Even More on the Franchise

Even More on the Franchise:

My expectation is that most of you are beginning to bore of this topic, so I appreciate your indulgence as I make a note of my further thoughts.

I regret that our friend Elise has decided not to join us, because I was hoping to obtain from her an idea of why this notion of a universal franchise was so important to her. It's an interesting question, and a debate on the subject of the franchise will not be complete without a defense of it as an idea.

For that reason, I'm going to provide that defense myself, as well as I can.

We should begin with the origin of the word "franchise." Its first use was in the 14th century, making it a fairly new word. It is not the old Greek concept of democracy, in other words, where all citizens have a vote by virtue of being citizens. (Note that this was not 'universal franchise' in the American sense either, however, as Athens had a number of non-citizen resident classes, and citizenship was linked to military service.) Neither was it the Roman sense, which allocated democratic support in several ways over the centuries, but not in our own; we read about one of them in Plutarch's Life of Crassus.

The word comes from the Anglo-French franchir, from the Old French franc: which is to say, it came to us from the Normans. We first observe it as a description of knights in literature. The word means 'the bearing of nobility and honor befitting a free man.' (See Maurice Keen's Chivalry, which discusses this use of the term "franchise" in several places.)

When it becomes a description of a status, rather than a personal quality, it originally did not mean "the right to vote." Rather, it meant "to free from obligations," as a man could become free of serfdom or other obligations; he could also become free to do something, as we now say that you purchase a franchise from a corporation (so that you are free to serve their products, etc.).

So, the word "franc" meant "free man." And this is no surprise, because it is the French word: that is to say, in those days, the language of the Franks. A Frank was a free man. To franchise someone was to make him a Frank. (Do you see the tie to "franklin," the Norman word for the already-free Anglo Saxons who called themselves thanes? It is a diminutive of "Frank," a little Frank! By the same token, "Han" in Mandarin -- which refers to the majority ethnic group, the Han Chinese -- translates literally as "true man" or "hero.")

In other words, Dr. Painter's theory proves out:

When William the Conqueror took possession of the English crown he organized it as a complete feudal state. But England had a large population of freemen in addition to the mass of the unfree and the Norman kings never made any legal distinction between knights and other freemen. The freedoms which were inherent in feudal vassalage went to all freemen as vassals, direct or indirect, of the king...

The right of all freemen to the privileges of vassals was clearly accepted in England from the Conquest, but found its first clear expression in the Magna Carta. This document was stated to apply to all freemen. It also contained in specific form a statement of the most basic of all liberties -- the right to due process of law.

Thus in England as the unfree became free they acquired the same legal status as knights of the feudal world. Individual liberty was part of the fundamental law.
So here, then, is the linguistic -- and, as language informs our basic understanding of the world, much of the emotional -- tie between the franchise and our idea of "all men being created equal," which we are discussing below. "To have the franchise" meant "to be a free man," and has meant that for a very long time. Someone without the franchise is not, by these traditional understandings, truly free.

And that must be the core of the objection: that, by restricting the franchise, we are degrading our fellow Americans to some lesser status than "free men" (and women).

Now, the Founders were not so concerned about this aspect. Voting rights do not appear in the Constitution, nor in the Bill of Rights; only in later amendments do they appear, as a practical consequence of the Civil War. This implies that they did not feel that the right to vote was one of the primary rights that all citizens should have, or that it was of first importance to protect. Hamilton provided (as we have seen) an argument for restricting the franchise; and there were any number of other restrictions in place as well as the one on the poor. These seem to have been rooted in the idea of franchise as something befitting a free man, in many cases -- literally, a man, since the franchise was denied to women; and also someone who had the means to be free (40 shillings' wealth, in those days).

Still, we have rejected both parts of that formula. I personally endorse both of those rejections. Therefore, I can make no argument against universal suffrage arising from the Founders' position.

Furthermore, the Norman exception has proven to be incredibly wise and productive. Whereas much of Europe languished in serfdom and obligation, the exception the Normans made for franklins (largely because it was too hard to enforce any other status on propertied, armed, military families) did great good for England. There was an explosion of liberty and other good things in that land arising from it. By the same token, we have also benefitted by each extension, because it allowed more people the opportunity to rise to the expectations of the status.

There remains the problem of felons! But that exception, which is the one exception we make to align our principle of universal suffrage with the problem of public virtue, may yet swallow the whole. The noble and honorable bearing that befits a free man is not always shown; and we might well say that, while it is good to offer it to all in the hope that they might rise to the standard, it is better to offer it to all on the condition that they rise to the standard.

That is another argument, however. Tonight, it is enough to lay out why it is important as a principle.

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