I recently read a New York Times op-ed about elections in Pakistan that made me think of the federalists. Many students struggle to empathize with the federalists. Epitomized by the now Broadway-musically famous Alexander Hamilton, the federalists counted George Washington and many other founders of the United States among their number. They were candidly elitist: federalists thought that “the better kind of people” (that’s a Washington quotation), by which they meant the wealthy and well educated, should rule, and the common people should agree to ruled by them. One way they sought to ensure the supremacy of this wealthy elite was by supporting property qualifications for voting. Under this system, which existed in all thirteen colonies and was continued by all thirteen states upon independence, only men who had paid a certain value of taxes in the previous year were eligible to vote. This ensured that landless and poor people (and women) would not participate in elections. To most Americans today, and especially to most of our students, this policy seems like a bad idea: we reflexively dismiss it as dangerously anti-democratic. But it is precisely because this policy seems so obviously wrong to us that learning about it presents 4QM teachers with a golden opportunity to teach Question Two of the Four Question Method: All those people in the seventeen hundreds supported property qualifications for voting…What were they thinking?
Historical Empathy for the Federalists
When we study Question Two we want our students to achieve “historical empathy.” Historical empathy is the ability to understand why historical figures believed things that they did; the ability to see their world as they saw it. Achieving historical empathy requires us to set aside our present-day understandings and beliefs and to dive deep into the world of the past. Historical empathy is not the same thing as agreement: we can still conclude that having property qualifications for voting is a bad policy even after we understand why the federalists (and many of the anti-federalists too, as it happens) thought that it was a good policy. But if we don’t regularly slow down our students’ thinking and take the time to honestly answer Question Two, we risk leaving them with the idea that most people in the past were simply not as smart or enlightened as people in the present, or were just plain nuts. The federalists were neither stupid, nor unenlightened, nor crazy. So let’s take a moment to think through the policy of property qualifications for voting from their point of view: What were supporters of that policy thinking?
“Wolves At The Voting Booth”
Here’s where the op-ed about Pakistan comes in. It was published in the July 17 2018 print edition of the New York Times, and it is titled “Wolves At The Voting Booth.” Author Ali Akbar Natiq describes how elections work in the rural villages that make up much of Pakistan. Most of the residents of those villages are poor agricultural workers, who work for wages on land owned by the local “big man.” In this context, the poor don’t control their own votes: they vote as the big mans tells them to, or suffer the consequences. As a result, Natiq explains, “In our villages and small towns, we don’t have political leaders; we have brokers and thugs who sell our votes to federal politicians and their backers in the military establishment. Democracy serves a singular purpose in the village: to maintain the power of our feudal lords and to further enrich them and their families.”
The United States in the late eighteenth century was a lot like Natiq’s home village today. In the time of the Federalists, the U.S. was an overwhelmingly rural pre-industrial society, with land being the major source of wealth and security. Land ownership was much more broadly dispersed than it was in Europe then or Pakistan today, but there were still many Americans who were not independent “freeholders” or “yeoman farmers,” but instead worked on land owned by others. The situation Natiq describes is precisely what supporters of property qualifications for voting hoped to avoid in the United States: they worried that a poor man’s vote was not in fact an independent and considered vote. It could be coerced by his landlord or his boss, or it could be sold by the poor man himself for cash or other benefits. In effect, poor people’s votes would simply count as extra votes for those who had economic power over them.
This fear was amplified in the eighteenth century United States by the method in which elections were carried out. For the first 100 years or so of the country’s existence, until the progressive era of the late nineteenth century, voting was public. Voters either gathered in a large group and stated their preferences orally, or walked up to a table at a public voting place, and placed the ballot of the candidate or party they wished to support in the ballot box. In the nineteenth century ballot boxes were often glass globes, and party ballots were often different colors – so everyone knew how everyone else was voting. This made it impossible to hide your vote from your neighbors. (There’s a good short article about the history of voting in early America here.)
Seen in this context, supporters of property qualifications for voting don’t seem quite so foolish or unenlightened. As the example of modern Pakistan shows us, their fear that poor people’s votes would simply be exploited by the wealthy was not unreasonable. Of course the federalists had other reasons for wanting to disenfranchise the poor as well; they feared a political movement of poor people that might attempt to dispossess the rich. But when we simply dismiss historical figures without taking the time to truly understand what they were thinking we are selling them, and our students, short.