The recent election brings up the topic of voting rights. Did you know that Jews were not allowed to vote in America until the early 19th century? I certainly was not aware of that fact, but some folks are not surprised.
Not surprised? Our founding fathers, whom we seem to hero-worship, were not the most open to diversity as we see it. And in spite of our nation being formed on the basis of religious freedom, the facts do not always support that theory. In fact, Jews, Catholics and other minorities (and of course women as well as slaves) were not given the vote in colonial America. A primary requirement was also that of being a land owner and paying taxes. In 1789, with the election of George Washington, only 6% of those living in America were eligible to vote.
Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, was known to be antisemitic and raised a fuss when the first Jewish families arrived in 1654, fleeing the Portuguese inquisition which had stretched into Holland. He referred to this tiny group as a deceitful race that was blasphemous, and he demanded that they be banished from the colonies. After 25 years of being in limbo, however, these former Dutch citizens received word from Amsterdam that ensured their safety, but denied them certain basic rights, including the right to vote and hold public office.
Of course voting in the early days was very different from voting today, being much more rudimentary. In the early days of our country, parties were held around a town square and a voice vote was taken. And the Jews?
Perhaps Jewish men in different colonies were able to “pass” and vote surreptitiously. And some colonies were more lenient than others so all their white citizens who were landowners were allowed to vote.
Our country, however, fails every test on fairness in voting. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, it was left up to each colony to decide who could be allowed to vote.
Even the American Constitution, ratified in 1787, gave the states the power to determine the voting rights of their populace. Some states imposed restrictions on Jews.
Maryland became the last state to remove religious restrictions, in 1828, which allowed Jews to vote. “The Jew Bill” was a source of great contention in early Maryland. Unitarianism seemed to rule the colony and the bill to allow Jews to enjoy the same status as Christians caused eight years of fractious debate in the Maryland legislature. But, finally, no one could be denied the vote on the basis of religion. Other states allowed any white man to vote if he was a landowner and paid taxes. Since voting rights were left to the states during colonial times, Catholics were prohibited to vote in five colonies and Jews were not allowed to vote in four. And, of course, as we all should know, voting rights for African Americans is a long and shameful story, because even after they were granted voting rights, southern states, in particular, imposed all sorts of restrictions designed to prevent and discourage black citizens from voting.
And what about our own state, Texas? Although I have found no indication of Jews being denied the vote, Texas does have a long history of voter suppression. The Jim Crow laws did not present a favorable picture for black voters. Poll taxes and other means attempted to curtain the black vote. On a more positive note, however, Texas was the first southern state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
So, bringing us up to date, in theory, we citizens can all vote. In reality, however, there are still areas where voting is difficult, especially for those who cannot get to the polls for one reason or another. Therefore, as Jews who had been denied the vote in the earliest period of our country, shouldn’t we care about those now who are held back because of unfortunate circumstance? I, for one, do care and do not buy into all the excuses that some give for denying ballots by mail. Our Jewish history enjoins us to care about all of those who wish to vote and are not given a realistic chance to cast a ballot. We have been denied. Let us not deny anyone else.