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The New Rebellion: The Great Secession

May 11, 1871 — National Woman’s Suffrage Convention, Apollo Hall, New York City


Since this is not a convention for the consideration of general political questions, I am not certain that I have any thing to say which will prove of interest or profit to you. But with your permission I will endeavor to state the position which the movement for political equality now occupies, and attempt to show therefrom the duties which devolve upon those who advocate it.

Whatever there may have been spoken, written or thought in reference to the constitutional rights of women citizens of the United States, as defined by the XIV. and XV. Articles of Amendments to the Supreme Law of the Land, the first practical movement under it to secure their exercise was made in the Congress of the United States during the past winter. A memorial setting forth the grievances of a woman citizen, who was denied the right of citizenship, was introduced into both Houses of Congress, and by them referred to their Judiciary Committees. Upon this memorial the House Judiciary Committee made two reports; that of the majority while admiting the validity of the foundation upon which the memorial was based, was adverse to congressional action thereon, naively attempts to ignore the force of the argument by thrusting the responsibility back upon the States, which have acted upon the point in question by the adoption of said Amendments. That of the minority, than whom there is no more conclusive judiciary authority in the United States, took issue with the entire pleading of the majority, and fortified their position by such an array of authority, judicial decisions and logic, as to fully establish the fact of the right of women to the elective franchise in every unprejudiced mind.

So forcible was the conviction which this report carried wherever analyzed, that even Democrats who, everybody well knows, are constitutionally predisposed against the extension of suffrage, acknowledged it as unanswerable. Besides this, there has been so much high judicial authority also expressing itself in the same terms of approbation, there can be no question whatever about the fact that women, equally with men, are entitled to vote. This conclusion, though at first received with great skepticism by very many who wished it were really so, is gradually spreading among the people, and settling into a well defined conviction in their hearts. Many of your own journals even ridiculed the matter, more I presume from dislike to the movers in it than from convictions of its incapacity to meet the required demand.

I am glad, however, to now announce that most of these journals have reconsidered the subject, since there has been such enthusiasm and action raised all over the country by it, resulting in bringing women forward to demand their rights which have been accorded to them in a sufficient number of cases to finally decide the true value of the movement. If I mistake not some of those who were instrumental in preventing the exercise of these claimed rights will have the pleasure of paying for their presumption in money, if not by imprisonment, both of which may be meted to them under the act which it seems was almost providentially passed by Congress in May, 1870, to meet just such cases as are now required to be met.

There are two ways by which the success already gained may be pushed on to ultimate and complete victory, both of which I count as legitimate and justifiable. One is to continue the appeals to the courts, until by a final decision of the Supreme Court, it shall be fully determined. The other is for Congress to pass an act declaring the equal rights of all citizens to the elective franchise. To this method some object that it stultifies the position that the Constitution already grants every thing we ask. But these objectors forget that by Par. 17,

Sec. VIII., Article 1 of this same Constitution it is made one of the duties of Congress to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution all powers vested by the constitution in the Government of the United States, and that one of the special powers vested in Congress is the right to make all laws necessary for enforcing the provisions of the XIV. and XV. Amendments. It seems to me that petitioning Congress to enforce the provisions of these Amendments is eminently proper, and that any who object thereto either do not understand the powers and duties of Congress or do not wish so easy a solution of the franchise question, which solution cannot be expected from the courts, as adecision therein may be deferred for years.

A Washington correspondent of the Tribune of May 2d, speaking of this matter, says:

“There is no probability that the women of this District will vote by the next Presidential election, if they depend on a decision of the Courts in their favor for the privilege. The action is brought in the Circuit Court of the District, which will adjourn before reaching the case. It cannot, then, be decided until the October term; but, no matter what the decision may be, the case will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which, judging from the present condition of its docket, will not be able to render an opinion in less than two or three years.”

The matter of time is an important element in this issue. I am aware that women do not yet fully appreciate the terrible power of the ballot, and that they have made no calculations what they will do should the right to vote be accorded them the next session of Congress. I hold that when women are fully decided in their minds that they are entitled by law to the elective franchise, it is their solemn duty to determine how they shall use this new power.

The enfranchisement of ten millions of women, is a revolution such as the world has never seen, and effects will follow it commensusurate with its magnitude and importance. Whatever the women of the country shall determine to do that will be done. It seems to me that nothing could be more wise and judicious than for them even now to begin to consider what they will do.

I have had ample occasion to learn the true worth of present political parties, and I unhesitatingly pronounce it as my firm conviction if they rule this country twenty years to come as badly as they have for twenty years past, that our liberties will be lost, or that the parties will be washed out by such rivers of blood as the late war never produced. I do not speak this unadvisedly. I know there are men in Congress — great men — who know that unless change for the better come this will.

What do the Republican leaders care for the interests of the people if they do not contribute to their strength? They have prostituted and are prostituting the whole power of the government to their own selfish purposes. They have wrung the very last possible dollar from the industries of the country and are now hoarding it in the vaults of the Treasury. One hundred and thirty millions of dollars in actual cash is a great power, a dangerous power it might be made by unscrupulous men, and I do not think but that there are those near the head of the government who are ambitious and unscrupulous enough to take advantage of any favorable opportunity in which to make use of this power.

True the republican party did a mighty work to which all future ages will look back with reverence. True that they opened the door, unwittingly though it was done, to our enfranchisement. True that they have made the name of slavery odious, and added new lustre to that of freedom.

But having delivered us from one damnation shall they be permitted to sell us to another, compared to which the first is but a cipher? They have told us that the Southern slave oligarchy had virtual control of the government for many years, and that the terrible war which we waged was the only means by which this power could be humbled.

But do they tell us of a still more formidable oligarchy which is now fastening upon the vitals of the country? Do they tell us that they have given four hundred millions of acres of the public domain, millions of dollars and tens of millions of credit to build up this new tyrant? Do they tell us that this tyrant is even now sufficiently powerful to buy up the whole legislation of the country, to secure the confirmation of any nomination which it desires made, and to bribe officials everywhere to the non-performance of their duty? Do they tell us matters have been so arranged that all the revenue they can extract from the people is turned over to this power, by which process the vitality of the country is being gradually absorbed? No, not a bit of it. This they will leave us to learn through bitter experience as we were left to learn what were the fruits of forty years plotting by the slave oligarchy. This new oligarchy has plotted less than ten years and it has already attained the most threatening and alarming proportions.

Shall we turn to the Democratic party with the hope that they may prove the necessary salvation from the wrath to come. To do this would indeed be to show the dire extremity to which we are driven. I hold that the Democratic party is directly responsible for the late war. The Democratic party South would not have rebelled had not the Democratic party North promised them their support. Can we expect anything better from them than from the Republican party? They are not now making themselves so antagonistic to the true interests of the country as are the Republicans, simply because they have not got the power so to do. But where they have the power, their leaders do not hesitate to make the most use of it to their own aggrandisement.

Therefore, it is my conviction, arrived at after the most serious and careful consideration, that it will be equally suicidal for the Woman Suffragists to attach themselves to either of these parties. They must not — cannot afford to — be a mere negative element in the political strife which is sure to ensue in the next Presidential election. They must assume a positive attitude upon a basis compatible with the principles of freedom, equality and justice which their enfranchisement would so gloriously demonstrate as the true principles of a republican form of government. I do not assume to speak for any one. I know I speak in direct opposition to the wishes of many by whom I am surrounded. Nevertheless, I should fail to do my duty, did I conceal what I feel to be the true interests of my sex, and through them, those of humanity; for the interests of humanity will never be understood or appreciated until women are permitted to demonstrate what they are, and how they shall be subserved. I have thus as briefly as possible given what I conceive to be the position which the Woman’s Rights Party occupies at this time, their prospective power, importance and duties, and the dangers by which this country is threatened, from which they may save it.

If Congress refuse to listen to and grant what women ask, there is but one course left them to pursue. Women have no government. Men have organized a government, and they maintain it to the utter exclusion of women. Women are as much members of the nation as men are, and they have the same human right to govern themselves which men have. Men have none but an usurped right to the arbitrary control of women. Shall free, intelligent, reasoning, thinking women longer submit to being robbed of their common rights. Men fashioned a government based on their own enunciation of principles: that taxation without representation is tyranny; and that all just government exists by the consent of the governed. Proceeding upon these axioms, they formed a Constitution declaring all persons to be citizens, that one of the rights of a citizen is the right to vote, and that no power within the nation shall either make or enforce laws interfering with the citizen’s rights. And yet men deny women the first and greatest of all the rights of citizenship, the right to vote.

Under such glaring inconsistencies, such unwarrantable tyranny, such unscrupulous despotism what is there left women to do but to become the mothers of the future government.

We will have our rights. We say no longer by your leave. We have besought, argued and convinced, but we have failed; and we will not fail.

We will try you just once more. If the very next Congress refuse women all the legitimate results of citizenship; if they indeed merely so much as fail by a proper declaratory act to withdraw every obstacle to the most ample exercise of the franchise, then we give here and now, deliberate notification of what we will do next.

There is one alternative left, and we have resolved on that. This convention is for the purpose of this declaration. As surely as one year passes, from this day, and this right is not fully, frankly and unequivocally considered, we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new constitution and to erect a new government, complete in all its parts, and to take measures to maintain it as effectually as men do theirs.

If for people to govern themselves is so unimportant a matter as men now assert it to be, they could not justify themselves in interfering.

If, on the contrary, it is the important thing we conceive it to be, they can but applaud us for exercising our right.

We mean treason; we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution; we will overslough this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead, which shall not only profess to derive its power from the consent of the governed, but shall do so in reality.

We rebel against, denounce and defy this arbitrary, usurping and tyrannical government which has been framed and imposed on us without our consent, and even without so much as entertaining the idea that it was or could be of the slightest consequence what we should think of it, or how our interests should be affected by it, or even that we existed at all, except in the simple case in which we might be found guilty of some offense against its behests, when it has not failed to visit on us its sanctions with as much rigor as if we owed rightful allegiance to it; which we do not, and which, in the future, we will not even pretend to do.

This new government, if we are compelled to form it, shall be in principles largely like that government which the better inspirations of of our fathers compelled them to indite in terms in the Constitution, but from which they and their sons have so scandalously departed in their legal constructions and actual practice. It shall be applicable, not to women alone, but to all persons who shall trausfer their allegance to it, and shall be in every practicable way a higher and more scientific development of the governmental idea.

We have learned the imperfections of men’s government, by lessons of bitter injustice, and hope to build so well that men will desert from the less to the more perfect. And when, by our receiving justice, or by our own actions, the old and false shall be replaced by the new and true; when for tyranny and exclusiveness shall be inaugurated equality and fraternity, and the way prepared for the rapid development of social reconstruction throughout.

Because I have taken this bold and positive position; because I have advocated radical political action; because I have announced a new party and myself as a candidate for the next Presidency, I am charged with being influenced by an unwarantable ambition. Though this is scarcely the place for the introduction of a privileged question, I will, however, take this occasion to, once and for all time, state I have no personal ambition whatever. All that I have done, I did because I believed the interests of humanity would be advanced thereby.

Had I been ambitious to become the next president I should have proceeded very differently to accomplish it. I did announce myself as a candidate, and this simple fact has done a great work in compelling people to ask: and why not? This service I have rendered women at the expense of any ambition I might have had, which is apparent if the matter be but candidly considered.

In conclusion, permit me again to recur to the importance of following up the advantages we have already gained, by rapid and decisive blows for complete victory. Let us do this through the courts wherever possible, and by direct appeals to Congress during the next session. And I again declare it as my candid belief that if women will do one-half their duty until Congress meets, that they will be compelled to pass such laws as are necessary to enforce the provisions of the XIV. and XV. Articles of Amendments to the Constitution, one of which is equal political right for all citizens.

But should they fail, then for the alternative.



Source: A History of the National Woman’s Rights Movement for Twenty Years: with the Proceedings of the Decade Meeting held at Apollo Hall, October 20, 1870, from 1850 to 1870, ed. Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, (New York: Journeymen Printers’ Co-operative Association), pp. 129-136.