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Who are “We the People”? (HA)
The Constitution begins with the words “We the People.” But just who were these people who wanted to “secure the Blessings
of Liberty”? In 1787, “We the People” excluded more than half the population, including African Americans and women.
What were the framers thinking?
Mum Bett had had enough. Born into slavery, she had served in the home of John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, for more than
30 years. When Mrs. Ashley hit her with a hot kitchen shovel one day in 1781, Mum Bett fled and refused to return.
Mum Bett was a slave who went to court to gain her freedom. In 1781, a Massachusetts court ruled that she was, in fact, free. But when the U.S.
Constitution was written a few years later, it excluded both women and African Americans.
Instead, Mum Bett asked a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to represent her in court. Mum Bett wanted to be free, and she believed the
courts would recognize that she had the right to freedom. Sedgwick took her case.
Mum Bett, who later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, knew about the Massachusetts state constitution. It had been ratified in
1780. Mum Bett had heard that it said that “all people were born free and equal.” She believed that “all people” included her and that
she had a legal right to her freedom. The court agreed, and Mum Bett became a free woman. John Ashley, her former master, had to
pay her 30 shillings in damages.
Though the court ruled in favor of Mum Bett, the problem of just who would be included in “We the People” did not go away. It
surfaced again just a few years later. In 1787, the leaders of the United States met in Philadelphia. They wrote a constitution for their
new country. But they did not pay attention to the Massachusetts court’s decision that Mum Bett was free. Initially, the U.S.
Constitution excluded women and African Americans from enjoying the full benefits of liberty.
The colonies had fought the revolution to gain their freedom. They created a democracy, but many people were disallowed from
participating in it. Neither African Americans nor women could vote or hold office. These groups had to fight for many years to gain
the right to take part in these democratic processes. But the question arises: why were they excluded in the first place?
The Responsibilities of Freedom
The 55 white men who wrote the U.S. Constitution were a privileged group. More than half of them had been to college, 34 had
studied law, almost half had been in Congress, and at least 20 owned slaves. The delegates were hardly typical of the larger American
population at the time. But, in many ways, they reflected the general beliefs of 18th-century American society.
The framers of the Constitution believed that only certain people could handle the responsibilities of freedom. The way they viewed it,
only people who controlled their own lives should have a say in the government. Dependent people—those who didn’t own property
or who worked for someone else—could not exercise their own free will, the framers reasoned. If they voted, they would cast their
ballots as they were told to. The framers believed that the votes of such people would damage the entire country.
To the framers, as to many Americans in those days, only a property owner could be an independent thinker. That excluded more than
half of the population. “We the People” were white, male, and propertied.
Some of the excluded could eventually join fully in civic life. For example, indentured servants completed their service after a number
of years. They might eventually own property. Some women might inherit property from their husbands. But few women were likely
ever to enjoy all the rights the Constitution promised.
And many people were completely locked out of economic opportunity. Slaves could never own property. They could never be
independent and free. The American system made it impossible for them to share as citizens in the new United States.
Neither women nor African Americans simply accepted their exclusion, however. For many years, until they were successful, both
women and African Americans would argue that they should be able to participate fully in American democracy.
Margaret Brent requested voting rights more than 100 years before the colonies declared independence. In 1648, she asked the
Maryland Assembly to grant her two votes—one for owning land and one for being Lord Baltimore’s legal representative. The
governor refused her request.
The Rights of Women
Perhaps the most famous woman to speak out for women’s rights at the time was Abigail Adams. Her husband, John Adams, would
become the second president of the United States. In the spring of 1776, when John was a delegate to the Continental Congress,
Abigail wrote to him, saying,
In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for
you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies . . . Do not
put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember,
all men would be tyrants if they could.
Abigail Adams knew that in the 18th century, women had legal status only through their husbands. A married woman was called a
feme covert, a legal term that comes from the French words for “covered woman.” Women were “covered”—invisible as far as the law
was concerned— by their husbands. Abigail warned her husband that women would not follow any laws that did not guarantee their
rights. They would not be “bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Abigail Adams was an independent thinker who had strong ideas about women’s rights. In 1787, she was in Great Britain, where John Adams was
serving as the representative of the new United States.
John Adams, however, feared that expanding freedom would lead to chaos. He told Abigail that women had more power over their
husbands than they realized. That being true, he believed that men would be better off excluding women from the new country’s laws.
“Depend upon it,” he wrote, “we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
Nonetheless, some women did vote during the republic’s early years. A New Jersey law, passed in 1790, identified voters as “he or
she.” Historians disagree about why. Some point out that New Jersey was home to many Quakers, who believed in equality. Others
call attention to the fact that only some counties granted women the vote and say it was more about political power. These counties,
they say, hoped women’s votes would affect election outcomes in their favor. Whatever the reasons, women voted in New Jersey until
the law was repealed in 1807. It would take more than 100 years—and a hard fight—to pass an amendment to the Constitution that
granted women the right to vote.
The Rights of African Americans
When the war ended, many African Americans left the United States. They feared that the new democracy would not include them.
Some went to England. Others went to Canada or the West Indies. Most of those who left were fugitive slaves. By some accounts,
30,000 African Americans left Virginia. Another 25,000 left South Carolina.
The majority of the African Americans who stayed were slaves. But some were not. The 1790 census reported that there were about
59,000 free blacks living in the United States. Among them was Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a Maryland tobacco farmer, a
scientist, and a surveyor. He wrote a well-known almanac. He also wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In it, he explained why African
Americans should have the same rights as whites.
Banneker wrote the letter in 1791, the year in which he surveyed the land for the new national capital. At the time, Jefferson was
secretary of state. Banneker explained that both blacks and whites were created by God. “However variable we may be in society or
religion,” he wrote, “however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family.” He went on to quote the Declaration of
Independence— to the man who wrote it.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness.”
Benjamin Banneker published six almanacs between 1792 and 1797. A self-educated scientist, he included information on tides, astronomy, and
eclipses that he calculated himself.
Banneker explained that African Americans deserved those rights, just as whites did. He even went so far as to accuse Jefferson of
using “fraud and violence” to keep blacks enslaved.
Although a slaveholder himself, Jefferson wrote back that “No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that
nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men.” But slavery continued in the South until the
Civil War.
The freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution would not be extended African Americans for many years. African American men
gained the right to vote in 1870. It would take another 50 years before all women, including African Americans, were granted voting
rights. And not until the 1960s were laws passed giving all African Americans the legal protection to exercise their right to vote.
The words “We the People” still begin our Constitution. More than 200 years later, their meaning has changed in ways that Mum Bett,
Abigail Adams, and Benjamin Banneker would approve.