I’ve decided to write on the 19th Amendment today because I want to clarify something about the Constitution and how it works.
When you hear the 19th Amendment, what do you think of?
Most of you, if you know what it means, will think something like this: “Oh, that’s the amendment that gave women the right to vote!”
And that’s how we treat almost all of the amendments and the Constitution. Such and such amendment or provision gives us the right to this or that.
I’m going to make a few points about this amendment and clarify for you that the government never gives us a right to do anything. That’s not what government exists to do and is anything but what the founders envisioned for the Constitution.
Remember, the Constitution confines government. That’s it. It tells government-the federal government-what it can make laws about; meaning anything not mentioned is something it cannot make laws about. The “rights” are a given. We have the rights regardless of government.
The 19th Amendment
So, to start, let’s look at what the amendment actually says:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Hmmm, pay attention to the language here. The amendment does not say, “All women now have the right to vote”.
No, it says that the right of all citizens to vote shall not be abridged or denied by any government, be it state or federal government, because of one’s sex.
The Amendment Prevents Government From Writing Laws That Would Infringe on an Already Existent Right
So, here’s the thing about how the Constitution works. Government cannot confer upon us any rights. We have all of our rights even if the government is writing laws that are in some way, hindering those rights.
When an amendment like the 19th Amendment is written, it simply tells government, that government can no longer write laws that would infringe upon or hinder this already existent right.
So, in the case of the 19th Amendment, the federal government had actually made no laws infringing on a women’s right to vote. No, state governments were responsible for all laws that hindered women from voting. So, the 19th Amendment simply stopped states from writing laws that hindered a women from voting.
Remember, the Constitution left everything about elections to the states, so there was never a federal law in place that stopped women from voting.
This is likely the popular belief by most people, however. The United States, with national laws, for over 200 years, universally prevented women from voting.
The History of Women’s Suffrage Is More Complex Than You Might Think
You might have an idea in your mind about women’s suffrage, that women had been held back, suppressed and unwelcome into the political world until 1919, when suddenly, government conferred upon women the right to vote.
As I’ve already clarified, the amendment only prevents states or the federal government from writing laws that would prevent women from voting. It doesn’t give anyone the right to vote. Government can’t give rights out like lollipops. That would be far too much power for government.
However, suffrage is a bit more complex than what you may have been led to believe.
As early as the 1776, some states allowed all women to vote in all elections (New Jersey) and other states allowed women to vote in local elections and town meetings. (Aside: many states, as early at the 1770s, allowed free black men to vote as well). New Jersey ended up changing their laws to prevent women from voting when New Jersey was blamed for election fraud, or more specifically, for men dressing up as women to vote a second time, thereby creating election fraud.
However, as time progressed and new states entered the Union, states began to change their laws to allow women to vote. By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1919, only seven states had laws on the books that barred women from voting entirely. In other words, the 19th Amendment was almost more of a token amendment than something that was needed to radically change the standing state laws. It essentially made the laws of of 7 states and any other limiting laws in any other states unlawful.
Do you see how this works? We live in a federalist society, where the states dictate and affect most of our daily lives. The states decided to come together and ratify the 19th Amendment, thereby agreeing that neither they nor the federal government could make laws that stopped anyone from voting because of one’s sex. For most of the states, this amendment would do little to affect them, but they felt it necessary to ratify the Constitutional amendment so that the country as a whole was on the same page.
That’s the beauty of federalism and the Constitution. That’s the beauty of this nation. Rights are never about government giving us something as much as government no longer being able to write laws that prevent us from using something we already have.
Sometimes it’s healthy to remember this.
The Liberty Belle