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The State Rights Shibboleth

April 26, 1914 — US Senate Committee on Rules, Washington DC


Women who are asking for a Federal amendment abolishing sex discrimination in the suffrage provisions of the Constitution arc in· formed that the determination of the qualifications for voting is purely a State matter. They are dismissed with an air of finality not unlike that which follows a mathematic demonstration. The suffrage is a matter of state, not national, interest, and that is the end of the d discussion.

There are some simple-minded persons who accept this dictum as the final word on the subject, but those women who have studiedevena little American history and politics know very well that the border line between national and State matters can not be settled by a mathematical process or by an ipse dixit of some interested politician. 1.’hey know that neither the Republican Party, the champion of na- tionalism, nor the Democratic Party, the champion of State rights, has been consi tent in its attitude toward national and State rig hts. They know that each of them has leaned toward National or State Governments exactly whenever it has suited the party and economic interests.

Did not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, founders of the Democratic Party, rend the air with cries of State rights against Federal usurpation when the Federalists chartered the first United States bank in 1791, and when the Federalist court, under the leadership of John Marshall, rendered one ringing nationalist decision after another upholding the rights of the Nation against the claims of the States? Yet Jefferson, as President, acquired the Louisiana Territory in what was admitted by him to be open violation of the Constitution. and the same James l\Iadison who opposed the Federalist bank in 1790 us a violation of the Constitution and State rights cheerfully signed the bill rechartering that bank when it became useful to the fiscal interests of the Democratic Party. Jefferson was ready to nullify the alien and sedition laws and the Constitution of the United States in the Kentucky resolutions of 1798; the very Federalists who fought him in that day and denounced him as a traitor and nullifier lived to proclaim and practice doctrines of nullification in behalf of State rights during the War of 1812.

In the administration of Thomas Jefferson the National Government began the construction of the great national road without any express authority from the Constitution, and notwithstanding the fact that the construction of highways was admittedly a State matter. Eighteen years later a Democratic President, James Monroe, vetoed an act for the preservation and repair of the Cumberland Road and labored to prove that the whole venture was a violation of the Constitution and an invasion of rights reserved to the States. On August 24, 1912, the Congress of the United States, then controlled by the Democratic Party, voted $500,000 for the construction of experimental and rural delivery routes and to aid the States in highway construction. From high in the councils of that party we now have the advocacy of national ownership of railways, telegraph, and telephone lines. In the early days of the Republic the Democratic Party protested even in armed insurrection in Pennsylvania against the inquisitorial excise tax which, to use the language of the day, “penetrated a sphere of taxation reserved to the States” ; to-day the Democratic Party places upon the statute books the most inquisitorial tax ever laid in the history of our country, and a wise and just tax, too, many believe. That same party, by an act of April 9, 1912, laid a tax on white phosphorus matches, not for the purpose of raising revenues, for which the taxing power is conferred, but admittedly for the purpose of destroying an industry which it could not touch otherwise. The match industry was found to be injurious to a few hundred working people; the Democratic Party wisely and justly cast to the four winds all talk about the right of States. made the match industry a national matter, and destroyed the dangerous features of the business. Men and women all over the country rose up and pronounced this a noble achievement. Republicans joined with Democrats in claiming the honor of that great humane service. Shades of departed Democrats! A taxing power which,· accord- ing to Calhoun, could not be used fo1· the purpose of protecting industries, may be used to destroy them. Consistency, where is thy virtue, and State rights, where is thy victory?

The State had the right to nullify Federal law in 1798 – so Jefferson taught and Kentucky practiced. Half a century elapses. The State of Wisconsin, rock-ribbed Republican Wisconsin, nullified the fugitive-slave law, and in its pronunciamento of nullification quoted the ~ery words which Jefferson had used in 1798. A Democratic Supreme Court at Washington, presided over by Chief Justice Taney, the arch apostle of State rights, answered Wisconsin in the very language of the Federalists of 1798, whom Jefferson despised and contemned: “The Constitution and laws of the United States are supreme, and the Supreme Court is the only and final arbiter of disputes between the State and National Governments. A few more years elapse. South Carolina declares the right of the State to nullify, and Wisconsin answers on the field of battle: ‘The Constitution and laws of the National Government are supreme, so help us God.’ “

At the close of that ever-to-be-regretted war the Nation wrote into the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments the fundamental principle that the suffrage is a national matter Those amendments were intended to establish forever adult male suffrage throughout the American empire. Itis true that those amendments are in many respects nullified by in- genious provisions. But there they stand. You are confronted by this dilemma: Either you must openly flaunt and scorn them, and thus vir- tually say to the Nation, We will obey just as much of the Constitution as we please, which is the doctrine of the anarchist; or you must say suffrage is by the Constitution a national matter and we abide by the Constitution.

All reasonably sophisticated persons know that anything is n State matter which we think is a State matter, and anything is a national matter that we think is a national matter. The women of this coun- try-the women of the enfranchised States and the women of the States not yet enfranchised-think sulfrage a national matter. Men may turn aside those women who expect to simper their way to the suffrage by saying, “Just one moment, please,” or “Kindly step the other way please”; -but they can not thus dismiss those who have read the long and inconsistent history of all parties.

From history women appeal to political science, and here they cite the example of the only great independent federation that deserves to be compared with the United States -the German Empire. The constitution of that confederation does not leave the determination of the qualifications for voters for the Reichstag to the mercies of the States; but solemnly and emphatically prescribes that every adult male German citizen shall vote for members of the Imperial Congress, whatever may be the qualifications for voters in the several States. The German con- stitution was made in the full li&”ht of modern political science and suffrage was there treated as a national matter.

If we turn to the other great federations of the world – Switzerland, Canada, and Australia-we find that their constitutions treat the suffrage for Federal offices as a national matter by empowering the Federal Parliaments to make uniform regulations with regard to qualifications for voters. The constitution of the Australian Commonwealth provides that the qualifications imposed on voters by the States shall remain until the (Federal) Parliament otherwise provides; and in 1902 the Federal Parliament established uniform qualifications through- out the Commonwealth as far as Federal elections were concerned, and enfranchised women in spite of the opposition in some of the States.

A study of the constitutional law shows, therefore, that in no fed- eration is the suffrage regarded as a purely State matter. The Con- stitution of the United States does not allow the States to provide any qualifications they please for voters for Members of the House of Rep- resentatives or Senators, as is the rule in the case of the choice of presidential electors, where the State legislatures may make any quali- fications they see fit. The constitution of Germany established uni- versal manhood suffrage for Reichstag elections; the constitutions of Switzerland and Canada empower the Federal Parliaments to make uniform regulations whenever they see fit; the constitution of the Australian Commonwealth authorizes the Federal Parliament to make uniform qualifications, and the Federal Parliament almost immediately after the adoption of the constitution swept away sex discriminations in Federal elections.



Source: Beard, Mary Ritter. “The State Rights Shibboleth.” Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the Congress 51, pt 5. 63rd Congress, 2d session. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), 1914, 4957-4958.