Power  /  Comment

Age Before Duty

What role does age play in determining the status of equals?
Rip Van Winkle, by Albertis del Orient Browere, 1833.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For all its supposed self-evidence, Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” has beguiled and befuddled since the moment it was penned. “Are we not men?,” Black Americans and the Indigenous immediately asked. What about women? Those questions have fueled contestation to the present day. But less remarked is an issue the founders themselves debated in their revolutionary age, and which has come once again to preoccupy our own. What role does age itself play in determining the status of equals? 

If you look up the word “equal” in early-modern dictionaries, you’ll invariably find a definition like that that of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary of 1806: equal (n.) “one who is of the same rank and age.” Webster was 48 at the time his dictionary appeared in print, and he was old enough to know that although equality was assuming new meanings bearing on the possession of individual rights, it was still freighted with older associations. Equals had been peers for centuries. It was a proposition that made perfect sense in hierarchical societies based on clearly established orders in which age and rank commanded due deference. As the 42-year-old philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau acknowledged in his celebrated 1754 work Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, “The elders of the Hebrews, the gerontes of Sparta, the senate of Rome, and even the etymology of the work seigneur [from the Latin senior = older, elder] show how much age was respected in former times.” The young may have bridled on occasion at the prerogatives of birth, but they still granted senior citizens and subjects preferment.

Yet Rousseau inhabited an enlightened age, one that sought to make more space for the young. Like the English philosopher John Locke, whose work he cited and admired, Rousseau argued against any who would base authority, especially political authority, solely on the number of days one spent on earth. Children were apprentice equals, and the rights of parents were provisional. As soon as offspring reached an age at which they could know natural and civil law — which in keeping with British practice, Locke set at 21 — they were free to live their lives for themselves. All men were created equal, just not at the same time. 

Age’s privileges were hard to abandon. Locke, who enjoyed a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as a staunch defender of the inalienable rights of children, made clear that he did not intend to completely level old and young. In his Second Treatise on Government, a work of great importance to the founders that he probably began in his 40s but did not publish until he was nearly 60, Locke observed, “Though I have said … that all men by nature are equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of equality.” Age, along with virtue, he wrote, “may give men a just precedency.”

Signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence. [Smithsonian American Art Museum]

When it came time to draft a constitution of their own, the American Founders eventually subscribed to a similar logic. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, diversity among the cohort of predominately wealthy white men was restricted largely to geography and opinion. Yet age was also a distinguishing characteristic. The oldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin, was 81 in 1787, and the youngest, Jonathan Drayton of New Jersey, was 26. The average age at the convention was 42, and some of the most influential representatives at the gathering — Alexander Hamilton (30 or 32, his birthdate is uncertain), Edmund Randolph (34), Gouverneur Morris (35), and James Madison (36) — were in their thirties.  

Still, the convention followed British precedent in setting the minimum voting age at 21, when young men were said to assume their rational “manhood.” Those attending established minimum ages for elected representatives, as well. A few radicals like 45-year-old James Wilson argued against age requirements for membership in Congress on the grounds that these would “damp the power of genius and laudable ambition.” There was “no more reason for incapacitating youth than age,” Wilson said, “where the requisite qualifications were found.” But even Wilson bowed to what George Mason, then 62, described as “the privilege of age,” and the upstart Hamilton allowed was the “respect” due to “superior abilities, age, and experience.” When Benjamin Franklin, the doyen of the Constitutional Convention, felt too frail to deliver his closing statement, Wilson read it for him, “on account,” he said, “of his age.” 

Franklin was universally admired for his authority and experience. His advanced age generated few complaints from his colleagues at the convention. They were wary, though, of its inverse. Mason warned of the “deficiency of young politicians.” In pressing for a minimum threshold for membership in the House of Representatives at “the age of 25 years at least,” he recalled that his own opinions at age 21, “were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures.” Better that representatives ripen a bit as they had in the Continental Congresses, which had proved “a good school for our young men.” 

For the Senate, conceived on the Roman model as an august body of elders, the delegates voted a threshold of “thirty years at least.” That was precisely the age of Joe Biden when he first entered that venerable body in 1972. Biden said at the time that potential donors told him, “Come back when you’re forty, son.” He accused his sexagenarian Republican opponent, Cale Boggs, of being too old. The incumbent had lost, Biden claimed, the “twinkle in his eye.” 

In the eighteenth century, when average life expectancy for those who managed to reach 20 was less than 50, 30 was older than it seems today. Members of the Senate were expected to be less green than their congressional colleagues in the House, and the commander-in-chief was expected to be more seasoned still. The delegates set the minimum age for the presidency at the grand old age of 35. George Washington was 57 when he took up office, and 64 when finished his second term. The 32-year-old Tench Coxe, a former representative to the Continental Congress who was on hand in Philadelphia to observe the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, argued that the age threshold for the presidency would serve as a prophylactic. It ensured that the president “cannot be an idiot, probably not a knave or a tyrant, for those whom nature makes so, discover it before the age of thirty-five, until which period he cannot be elected.”

Although history has not proved kind to Coxe’s judgment, his underlying assumption that age was a distinguishing characteristic that should set our leaders apart continued to be widely shared. Even the most committed egalitarians of the era granted age its privilege. Native Americans, African Americans, and women duly contested the boundaries of political equality policed by white men. But in the aftermath of the American Revolution, they rarely complained about the privilege of age. Whereas the 60-year-old philosopher Immanuel Kant had argued famously in 1784 that “enlightenment” was about man’s emergence from “immaturity” and immaturity was the “ability to think without another’s guidance,” women and people of color demanded to be treated as adults.  

Are we not all equal?” asked the men whom Marx considered the world’s first communists — 36-year-old Gracchus Babeuf and his fellow plotters in the French Revolutionary “Conspiracy of the Equals.” Their manifesto of 1796 demanded “real equality” for all in terms of both opportunities and outcomes: “Yet “all” admitted of exceptions. “Let there no longer be any difference between people other than that of age and sex,” they made clear. Such were the limits of their understanding. 

In the nineteenth century, the utopian socialist Robert Owen went further, pushing for greater rights for women. The only inequality that would be left in the glorious future, he observed at the age of 71 in his 1842 work, Book of the New Moral World, would be the only legitimate forms of “inequality and condition,” namely the “natural inequality of different ageand experience.” Less visionary souls than Owen found it harder to relinquish other allegedly “natural inequalities,” such as those of sex and race. They added to the insult by treating women and people of color at home and in their empires as “child-like,” and so not befitting the equal privileges of their elders. As the 35-year-old American feminist Margaret Fuller protested in her 1845 classic Woman in the Nineteenth Century, “There is no woman, only an overgrown child.” Yet as the historian Corinne T. Field has shown in her book The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America, women fought back. They pressed, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for the “right to grow old” on equal terms with men, and assailed, like Sojourner Truth, patriarchal double standards that lauded the sagacity of old men but condemned the folly of “old maids.”

Even as many since the nineteenth century have gradually, if imperfectly, abandoned the “just precedency” of race and sex, they have clung to the privilege of age. It was only in the twentieth century in the United States, in fact, that a significant movement to extend voting rights to the young gained traction. During the large-scale mobilization of World War II, the fact that young men could die for their country at 18, without ever having cast a vote, generated an incipient movement to lower the minimum voting age for federal elections. Some states did so at the state and local level, with Georgia leading the way in 1943, if only effectively for white voters. But it was amidst the powerful youth movement of the 1960s and the momentum of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the argument “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” reached a tipping point during the Vietnam War, leading to the passage in 1971 of the 26th Amendment. It ensured that “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

Since that time, proposals have surfaced periodically, without gaining much traction, to level the voting age even farther, with one Minnesota state representative, Phyllis Kahn, seeking provocatively in 1989 to reduce it to twelve. But on the whole, citizens seem content with the minimum ages now on the books, and no one has sought seriously to alter the requirements for house, senate, or the presidency. 

Meanwhile, the old have gotten older. Although average life expectancy in the United States has dipped slightly in recent years, the overall trend has soared since the nineteenth century and will only continue to increase. Concerns about gerontocracy are now on the rise, with growing majorities of Americans expressing support for instituting maximum age limits for federally elected officials, along with justices in the Supreme Court, where there have never been age requirements at all.

Those concerns are hardly unique to the United States. But as commentators point out, the American political class is exceptionally old, its gerontocracy “a contrast with the rest of the world.” As the American republic enters its own advanced age (let’s hope not its senescence), its citizens may be forced to reconsider the “just precedency” long conferred on elders, and in so doing, perhaps, remove one of the very last privileges of birth.