Carrie Chapman Catt

Why the Southeastern States of the U.S. Refused Suffrage to Women - 1920

Carrie Chapman Catt
December 31, 1969
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When the 19th Amendment finally takes its place as part of the Constitution, the suffrage ratification map will show a white nation with a big black spot in the South East. For many a year to come, students of history and democracy the world around will ask in wonder – why did these states refuse suffrage to women?

The answer is a sensitive sore subject; it is one Americans do not talk about, read about or think about if they can avoid it. In fact, it is the greatest gawkiest most gruesome skeleton in the American political cupboard. It is good form to keep the door firmly closed and locked.

But since there is a lesson to learn, I am wrenching that door wide open, pulling that ghastly skeleton out into the open and I am bidding you gaze upon it with all its repulsive details.

The South is black, its women humiliated, the nations claims of democracy discredited before the world as the direct result of these centuries of as egregious political blunders as any people ever committed. Colony and Republic, Tory and Whig, Federalist and old time Republican, new time Republican and Democrat; - they are all involved and all more or less responsible. Benjamin Franklin said the “bills of war do not come at the time; they come afterwards.” So, we may add, come the penalties of political mistakes.

The first blunder was the failure to make the slave trade impossible. When Jamestown was founded (1607) Negro slavery was already an old institution in the Islands of the Caribbean Sea and thence came slaves to Virginia. As no colony was responsible to any other each did as it pleased. Slavery like drink was a personal indulgence and usually existed because no authority forbade it. Since there was money in slaves, the trade grew with the increased chances of finding a market in this country. This condition prevailed for 150 years. What was every body’s business being nobody’s nothing was done to suppress it. Then came the threat of common danger and the great men of the Colonies came together and wrote the Declaration of Independence. By so doing, they gave the world one of its most valuable immortal documents, but it was coupled with the commitment of a monumental inconsistency.

“++ All men are created free and equal, ++ endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; ++ among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” says the Declaration. Yet while these founders of a Republic based upon equality were writing these lines slave ships were bringing men and women stolen out of freedom and they were being sold into slavery with the knowledge and consent of some of the men who wrote the lines. That they recognized the inconsistency is manifest from the fact that in the first draft of the Declaration the following charges against the King of Gt. Britain appeared: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people who never offended him, capturing and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers is the warfare of the Christian King of Gt. Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

Had that paragraph been allowed to stand in the Declaration, it is clear that the Republic resulting from the Revolution would have been forced to abolish slavery or be utterly discredited before the world. Had that paragraph remained, the South would be white on the ratification map but more, we women of 1920 would not now be congratulating ourselves upon our tardy enfranchisement – for it would have come at least fifty years ago!

The founders made the fatal choice of procrastination – and let the inconsistency stand. A few years later the same groups of men wrote the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, having failed. By that time the slave trade had reached very definite proportions and was a paying business. Slavery had spread over the entire South, to which the climate was well adapted. The responsibility of its existence was now laid upon New England.

The Founders again compromised with principle. The Constitution is ordained to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty while in Article II representation of States acknowledged slavery and allows representation based on it, all tho’ no twist of logic can make human slavery square with justice or liberty. This did not come about without protest. Mason of Virginia who is supposed to have inspired Jefferson with the noble sentiment of the Declaration, and who certainly wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights said in the Debate:

“As Nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be punished in this and he firmly believed that national calamities would be the punishment for national sins. Time proved him right when the Civil War came, but in 178? his plea fell on deaf ears. Slaves were property, money and profit. Men have ever yielded to the temptation of accepting a mess of pottage for themselves when they had a chance to sell the birthright of liberty of other men, and so the Constitution stood an absurd contradiction between principle and fact. The principle of liberty to which the young nation dedicated itself represented the highest conception and aspiration of the great men of the time, North and South. The facts which were in contradiction arose from local selfish interests of each colony. There was no belief that the united colonies were destined to build a great nation and all concessions from one colony to the common whole was wrested from it after a storm of debate.

“A sovereign nation of sovereign states.” Webster described the U.S. In reality it was a sovereign nation pledged to liberty with very limited powers to carry out its pledges, and it contained a group of sovereign states pledged to a species of despotism and possessed of unlimited power to carry out its actions.

In 1807 Congress prohibited the slave trade but whether for want of powers or through political machinations, it was never well enforced even up to the date of the Civil War. The trade must have been exclusive since there were 4 millions of slaves when finally emancipated. That it was profitable is indicated by the fact that slaves were sold for prices varying from $100 to $1000. Whoever may have been blamable in the beginning, slavery finally became a Southern institution. South Carolina raising rice and indigo declared that a slave repaid his purchase price in a single year and Mass have no such temptation to lure her onto the rocks of avarice abolished slavery because it was inconsistent with her principle of political freedom. Other Northern states followed until slavery was driven South of Mason and Dixon’s line.

Gt. Britain abolished slavery in 1833 in all her territory including the neighboring island of Jamaica and by 1860 ours was the only power in the world which maintained slavery.

From the days of the Constitution (1787) to 1860 the controversy raged. Compromises, colonizing the West and more compromises. Fraudulent elections and Federal Court Decisions. Laws and counter laws were recorded year after year.

There had been a continual conflict between state and national authority, but the so called doctrine of states rights was no more Southern than Northern. It became Southern and was magnified emphasized, but in reality, its real spirit was the demand of a section to continue its hold of property in slaves.

The land with the broadest declarations on behalf of universal human freedom stood before the world the sponsor of the most outworn form of human bondage. A compromise with principle in the beginning made this tragic anomaly possible.

The North having squared itself with principle naturally made the more logical fight and led inevitably to the final decision. The South having compromised with principle, got deeper into the mire of inconsistency with each new problem. The North having the right on its side and the approval of its own conscience, fought the institution of slavery in pulpit and press and platform. The South could make no excuse for slavery. Indeed one orator in the Virginia legislature had said at any earlier date that “apologists for slavery existed but no defenders.” Yet the South by this time was bound to slavery by a thousand ties. So intricate and so subtle were these ties that the whole South realizing a common guilt, rose as one man to defend, not slavery – they could not – but the sovereignty of the state. The human mind operated ever thus. Knowing itself in the wrong but unwilling to concede it, it drags forth some other subject and waves it before the onlooker so frantically that the real misdemeanor is lost sight of. That is the instinct of the child, the primitive man and the college educated. So the South hysterically boisterously eloquently belligerently refused to dwell on slavery but talked states rights.

So, when S. Carolina seceded and later fired on Ft. Sumter, she was contending for states right and when the North came to meet the South, it was in contention that the Union of states was inviolate. Had S. C. or Mass desired to retire from the Union in time of peace and quiet probably either would have been allowed. But passion was at white heat and men are exceedingly emotional and excessively belligerent. So, North and South tore at each others throats.

At no time since the founding of Jamestown had there failed to be condemnation of slavery. Birney a Southern slaveholder who became an abolitionist 23 years before Lincoln said “a house divided against itself cannot stand” had declared that there will be no cessation of conflict until slavery shall be exterminated or liberty destroyed and these warnings had reverberated down the years. But men would not heed, they would be inconsistent and they finally went to war to defend their right to be inconsistent.

They tell us the war cost in money enough to have bought the 4 millions of slaves at the market price and enough more to have run the Federal Government for ten years. One hundred thousand men gave up their lives – American men who had been tutored in the history of American ideals, and men across the sea came to take their places – men who had not heard of those ideals and the world moved on its destined course but it was a difference, a permanent difference to our own land.

The South had been broken, humbled. The homes and plantations in many parts were destroyed and then the North began to blunder. The South was rebellious; of course, the vanquished always are. The North was overbearing and determined to show the victors powers; so it put the South under military supervision, disfranchised its men, encouraged Northerners to go South with newly enfranchised Negroes to organize the state governments.

So, disfranchised, educated white men saw their old slaves sitting in senatorial chambers and under the direction of a miscellaneous collection of so called carpet baggers make laws for their masters. When Augustus Caesar led captured Kings and Queens of defeated nations in procession before the populace of Ancient Rome to display the wonders of his military prowess he visited upon his victims the most humiliating experience he could invent. Probably the North had no such motive. Probably its policy was mere blundering but what it did was make a far crueler thing than any Emperor of Rome ever devised.

The Negro had come from an extremely primitive race, in a semitropical climate. He had made little progress in race evolution when the slave traders found him. Slavery gave him little chance to rise. The laws of most states made it a crime to teach Negroes to read, were they slave or free. They had never known self responsibility since their masters had supplied their food, shelter and clothes.

That the vote would eventually follow their freedom was inevitable in a country dedicated to self government. But a little common sense, a slight knowledge of human psychology should have admonished the North that men of such disqualifications could not be admitted to voting privileges without serious results to the electorate of which they would become a part.

But not a glimmer of these most obvious facts seemed to have reached the understanding of Northern political leaders. The Negro was enfranchised but not by normal processes. The 14th and 15th amendments were ratified by Southern States wherein the Governments were composed of outsiders and of Negroes by the time the 15th amendment went the rounds. New States were admitted before their time in order to provide the necessary three fourths. What the whole world might well have expected happened. The South intimidated the Negroes. The North retaliated with a Force Bill which authorized Southern elections under soldier guard in order to protect the Negro in his right to vote. The Ku Klux Klan, riot and general insurrection followed, terrifying both black and white men.

Finally the South disfranchised the Negro by frankly unconstitutional methods and the North made no official objection. The North discovered what was never a secret and that is that illiterate men are purchasable and irresponsible. So between North and South the Negro was left with no friend at Court.

In all this bungling disgraceful history it is difficult to say whether South or North was guilty in the greater number of inexcusable errors, but one thing stands out clearly and that is that the Negro has been the innocent victim who has been wronged at every turn. It is not his fault that he was enfranchised before he could qualify, nor was it his fault that he did not meet the expectations of North philanthropists when freedom and self government were thrust upon him with no preparation. Apparently the North and South are both sore on this subject. They should be. The majority of the South is quite incapable of thinking straight on any question affected by the so called Negro question.

In Virginia a woman called up a colored woman who was a well known leader among the women of her race. The unknown said she was Mrs. Jones of the Equal Suffrage Association and that she was speaking for Mrs. Catt who was coming to speak. She said Mrs. Catt wanted her to get out as many colored women as possible. Now the woman addressed was suspicious since in Virginia the Negroes do not attend white meetings and so called up a Suffragist she knew. Had the Anti been able to persuade the colored woman to come with a large number of her race, she knew that she would unloose the most unreasoning prejudice in the State and direct it against woman suffrage.

In S. Carolina it was reported and discussed in extenso that Mrs. Catt was in the habit of visiting in Negro homes and being visited by Negroes because social equality is the chief sin in the S.C. code.

In Mississippi secular stories were current and in all of them a printed sheet was laid on legislative desks showing a picture of A. Shaw, Mrs. Catt and a Negro woman as the three best friends of the suffrage amendment.

It is not singular that anti suffragists should have circulated foul untruths or printed slander without an imprint. Our file of opposition literature is the most valuable heritage which we shall pass on for posterity from the National Headquarters.

The wonder is that that kind of appeal could be possible and effective in a Republic and in the year 1920. As one friendly legislator replied to my query as to what was really the Southern objection to woman suffrage – it is merely Negrophobia.

As fine a type of men as any land can show make up the minority which forms the New South. No fairer men intelligent and able women live than those who form our auxiliaries in the Southland but the victims of political blunders are still in majority so Mississippi rejects the Federal Amendment with laughter and cheers. Virginia, which feared to refer her own Constitution to the voters, no[w] chatters about the voice of the people (meaning men) and a referendum. While her own gifted daughter sits in the House of Commons, its first woman member, her legislature says to her women at home: if any suffrage comes to you it will come from other hands than those of your own state.

O, men of the South will you never think straight and clear again. Will you ever dodge real issues and refuse to act honestly? No one longer heeds your cry of States Rights for it was you who introduced and made possible the 18th Amendment with the attached right of Federal police to enter your state. “What” exclaimed a Virginia legislator ask me to vote for a Federal suffrage amendment. Why the bodies of Virginia men who fought against Federalism are not yet cold in their graves. For sixty years they have been mouldering in those graves but their ghosts rise to haunt the memories when suffrage for women is the theme, but they sleep when John Barleycorn walks abroad. In the same legislature a bill was introduced in effect to leave the entire enforcement of prohibition to the Federal Government. O shades of our Ancestral Sponsors of States Rights that Virginia should ever come to this!

Virginia and Rhode Island once contending, Va for States Rights and Rh. Island for Federal Rights. Virginia because she likes it votes prohibition over on RI which doesn’t like it. R.I. before the Supreme Court contends for State Rights and Virginia argues herself on the Federal side. Then R.I. because she likes it votes woman suffrage over on Virginia and the drama closes.

States Rights like the Monroe Doctrine is conveniently capable of a new interpretation for each new situation. I draw from the story of this century of senseless unreasonable political blundering three conclusions:

  1. A stitch in time saves nine is as applicable to politics as to rents in your garments. What a different land would this be, what a different history it would have written, how white would the South be on the ratification map, had our forefathers laid the entire blame for the slave trade on King George and gone to war to fight him about that instead of tea. Moral watch for the little places that need only a stitch and see that it is taken.

  2. Altho social equality is one of the sins in the South and not practiced at the North, sex equality seems to have immunity from public criticism. I was told in every land I visited in the Orient that revolution and rebellion has never been started or furthered by the natives. The leaders are always the men of mixed blood. Who can tell to what Anglosaxon blood will lead? Once more a problem is evaded avoided, shunted one side – and once more the nation is headed for disaster. The bills for neglect come afterward.

  3. When a Nation aims to take its place among the world’s nations as an equal or perchance a leader it must see to it that every section keeps pace with the majority. No part of it can lag behind in ideals or customs and not injure the whole. Therefore where a section perpetuates unprogressive condition under the mask of states rights it is not only the privilege but it becomes the duty of the Nation and each progressive state in it to Federalize that section until it catches pace with the Nation. I thank God that there was a Federal way of extending political liberation to the splendid glorious women of the South. Let us, daughters of North and South, East and West take a vow today that as we have labored understandly together with confidence in each other, so will we aim together to meet the great problems of our day when they are due in order that ours may be a Nation loyally honored by every man and woman in it. We may vote different tickets, indeed we may support many parties, but if we are true to this idea, never allow a real problem to be neglected we shall not be far apart.

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