Wednesday, July 4, 2012

the bad in the best of us

There’s a verse that I heard first in childhood that came to mind as I’ve been reading some histories of voting in America. The lines are these:
There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
Authorship is variously attributed. The first printed record was in a Kansas newspaper in 1907.

I recalled the verse as I read about efforts to expand and restrict the franchise over the years. I hadn’t realized, until I read Alec Ewald’s The Way We Vote, that:  “Most states permitted aliens to vote deep into the nineteenth century, particularly in the West – at least twenty-two did in 1875.” … “States began to withdraw voting rights from aliens in the latter half of the century, but it was not until 1926 that no states permitted aliens to vote.”

I also learned that some of the political movements I had long catalogued as “black hat” or “white hat” in my memory were much more mottled. The Know-Nothings, a powerful force in the 1850s well known for nativist, anti-Catholic views, endorsed many laudable policies as well. They wanted to deny the vote to immigrants, especially Catholics, or at least impose a 21-year waiting period before full citizenship. For example, they opposed the expansion of slavery, favored more nonsectarian schools, and supported property rights for married women.

Progressives instituted many reforms most of us still praise, including political accountability through recall and referenda and a professional civil service. But many progressive leaders were highly elitist, supported the now-discredited eugenics movement, and sought to restrict the franchise  – “to purify the electorate” – with literacy reaquirements.

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