Matilda J Gage

Statement Before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary - Jan. 24, 1880

Matilda J Gage
January 24, 1880— Washington, D.C.
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Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen of the Judiciary Committee:

It is upon this point of the centralization of the suffrage power in the hands of the United States that I propose to speak. I will endeavor to show you that, in the progress of our government, from its very inception, liberty has been defended and has increased as certain power has been centralized in the hands of the general government, and taken away from the States. It will be borne in mind that at the beginning of their rebellion against Great Britain, each of the colonies had its individual grievance, and that at an early day, long anterior to the proclamation of our Declaration of Independence, it was deemed best for the colonies to unite. Our first American Congress, which met in 1765, was fearful that the divers injuries under which the colonies suffered, and the many different charters under which they were governed might ensnare them—such was the language made use of by that Congress—"might ensnare them" into working in opposite directions. In this the Congress represented the popular sentiment, which found expression in various ways. In the same year in which that body first convened, The Constitutional Courant, a paper published in the city of New York, came out with a significant representation of a serpent surrounded by thirteen stars and, encircling the whole, an inscription reading "Join, or die!" This inscription was at once adopted by the colonists as their motte; the announcement of it flew like wildfire over the whole thirteen colonies; the people began to be united in sentiment, and to realized that only by banding together in one compact whole could they hope to make their separate forces effective against the tyranny of Great Britain. It followed that, prior to our Declaration of Independence, eleven of the colonies, and a portion of one of the two remaining, united in certain articles of association. Indeed, that is the day to which we ought to look back as that of the birth of our nation, instead of that of 1776; for at that day, although formally adhering to their allegiance to Great Britain and to His Majesty George III, they united together and thenceforth acted as one body in regard to non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption, and practically became one people. Some nine years after the Constitutional Courant had put forth the motto of join or die, the first American Congress gave expression to the popular sentiment in declaring its apprehension that "the diverse interests" of the American colonies would "ensnare them" to keep themselves separate from each other. In 1776, with the proclamation of our Declaration of Independence, our country came before the world as an independent nation and one possessed of all the rights of a nation. The importance of the necessity of a greater centralization of political power in the hands of the general government became manifest within a brief period after that proclamation had been made; as certain States asserted the right of an individual State to make peace, declare war, and contract alliances. Articles of confederation, having for their object the consolidation of certain powers in the general government with a view to promoting the security and ensuring the liberty of all the people, were entered into by the States. In 1782, after much discussion, originated upon a proposition in Congress to levy certain tariff duties and imposts—the State of Rhode Island, advocating what is now known as "the State rights' view, and protesting against the proposition through her Representative, the Speaker of the lower house, Hon. William Bradford—it was recommended by Congress that the States should confer greater power upon the federal government. This recommendation was acquiesced in by only four of the thirteen colonies. This discussion, however, continued. It was then declared that the rights for which this nation contended were the rights of humanity. In the same year in which Rhode Island made her protest, the State of New York, from which I come, formally submitted a proposition for a general convention of the people to pass upon the question. This failed to ensure definite action. Finally, in 1786, the house of delegates of Virginia, passed a resolution inviting the assembling of commissioners from the various States, to discuss the question and agree upon some means for conceding greater power to the general government. In September of the same year, as the result of a conference of commissioners from the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland (three of which were then slave States), a call was issued for a Constitutional convention. This convention assembled in Philadelphia and finally adopted a framework of government, which received the approval of the people. Subsequent to the adoption of the Constitution, some ten conciliatory amendments were appended to it.

I have thus hastily reviewed the more prominent features of our early governmental history with reference to the steps taken from time to time to secure the liberty of the citizens by centralizing power in the hands of the general government.

In making this demand for the ballot as secured by the United States, we women have frequently been met with this objection, "It is centralization, and centralization tends to destroy liberty." I acknowledge, gentlemen, that an indiscriminate centralization of power does ten to destroy liberty; but, on the other hand, as wise and judicious centralization of certain powers of government is not only promotive of, but absolutely essential to, the maintenance and perpetuation of liberty. The accumulation of the powers of a State in the hands of the legislature of a State, by which that body is given the exclusive control of all State affairs even down to the building of a bridge or the location of a village cemetery, is one phase of that centralization which is dangerous to liberty. To such an extent has this policy been carried that in many of the States, steps have been taken to curtail or restrict the State government and to give the county and town authorities the control of their own local affairs. With respect to all such matters, we women believe in a diffusion of the powers of government. We appreciate the fact that, as power becomes more diffused in that way, in connection with these minor matters, liberty is more fully established.

In regard to general governmental matters, such as the exercise of the suffrage by citizens of the United States, we know that in the steps it has taken in that direction the general government, as I have shown you, has promoted the liberty of the citizen and better secured it by the exercise of its protecting power over the ballot.

Following the adoption of the Constitution and the ten amendments of which I have spoken, other steps were taken to centralize power in the general government because of the necessity which seemed to be felt at the time for the enforcement of this policy. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the XIth amendment to the Constitution (pertaining to the judiciary) was adopted, and in the early part of the nineteenth century, the XIIth amendment (regulating the election of President and Vice-President by electors), in regard to which I believe a bill for a change in the method is now pending before the House, was adopted. An interval of some years elapsed before this necessity for a more complete centralization of power in the general management again manifested itself. It did present itself to the attention of the people of the country upon the breaking out of the war of the Rebellion, when the XIIIth amendment was adopted, and afterwards the XIVth and XVth amendments, all of them seeming to be in the interest of liberty.

Here permit me to digress for a moment in order to notice an objection that we have sometimes encountered, and one that was urged when Mrs. Minor's case came before the Supreme Court of the United States. It found expression in the declaration of Chief Justice Waite when he declared that the United States had no voters. I assert that those who exercise the suffrage are in a certain sense voters of the United States as distinguished from the voters of the States. I claim, and shall endeavor to show you in the course of my remarks, that the power over the ballot which has been relinquished by the several States has been voluntarily relinquished to the general government, in the course of time, as the States have become consolidated into one harmonious whole. The XIVth amendment declared that all persons born and naturalized in the United States or in the several States are citizens of the State in which they reside. Then the XVth amendment was passed securing to all men the right to vote without regard to color. The purpose and effect of those amendments was to centralize this power, so far as regards the colored men, in the hands of the United States. In other words, the general government made those colored men United States voters, as those amendments completely overrode all State provisions. The States which had denied to colored men the right to vote could not longer withhold the suffrage from them after those amendments went into effect. In the State of New York, from which I come, for instance, prior to the ratification of those amendments, no colored man was allowed to vote unless he had a property qualification of $250, but immediately after that ratification of those amendments the State statute on that subject became a dead letter; and, although it remained for a time on the statute books of the State, these colored men were admitted to vote irrespective of the property qualification. I ask therefore, gentlemen, were they not United States voters?

We now ask, at the hands of Congress, the passage of the XVIth amendment. We ask this in the interest of liberty, not only because we seek for our own, but because we would have you preserve your liberty. We base our demand upon the broadest considerations. According to the argument of our opponents, we have this great anomaly in governmental history, that the underlying principle of a government which was founded, as was our own, upon the basis of individual rights, upon the right of every person to self government (which rights in this country are only exercised by and through the ballot), that this fundamental principle has been left for 100 years in the hands of the States individually, and should continue there. I answer that you have taken from the States the power to fix State boundaries, to coin money, to establish post routes, to declare peace or war, to collect revenues, to regulate commerce, and such like powers; and, in the greater interest of the liberties of the people, you have centralized these powers in the United States Government. Under the amendments to the Constitution, it is only the black man who is secure in his right to vote in the States. White men are not more secure in that right than are we women; and I submit that this theory of government which admits that the States severally have entire jurisdiction over the ballot is a most dangerous one. This power is shown most dangerously in those States which have prohibited women from holding the ballot and declared that males only should exercise it. It is against this that we women protest when we declare that the ballot should be based only on citizenship. We desire that citizenship and suffrage in the United States should be practically synonymous terms. Under such an interpretation of the meaning of the terms, we would be willing to leave the regulation of the suffrage in the hands of the States. I, for one, would not take from the States any power which belongs to them; I only ask that what shall be done shall be done exactly in the line of all that has been done since the beginning of our government for the purpose of more fully securing the liberty of all citizens of the United States, of enabling the people of the States more fully to preserve their political dignity, while permitting them to regulate the suffrage on conditions equally applicable to all persons. This is what is meant by the language of the form of amendment here submitted; and in asking this, I repeat, we are asking for the security of your liberty as well as our own.

Furthermore, under the amendments to the Constitution, the condition of male citizens is this: Any white man may be disfranchised by a State law but no colored man can be thus disfranchised; the colored man is secure while the white man is not secure in the exercise of the suffrage; and the security of the colored man depends not upon any statutes of the States but solely upon the assurance afforded by the United States in the amendments to which I have referred.

Those of you, gentlemen, who are advocates of the State rights doctrine need entertain no apprehension that we contemplate any violation of that doctrine in the position we have assumed here, because an amendment to the Constitution such as we propose cannot be ratified, and therefore cannot be made effective, without the consent of two-thirds of the States. When Miss Anthony, in her argument before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, asked the chairman (Senator Thurman) whether that was not in strict accordance with the States rights principle, that gentleman answered that it was.

As I was saying, the States, at all times in the past, when they have given up a portion of their liberties in the interest of the general government, have given them up in the interest of all the States, and, in so doing, have secured their own liberty more fully. We know, too, that in proportion as the right of the ballot is nationalized, as it is made broader, as it is made more secure to citizens of the United States, the more it is permanently secured. We know, too, that our country has reached a period in its history when the attention of the people of the country is directed most earnestly and anxiously to what shall be the condition of the republic. We are convinced that this suffrage question has assumed a larger and wider scope and is of more profound interest at this time than at any time heretofore; that it is rapidly becoming a feature of the national policy; and that, since the war, the demand for woman suffrage has extended over the whole country. We desire to remind you, gentlemen, that by passing the XVIth amendment you will not only be securing to yourselves the rights of the individual self government and making yourselves more secure in the exercise of those rights, but that you will be following directly in the line which our country has followed from the meeting of the first American Congress up to this day. With these remarks, I leave this portion of the question with you.