This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is finally set to determine the constitutionality of “partisan gerrymandering.” The stakes in Gill vs. Whitford are monumental for both parties. After the same court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, conservative state legislatures took mere hours to dust off numerous discriminatory voting laws, resulting in documented cases of voter suppression nationwide.
This behavior, of course, stems from partisan manipulation for political power. Staring down data that suggests that by 2055, the Republicans’ white base will no longer constitute an ethnic majority in the United States, the GOP has grown wary of an increasingly potent alliance between Democrats and newly enfranchised voters.
They are not the first to face this predicament, nor are they the first to have gambled their future on the efficacy of electoral chicanery.
Nearly 300 years ago, Thomas Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania, dealt with a similar problem as tens of thousands of Germans poured into his colony and promptly forged a political alliance with his chief rivals, the Quakers. Decades before the writing of the Constitution and more than a century before the implementation of Jim Crow, he and his 18th-century allies instinctively responded with voter ID laws, gerrymandering and other discriminatory tactics that continue to mar American politics.
That they did so is more than interesting; it’s revelatory. Their actions expose voter suppression not as a contemporary overreaction to a rapidly changing America, but rather a persistent pathology that lurks in the DNA of two-party politics. In a representative government defined by factionalism, voter suppression provides one final recourse for obstinate ideologues who cannot bring themselves to abandon or evolve outmoded ideology.
This was certainly true of Penn and his Proprietary Party.
More than 50,000 German-speaking immigrants entered Pennsylvania between 1730 and 1754, most of them either Lutherans or Calvinists from the Palatinate (a region in what is now southwestern Germany). Because of Britain’s liberal naturalization policy, many of them could vote.
Penn struggled to navigate this sea change. As proprietor, he was the chief property owner in Pennsylvania and oversaw a provincial council, which operated like a latter-day executive branch. Still, legislation in his colony required approval from a general assembly made up of elected representatives. For these positions, Germans mostly supported the Quakers. When it became clear that this new alliance would ensure his rivals’ dominance in future elections, members of Penn’s political party became apoplectic.
Penn’s allies first attacked German immigrants’ validity as voters, lamenting that the colony’s affairs should be determined by “ignorant, proud, stubborn Clowns (who are unacquainted with our Language, our Manners, our Laws, and our Interests).” They then worked to fracture German support of the Quakers, whose pacifism prohibited Penn’s desire to form a local militia and protect his colony’s borders.
From the start, proprietary officials understood that sectarian Germans — groups such as Mennonites and Anabaptists — voted for Quakers because they, too, were pacifists. Most Germans, however, belonged to traditional Protestant churches, which supported defensive war. This demographic, at least on paper, should have sympathized with Penn’s efforts to fund a militia. Instead, these “Church Germans” also supported his adversaries.
Penn soon learned that these communities were not overly concerned about matters of defense. Like many of today’s immigrants, they prioritized issues directly related to the immigration process and citizenship — in this case, safety standards for transport vessels and the right to bequeath land to unnaturalized family members. Neither of these concerns were at odds with the Quakers’ core beliefs, so the party easily adopted them within its platform.
Penn, on the other hand, remained intractable. He believed ardently in the power imbued in his office, which allowed him arbitrary control over land distribution. He refused to adjust this system to accommodate a new demographic, no matter how much it cost him at the polls.
This left his party one final option as it inched closer toward the barrel’s end of irrelevancy: suppression.
Penn’s allies initially opted for the 18th-century equivalent to a voter ID law. To take part in elections, “foreign protestants” needed to have lived in their colony for seven years, professed a loyalty oath and recently taken communion with a qualified congregation. Although long-standing policy allowed Quakers to forgo the oath (which they refused to take on religious grounds), the law remained fuzzy regarding like-minded Germans. Before the 1741 assembly election, proprietary officials enforced a strict interpretation of this policy. To naturalize, non-Quakers were forced to recite a pre-written oath and obtain a certificate from a traditional Protestant denomination. This instantly disqualified numerous German sects.
By 1750, the proprietors had also tried their hand at gerrymandering. That year, a man named Thomas Graeme wrote Penn a letter that suggested the redrawing of two prominent Pennsylvania districts. According to Graeme, by mucking with boundaries in predominantly German counties, officials could limit their representatives to “but Four Members” on the 38-seat assembly.
When these two measures did not flip the body, the party even took to building schools to “reeducate” the next generation of Germans and wean them off their “attachment to the Quakers.”
And yet, all of these efforts backfired, because the growth of German Pennsylvania consistently outpaced Penn’s suppressive tactics. This became particularly troublesome during the French and Indian War, when the proprietor’s inability to assuage German voters kept the colony’s borders insecure, and inhabitants died by the dozens in the Pennsylvania hinterlands.
Despite these failures, Penn’s obstinacy proved prophetic. After early-American statesmen adopted a governmental model far closer to the British system than most would like to admit, the door remained open for the sort of factionalism that encouraged suppressive behavior.
Indeed, suppression would proliferate during the antebellum era as racial and economic ideology sharpened resentment between newfangled political parties, and as reformulated tactics became comparably effective at mitigating the power of newly enfranchised voters. By Reconstruction, voter suppression was no longer an ad hoc act of desperation — it was a well-oiled political apparatus capable of consolidating power within a small group of hegemonic individuals.
Republican suppression techniques also seem to be working — for now. But the question remains: Are they sustainable? As the president continues to self-immolate and as ascendant immigrant groups continue to shift the electorate, levelheaded conservatives might consider revisiting earlier conversations about inclusion. With a few small tweaks to their immigration platform, they may find common ground with groups that are far more heterogeneous than even liberals like to admit.
It took a doomsday scenario, but Penn, for one, eventually came to a similar conclusion. In 1764, when faced with a coordinated effort to permanently end proprietary rule, his allies begrudgingly began to canvass with German voters. Although the proprietor would not waive his right to repossess land, he did promise to lower prices on frontier property and to protect German settlers from exploitative speculators. After agreeing to put a Palatine on its next assembly ticket, the Proprietary Party finally managed to fracture the German vote.
As it turned out, Penn’s true enemy had always been his own stubbornness — a lesson conservatives may want to consider as they press on alienating honest American citizens, whose clout will only continue to grow, no matter how hard Republicans push back.