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Context of '1607-1776: Concept of ‘Civil Death’ as Criminal Punishment Carries Over into North American Colonies'

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The British colonies in North America carry over the practice of “civil death,” a disenfranchisement stemming from ancient Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon law and enforced against some convicted criminals. English law developed the similar punishment of “attainder,” which, law professor Debra Parkes will later write, “resulted in forfeiture of all property, inability to inherit or devise property, and loss of all civil rights.” Those civil rights will encompass the right to vote. When the first British settlement in America is established in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the concept of “civil death” is carried over. The concept continues into the British colonies that will become Canada and the United States. [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawmakers in the British colonies of North America debate whether voting is a right or a privilege under the law. Voting, like many other civil rights, can be denied to convicted criminals under the ancient concept of “civil death” and the English legal concept of “attainder” (see 1607-1776). History and social policy professor Alexander Keyssar will later write that the various colonies have “no firm principles governing colonial voting rights, and suffrage [voting] laws accordingly were quite varied.… In practice, moreover, the enforcement of application of suffrage laws was uneven and dependent on local circumstances.” Many American colonists argue that voting is a privilege and not a right, and thusly can be granted or taken away by the government. Keyssar will write: “Yet there was a problem with this vision of suffrage as a right… there was no way to argue that voting was a right or a natural right without opening a Pandora’s box. If voting was a natural right, then everyone should possess it.” Eventually, the Founders define voting as a constitutional issue. Keyssar will write, “Implicit in this treatment was the notion that suffrage requirements ought to be durable and difficult to change.” [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Entity Tags: Alexander Keyssar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Constitution connects voting in national (federal) elections and state voting law. Under the old Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1777, states retained control over citizen voting rights, including the ability of a state government to take the right of voting away from a citizen under certain circumstances (see 1764 - 1776). History and social policy professor Alexander Keyssar will later write that “the Constitution of the United States forged a link between state suffrage rules and the right to vote in national elections: those who participated in elections for the ‘most numerous branch of the State Legislature‘… there was no formal debate about the possibility of a national standard more inclusive than the laws already prevailing in the states. Indeed, the records of the federal convention and state constitutional conventions suggest that most members of the new nation’s political leadership did not favor a more democratic franchise.” Ultimately, the right to vote is codified by a compromise between the various authors of the Constitution. The right of American citizenship, as controlled by the federal government, does not necessarily grant the right to vote, which is held primarily by the states. [ProCon, 10/19/2010]

Entity Tags: Alexander Keyssar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The young Duke of Brabant, who will be crowned King Leopold II of Belgium in 1865 (see 1865), dreams of making Belgium wealthy through the acquisition of a colony. At the age of 27, he travels to Seville to study Spain’s history as a colonizer. In a letter to a friend, he writes: “I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies.” Two years later, he tours the British possessions of Ceylon, India, and Burma and explores investment potential in South America and even the American Pacific. There is little support among Belgians at this time for establishing colonies. But the duke is undeterred. “Belgium doesn’t exploit the world,” he complains to one of his advisors. “It’s a taste we have got to make her learn.” The duke’s father, King Leopold I, had at one time considered acquiring a colony, but was discouraged after his investment at St. Thomas de Guatemala ended with the imprisonment, bankruptcy, and death of the settlers and main promoter. A few years later, the family suffers from another ill-fated venture, this time in Mexico. In 1964, Leopold’s youngest sister, Charlotte, and her husband Archduke Maximilian are installed by Napoleon III of France as the country’s figurehead Emperor and Empress. But Mexican rebels quickly put an end to Maximilian’s rule. In June 1967, two years after the duke is crowned King Leopold II, the emperor is killed by a firing squad. [Pakenham, 1992, pp. 12-13; Hochschild, 1999, pp. 37-38, 40-42]

Entity Tags: King Leopold II

Timeline Tags: US-Congo (1959-1997)

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