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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

We The People

Title:     We The People
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

I remember that when I went to school I used to look with wonder on the title of a now forgotten newspaper of those days which was then often in the hands of one of the older scholars. I remember nothing else about the newspaper, or about the boy, except that the title of the sheet he used to unfold was "We the People;" and that he derived from it his school nickname, by a characteristic boyish parody, and was usually mentioned as "Us the Folks."

Probably all that was taught in that school, in regard to American history, was not of so much value as the permanent fixing of this phrase in our memories. It seemed very natural, in later years, to come upon my old friend "Us the Folks," reproduced in almost every charter of our national government, as thus:--

"WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."--_United States Constitution, Preamble_.

"WE THE PEOPLE of Maine do agree," etc.--_Constitution of Maine_.

"All government of right originates from THE PEOPLE, is founded in their consent, and instituted for the general good."--_Constitution of New Hampshire_.

"The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact, 'by which THE WHOLE PEOPLE covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."--_Constitution of Massachusetts_.

"WE THE PEOPLE of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations ... do ordain and establish this constitution of government."--_Constitution of Rhode Island_.

"The people of Connecticut do, in order more effectually to define, secure, and perpetuate the liberties, rights, and privileges which they have derived from their ancestors, hereby ordain and establish the following constitution and form of civil government."--_Constitution of Connecticut_.

And so on through the constitutions of almost every State in the Union. Our government is, as Lincoln said, "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." There is no escaping it. To question this is to deny the foundations of the American government. Granted that those who framed these provisions may not have understood the full extent of the principles they announced. No matter: they gave us those principles; and, having them, we must apply them.

Now, women may be voters or not, citizens or not; but that they are a part of the people, no one has denied in Christendom--however it may be in Japan, where, as Mrs. Leonowens tells us, the census of population takes in only men, and the women and children are left to be inferred. "WE THE PEOPLE," then, includes women. Be the superstructure what it may, the foundation of the government clearly provides a place for them: it is impossible to state the national theory in such a way that it shall not include them. It is impossible to deny the natural right of women to vote, except on grounds which exclude all natural right.

The fundamental charters are on our side. There are certain statute limitations which may prove greater or less. But these are temporary and trivial things, always to be interpreted, often to be modified, by reference to the principles of the Constitution. For instance, when a constitutional convention is to be held, or new conditions of suffrage to be created, the whole people should vote upon the matter, including those not hitherto enfranchised. This is the view insisted on, many years since, by that eminent jurist, William Beach Lawrence. He maintained, in a letter to Charles Sumner and in opposition to his own party, that if the question of "negro suffrage" in the Southern States of the Union were put to vote, the colored people themselves had a natural right to vote on the question. The same is true of women. It should never be forgotten by advocates of woman suffrage, that the deeper their reasonings go, the stronger foundation they find; and that we have always a solid fulcrum for our lever in that phrase of our charters, "We the people."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: We The People