Of all the many revolutions in 1848, the most momentous for future human history was plotted by five women at Jane Hunt’s tea table in Waterloo, New York, on the eleventh of July. The others present looked up to fifty-five-year-old Lucretia Coffin Mott, a well-known abolitionist speaker and traveling Quaker evangelist. Mott supported the Hicksite branch of Quakerism and sympathized with their most radical offshoot, called the Progressive Friends. She had grown up in the Nantucket whaling community where women managed affairs while their menfolk spent years at a time away at sea. Lucretia and her husband, James, a successful Philadelphia merchant who shared her commitment to humanitarian reform, had come to western New York to visit Lucretia’s sister Martha Coffin Wright and to check out the Seneca Nation’s first constitutional convention. Thanks partly to the support of white Quakers, the Seneca had successfully defied the process of Indian Removal and remained in western New York.1
The youngest of Jane Hunt’s guests and the only non-Quaker in the room, a witty, energetic thirty-two-year-old, provided the spark that ignited the plan. Elizabeth Cady Stanton combined the social skills of her mother, who came from New York’s landed elite, with the intellectual brilliance of her father, a distinguished judge. She felt the discontents of educated women who found the (new) role of middle-class homemaker confining. She persuaded the other four that they should call a “Women’s Rights Convention” to meet on July 19 and 20 in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of nearby Seneca Falls, a venue sympathetic to radical causes. They sent announcements to the local papers, which appeared between July 11 and 14. A few days later, Cady Stanton (who made a point of preserving her maiden name along with her married one) sat at another tea table, this time in the home of Mary Ann M’Clintock (or McClintock), to lead in drafting the document for the convention to consider. This mahogany table now rests, appropriately, in the Smithsonian Institution.
1. See Margaret Hope Bacon, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (New York, 1980).
The document produced at it brilliantly adapted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence of 1776 to the revolutionary needs of 1848, defining the program of feminism for the rest of the nineteenth century.2
DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS3
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice....
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns....
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man....
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration....As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
2. Judith Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls (Urbana, Ill., 2004), 183–94, 232; Ellen DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978), 23.
3. This modest title followed the example of the statement issued at the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The text of the Declaration comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage (New York, 1881), I, 70–71.
He allows her in Church, as in State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.4
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man....
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country,...we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
The nineteenth of July dawned a bright summer day in the Finger Lakes region. Good weather had ripened the hay crop. Farms harvesting it would require the labor of all family members. Despite this and the short notice of the meeting, wagons and buggies converged on the little Methodist church. About three hundred people showed up, some of them children and men. The organizers adapted their plans and decided to let the men stay. Deferring to the custom that women did not chair meetings with men present, Lucretia Mott turned the gavel over to her husband. Discussion, spirited and conducted at a high intellectual level, followed. At a candlelight session in the evening, Lucretia Mott spoke on the relationship of women’s rights to the larger reform agenda, including temperance, antislavery, and the peace movement.
The next day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that the resolutions passed at the convention, like the Declaration of Sentiments, should highlight the demand for the right to vote. Many present disagreed, feeling the suffrage cause hopeless or (as Lucretia Mott privately termed it), “ridiculous.” The strongest supporters of women’s rights hitherto had been Garrisonian abolitionists who believed it sinful for anyone to vote, regardless of gender. Elizabeth’s own husband, Henry, though an abolitionist and a supporter of women’s rights in the past, declared himself “thunderstruck” when he learned of her intention to press the suffrage issue. Perhaps fearing for his future in politics, he left town rather than attend the convention with her. On the other hand, the black abolitionist editor Frederick Douglass, who had come from Rochester, spoke strongly
4. Actually, a few women, including Lucretia Mott, had already been ordained ministers.
in favor of the suffrage demand. The resolution “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the franchise” passed by a bare majority.5
At the end of the two-day conference, attendees had the opportunity to sign the Declaration of Sentiments and the supporting resolutions. One hundred people—sixty-eight women and thirty-two men—did so. Lucretia Mott’s name led the list. About two-thirds of the signatories were townsfolk, the rest from farming families. The signers included a nineteen-year-old farmer’s daughter named Charlotte Woodward, who had driven the family wagon forty miles to come; she sewed gloves in a factory but hoped to become a typesetter in a printshop (then a male preserve) because she loved books. During the nationwide uproar that followed, when newspapers all over the country reported the women’s rights convention and many of them deplored and mocked it, some of the signers came back to scratch out their names. Charlotte Woodward let hers stand. In 1920, at the first presidential election following ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that guaranteed the right to vote regardless of sex, she alone of all the signers remained alive to cast her ballot. One who did not sign in 1848 was Amelia Bloomer, editor of the local temperance newspaper. She soon came around to support the movement, however, opened up her paper to articles by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and designed the garments for which she became famous, intended to provide women more freedom of movement than conventional fashions permitted.6
Lucretia Mott felt women’s ordination to the ministry a more urgent need than the suffrage; she herself had been recorded (the Quaker term) as a minister at the age of twenty-eight. Although female exhorters, deaconesses, and missionaries were not unusual, few denominations ordained women clergy.7 Hindsight shows that women gained civic voting rights faster than they did clerical ordination. Nevertheless, Mott’s sense of priority reflected the importance of religion to social reform in nineteenth-century America and the role of the churches as forums in the debates over women’s rights, as in those over slavery. Early feminists tended to come from those denominations that practiced the greatest degree of gender equality—Quakers and Unitarians—and often quoted Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor
5. Wellman, Road, 193; Lois Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Boston, 1980), 42.
6. Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), 77; Jean Matthews, Women’s Struggle for Equality (Chicago, 1997), 58.
7. Bacon, Valiant Friend, 128. Quakers, Unitarians, Methodists, and Free Will Baptists ordained a few women; the Methodists ceased doing so in 1880.
free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Lucy Stone explained away St. Paul’s admonition “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (I Corinthians 14:34) as applicable only to the poorly educated women of ancient Corinth, who had been wasting the congregation’s time asking questions they should have asked their husbands at home.8 The Second Great Awakening had proclaimed that everyone, male or female, must assume responsibility for his or her own salvation, a message that could empower women. Some feminists claimed that rights for women would hasten the millennium.9
Disputes over slavery and women’s rights disturbed several religious denominations in the Finger Lakes area. The Wesleyan Methodist Church, where the women’s rights convention met, had been founded in 1843 by abolitionists who felt it impossible to continue as members of a national Methodist Church that included slaveholders. That year the abolitionist-feminist Abigail Kelley gave a controversial lecture series in Seneca Falls (starting in the home of a local merchant-politician and moving to the Baptist church) in which she encouraged people of conscience to desert churches lacking in antislavery zeal. Also in 1843 the Millerite movement arrived in town, preaching the imminent Second Coming and provoking other individual secessions. At least a quarter of the signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration belonged to the recently organized Congregational Friends Meeting, an offshoot of Hicksite Quakerism strongly committed to female equality and the abolition of slavery. Sometimes feminism accompanied a rejection of Calvinist theology; it did so in the case of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reared in Old School Presbyterianism, attracted by Finney’s revivals, but now attending Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls. In later life, she would devote considerable attention to constructing a feminist theology; her attacks on traditional male-centered religion would alienate her from more orthodox Christian women’s suffragists.10
The Presbyterian congregation in Seneca Falls followed the doctrines of the New School; its minister, Horace Bogue, supported the American Colonization Society. This put him on a collision course with his spirited parishioner Rhoda Bement, an abolitionist. Bement attended Abby
8. Blanche Hersh, The Slavery of Sex: Feminist-Abolitionists in America (Urbana, Ill., 1978), 193. Modern biblical scholars have questioned the authenticity of the injunction; see The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan (Oxford, 2001).
9. Sylvia Hoffert, When Hens Crow: The Woman’s Rights Movement in Antebellum America (Bloomington, 1995), 58; Margaret McFadden, Golden Cables of Sympathy: Transatlantic Sources of Nineteenth-Century Feminism (Lexington, Ky., 1999), 53.
10. Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 155–65.
Kelley’s lectures and heard her denounce Bogue’s version of antislavery as sinfully inadequate. As a teetotal abstainer, Bement also refused to partake of the communion wine. After the two exchanged heated words, Bogue charged Bement with “unchristian conduct” in a church trial that tested the limits of female assertiveness. Following her conviction in January 1844, the Bements refused to repent, quit the Presbyterian Church, and joined the Wesleyan Methodists. The episode typified a time and place where competing religious views and their social implications commanded serious attention. Women’s rights advocates provoked similar confrontations in other towns and other churches, asserting the primacy of individual conscience over institutional structures in ways reminiscent of the original Protestant Reformation.11
The Seneca Falls “convention” (as its organizers somewhat presumptuously called their local meeting) was no isolated event, but took place within a context of ferment. Even its demand for suffrage had precedent. The male abolitionist Gerrit Smith, friend and cousin of Cady Stanton, had spoken in favor of women’s suffrage at a recent Liberty Party gathering in Buffalo. Samuel J. May, minister of the Unitarian church in Syracuse, had preached in favor of it as early as 1846. That same year six rural women in Jefferson County had petitioned the New York legislature for equal civil and political rights with men.12 Two weeks after the Seneca Falls gathering, another women’s rights meeting assembled at the Unitarian church of Rochester; those attending included a Hicksite Quaker named Daniel Anthony, whose daughter Susan B. would become the most famous of suffrage leaders. At Rochester, a woman presided. Other gatherings followed. At Salem, Ohio, the women enforced a rule against men speaking, collected eight thousand signatures calling for the suffrage, and dispatched them to the newly elected Ohio state constitutional convention (with no effect). The first truly national women’s rights convention met in the textile mill town of Worcester, Massachusetts, in October 1850, with African Americans among the participants. Women’s rights took its place as part of a nexus of causes that overlapped extensively in their support, including abolition, temperance, and opposition to Indian Removal, capital punishment, and the war with Mexico.13
11. Glenn Altschuler and Jan Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-Over District: The Trial of Rhoda Bement (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983).
12. Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins: A Story of Women’s Rights in Antebellum New York (Chapel Hill, 2005), 203.
13. On this broad context, see Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 1998).
The spread of the women’s rights movement following the almost impromptu meeting at Seneca Falls provided evidence of a new consciousness on the part of women that was widely experienced—although one still so strange that very few women could identify it or dared voice it. By 1848, in certain parts of the United States, there had come of age a generation of women whose world was not bounded by the household and the traditional female occupations performed within it. In the nineteenth century, as in developing countries today, increased equality for women emerged in the train of economic modernization. In Seneca Falls and its vicinity, economic life had recently diversified, with commerce and manufacturing taking their places alongside agriculture. The falls that gave the town its name had been circumvented in 1817 by the canal that carried its produce to market. In 1828 this canal linked up with the Erie, and the town boomed. More recently, the falls had been turned from a liability into an asset: They now powered machinery that milled flour and manufactured water pumps. When, in the mid-1840s, the town recovered from the depression of the late 1830s, manufacturing led the way. The railroad connected Seneca Falls with Rochester and Albany in 1841. The village population rose from 200 in 1824 to 2,000 in 1831 and 4,000 by 1845; that of Waterloo reached 3,600 in the latter year. Seneca County held 24,874 persons in the census of 1840.14
The signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration included a wide variety of occupations, and many of the families had connections to manufacturing. The call for women’s rights at Seneca Falls reflected new conceptions of gender relations arising out of economic innovation.
As important a precursor as economic modernization was female education. Girls in New York state found secondary education widely available, and those from middle-class families generally took advantage of it. The jewel in the crown of New York education for girls was Troy Female Seminary, a mixed public-private institution founded in 1821, the creation of Emma Willard with support from Governor DeWitt Clinton. There Elizabeth Cady graduated in 1833. The Declaration of Sentiments exaggerated in claiming that “all colleges” were closed to women. Oberlin had been coeducational (and interracial) practically since its founding in 1833, and a number of women’s colleges, mostly under religious auspices, served constituencies scattered from New England to Georgia.15Normal schools on Horace Mann’s pattern, for training teachers, came to be an
14. Sandra Weber, Women’s Rights National Historical Park (Denver, 1985), 3–12; Wellman, Road, 65–75.
15. On the southern women’s colleges, see Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order (Chapel Hill, 2004), I, 259–60.
important component of women’s higher education. Six months after the Seneca Falls convention met, an English immigrant named Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from a medical school not far away—in Geneva, New York—the first woman to do so anywhere in the modern world. The goals she set out for obtaining a medical education reflected the nineteenth-century aspiration to development of the human faculties: “The true ennoblement of woman, the full harmonious development of her unknown nature, and the consequent redemption of the whole human race.”16
But although the ideology of self-improvement was starting to be applied to women, that of self-fulfillment had not. No professional occupation save schoolteaching had yet opened up to women. Men no longer had to follow the occupation of their fathers, and women began to wonder why they needed to follow the occupation of their mothers. Working-class women now could earn money in factories. Middle-class women, though active in religious and reform societies, found few career opportunities compatible with their relatively high level of education. They compared the constraints imposed upon them with the freedom enjoyed by their husbands and brothers.17
The religious organizations, philanthropic institutions, and reform movements in which women had participated for a generation proved themselves effective schools too, in the practical sense that they had taught women lessons in self-assertion, leadership, and public communication. “Those who urged women to become missionaries and form tract societies,” Lydia Maria Child wrote in the Liberator, “have changed the household utensil to a living, energetic being.”18 Of all the benevolent causes in which women participated, probably the ones closest to direct political action were the petition campaigns to protest against Indian Removal and slavery in the District of Columbia. Of all antebellum congressional figures, John Quincy Adams probably did the most for the cause of women’s rights, by presenting and defending their petitions. After the Civil War, women continued to exploit their ability to petition, using it on behalf of temperance, the suffrage, and other causes.19
16. Elizabeth Blackwell to Emily Collins, Aug. 12, 1848, History of Woman Suffrage, I, 90.
17. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained to Susan B. Anthony, quoted in Elisabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right (New York, 1984), 87.
18. Quoted in DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage, 33.
19. See Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill, 2003).
Having sought to help the oppressed, some women began to recognize that they themselves numbered among the oppressed. The Grimké sisters, like practically all the first generation of women’s rights proponents, came to the cause through their experience with abolitionism. “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own,” observed Angelina Grimké.20 And like most abolitionists, the Grimké sisters came to their antislavery convictions through the experience of religious conversion. In their case, this involved an agonized spiritual migration from Episcopalianism to Presbyterianism to the Society of Friends, which led them in turn to their physical migration from Charleston to Philadelphia.21 Garrison welcomed them into his American Anti-Slavery Society, calling abolition and women’s rights two “moral reformations” bound together in “pure practical Christianity.”22
The characteristic concerns of antebellum religious benevolence—the creation of responsible autonomy to replace external coercion, and the redemption of individuals who had not been functioning as free moral agents—carried over to the women’s rights movement. Sarah Grimké’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1838), the first comprehensive exposition of feminism in America, illustrates the continuity. “God has made no distinction between men and women as moral beings,” she argued, justifying her position with a logical analysis of both creation accounts in Genesis. Rejecting the idea that women and men had “separate spheres,” she believed it as important for women to have equal duties as for them to gain equal rights. Like Lucretia Mott, she supported women’s ordination to the ministry as well as equal pay for equal work. To fulfill their obligations as moral beings, women needed to have access to education. Nineteenth-century feminists, when they invoked the Enlightenment’s language of natural rights, typically interpreted it in the light of the Second Great Awakening of religion.23
Historians who specialize in the anatomy of revolutions have noticed that they often occur after conditions have begun to improve. The New York state legislature had in fact started to remedy gender discrimination in its Married Women’s Property Act of April 1848. This amended the
20. Quoted in O’Brien, Conjectures of Order, I, 273.
21. See Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges Within the Anti-Slavery Movement (Boston, 2000).
22. Quoted in Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 406.
23. Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, ed. Elizabeth Ann Bartlett (New Haven, 1988), quotation from 100. See further Alison Parker, “The Case for Reform Antecedents for the Women’s Rights Movement,” in Votes for Women, ed. Jean Baker (New York, 2002), 21–41.
common-law rule that all of a married woman’s property belonged to her husband, allowing women to preserve distinct the property they brought into a marriage by means of a prenuptial agreement. In earlier years, the common-law rule had been mitigated by New York’s courts of equity, headed by the eminent Chancellor James Kent; but in 1828 a statute limited equitable jurisdiction, throwing the status of married women’s property in doubt. After a dozen years of agitation, the legislature responded with the new law. Among other things it protected a wife’s property from her husband’s creditors; like the federal bankruptcy act of 1841 it responded (belatedly) to the depression of the late 1830s. Support for it had come from three quarters: reformers who saw it as a step toward equal gender rights, reformers who wished to protect some of a bankrupt family’s assets, and wealthy people wishing to preserve family estates through their daughters. But not until 1860 did New York alter the common-law rule that a wife’s wages belonged to her husband. (Stanton simply ignored the New York act of 1848 when she listed married women’s lack of property rights in her Declaration of Sentiments, since in many other states—especially those without courts of equity—the grievance remained unabated.)24
The women who met at Seneca Falls in the summer of 1848 were well aware of the European revolutions going on simultaneously. Margaret Fuller, the New York Tribune’s correspondent in Italy, reported fully on the revolutions in Sicily and the Papal States, emphasizing the role played by women. The London press contained vivid reports, reprinted in the United States, of the role of armed women in the Paris and Prague uprisings. In March, the daily Voix des femmes appeared on the streets of Paris, and the Society for the Emancipation of Women called on the French government to accord women equal rights in politics and education. In April, the new Second Republic abolished slavery in the French West Indies. In May, the Frankfort Assembly met to draw up a German national constitution, arousing the hopes of German feminists. In June, the French feminist Jeanne Deroin and the English feminist Anne Knight issued a joint call for “the complete, radical abolition of all the privileges of sex, of race, of birth, of rank, and of fortune.”25 Nevertheless, in July the women of Seneca Falls chose to model their own revolutionary appeal on
24. See Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill, 1986); Norma Basch, In the Eyes of the Law: Women, Marriage, and Property in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982); Richard Chused, “Married Women’s Property Law, 1800–1850,” Georgetown Law Journal 71 (1983): 1359–1423.
25. Bonnie Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement (Oxford, 2000), 153–78, quotation from 156.
1776, not on contemporaneous events in Europe (which, of course, proved evanescent). The choice reveals something of Americans’ sense of their country’s “exceptional” status as a model for the rest of the world, and corresponding reluctance to view the revolutions going on in Europe as an example for America.
The Seneca Falls convention occurred in a world undergoing a revolution in communications. Earlier statements on behalf of women’s rights had attracted little attention in the United States, but now the telegraph and the newly formed Associated Press distributed the news made at Seneca Falls. Garrison’s Liberator hailed the convention as “The Woman’s Revolution.” Frederick Douglass’s North Star and Lydia Maria Child’s Anti-Slavery Standard strongly supported women’s rights. More importantly, the mainstream press accorded Seneca Falls coverage. A modern examination found 29 percent of newspaper articles on the convention favorable, 42 percent negative, and 28 percent neutral.26 The nationally circulated New York Tribune of Horace Greeley generally supported women’s rights and employed the feminist journalists Margaret Fuller and Jane Swisshelm. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald often mocked rights for women, but his sensationalized coverage still gave the movement valuable publicity. (“By the intelligence which we have lately received, the work of revolution is no longer confined to the Old World, nor to the masculine gender,” the paper’s piece on Seneca Falls announced.)27 After its founding in 1851, Henry Raymond’s New York Times would take an intermediate position, critical of the women’s movement as a whole but sometimes supporting particular reforms. Besides news of events, the printing presses also generated a vast flow of novels, religious tracts, domestic advice, and social criticism—much of it written by women authors addressing a women’s audience. This output fostered greater respect for women even when not explicitly addressing legal and political issues. Without the communications revolution, it would have been much harder to change public opinion and mobilize support for a novel cause like women’s rights.
In Seneca Falls itself, press opinion divided. The Seneca Observer had supported women’s suffrage as early as 1843. But the rival newspaper, the Seneca Democrat, expressed the common hostile derision: “What absurd stuff is all this prattle about the ‘Rights of Woman!’ ” If women enjoyed equal rights, “in time of war how effective would be our army and
26. Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 46; Griffith, In Her Own Right, 58; Wellman, Road, 210.
27. Hoffert, When Hens Crow, 74–80, quotation from History of Woman Suffrage, I, 805.
navy—the commander-in-chief in a delicate condition [i.e., pregnant], her officers darning stockings.”28
In most parts of the country both major political parties, like most newspapers, opposed women’s suffrage, the Democrats somewhat more vociferously than the Whigs. Women of all races, classes, and ethnic groups engaged in religious and charitable activities, but the women’s rights movement involved a narrower constituency, and women’s suffrage a smaller one yet. The cause of women’s suffrage, like that of abolitionism, found more support among Yankees and the middle class than among other ethnic groups or the working class. Correspondingly, the Democratic Party showed less enthusiasm for women in politics than did the Whigs and their Republican successors. The greater openness of the Whig Party to the participation of women in political campaigning also reflected that party’s ties to evangelical reform movements like temperance and an imitation of their faith in the moral influence of women on men. Nevertheless, it indicated an unusually enlightened attitude when Abraham Lincoln, running as a Whig for the Illinois state legislature in 1836, announced that he favored giving “the right of suffrage” to women who paid taxes.29 The most important contribution the Whig Party made to ameliorating women’s traditional subjection consisted of its support for public education and economic development.
American history between 1815 and 1848 certainly had its dark side: poverty, demagogy, disregard for legal restraints, the perpetuation and expansion of slavery, the dispossession of the Native Americans, and the waging of aggressive war against Mexico. But among its hopeful aspects, none was more encouraging than the gathering of the women at the prosperous canal town of Seneca Falls. The women who met there in 1848 set in motion, in the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “a rebellion such as the world had never before seen.”30 Modern communications helped, and continues to help, this unprecedented revolution spread. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” observed Fredrick Douglass, “a revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart, from land to land, until it has traversed the globe.”31 The revolution proclaimed in 1848 built upon that of 1776, and would transform the lives of
28. The Seneca Democrat, March 23, 1843, quoted in Weber, Women’s Rights National Park, 46–47.
29. Collected Works of AL, I, 48.
30. Quoted in Wellman, Road, 208.
31. North Star, April 28, 1848.
more people more profoundly. Today, its implications continue to spread over all the globe.
This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis. For that reason, it does not end with a summary of an argument. The women’s rights convention of 1848 highlighted several important aspects of the larger story of America’s thirty-three years after 1815. It seems useful to point these out by way of conclusion.
In 1848, as in 1815, Americans still considered their country an example of democracy to the rest of the world, although that role had been embarrassed and compromised by aggressive war and the extension, rather than the contraction, of chattel slavery. The women’s rights movement appealed to this democratic pride. The most important forces that had made American democracy meaningful during the years since 1815 were three. First, the growth of the market economy, facilitated by dramatic improvements in transportation, broadening the consumer and vocational choices available to most people. Second, the awakened vigor of democratically organized Protestant churches and other voluntary associations. Third, the emergence of mass political parties offering rival programs for the electorate to choose. The impact of all three of these forces had been multiplied by new developments in communications. The women’s rights movement related to all three, but especially to the first two.
The struggle to win greater legal rights for women appeared when it did as an outgrowth of improvements in the economic, social, and cultural status of women in the United States. The weakening of paternal authority, the chance to earn money both within and outside the home, increased literacy, smaller family size, an expanded role for women in religious and reform activity, enhanced respect for female judgment in private life—all contributed. Many of these historical trends were themselves consequences of economic development, which transformed American life in qualitative as well as quantitative ways. Historians have often pointed out the evil consequences of industrialization—the pollution, the slums, the monotony of factory labor. We should not forget that economic development brought benefits as well, and not only in material ways. Improved transportation and communications, promoting economic diversification, widened people’s horizons, encouraged greater equality within family relationships, and fostered the kind of commitments to education and the rule of law exemplified by Abraham Lincoln. Accordingly, economic development did not undercut American
democracy but broadened and enhanced it—which is reassuring for developing countries today.32 Perhaps, with aid from the federal government, economic development might also have helped alleviate the oppression of African Americans. If Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams had had their way, a program of economic modernization might have undercut the appeal of slavery in the upper South and border states.
At the close of 1848, political participation still lay in the future for women and most Americans not of the white race. White manhood democracy, on the other hand, had been firmly established in the United States—in some places after controversy over whether it should include non-property-owners, nontaxpayers, or noncitizens. As early as 1815, controversies over white male suffrage had mostly been resolved in favor of inclusion, if not always in the letter of the law then in the more important court of public opinion. Thereafter, when new states wrote their constitutions and old states rewrote theirs, they inscribed white manhood suffrage ever more firmly. Since white male democracy preceded industrialization in America, it preceded the development of a white proletariat and did not represent the kind of class conflict that it did in Europe. Only in the little state of Rhode Island had the issue provoked an insurrection, brief and almost bloodless. By 1848, only in Calhoun’s South Carolina and (ironically) Jefferson’s Virginia did state government remain dominated by a propertied aristocracy. In the eyes of the rest of the world, what made the United States interesting was its practical demonstration of democratic principles, with all their strengths and weaknesses. The women at Seneca Falls could take America’s commitment to democracy for granted—their task was to show that democracy should not be confined to males. This is why they based their claim on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The implications of both market capitalism and democratic principles unfolded gradually in the young American republic—sometimes simultaneously, as when the communications revolution facilitated both mass political parties and nationwide commercial networks. The major disputes, excitement, and violence of American history between 1815 and 1848 did not involve either a struggle to attain white male democracy or the imposition of a new “market revolution” on subsistence family farmers. Not the affirmation of democracy itself, that “all men are created equal,” but attempts to broaden the legal and political definition of “men” aroused serious controversy in the United States during these
32. I am taking issue here, as elsewhere, with the argument of Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991).
years. So clearly was voting defined as a right for white males that during the first half of the nineteenth century the suffrage was actually taken away from those few women and some of those few black men who had once been able to exercise it.33
If the emergence of women’s rights as a cause reflected in a general way the course of economic development and the evolution of democratic principles, in a more specific way it reflected the rise of the antislavery movement. Most of the early leaders of the women’s rights movement first embraced the cause of the slave and only later turned to the task of self-emancipation. The experience of gender discrimination within a movement dedicated to human liberty brought home to women like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton the urgency of calling attention to their own human rights. When the World Anti-Slavery Convention meeting in London in 1840 refused to recognize the credentials of American women delegates, it sowed the seeds of the meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848. As Abigail Kelley graphically put it, in trying to break the chains of the slave, female abolitionists had discovered “we were manacled ourselves.”34 The need to choose whether abolitionism should embrace logical consistency and support freedom for women as well as blacks, or defer women’s rights in the hope of eradicating the worse form of oppression first, split the antislavery movement right down the middle.
Women’s rights and antislavery both illustrate the point that some of the most important debates of the period did not take place within the arena of politics. Much of this discussion occurred within the religious communities. America’s multitude of churches nurtured a variety of philosophies and value judgments, and carried on endless argument over them. In some cases, churches embraced a wider vision of democracy than political institutions did, allowing the voices of women and African Americans to be heard. Through churches, causes deliberately excluded from the halls of Congress—such as women’s rights and the abolition of slavery—could still make themselves felt.
The Seneca Falls convention and the publicity following it also illustrate the changes in transportation and communications, by canals and railroads, by cheap newspapers, the telegraph, and the post office. Because of these innovations, the agendas of antislavery and women’s rights could be transmitted, reinforced, and made consequential. Without these transformations, one can imagine a host of small communities arguing
33. These disfranchisements have been described above, 497–98.
34. Quoted in Henry Mayer, All on Fire (New York, 1998), 265.
fruitlessly, or lapsing into lethargy, with little way of knowing what was going on in the outside world. Instead, news of discoveries like gold in California, revolutions all over Europe, new proposals such as the Wilmot Proviso, and even organizations that tried to remain secret such as the so-called Know-Nothings, rapidly provoked excitement. The mass production and distribution of information, which made possible the rise of mass political parties and nationwide philanthropic organizations, also facilitated causes like women’s rights. As the historian Daniel Feller has noted, “A newly functioning system of gathering and disseminating information made people aware of a larger world and gave them the power to change it.”35
This increased “power to change” encouraged controversy and contest. Equal rights for the two human sexes was but the newest subject over which Americans divided. The disputes that raged among the people of the young republic between 1815 and 1848 cannot be reduced to a single fundamental conflict (such as the working class against the capitalists). Rancorous competition between the major political parties reflected real disagreements over policy as well as mutual distrust between their constituencies. Sharp division of economic interest provoked fierce debates over tariff levels. Sometimes confrontations resulted from rivalries between constituted authorities, as did the nullification crisis and the Bank War. Constitutional and legal ambiguities combined with fierce ambitions to produce a culture of litigation. Racial, ethnic, and religious divisions spilled over from political debate into public violence.
The most bloody conflicts, however, derived from the domination and exploitation of the North American continent by the white people of the United States and their government. If a primary driving force can be identified in American history for this period, this was it. As its most ardent exponents, the Jacksonian Democrats, conceived it, this imperialist program included the preservation and extension of African American slavery as well as the expropriation of Native Americans and Mexicans. The remarkable changes in transportation and communications facilitated it. Determination to seize more land provoked harsh expulsions of populations, wars both large and small, and argument between pro- and anti-imperialists. Above all, westward expansion rendered inescapable the issue that would tear the country asunder a dozen years later: whether to expand slavery. Ironically, after the Civil War, westward expansion would benefit women’s rights. Hoping to encourage settlers, new territories and states in the Far West pioneered woman suffrage, beginning with Wyoming and Mormon Utah.
35. Daniel Feller, “Rediscovering Jacksonian America,” in The State of U.S. History, ed. Melvyn Stokes (Oxford, 2002), 80.
“America is the country of the Future,” Ralph Waldo Emerson declared to a Mercantile Library Association in 1844. “It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”36 Emerson rejoiced in improved transportation and expanded trade, which he believed fostered political liberty, and most of all in Americans’ interest in social reforms; he called upon his audience to dream still more unconventionally. He was right, if characteristically too optimistic. Americans lived by hope for the future, but their conflicting hopes for their country and their own lives provoked dissension. Americans were continually proposing new ideas and then wrangling over them: mechanical inventions, communitarian experiments, religious sects, the reform of customs and institutions. New ideas about gender relations (which included Utah’s polygamy and Oneida’s “complex marriages”) seemed to contemporaries the most startling of these many “isms.”
Americans’ aggressive imperialism manifested their preoccupation with the future rather than the present. New homes, either in the growing cities or on the frontier, constituted part of the innovative quest in which so many participated. No significant group of Americans wished to shun what all agreed was the nation’s destiny to greatness. Even the critics of territorial expansion endorsed the growth of American population, productivity, and power; but they preferred to improve the quality of national life through education, economic development, and moral reform both individual and collective, rather than just expand geographically the kind of America that already existed, encumbered with the institution of slavery. The National Republicans and afterwards the Whigs, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, proposed an alternative vision to that of the Jacksonian Democrats. Their vision of government-sponsored modernization offered America a different future. Eventually, the Whig vision prevailed, but only after Abraham Lincoln had vindicated it in the bloodiest of American wars.
The transformation of the United States between 1815 and 1848 resulted from a blend of two kinds of decisions: the many private decisions made by innumerable common people in their search for a better future, and the conscious decisions of their leaders in the course of making public policy. History is made both from the bottom up and from the top down, and historians must take account of both in telling their stories. The behavior of countless families gradually moving away from patriarchal authoritarianism affected the status of women at least as directly as
36. “The Young American,” in Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. I, ed. Robert Spiller (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 217–44, quotation from 230.
legal reforms relating to property rights and voting. Profoundly conditioning social and cultural life was the force of religion: the multitude of competing sects, some old, some brand new, with their urgent, sometimes incompatible demands. Finally, the transformation of the United States did not occur in a vacuum. It took place within a continental and global context, and the actions of peoples near and far away impinged upon it: Native Americans, Mexicans, Canadians, Irish, Africans, Chinese, and British, to mention some examples.
The complex figure of Samuel Finley Breese Morse illustrates a number of the contradictions and tensions in American society during his lifetime. Coming from a background in New England clerical Federalism, he made the apparently surprising choice to affiliate with the Jacksonian Democratic Party. With the failure of his ambition to embody his intense patriotism in historical paintings, Morse turned his considerable energy and talent to the applied science of electromagnetic telegraphy. This facilitated, even more directly than his art could have done, the growth of American empire. The twin revolutions in transportation and communications integrated the continental expansion of the United States, and no feature of these revolutions was more spectacular than the electric telegraph. Morse’s technological innovation played an important part not only in the geographic expansion of the nation but also in its economic development, including the post–Civil War rise of big business.
In later years, people looked back upon Morse’s demonstration of 1844 as a pivotal moment in the shaping of their world. John Quincy Adams’s grandson Henry, in his retrospective autobiography published in 1918, identified the first telegraphic message between Baltimore and Washington as the time when “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created.”37 Even after the invention of the telephone, the telegrams of Morse’s Western Union Company remained a prominent feature of life through most of the twentieth century. At the height of its business in 1929, the company sent more than 200 million telegrams all over the world. Only the rise of electronic communication finally rendered the telegraph obsolete; Western Union transmitted its last telegram on January 27, 2006.38
Along with its successes, Morse’s career also displayed some of the defects of American democracy: its contentiousness, corruption, and ethnoreligious hostility. As late as the Civil War Morse remained an outspoken apologist for slavery. On the other hand, he strongly supported women’s
37. The Education of Henry Adams (Boston, 1918), 5.
38. New York Times, Feb. 6, 2006.
education and became a founding trustee of Vassar College. Electric telegraphy arrived at a time of transition, innovation, injustice, aggression, turmoil, and dramatic growth. Well might Morse’s contemporaries marvel but also wonder at what God had wrought in America. Like the ancient Israelites, the Americans had wrested their homeland from other occupiers, believing that this action fulfilled a divine purpose. In the biblical story that Morse’s telegraph demonstration evoked, the seer Balaam, hired by the Moabite king to curse the Israelites, instead reported that God blessed them and willed them to become powerful. “Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion” (Numbers 23:24).
In 1848, it seemed that the greatness of the American people had been shown by their extensive recent conquests across the continent. Later, that greatness could seem affirmed by the preservation of the Union, industrial might, commercial influence, scientific research, and victories over global enemies. Later still, perhaps that greatness might be seen in the extent to which the dreams of 1848 feminists and abolitionists have at length been realized. History works on a long time scale, and at any given moment we can perceive its directions but imperfectly. Like the people of 1848, we look with both awe and uncertainty at what God hath wrought in the United States of America.