OUR OPINION: From bullets and beans to ballots

The voting began in December 1788. It ended in January 1789, fully a month later. (That gave farmers enough time to walk or ride to the county seat.)...

The voting began in December 1788. It ended in January 1789, fully a month later. (That gave farmers enough time to walk or ride to the county seat.)

Only 1.9 percent of the population voted -- 45,000 voters, all of them white male property owners -- out of a nationwide population of 3 million.

Modern Americans barely would recognize that election. But the election of 1788 not only brought into office our first president, but also was the first election of a national leader in the history of the world.

And an unbroken thread connects that election to the primary election today.

So when men and women of all races and income levels step into the voting booths today, they'll be carrying on a tradition begun in colonial America more than 200 years ago. Voters and candidates alike should be proud, considering that they'll be taking part in a process that once had George Washington's name on the ballot.


Although even that phrase "on the ballot" is a misnomer, because paper ballots were almost unknown in 1788.

"Americans used to vote with their voices -- 'viva voce' -- or with their hands or with their feet," wrote Jill Lepore in a 2008 story in The New Yorker.

"Yea or nay. Raise your hand. All in favor of Jones, stand on this side of the town common ... In the colonies, casting a vote rarely required paper and pen.

"The word 'ballot' comes from the Italian ballotta, or little ball, and a ballot often was a ball, or at least something ballish, like a pea or a pebble, or, not uncommonly, a bullet. Colonial Pennsylvanians commonly voted by tossing beans into a hat."

And while beans went in one direction, coins flowed in the other. "Doling out cash wasn't illegal," The New Yorker story notes. "It was getting out the vote."

All of the changes since then have been the result of hard-fought reforms. Here's Benjamin Franklin, for example, pointing out the absurdity of property requirements for voting:

"Today a man owns a jackass worth $50, and he is entitled to vote," Franklin wrote.

"But before the next election, the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers. But the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote.


"Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?"

Paper ballots; paper ballots printed by the government (voters used to bring their own, or political parties provided them); secret ballots (votes used to be public); universal suffrage -- over time, the practices changed.

Some of them, with real struggle: Election Day riots in the mid-1800s claimed dozens of lives.

Remember that history this morning as you step into the voting booth. Savor the moment, too; for the act of voting, however it is carried out, never is routine. "With the stroke of a pen, we, mere citizens, become We the People," The New Yorker story notes.

This priceless and fascinating heritage is yours. Make the most of it today.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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