Page images
PDF
EPUB

had been made citizens of the States in which they resided, by the State power of naturalization; and they were in every important sense Americans. It was impossible, therefore, to adopt a rule that would confine the elective franchise, or the right to be elected to office, to the native citizens of the States. The States themselves had not done this; and the institutions of the United States could not rest on a narrower basis than the institutions of the States.

Another difficulty which attended the adjustment of the right of suffrage grew out of the widely differing qualifications annexed to that right under the State constitutions, and the consequent dissatisfaction that must follow any effort to establish distinct or special qualifications under the national Constitution. In some of the States, the right of voting was confined to "freeholders"; in others, and by far the greater number, it was extended beyond the holders of landed property, and included many other classes of the adult male population; while in a few, it embraced every male citizen of full age who was raised at all above the level of the pauper by the smallest evidence of contribution to the public burdens. The consequence, therefore, of adopting any separate system of qualifications for the right of voting under the Constitution of the United States would have been, that, in some of the States, there would be persons capable of voting for the

-

ert Morris, and Fitzsimmons, to show the entire impracticability of a rule that would have excluded

all persons of foreign birth from being electors, or from being elected to office.

highest State officers, and yet not permitted to vote for any officer of the United States; and that in the other States persons not admitted to the exercise of the right under the State constitution might have enjoyed it in national elections.

This embarrassment, however, did not extend to the qualifications which it might be thought necessary to establish for the right of being elected to office under the general government. As the State and the national governments were to be distinct systems, and the officers of each were to exercise very different functions, it was both practicable and expedient for the Constitution of the United States to define the persons who should be eligible to the offices which it created.

At the same time, in relation to both of these rights- -that of electing and that of being elected to national offices-it was highly necessary that the national authority, either by direct provision of the Constitution, or by a legislative power to be exercised under it, should determine the period when the rights of citizenship could be acquired by persons of foreign birth. From the first establishment of the State governments down to the present period, those governments had possessed the power of naturalization. Their rules for the admission of foreigners to the privileges of citizenship were extremely unlike; and if the power of prescribing the rule were to be left to them, and the Constitution of the United States were to adopt the qualifications of voters fixed by the laws of the States, or were to be

silent with respect to the qualifications of its own officers, the rights both of electing and of being elected to national office would, in respect to citizenship, be regulated by no uniform principle. If, therefore, the right of voting for any class of federal officers were to be in each State the same as that given by the State laws for the election of any class of State officers, it was quite essential that the States should surrender to the general government the power to determine, as to persons of foreign birth, what period of residence in the country should be required for the rights of citizenship. It was equally necessary that the national government should possess this power, if it was intended that citizenship should be regarded at all in the selection of those who were to fill the national offices.

The committee of detail, after a review of all these considerations, presented a scheme that was well adapted to meet the difficulties of the case. They proposed that the same persons who, by the laws of the several States, were admitted to vote for members of the most numerous branch of their own legislatures, should have the right to vote for the representatives in Congress. The adoption of this principle avoided the necessity of disfranchising any portion of the people of a State by a system of qualifications unknown to their laws. As the States were the best judges of the circumstances and temper of their own people, it was certainly best to conciliate them to the support of the new Constitution by this concession. It was possible, indeed, but not

very probable, that they might admit foreigners to the right of voting without the previous qualification of citizenship. It was possible, too, that they might establish universal suffrage in its most unrestricted sense. But against all these evils there existed one great security; namely, that the mischiefs of an absolutely free suffrage would be felt most severely by themselves in their domestic concerns; and against the special danger to be apprehended from the indiscriminate admission of foreigners to the right of voting, another feature of the proposed plan gave the national legislature power to withhold from persons of foreign birth the privileges of general citizenship, although a State might confer upon them the power of voting without previous naturalization.

This part of the scheme consisted in the transfer of the power of naturalization to the general government; a power that was necessarily made exclusive, by being made a power to establish a uniform rule on the subject.

These provisions were not only necessary in the actual situation of the States, but they were also in harmony with the great purpose of the representative system that had been agreed upon as the basis of one branch of the legislative power. In that branch the people of each State were to be represented; but they were to remain the people of a distinct community, whose modes of exercising the right of self-government would be peculiar to themselves; and that would obviously be the most suc

VOL. II.

26

cessful representation of such a people in a national assembly, which most conformed itself to their habits and customs in the organization of their own legislative bodies. Accordingly, although very strenuous efforts were made to introduce into the Constitution of the United States particular theories with regard to popular suffrage, some of the members being in favor of one restriction and some of another, -the rule which referred the right in each State to its domestic law was sustained by a large majority of the Convention. But the power that was given, by unanimous consent, over the subject of naturalization, shows the strong purpose that was entertained of vesting in the national authority an efficient practical control over the States in respect to the political rights to be conceded to persons not natives of the country.1

As we have already seen, the committee of detail had been instructed to report qualifications of property and citizenship for the members of every department of the government. But they found the subject so embarrassing, that they contented themselves with providing that the legislature of the United States should have authority to establish such uniform qualifications for the members of each house, with regard to property, as they might deem expedient.2

1 I have called the naturalization power a practical control upon the States in the matter of suffrage. It is indirect, but it is effectual; for I believe that no State has ever gone so far as, by express statutory or

constitutional provision, to admit to the right of voting persons of foreign birth who are not naturalized citizens of the United States.

2 Art. VI. Sect. 2 of the reported draft.

« EelmineJätka »