Statement before the
U.S. Senate Committee
on Woman Suffrage
January 24, 1889 — US Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, Washington DC
Gentlemen, in 1884 the chairman of your committee (Mr. Cockrell) declared “that suffrage belonged entirely to the States so long as no class of citizens were disfranchised.” I hold that women are a class of citizens in the different States who are disfranchised. But I am happy to say the Senator must have changed his opinion on that subject, because I notice that he has voted in Congress to take away suffrage in one of the Territories. He has gone far beyond the Constitution in taking away suffrage from the women of the Territory of Utah.
In opposition to the Senator Mr. Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, declared, and left it on record, that ”should the people of any State by any means be deprived of the right of suffrage, they should appeal to the General Government.” He also goes on to say that “to have left this question to the legislation of the States would have been impolitic.” The wisdom of this prevision has been shown in regard to the suffrage given by the legislature of Washington Territory, where it has been taken away because of the plea that it was not secured on constitutional grounds.
Now, gentlemen, I wish to show you from this paper of Mr. [Francis] Minor’s that we think woman’s right to vote is secured on constitutional grounds.
THE LAW OF FEDERAL SUFFRAGE
To the National Woman Suffrage Association:
You are again in session for the purpose of renewing your appeal to Congress to propose an amendment to the Constitution which shall forbid the denial of your right to vote on account of sex.
Twenty-one years have elapsed since you first made application for this purpose, and yet success seems as distant as ever.
For this reason some members of the association are considering the propriety of bringing the matter before the Supreme Court with the view of securing, if possible, a reversal of the decision in the case of Minor vs. Happersett, and I have been requested to state briefly the grounds upon which such an application must rest.
There is no impropriety or inconsistence in pursuing both methods at the same time.
It will be necessary to state a few general propositions.
Since the adoption of the fourteenth amendment “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizen of the United States and of the State in which they reside.”
This amendment for the first time admitted the negro race to citizenship. Men and women of the white race had always been citizens or members of the national body-politic. In that section of the Constitution we are now to consider, the term used is the “people,” but Chief-Justice Taney tells us that the words people and citizens are synonymous terms and mean the same thing. (Scott vs. Sandford, 19 Howard.) While our first Chief Justice, John Jay, speaking of the equality of all persons in political rights, said “the citizens of America are equal as fellow-citizens and as joint tenants in the sovereignty.” (2 Dallas, 472.)
An appeal to the Supreme Court, properly brought, would be based upon the ground that the right of suffrage is already established in the Federal Constitution, and is an essential privilege of all American citizens.
It is not conferred in terms upon any person or class of persons, but inheres in and attaches to a status or condition of being, which is expressed in the single word, citizenship.
Admittance to national citizenship, either by birth or naturalization, endues the person with the right. of suffrage; its exercise is regulated by law.
Mr. Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, said: “The definition of the right of suffrage is justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government.” It was incumbent on the convention therefore to define and establish this right in the Constitution.” (Federalist, No 52.) The right was so established in section 2, of Article I, in these words:
”The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States, and the electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislature.”
This section consists of two clauses. The first relates to the right of suffrage, or the right to choose, vesting the right in ”the people of the several States.”
The second clause relates to the qualifications of the electors.
As every one knows, there is a wide distinction between right and qualification. A person may have the right to vote, and still not be what is termed a qualified elector for want of the necessary qualifications.
In this case the right is absolute and unconditional. No reference whatever is made to the sex or color of the elector. Citizenship or membership in the bodypolitic is the only requisite. Neither men, nor women, as such, .are referred to. Together they constitute the people, and the people choose. This second clause is thus in entire accord with the preamble to the Constitution, which declares: ”We, the people of the United States, * do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” retaining in their own control this most fundamental of all the rights of citizenship. The Constitution affords still further proof of the existence of this right. The fifteenth amendment, adopted eighty years subsequent to the original establishment of the right, declares that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or any State, on account of race, or color, or previous condition of servitude.” Thus expressly, and in terms embracing all citizens, the right of suffrage is recognized as an existing right. The sixteenth amendment that you ask for is couched in the same language except that in place of race or color the word sex is used. Now it is clearly impossible to deny or abridge a right that does not exist; and if the right of suffrage is not an existing right, then the fifteenth amendment is an absurd abuse of language.
In construing this, and the other recent amendments, the Supreme Court adds its testimony to the fact of the existence of this right. It said, “the negro having, by the fourteenth amendment, been declared to be a citizen of the United States, is thus made a voter in every State of the Union.” (Slaughter House cases, 16 Wallace.)
Congress also is committed to the same position. I have room only to give the title of the act. It is entitled “An act to enforce the right of citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other purposes,” approved May 31, 1870.
Thus, in the most solemn manner possible, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the legislative branch of the Government are in accord in recognizing the right of citizens of the United States to vote as an existing right; a right established in the Federal Constitution, and derived from no other source. So much for the right; next as to qualifications.
The Constitution does not lay down any general rule applicable to all the States, nor undertake to prescribe qualifications for the Federal elector.
It was considered best to require him to conform to such as exist in the several States for State electors.
But this requirement by no means confers upon the States any power or authority over the right of the Federal elector; least of all does it authorize the States to defeat the right by imposing conditions with which the Federal elector can not comply. Yet, in point of fact, they have unlawfully disfranchised one-half of the “people” by the use of the word male. For the purpose of contesting the matter, and of making demand for the right, a white woman citizen of the United States, holding that her citizenship ought to avail to place her at least upon the level of the negro, applied to the Supreme Court to protect her against disfranchisement, and was refused, the court declaring that “the United States has no voters of its own creation.” (Minor vs. Happersett, 21 Wallace.) This decision is so manifestly in conflict with the Constitution, as well as with the court’s own ruling just quoted, that it is likely if the matter were again presented, the court would recede from its last decision.
The first century of our national life under the Constitution is about to close. To women it has been a century of injustice, since no wrong can compare with that of disfranchisement, and while we are singing pæons in honor of the great instrument it is well to remember that women had a share in the work. At that date, women voted in New Jersey at all elections upon terms of equality with men.
They voted for members of the constitutional convention from that State. They voted for the ratification of the constitution when submitted. They voted for the first, second, and third Presidents of the United States. The fact that women voted in one of the States was well known to those who framed the Constitution, and we must construe the instrument as they left it.
As before said, neither men nor women as such are alluded to. The clause establishing suffrage is so worded as to exclude neither, but to include both. So that, whether you succeed through the courts or through Congress, it will be due to the fact of your citizenship.
For the purpose you have in view, that word is to you the most important word in the language.
In hoc signo vinces, you should place on your badges and adopt it as a motto.
SAINT LOUIS, January, 1889.
I wish to ask the gentlemen of this committee, who are now acting for us in Congress, to leave to their children an inheritance they will not have to blush for. We want you to show that your prevision has been sufficient to look down the vista of the future and see what must inevitably occur. Fifty years ago a member of the Senate declared that the very mention of the subject of emancipation would never be admitted in the Congress of the United States. It was a woman’s prophetic voice that then replied: “You can build out the winds and hedge out the stars, but you can never keep this question out of Congress.”