The other day a conservative friend of mine posted a John Adams quote that was a rant about letting people who didn’t own property the right to vote. My friend tried to use to support his argument about our current government system. While Adams did write the words that were posted, taking his words out of context to support your fantasy view of the world could be dangerous.
Here is the quote in question:
Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; if we take into the account the women and children, or even if we leave them out of the question, a great majority of every nation is wholly destitute of property, except a small quantity of clothes, and a few trifles of other movables. Would Mr. Nedham be responsible that, if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have? Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted. What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.
My friend is conservative and a Republican and has the typical ideals expressed in this quote written in 1787. Like Adams, he believes that people who aren’t exactly like himself are basically “the idle, the vicious, [and] the intemperate” looking to usurp his rights and steal the “fruits of our labors”.
The problem is my friend, like Adams, has a biased idea of who should be “allowed” to govern and a warped view of property. I mean why do you think that while the Constitution mentioned “the people”, it didn’t abolish slavery? John Adams and the other founders were the original one percenters in what became the United States.
Adams and people in his time define property as physical property like houses and horses and any profit made from the use of their property. The main reason the founders revolted against the English King was they wanted more of say in how their property and work were taxed. It was only after the King rejected their demands, did they make a clean break to form an independent nation.
The revolution happened to protect the property of the colonial one percenters. The revolution wasn’t to give us all freedom of speech or religion and so on – that came later when the US Constitution was adopted after the Bill of Rights were added. The rights and freedoms my friend crows about when complaining about the poor people was an afterthought of founders like Adams.
In 1790 10 states had a property requirement to vote and it wasn’t until after the Civil War did that really change with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870 that gave the vote to all men regardless of property owned. Women were given the vote in 1920 and 18 to 20 year-olds were given the vote in 1971.
We are still a representative democracy – that is we don’t have direct majority voting – but since Adams’ time we have evolved on who should be allowed to participate in selecting our representatives.
My friend and those who agree with him use the quote to express their bigoted views of the “takers” and other unfounded claptrap we hear from the GOP/Libertarians.
As history has shown, the one percenters aren’t our friends and while one bitches about the fruit of your labors being stolen by lazy poor people through use of the government, the one percenters are getting richer by picking your pocket for their own good.
If you work hard to prevent those who you think are “takers” from participating in government and refuse to help those who need it out of some fantasy about the fruit of your labor being stolen then you are now where the King of England was back in 1776 and you know what came after that.