It is just and fitting to celebrate the American Revolution, but one must also remember that, at the start, not everyone partook of its bounty equally. The tacit recognition of slavery is the original sin of the American republic; that women could not vote is now outrageous to us. Where was the “liberty” for these people? As the nineteenth century wore on, the movement to abolish slavery completely grew ever stronger, culminating in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Women’s suffrage took longer – it was guaranteed on a national basis for all types of election with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, although many states had earlier granted the women the right to vote in other elections.
It’s safe to say that the two biggest figures in these movements were Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. They both happen to be buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. We made sure to visit their graves.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and escaped to New York at age 20. He became an anti-slavery activist and was known for his powerful oratory on the subject; his Narrative Life (1845) was a best seller which fueled the abolitionist cause and whose proceeds allowed Douglass to purchase his legal freedom. He was also the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention (1848), which launched the American Women’s Rights movement. The town, located about fifty miles to the east of Rochester, seems quite proud of this heritage.
Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed when we got there, but I certainly appreciated the display of the Nineteenth Amendment Victory Flags.
The (heavily restored) original venue. The Convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” (a feminist twist on the Declaration of Independence) is inscribed on a wall on the other side of the greenspace in the foreground.
As an aside, Seneca Falls represents a stop on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, a which connects the Erie Canal to Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake (two of New York’s Finger Lakes). I thought this was a nice nineteenth-century scene. (The town is also the fictional “Bedford Falls, N.Y.” from the film It’s a Wonderful Life.)
Susan B. Anthony was not actually at the Seneca Falls Convention, but with its main organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she met in 1851, founded the Women’s Loyal National League (an abolitionist society) and in 1866 the American Equal Rights Association, which was dedicated to equal rights for men and women. Anthony, famously, was arrested for voting in Rochester in 1872, and refused to pay the fine; the authorities decided not to pursue the matter. In 1878, Anthony penned what was to become the Nineteenth Amendment, and up until her death she gave countless speeches in favor of the cause. Her grave in Mount Hope is a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who value a woman’s right to vote.