From the History in the Margins Archives: You Can’t Vote Because…

If you've been hanging around here on the Margins for a while, you may have read this one before. I think it's worth repeating.

[Suffragists in parade] (LOC)

From sixth century Athens on, who has the vote and why has been a touchy and evolving subject in democracies. People who already have the vote have hesitated to extend it to others for two basic reasons. Those with the vote don't think those without the vote have the capacity to make good choices. Those with the vote fear they will lose power.

Over the centuries, people in power have come up with plenty of reasons not to extend the franchise to those who don't yet have it. Here are a few of the classics:

You can't vote because

  • You're a slave
  • You're a woman
  • You don't own property
  • You don't own enough property
  • You don't practice the right religion
  • You are the wrong race or ethnicity
  • Your father or grandfather couldn't vote

If you're lucky enough to have the vote, use it. Because democracy is a terrible thing to waste.

You think one vote doesn’t matter? Hah!

I have told this story here on the Margins before.  But with the presidential election upon us and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment swishing past, I think it's important to remember right now that in the end the 19th Amendment was ratified thanks to one man's vote.


In August, 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment; 36 states were needed for it to pass. Tennessee was the only state still in the game. Proponents and opponents of the amendment gathered in a Nashville hotel to lobby legislators. The press dubbed it the War of the Roses because supporters of the suffrage movement wore yellow roses in their labels while its opponents wore red roses.

On August 19, the vote appeared to be tied, assuming the count of red and yellow roses was correct. When the roll call came, 24-year-old Harry T. Burn stepped into history. Burn came from a very conservative district and wore a red rose in his label, but when asked whether he would vote to ratify the amendment he answered "aye". What changed his mind? A letter from his mother, Febb Burn, who told him to "be a good boy" and vote in favor of the amendment.

Asked later about his change of heart, Burn said “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification. I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.”


If you have the right to vote, use it. Because one vote can in fact change the world.



Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds and the History of Radio Broadcasting

You’ve probably heard this story before:

On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old theatrical boy-wonder named Orson Welles caused panic among radio listeners with the Halloween episode of his Mercury Theatre on the Air (1): an adaptation of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.(2) Actors played the roles of correspondents who broke into an on-going [fake] radio program, seeming to report live as Martians invaded and destroyed the real life town of Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey. As the fictional invaders began to move toward Newark and then New York City, these “correspondents” told their audience that they were reporting from military command posts and from the roof of a broadcasting building in Manhattan.

Some listeners believed the show was a live broadcast and panicked, even though the opening of the show made it clear that the one-hour program was a drama.(3) A Princeton study published in 1940 claimed that six million people heard the program, and 1.7 million believed it was a real news broadcast. (Subsequent scholars question both numbers.)

As for me, I’ve always wondered why anyone would believe the broadcast was real, but as I learn more about radio in the 1930s it makes more sense. Radio was relatively new—the first national broadcast networks in the United States were incorporated in 1926 (NBC) and 1928 (CBS). News broadcasts were even newer, and infrequent. Stopping a program for “breaking” news was almost unheard of.

The growth of Nazi Germany changed the nature of broadcast news The first “news roundup” from multiple locations occurred in March, 1938, in response to the German invasion of Austria. Working on short notice, with serious technical difficulties, Edward Murrow and William Shirer of CBS cobbled together a half-hour of American newspaper correspondents commenting on the invasion from London, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Rome.  Listeners were enthralled.

When the Munich Crisis broke out that September, both NBC and CBS upped their coverage, broadcasting live from Europe 147 and 151 times respectively over the course of three weeks. Back in the United States, CBS’s primary news reader, H.V. Kaltenborn (4), held the story together for his listeners in 102 broadcasts that ranged from one-minute bulletins to two-hour marathons in which he simultaneously translated speeches from French and German. America stayed glued to the radio throughout the crisis.

The crisis ended, but the role of radio news was changed. Local radio stations increased the time they devoted to broadcasting the news and networks scrambled to expand their overseas coverage.

As a result, when Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds a month after the crisis in Munich, he reached an audience that was newly attuned (literally and metaphorically) to radio news, but was not yet sophisticated enough about the medium to tell fact from fiction.

(1) In another year I might have run this on October 30—the actual anniversary of the broadcast. But next week is all about the vote. Boo!

(2) Am I the only one to just now notice the juxtaposition of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells in this event? Meaningless and yet curious.

(3) One scholar suggests that some people missed the beginning because they were channel surfing. Let this be a warning to you.

(4) I hadn’t heard of him either until I started this project.