Harper's Weekly 02/27/1869


THE SUFFRAGE AND EDUCATION.

The Suffrage amendment, as finally adopted
by the Senate, differs essentially from that
which passed the House. It declares that no
male citizen of due age shall be disfranchised
or disabled from holding office by any test based
upon race, color, nativity, education, or creed.
That is a subject which we hope the House will
not drive through by the process of the previous
question even if any gentleman assures his fel-
low-members that their minds are made up.
The amendment as it passed the Senate is the
work of Mr. Wilson. He is a man of sagacity
and experience, and he comes from Massachu-
setts, a State in which the value of education
is fully understood. The prohibition of any
test of education is therefore not an oversight,
but it is a matter of deliberate intention. Mr.
Wilson means that the want of education shall
not deprive a citizen of the right of suffrage.
His objection may be as to the essence or the
form. He may think that education is no proof
of the requisite intelligence desirable in a voter;
or he may be of opinion that there is no satis-
factory method of determining, and that as a
matter of fact and experience, wherever a test
of education is theoretically applied, it is prac-
tically evaded.


There is, however, still another possible rea-
son which has influenced the Senator's action.
Experience, he probably thinks, has shown that
every kind of effort will be made in the Southern
States to avoid a practical political equality.
The same spirit that under the form of vagrant
laws aimed to retain as much as possible of
slavery and subjugation of the freedmen after
emancipation, will endeavor to annual the polit-
ical rights of the new citizens. As a class, the
freedmen are ignorant. If, as Georgia shows,
they may be peremptorily turned out of office
when the State merely supposes that it is re-
stored to the Union, what conduct is not pos-
sible when the States are actually restored and
their internal management is left exclusively to
such bodies as the Georgia Legislature? A
test of education, imposed by Wade Hampton
and Company, and applied by them, would not
admit many colored citizens of South Carolina
to the polls; and if it be said that Wade Hamp-
ton
is not of the dominant party in South Caro-
lina, it must be remembered that, as Georgia
proves, it is quite as much a question of color as
of party. Moreover, if education be permitted
to constitute a test, Mr. Wilson would probably
say that it will be a direct incitement to the
Wade Hampton class to resist schools for the
freedmen.


The amendment, he would therefore say,
must be adapted to the actual circumstances.
Does any body suppose that any of the undis-
turbed States will prescribe a condition of edu-
cation for the suffrage, if they do not have it
now? On the other hand, is it likely that it
would not be imposed in the Southern States if
opportunity were offered? And would not the
consequences be quite as deplorable as the present
regulation of the suffrage there? Moreover—
and this we think would be his strongest posi-
tion—is it not plain that nothing will so surely
secure general education as general suffrage?
Is not the education of the new citizens at the
South one of the most imperative necessities of
the situation? Yet is there any method by
which that education is so likely to be accom-
plished as by the firm conviction of the hostile
class in that region, that by no trick or arbi-
trary test can they deprive the new citizens of
the ballot? The moment they are persuaded
of that they will see that their fellow-voters
must be educated. As a principle it is plain
that where every man votes, it is the general in-
terest that every man should vote intelligently;
and England is now likely to have a better sys-
tem of popular education than she ever had be-
fore, because the suffrage is more widely ex-
tended.


Such are some of the reasons which we can
very readily imagine have influenced the judg-
ment of Senator Wilson. He knows, however,
we presume, that without the general intelli-
gence and moral perception which are implied
by the word education, this Government is not
long practicable. Territory, and wealth, and re-
sources, and audacity can not produce a wise
government from ignorant men. Counting the
freedmen as four millions, there is probably a
full seventh of our population to-day who can
neither read nor write. Now a man may be
able to read and write, and still be a fool or a
knave—but shall we, therefore, shut up our
schools? It may be very easy to evade any
practical test of a voter's technical education,
but is it, therefore, wise that the country should
seem to think that ignorance is not harmful in
a voter? It is a question worthy of the frank-
est and fullest consideration, and it is now pre-
sented by Senator Wilson's amendment. We
are by no means sure that his amendment does
not tend to promote education, notwithstanding
its appearance. We have as little faith as we
suppose him to have in the application of any
technical educational test. The question is
one of the highest expediency. How shall we
most rapidly educate the ignorant?



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