People: Reform Movements

Susan B. Anthony was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of Quaker abolitionists. At her first women’s rights convention in 1852, she declared that voting was “the right which woman needed above every other.” In 1869 Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). This organization condemned the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as injustices to women because they failed to clearly protect women’s rights. She and Stanton also published a weekly newspaper, The Revolution.

In 1872, Anthony decided to test the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment by casting a vote. She argued that because the amendment protected the “privileges and immunities” of all citizens, that it should protect her right to vote. She was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and found guilty of voting. Anthony’s trial gave her a chance to bring her message to a larger audience.

In the 1880s, NWSA merged with another suffrage organization to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stanton became its first president. In 1892, Anthony became its second president – a post she held for eight years. Anthony died in 1906, thirteen years before the Nineteenth Amendment would secure women’s right to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage was continued by others including Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.

The work of Anthony and other women’s suffragists illustrate the civic values of perseverance, courage, initiative, industry, and civic skills including volunteering.

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, in 1817 or 1818. He loved to read and memorized classical speeches. In 1838, he escaped from slavery. He settled in Massachusetts where he attended abolitionist meetings. He soon began a three-year lecture series. He traveled throughout America and Europe giving speeches, exercising his rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Douglass also exercised his right to freedom of the press, publishing his thoughts in a weekly abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. His most important work was his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It was incredibly popular and opened many peoples’ eyes to the horrors of slavery. He spoke to President Abraham Lincoln about soldier conditions during the Civil War, and advocated passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery throughout the United States.

Douglass also spoke and wrote in favor of an amendment to the Constitution securing voting rights and other liberties for former slaves. This call was eventually heeded with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Douglass continued to persevere in his work for equal rights for former slaves and for women until his death.

The work of Douglass and other abolitionists illustrate the civic values of perseverance, courage, initiative, industry, and civic skills including volunteering.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—that all people are created equal. Stanton was born in New York State in 1815. She received a formal education, unlike most women of her time. She did well in school, impressing her teachers and classmates with her intelligence. But as a woman, she could not attend the college of her choice. Stanton was disturbed by women’s lower legal status. She helped organize the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. in Seneca Falls, New York.

At that convention, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions was read. This document, based on the Declaration of Independence and written by Stanton, declared the legal equality of men and women, and listed the legal rights women should have, including the right of suffrage (voting). Her work helped launch the women’s movement which eventually won women the right to vote. Stanton knew she was fighting for something bigger than herself. She did not live to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton died, Susan B. Anthony wrote “Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movements.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe used the power of her pen to open the eyes of a nation to the injustices of slavery. She was born in Connecticut in 1811. Her world was immersed in Protestant and abolitionist traditions: her father was a minister, her brother was a theologian, her husband was a clergyman. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Stowe knew she had to act. At the time, women had few ways to engage in politics. She could not run for office, or even vote, but she was undeterred.

She took initiative and found a political voice in her writings. She began to do research by interviewing former slaves and others who had personal experience with slavery. Her first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, told of the abuse suffered by enslaved people and families in emotional, human terms. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in its first week, and was a bestseller in its time. She reached peoples’ hearts and minds in a way that politicians had not been able to do. Historians believe the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sped up the outbreak of the Civil War, as more and more people believed the nation had a duty to end slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, ending slavery in the U.S. forever. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing truly changed a nation’s view of justice.

As a writer, friend, and citizen, Henry David Thoreau always tried to live a life of integrity and moderation . Born in 1817, Thoreau lived in a small bare cabin near Walden Pond in his home state of Massachusetts. In stark contrast to the Industrial Revolution going on around him, he wanted to live by Transcendentalist principles such as simplicity and economy.

Thoreau opposed the United States’ war with Mexico because he believed that the war would lead to slavery’s expansion in the West. He did not want his tax money to support the war or slavery. Thoreau refused to pay the poll taxes required by Massachusetts. As a result, Thoreau was arrested in 1856. He spent the night in jail, an experience which affected him deeply. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison,” he argued. (A family member paid the tax the next day and he was released.)

He believed he had acted responsibly as a citizen by refusing to support what he believed was an unjust war. Exercising his First Amendment freedom of the press , he articulated his philosophy in an essay called Civil Disobedience. Henry David Thoreau’s words and actions have inspired generations of Americans including Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau was not without his critics, who argue that his ideas on civil disobedience threaten the rule of law . The way to respond to unjust laws is to work to change them, they argue, rather than to disobey them.