Friday, March 11, 2011

Susan B. Anthony -- Casting her first vote; going to jail.

Susan B. Anthony in 1848, as a 28 year-old school teacher in upstate New York,  shortly before meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton and joining the movement for women's rights.
 She always looks so stern in her photographs, even her face on the $1 gold coin.  I looked hard to find one that showed her smiling or laughing, but came up empty.  If any of you has one, please send it to me so I can post it here.

Susan B. Anthony dollar --
still not smiling.
Susan B. Anthony devoted herself to causes: ending slavery, temperance, and the one she's most famous for, winning women the right to vote.  She lived 86 years, until 1906, and spent most of that time traveling the country giving thousands of speeches for the cause.  But she never saw it happen in her lifetime.  America would not give women the right to vote in Federal elections until 1920.  Never, that is, except once....

The vote: 
That one time came in 1872 when she was 52 years old -- already a grizzled activist veteran.  Susan B. Anthony fully expected the men at the desk to tell her "no" that day, November 2, when she and two women friends stopped by the courthouse in Rochester, New York, and asked if they might register.  Women had never yet been allowed to vote anyplace in the USA in 1872, except the Wyoming territory.  Still, the newly-minted 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868 after the Civil War to protect freed black slaves, guaranteed equal rights to all citizens.  Were not women ciitizens?  Did this not include the right to vote?  

Nobody had yet tested the idea.  So Susan B. Anthony decided to go first.  To her delight, none of the voting officials complained that day.  They let her write her name in the registration book, and that was that.  She told some friends about it and, within 24 hours, fourteen other local women also registered to vote.

Susan B. Anthony, circa 1872, 
still stern-looking at 52 years old.

Election Day 1872 came two days later, on November 5, and Susan B. Anthony came early to cast her ballot.  This time, when her turn came, a poll watcher named Sylvester Lewis raised his voice to object.  New York State law limited voting to men, he argued, making her vote illegal.   

In respense, the chief inspector at the polling place, a man named Beverly Waugh Jones, asked Susan B. Anthony to please take an oath.  Then he asked her some questions:  Was she a US citizen?  Yes, she said.  Did she live in Rochester's 8th Ward?  Yes.  Had she accepted any bribe for her vote?  Certainly not.  

Amazingly, with that, inspector Jones took her ballot and placed it in the box.  The fiirst woman's vote for president in American history was thus duly cast for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.  "Successful Attempt of Women to Vote in Rochester," announced the New York Times.   It was time to celebrate.  Or so it seemed.

The arrest:
But then, twelve days later, came a knock at the door of her home in Rochester.  Susan B. Anthony answered it and immediately found herself facing a deputy federal marshall asking her to accompany him downtown.  "What for?" she asked.   "To arrest you," the marshall replied.  It seems the poll watcher had complained, and the US government had decided that a crime had taken place. 

If it seems strange today, in 2011, that a women (or any person of any sex) could be arrested in America simply for voting,  it should.  Yes, we have rights in this country, and they are fundamental to us.  But they are also very fragile, and it is way too easy to take them for granted.  In almost every case, before the rest of us can start enjoying those rights, somebody had to go first and fight for them.  That was Susan B. Anthony.  

Cartoon mocking Susan B. Anthony
for wanting to vote.

Facing the deputy marshall at her door that morning in 1872, Susan B. Anthony not only didn't mind being arrested, she insisted on it.  Having never been arrested before, she asked him if this was the way he arrested men?   When he said no, she shot back:  "Then I demand that I should be arrested properly."  If that was unlady-like, then so be it.

And so the great legal case of United States v. Susan B. Anthony began.  A federal grand jury indicted her for intentional casting of an illegal vote. They offered to release her on bail, but she refused to pay it and was placed under custody of a federal marshal.  .  Her lawyer-- a very good one named Henry Selden -- filed for a habeas corpus writ for her release, but the judge refused it.  Just for good measure, the Rochester police also arrested the voting inspectors who had accepted her ballot, and they too refused bail.    Enemies mocked and vilified her, as in this cartoon.

The news quickly flashed across the country:  "Woman arrested for casting illegal vote."  Supporters organized protest rallies, and Susan B. Anthony supplied then a constant stream of material: speeches, letters, and interviews.  The authorities allowed her to travel in  mid-January 1873 to Washington, D.C., but only if the federal marshall came along so she wouldn't escape.  In her speech there, she described her arrest this way:  "When arrested, I was taken to the office of the United States Commissioner in Rochester -- in the very same room where fugitive slaves ... were examined and turned over to their masters for bondage.  Never till then did I fully realize the ease and rapidity with which an American citizen can be deprived of his or her liberty." 

The trial:
The trial took place in June 1973 in Canandaigua, New York, before a jury of 12 men. ( Click here for more details.).  The Judge, Ward Hunt, a non-nonsense Utica politico, took a narrow view of the 14th Amendment.  Susan B. Anthony asked to testify, wanting to explain that she was no criminal because she had voted in good faith in the belief that her vote was legal, but Judge Hunt found her "incompetent" and denied the request.  Then, rather than risk having the jury take her side, Judge Hunt ordered a "directed verdict," that is, he determined that there were no issues of fact to decide and instructed the jury to return a verdict of guilty.   (In 1895, twenty years later, New York State's own Court of Appeals would find this proceduire unacceptable in state criminal cases.) 

Susan B. Anthony's lawyer then insisted that the jury members be polled so they could speak for themselves.  Again, Judge Hunt refused.

It all seemd pretty well locked up, until Judge Hunt made one big mistake.  As with any defendant at the end of a trial, he asked if she had anything to say before he pronounced sentence.  Asking Susan B. Anthony if she had anything to say -- especially in a crowded coutroom brimming with newspaper reporters -- was not the way to keep things quiet. 

Given the chance, Susan B. Anthony immediately stood up and launched into an eloquent, searing, and blunt indictment of the preposterously unfair trial, unfair law, and unfair judge.   "Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government.  My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored."  

Judge Hunt immediate saw his mistake.  He started banging his gavel and told her to sit down.  Not a chance.  Instead, she lectured him.  "May it please the court to remember that since the day of my arrest last November, this is the first time that either myself or any person of my disenfranchised class has been allowed a word of defense before judge or jury."  She then explained why she believed she had the right to vote, how the 14th Amendment worked, how this same court in Rochester had ignored the Fugitive Slave Law back in the 1850s, and why the trial was unfair -- how she had failed "even, to get a trial by a jury not of my peers."
At least seven times during the harrangue Judge Hunt interrupted Susan B. Anthory and told her to sit down and be quiet.   But she just kept on talking, politely, clearly, and directly.  The newsmen wrote it all down.

When she finished, she sat down.   But then Judge Hunt ordered her to stand up  again.  "The sentence of the court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the procesution," he announced from the bench.

"May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty," she replied, standing at her seat.  She never did.  He never did anything about it.   [By contrast, the male inspectors who allowed her to vote in 1872 were tried and convicted as well.  The judge ordered them to pay a  fine of $25 which they too refused.  But the men were thrown in jail until President Grant pardoned them later in 1874.]

Susan B. Anthony lost her court case but she won her point.  She would spend the rest of her life lobbying and rabble-rousing for adoption of a Constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote.  She, along with her friend and partner-in-advocacy Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would be celebrated as the founding heroes of women's right in America, culminating in her face on the $1 gold coin in 1979.  

So for Women's History Month, my favorite to start is Susan B. Anthony.  Let her scowl all she wants in her photographs.  She's  welcome any time on this Blog.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the post, Ken - I greatly enjoyed it!

Big D said...

Great history!! Thanks fr posting!
Anthony Giacchino

Unknown said...

Thank you for this well written history of a woman more people, men and women alike,should know about! :)

Margaret said...

Very cool post, although I don't think it's a big deal she's not smiling.

Anonymous said...

Need to edit the trial paragraph...says 1973 should be 1873

Anonymous said...

She's not smiling because she's not happy, this was a very depressing time in her life. Also, it is a big deal because this was a very important time in history, with out Susan B. Anthony , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells, or even Emma Waston women might not have the rights they do right now or in the future. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this, you should be thankful for though's who help with your rights here today.