The Founding Fathers of the United States rejected King George III and the entire idea of ​​monarchy 248 years ago, on July 4, 1776.

Political power does not come from the absolute authority of a king over people, the founders argued. Rather, political power comes from the people themselves. And these people must consent to any authority that governs their society.

This is why the US Constitution begins with the words “We the people” and not “I the ruler.”

I am a historian, ethicist, and media scholar who has studied how people build communities. America’s founders did not trust everyone’s ability to participate equally in the new democracy, as the laws of the time reflected. But over time, policy changes on issues like voting have changed the idea of ​​who is actually represented in the phrase “We the People.”

In 1776, only white men who owned property had the right to vote. “Few men who have no property have any judgment of their own,” as John Adams, who would later become president, wrote in 1776.

As activists, including some women and black Americans, proclaimed their equality, public education spread and social thinking changed.

By 1860, all state legislatures had eliminated property requirements for voting. Although some states, such as Vermont, eliminated property requirements for voting in the 18th century, this shift became more popular in the 1820s and 1830s.

The struggle for voting rights

Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, giving black men and others the right to vote, regardless of race. But that amendment still excluded some people, especially Native Americans and women. Despite the 15th Amendment, violence and intimidation in some states still kept black men from voting.

State legislatures also used bureaucratic measures, such as a poll tax, renewed attempts at a property requirement, and literacy tests, to prevent African Americans from voting. The fight for African American voting rights continued for decades, and many brave Americans protested, were arrested, and were killed in the fight to exercise their right to vote.

Thanks to the work of civil rights activists including John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr., public opinion changed.

In the 1960s, Congress passed additional legislation to protect the voting rights of black Americans. These included the 24th Amendment, which prohibited the use of poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited any form of racial discrimination in voting.

In 1920, women won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, after another decades-long struggle. Women’s rights activists made the first organized call for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

In the years that followed, suffragettes pushed for constitutional amendments, state laws, and a change in public thinking to include women in “We the People.”

The Native Americans had ruled independently for centuries and were not given legal voting rights until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act.

Although this would give Native Americans the same rights as other Americans, Native Americans faced the same tactics, such as violence, that white supremacists used to prevent black Americans from voting.

In 1971, “We the People” expanded again, to include younger people, by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The ongoing Vietnam War changed public opinion, and there was broad support for the idea that anyone old enough to die fighting for their country should also be able to vote.

A government once described by Abraham Lincoln as “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would now technically include all people. But there are still political and legal attempts to restrict people’s right to vote.

Everyone belongs in a democracy

North Carolina passed new ID requirements in April 2023 that make it difficult for people without current state ID to vote. Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and Idaho are also among the states that are purging some voters from their rolls — if, for example, people don’t vote regularly.

Arizona has closed several polling places, making it more difficult for some people to vote.

Meanwhile, twenty-five states, including Hawaii and Delaware, have passed laws in recent years that make voting easier. One of those measures is that people automatically register to vote when they turn 18.

Voting is not the only form of recognition and participation in a democracy. People can be respected at work, paid what they deserve, and treated with dignity. Community members can be treated fairly by police, school officials, and other authorities, and given an equal opportunity for justice and education to improve their lives.

People can contribute to the social and economic well-being of a democracy in other ways than by voting. Think, for example, of planting a tree in a public park or attending a political rally.

But the widespread expansion of voting rights and a historic understanding of “We the People” demonstrate that everyone belongs in a democratic society, regardless of wealth, achievement, or other differences.

Joseph Jones is an associate professor of media ethics and law at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.

Send letters to [email protected]

The opinions and views expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

This article was originally published on