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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Education Via Suffrage

Title:     Education Via Suffrage
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

I know a rich bachelor of large property who fatigues his friends by perpetual denunciations of everything American, and especially of universal suffrage. He rarely votes; and I was much amazed, when the popular vote was to be taken on building an expensive schoolhouse, to see him go to the polls, and vote in the affirmative. On being asked his reason, he explained that, while we labored under the calamity of universal (male) suffrage, he thought it best to mitigate its evils by educating the voters. In short, he wished, as Mr. Lowe said in England when the last Reform Bill passed, "to prevail upon our future masters to learn their alphabets."

These motives may not be generous; but the schoolhouses, when they are built, are just as useful. Even girls get the benefit of them, though the long delay in many places before girls got their share came in part from the want of this obvious stimulus. It is universal male suffrage that guarantees schoolhouse and school. The most selfish man understands that argument: "We must educate the masses, if it is only to keep them from our throats."

But there is a wider way in which suffrage guarantees education. At every election time political information is poured upon the whole voting community till it is deluged. Presses run night and day to print newspaper extras; clerks sit up all night to send out congressional speeches; the most eloquent men in the community expound the most difficult matters to the ignorant. Of course each party affords only its own point of view; but every man has a neighbor who is put under treatment by some other party, and who is constantly attacking all who will listen to his provoking and pestilent counter-statements. All the common school education of the United States does not equal the education of election day; and as in some States elections are held very often, this popular university seems to be kept in session almost the whole year round. The consequence is a remarkable average popular knowledge of political affairs,--a training which American women now miss, but which will come to them with the ballot.

And in still another way there will be an education coming to woman from the right of suffrage. It will come from her own sex, proceeding from highest to lowest. We often hear it said that after enfranchisement the more educated women will not vote, while the ignorant will. But Mrs. Howe admirably pointed out, at a Philadelphia convention, that the moment women have the ballot it will become the pressing duty of the more educated women, even in self-protection, to train the rest The very fact of the danger will be a stimulus to duty, with women, as it already is with men.

It has always seemed to me rather childish, in a man of superior education, or talent, or wealth, to complain that when election day comes he has no more votes than the man who plants his potatoes or puts in his coal The truth is that under the most thorough system of universal suffrage the man of wealth or talent or natural leadership has still a disproportionate influence, still casts a hundred votes where the poor or ignorant or feeble man throws but one. Even the outrages of New York elections turned out to be caused by the fact that the leading rogues had used their brains and energy, while the men of character had not. When it came to the point, it was found that a few caricatures by Nast and a few columns of figures in the "Times" were more than a match for all the repeaters of the ring. It is always so. Andrew Johnson, with all the patronage of the nation, had not the influence of "Nasby" with his one newspaper. The whole Chinese question was perceptibly and instantly modified when Harte wrote "The Heathen Chinee."

These things being so, it indicates feebleness or dyspepsia when an educated man is heard whining, about election time, with his fears of ignorant voting. It is his business to enlighten and control that ignorance. With a voice and a pen at his command, with a town hall in every town for the one, and a newspaper in every village for the other, he has such advantages over his ignorant neighbors that the only doubt is whether his privileges are not greater than he deserves. For one, in writing for the press, I am impressed by the undue greatness, not by the littleness, of the power I wield. And what is true of men will be true of women. If the educated women of America have not brains or energy enough to control, in the long run, the votes of the ignorant women around them, they will deserve a severe lesson, and will be sure, like the men in New York, to receive it. And thenceforward they will educate and guide that ignorance, instead of evading or cringing before it.

But I have no fear about the matter. It is a libel on American women to say that they will not go anywhere or do anything which is for the good of their children and their husbands. Travel West on any of our great lines of railroad, and see what women undergo in transporting their households to their new homes. See the watching and the feeding, and the endless answers to the endless questions, and the toil to keep little Sarah warm, and little Johnny cool, and the baby comfortable. What a hungry, tired, jaded, forlorn mass of humanity it is, as the sun rises on it each morning, in the soiled and breathless railway-car! Yet that household group is America in the making; those are the future kings and queens, the little princes and princesses, of this land. Now, is the mother who has undergone for the transportation of these children all this enormous labor to shrink at her journey's end from the slight additional labor of going to the polls to vote whether those little ones shall have schools or rumshops? The thought is an absurdity. A few fine ladies in cities will fear to spoil their silk dresses, as a few foppish gentlemen now fear for their broadcloth. But the mass of intelligent American women will vote, as do the mass of men.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Education Via Suffrage