Americans, as can be seen by charting its incremental progress across all generations of Americans. We still aspire to achieving the American vision of freedom, liberty and justice for all, yet its full attainment is still out of reach for some Americans today. Unfortunately, measures to suppress voting are still being enacted in NH and in other states, with the excuse that restrictions are needed to guard against unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
How shall we attain, or at least move our civilization significantly closer to the American democratic ideal? We say we value full equal freedoms for all, starting especially with our freedom to vote. Yet we see in history a systematic disenfranchisement of Americans according to race, gender, economic status, etc through the years, and which continues to this day in some parts of the country. As Americans, we all want to have the promise fulfilled that we all have a voice in our own government, have a right to self-determination for our communities, and have autonomous control of our own bodies and the personal conduct of our own lives!
What some call our freedoms are indeed our rights as Americans, a list including but not ending with the freedom to vote. If you haven’t had a reason to revisit the Bill of Rights within the US Constitution since grade school, you might like to look again, because so much of it is of vital relevance to maintaining our American democracy today. Every one of our freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights is important, and are nicely explained here: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights/what-does-it-say
The questions posed at the beginning of this article are not easy, nor are they comfortable questions, but our continued progress toward “a more perfect union” requires a frank and truthful discussion of our history as a colony and a country, and an equally frank and truthful assessment of where we stand today. The language of this session’s HB544, incongruously embedded as part of the 2021 NH State budget, empowers our state government to prohibit speaking about aspects of our problematic past that even today continue to deny some Americans their rights and freedoms. This prohibition to speak only about past injustices - the ‘historical existence of ideas and subjects” which were supremacist and discriminatory (to quote the language of the legislation’s changes to RSA193: 40, II) puts limits on discussion of current, continuing unequal treatment and discrimination against underrepresented groups, as if all the old problems have been fixed once and for all, as if all Americans today enjoy the same freedoms and advantages, as if no further vigilance is necessary, nor further complaints allowed. I believe this is a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution and therefore should not be allowed to stand as the Law in NH.
Much propaganda, secondhand accounts and “strawman” claims about supposed theories are circulating on the internet and in publications. These claim an urgent exists to suppress free speech in our schools and government-affiliated institutions. I urge you to look again at original documents such as the US Bill of Rights and the NH Social Studies Curriculum (link below) in order to determine for yourself what is the truth. Pay particular notice of the current curriculum being taught in NH K-12 schools. That curriculum, under the headings of “Conflict and Cooperation” and also “Civic Ideals, Practices and Engagement” on page 7, includes “causes of the Civil War”, “Triangular Trade (e.g. the cycle of slave trade from West Africa to American farms, and the subsequent goods moving through New England to Britain), as well as “How has the meaning of citizenship evolved over time?” While these historic topics are laudable, today’s curriculum neglects to mention the continuing practice of racial “redlining” in real estate, or the fact that the way NH uses your local property taxes to fund schools was declared unconstitutional more than twenty years ago, yet remains unchanged. Practices like these were originally enacted in the 20th century to disenfranchise, segregate and impoverish Black citizens, but they now are being used to extract wealth from NH citizens in large numbers and to undermine our ability to participate effectively in our democracy. (These continuing practices are thoroughly explored in the books “Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee and “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein.)
Our children deserve a truthful education that develops their critical thinking skills, underscores the kinds of responsibilities for their communities and our nation they can take on as adults, and explains why the meaning of US citizenship has evolved since our country’s founding. Don’t you agree the meaning of citizenship and the scope of our American freedoms should be allowed to grow and continue to evolve?
Ken Wells represents Andover, Danbury and Salisbury in the New Hampshire House of Representatives during the 2018-2020 session.