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The Case for Universal Suffrage

May 9, 1887 — National Convention of the American Equal Rights Association, Church of Puritans, New York City


Resolved, That government, of all sciences, is the most exalted and comprehensive, including, as it does, all the political, commercial, religious, educational, and social interests of the race.
Resolved, That to speak of the ballot as an “article of merchandise,” and of the science of government as the “muddy pool of politics,” is most demoralizing to a nation based on universal suffrage.

In considering the question of suffrage, there are two starting points: one, that this right is a gift of society, in which certain men, having inherited this privilege from some abstract body and abstract place, have now the right to secure it for themselves and their privileged order to the end of time. This principle leads logically to governing races, classes, families; and, in direct antagonism to our idea of self-government, takes us back to monarchies and despotisms, to an experiment that has been tried over and over again, 6,000 years, and uniformly failed.

Ignoring this point of view as untenable and anti-republican, and taking the opposite, that suffrage is a natural right — as necessary to man under government, for the protection of person and property, as are air and motion to life — we hold the talisman by which to show the right of all classes to the ballot, to remove every obstacle, to answer every objection, to point out the tyranny of every qualification to the free exercise of this sacred right. To discuss this question of suffrage for women and negroes, as women and negroes, and not as citizens of a republic, implies that there are some reasons for demanding this right for these classes that do not apply to “white males.”

The obstinate persistence with which fallacious and absurd objections are pressed against their enfranchisement — as if they were anomalous beings, outside all human laws and necessities — is most humiliating and insulting to every black man and woman who has one particle of healthy, high-toned self-respect. There are no special claims to propose for women and negroes, no new arguments to make in their behalf. The same already made to extend suffrage to all white men in this country, the same John Bright makes for the working men of England, the same made for the emancipation of 22,000,000 Russian serfs, are all we have to make for black men and women. As the greater includes the less, an argument for universal suffrage covers the whole question, the rights of all citizens. In thus relaying the foundations of government, we settle all these side issues of race, color, and sex, end class legislation, and remove forever the fruitful cause of the jealousies, dissensions, and revolutions of the past. This is the platform of the American Equal Rights Association. “We are masters of the situation.” Here black men and women are buried in the citizen. As in the war, freedom was the key-note of victory, so now is universal suffrage the key-note of reconstruction.

“Negro suffrage” may answer as a party cry for an effete political organization through another Presidential campaign; but the people of this country have a broader work on hand to-day than to save the Republican party, or, with some abolitionists, to settle the rights of races. The battles of the ages have been fought for races, classes, parties, over and over again, and force always carried the day, and will until we settle the higher, the holier question of individual rights. This is our American idea, and on a wise settlement of this question rests the problem whether our nation shall live or perish.

The principle of inequality in government has been thoroughly tried, and every nation based on that idea that has not already perished, clearly shows the seeds of death in its dissensions and decline. Though it has never been tried, we know an experiment on the basis of equality would be safe; for the laws in the world of morals are as immutable as in the world of matter. As the Astronomer Leverrier discovered the planet that bears his name by a process of reason and calculation through the variations of other planets from known laws, so can the true statesman, through the telescope of justice, see the genuine republic of the future amid the ruins of the mighty nations that have passed away. The opportunity now given us to make the experiment of self-government should be regarded by every American citizen as a solemn and a sacred trust. When we remember that a nation’s life and growth and immortality depend on its legislation, can we exalt too highly the dignity and responsibility of the ballot, the science of political economy, the sphere of government? Statesmanship is, of all sciences, the most exalted and comprehensive, for it includes all others. Among men we find those who study the laws of national life more liberal and enlightened on all subjects than those who confine their researches in special directions. When we base nations on justice and equality, we lift government out of the mists of speculation into the dignity of a fixed science. Everything short of this is trick, legerdemain, sleight of hand. Magicians may make nations seem to live, but they do not. The Newtons of our day who should try to make apples stand in the air or men walk on the wall, would be no more puerile in their experiments than are they who build nations outside of law, on the basis of inequality.

What thinking man can talk of coming down into the arena of politics? If we need purity, honor, self-sacrifice and devotion anywhere, we need them in those who have in their keeping the life and prosperity of a nation. In the enfranchisement of woman, in lifting her up into this broader sphere, we see for her new honor and dignity, more liberal, exalted and enlightened views of life, its objects, ends and aims, and an entire revolution in the new world of interest and action where she is soon to play her part. And in saying this, I do not claim that woman is better than man, but that the sexes have a civilizing power on each other. The distinguished historian, Henry Thomas Buckle, says: “The turn of thought of women, their habits of mind, their conversation, invariably extending over the whole surface of society, and frequently penetrating its intimate structure, have, more than all other things put together, tended to raise us into an ideal world, and lift us from the dust into which we are too prone to grovel.” And this will be her influence in exalting and purifying the world of politics. When woman understands the momentous interests that depend on the ballot, she will make it her first duty to educate every American boy and girl into the idea that to vote is the most sacred act of citizenship — a religious duty not to be discharged thoughtlessly, selfishly or corruptly; but conscientiously, remembering that, in a republican government, to every citizen is entrusted the interests of the nation. Would you fully estimate the responsibility of the ballot, think of it as the great regulating power of a continent, of all our interests, political, commercial, religious, educational, social and sanitary!

To many minds, this claim for the ballot suggests nothing more than a rough polling-booth where coarse, drunken men, elbowing each other, wade knee-deep in mud to drop a little piece of paper two inches long into a box — simply this and nothing more. The poet Wordsworth, showing the blank materialism of those who see only with their outward eyes, says of his Peter Bell:

“A primrose on the river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.”

So our political Peter Bells see the rough polling-booth in this great right of citizenship, and nothing more. In this act, so lightly esteemed by the mere materialist, behold the realization of that great idea struggled for in the ages and proclaimed by the Fathers, the right of self-government. That little piece of paper dropped into a box is the symbol of equality, of citizenship, of wealth, of virtue, education, self-protection, dignity, independence and power — the mightiest engine yet placed in the hand of man for the uprooting of ignorance, tyranny, superstition, the overturning of thrones, altars, kings, popes, despotisms, monarchies and empires. What phantom can the sons of the Pilgrims be chasing, when they make merchandise of a power like this? Judas Iscariot, selling his Master for thirty pieces of silver, is a fit type of those American citizens who sell their votes, and thus betray the right of self-government. Talk not of the “muddy pool of politics,” as if such things must need be. Behold, with the coming of woman into this higher sphere of influence, the dawn of the new day, when politics, so called, are to be lifted into the world of morals and religion; when the polling-booth shall be a beautiful temple, surrounded by fountains and flowers and triumphal arches, through which young men and maidens shall go up in joyful procession to ballot for justice and freedom; and when our election days shall be kept like the holy feasts of the Jews at Jerusalem. Through the trials of this second revolution shall not our nation rise up, with new virtue and strength, to fulfill her mission in leading all the peoples of the earth to the only solid foundation of government, “equal rights to all.” . . . 

Our danger lies, not in the direction of despotism, in the one-man power, in centralization; but in the corruption of the people . . . .

It is in vain to look for a genuine republic in this country until the women are baptized into the idea, until they understand the genius of our institutions, until they study the science of government, until they hold the ballot in their hands and have a direct voice in our legislation. What is the reason, with the argument in favor of the enfranchisement of women all on one side, without an opponent worthy of consideration — while British statesmen, even, are discussing this question — the Northern men are so dumb and dogged, manifesting a studied indifference to what they can neither answer nor prevent? What is the reason that even abolitionists who have fearlessly claimed political, religious and social equality for women for the last twenty years, should now, with bated breath, give her but a passing word in their public speeches and editorial comments — as if her rights constituted but a side issue of this grave question of reconstruction? All must see that this claim for male suffrage is but another experiment in class legislation, another violation of the republican idea. With the black man we have no new element in government, but with the education and elevation of women we have a power that is to develop the Saxon race into a higher and nobler life, and thus, by the law of attraction, to lift all races to a more even platform than can ever be reached in the political isolation of the sexes. Why ignore 15,000,000 women in the reconstruction? The philosophy of this silence is plain enough. The black man crowned with the rights of citizenship, there are no political Ishmaelites left but the women. This is the last stronghold of aristocracy in the country. Sydney Smith says: “There always has been, and always will be, a class of men in the world so small that, if women were educated, there would be nothing left below them.”

It is a consolation to the “white male,” to the popinjays in all our seminaries of learning, to the ignorant foreigner, the boot-black and barber, the idiot — for a “white male” may vote if he be not more than nine-tenths a fool — to look down on women of wealth and education, who write books, make speeches, and discuss principles with the savants of their age. It is a consolation for these classes to be able to say, “well, if woman can do these things, they can’t vote after all.” I heard some boys discoursing thus not long since. I told them they reminded me of a story I heard of two Irishmen the first time they saw a locomotive with a train of cars. As the majestic fire-horse, with all its grace and polish, moved up to a station, stopped, and snorted, as its mighty power was curbed, then slowly gathered up its forces again and moved swiftly on — “be jabers,” says Pat, “there’s muscle for you. What are we beside that giant?” They watched it intently till out of sight, seemingly with real envy, as if oppressed with a feeling of weakness and poverty before this unknown power; but rallying at last, one says to the other: “No matter, Pat; let it snort and dash on — it can’t vote, after all.”

Poor human nature wants something to look down on. No privileged order ever did see the wrongs of its own victims, and why expect the “white male citizen” to enfranchise woman without a struggle — by a scratch of the[Pg 189] pen to place themselves on a dead level with their lowest order? And what a fall would that be, my countrymen. In none of the nations of modern Europe is there a class of women so degraded politically as are the women of these Northern States. In the Old World, where the government is the aristocracy, where it is considered a mark of nobility to share its offices and powers — there women of rank have certain hereditary rights which raise them above a majority of the men, certain honors and privileges not granted to serfs or peasants. In England woman may be Queen, hold office, and vote on some questions. In the Southern States even the women were not degraded below their working population, they were not humiliated in seeing their coachmen, gardeners, and waiters go to the polls to legislate on their interests; hence there was a pride and dignity in their bearing not found in the women of the North, and pluck in the chivalry before which Northern doughfaceism has ever cowered. But here, where the ruling class, the aristocracy, is “male,” no matter whether washed or unwashed, lettered or unlettered, rich or poor, black or white, here in this boasted northern civilization, under the shadow of Bunker Hill and Faneuil Hall, which Mr. Phillips proposes to cram down the throat of South Carolina—here women of wealth and education, who pay taxes and are amenable to law, who may be hung, even though not permitted to choose the judge, the juror, or the sheriff who does the dismal deed, women who are your peers in art, science, and literature — already close upon your heels in the whole world of thought — are thrust outside the pale of political consideration with traitors, idiots, minors, with those guilty of bribery, larceny, and infamous crime. What a category is this in which to place your mothers, wives, and daughters. I ask you, men of the Empire State, where on the footstool do you find such a class of citizens politically so degraded? Now, we ask you, in the coming Constitutional Convention, to so amend the Second Article of our State Constitution as to wipe out this record of our disgrace.

“But,” say you, “women themselves do not make the demand.” Mr. Phillips said on this platform, a year ago, that “the singularity of this cause is, that it has to be carried on against the wishes and purposes of its victims,” and he has been echoed by nearly every man who has spoken, on this subject during the past year. Suppose the assertion true, is it a peculiarity of this reform?

Ignorant classes always resist innovations. Women looked on the sewing-machine as a rival for a long time. Years ago the laboring classes of England asked bread; but the Cobdens, the Brights, the Gladstones, the Mills have taught them there is a power behind bread, and to-day they ask the ballot. But they were taught its power first, and so must woman be. Again, do not those far-seeing philosophers who comprehend the wisdom, the beneficence, the morality of free trade urge this law of nations against the will and wishes of the victims of tariffs and protective duties? If you can prove to us that women do not wish to vote, that is no argument against our demand. There are many duties in life that ignorant, selfish, unthinking women do not desire to do, and this may be one of them.

“But,” says Rev. O. B. Frothingham, in a recent sermon on this subject, “they who first assume political responsibilities must necessarily lose something of the feminine element.” In the education and elevation of woman we are yet to learn the true manhood and womanhood, the true masculine and feminine elements. Dio Lewis is rapidly changing our ideas of feminine beauty. In the large waists and strong arms of the girls under his training, some dilettante gentleman may mourn a loss of feminine delicacy. So in the wise, virtuous, self-supporting, common-sense women we propose as the mothers of the future republic, the reverend gentleman may see a lack of what he considers the feminine element. In the development of sufficient moral force to entrench herself on principle, need a woman necessarily lose any grace, dignity, or perfection of character? Are not those who have advocated the rights of women in this country for the last twenty years as delicate and refined, as moral, high-toned, educated, just, and generous as any women in the land? I have seen women in many countries and classes, in public and private; but have found none more pure and noble than those I meet on this platform. I have seen our venerable President in converse with the highest of English nobility, and even the Duchess of Sutherland did not eclipse her in grace, dignity, and conversational power. Where are there any women, as wives and mothers, more beautiful in their home life than Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone, or Antoinette Brown Blackwell? Let the freedmen of the South Sea Islands testify to the faithfulness, the devotion, the patience, and tender mercy of Frances D. Gage, who watched over their interests, teaching them to read and work for two long years. Some on our platform have struggled with hardship and poverty — been slaves even in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and bear the scars of life’s battle. But is a self-made woman less honorable than a self-made man? Answer our arguments. When the Republic is in danger, no matter for our manners. When our soldiers came back from the war, wan, weary, and worn, maimed, halt, blind, wrinkled, and decrepit — their banners torn, their garments stained with blood—who, with a soul to feel, thought of anything but the glorious work they had done? What if their mothers on this platform be angular, old, wrinkled, and gray? They, too, have fought a good fight for freedom, and proudly bear the scars of the battle. We alone have struck the key-note of reconstruction. While man talks of “equal, impartial, manhood suffrage,” we give the certain sound, “universal suffrage.” While he talks of the rights of races, we exalt the higher, the holier idea proclaimed by the Fathers, and now twice baptized in blood, “individual rights.” To woman it is given to save the Republic.



Source: The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. II (Rochester, NY), 1881, pp. 185-190.