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Susan B. Anthony’s arrest and trial

In the months and years that followed the Civil War, changes to our Constitution were made to ensure that slavery would no longer be tolerated in any State.  The 13th Amendment (1867) ensured the  freedom of both male and female enslaved people.

Another of the Reconstruction Amendments (14th  Amendment-1868) defined citizenship (all persons born or naturalized in the US) and forbid the states from interfering with citizens’ rights to due process, equal protection and the privileges and immunities granted by the Federal Constitution.  That language led Anthony and others to argue because they were then explicitly recognized as “citizens”, their privilege to vote was protected.

However, in spite of the language of Section 1, Section 2 of that Amendment also provided for a system of counting population and assigning the requisite number of representatives to serve in the House of Representatives.  For the first time the word “male” was used in the Constitution—and that was to set a “punishment” for states that denied voting rights to any “males.” The seemingly inconsistent sections have left lawyers frustrated for decades and led to some pretty convoluted interpretations of that Amendment.

The 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) protected the right to vote of formerly enslaved people—as long as they were male.  Susan B. Anthony opposed the 15th Amendment as it was proposed because it left out all women!  Anthony had long worked for universal suffrage and the thought that her long time friends and co-workers in the Abolition Movement (and some in the Woman Suffrage Movement) would endorse excluding women shocked her.  She firmly believed that if the 15th Amendment were adopted as proposed, it would cause woman suffrage to be set back for half a century.

Deeply disappointed by the setbacks, but refusing to give up, in 1871 the National Woman Suffrage Association (Anthony’s organization) began encouraging women to test the language of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment in the upcoming 1872 Presidential election.  Women were now at least explicitly recognized as citizens and there was no explicit ban on women voting.

Susan B Anthony decided to try to register to vote and expected to be denied.  She planned then to sue the registrar and test the new 14th Amendment in the courts.  She carried her copy of the 14th Amendment with her and relied on the language in Section 1 arguing that voting was a right and privilege of citizenship—and by its terms she was a citizen.

Apparently she was quite convincing—she was allowed to register and, therefore, to vote.  On November 1, 1872 she arrived at the polls with 14 other women and voted in Rochester, NY and immediately gave a newspaper interview about her vote.  Seventeen days later she was arrested and charged with the federal crime of voting illegally.

On June 18, 1873 she was brought to trial –a trial that lasted three days.  She did not know the judge had written his decision before the trial began, but as she watched the trial unfold, that became less and less surprising.

Anthony, though a citizen, was not allowed to testify, even in her own defense.  Because she was a woman, she was considered “legally incompetent.”  The judge did not even allow the jury to consider the evidence.  Instead, he directed a verdict of guilty and fined her $100 (equivalent to a little over $2500 in today’s money).  After the verdict, the judge asked if she had anything to say, maybe hoping for an apology.  She responded, in part, with:

. . .in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of my fundamental principle of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all my sex are, by your honor’s verdict, doomed to political subjection under this so-called republican government.” 

She further explained that she would not pay “a dime of the unjust fine.”  The Judge responded that she would not be jailed for failing to pay the fine—thereby preventing an appeal to the United States  Supreme Court.  The stinging injustice of the system was dramatically demonstrated on that November day.

The trial did, however, bring not only to woman suffrage, but also to the related, persistent, devaluation of women.

An estimated 150 women across the United States joined in to vote during the presidential election on November 5, 1872.  From Tennessee, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, inspired by Anthony, voted, but no action was taken against her.  She did admit, however, that she did not know if her vote was actually counted.

The sad irony is that Anthony did not live long enough to be recognized as a citizen worthy of a vote. But her lifetime of effort did result in the most significant, far reaching social and political change in American history—more than half the citizens of our country finally got a voice in their “democratic” government in 1920, exactly 50 years after the 15th Amendment passed.  Anthony whose motto was “failure is impossible”  never gave up on our future.  Thank you Susan B.