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272 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 13 illus., notes, bibl., index

ISBN 978-0-8078-5426-6

Published: Spring 2003

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Signatures of Citizenship
Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women's Political Identity

by Susan Zaeske

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


A Touching, Ludicrous, Edifying History

Early in February 1834 Louisa, Maria, Abigail, Rosey, and Caroline Dickinson signed their names to a petition addressed to the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States. They were joined by Phebe Tinker, Alvira Means, and Comfort Harmon as well as scores of other Ohio women who together prayed Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. These westerners were among the first women in the United States to collectively petition Congress on a political issue. In so doing they defied the long-standing custom of females limiting their petitioning of Congress to individual prayers regarding personal grievances. During the coming years hundreds of thousands of women from throughout the North would join the petition campaign and risk association with the unpopular cause of immediate abolitionism. Maria Weston Chapman, a leader of the petitioning effort, recalled that when antislavery women began to petition Congress, many Americans—male and female alike—were not "wont to witness the appeals kindly." Time and again female petitioners were assailed for leaving their "proper" sphere of the home and abandoning benevolent charitable causes to engage in petitioning and political action in the public arena. Yet antislavery women persevered, leading Chapman to predict that "a history of their progress door to door, with the obstacles they encountered would be at once touching, ludicrous, and edifying."[1]

This book is a history of women antislavery petitioners' progress from door-to-door, of the obstacles they encountered, and of the important contributions that women's petitioning ultimately made to the success of the abolition movement. It is also a book about how by petitioning against slavery free women seized the radical potential of one of the few civil rights they were understood to possess—the right of petition—to assert substantial political authority. Indeed, the antislavery petition campaign marked one of the first instances in which large numbers of white and free black American women engaged in collective petitioning of Congress in an attempt to reshape public opinion and influence national policy. Enabling them to participate in national public dialogue over the controversial issue of slavery absent the right of suffrage, petitioning provided a conduit for women to assert a modified form of citizenship. Although at the beginning of their involvement in the campaign in 1835 women tended to disavow the political nature of their petitioning, by the 1840s they routinely asserted the right of women to make political demands of their representatives. This change in the rhetoric of female antislavery petitions and appeals, from a tone of humility to a tone of insistence, reflected an ongoing transformation of the political identity of signers from that of subjects to that of citizens. Having encouraged women's involvement in national politics, women's antislavery petitioning created an appetite for further political participation and more rights. After female abolitionists established the right of women to petition Congress collectively on political issues, countless women employed that right to lobby their representatives and agitate public opinion to promote causes such as temperance, antilynching, and ultimately, woman suffrage.

From 1831 to 1863 women publicly expressed their opinion about slavery by affixing approximately 3 million signatures to petitions aimed at Congress. The addition of women's names beginning in 1835 swelled to a flood what was previously a trickle of memorials submitted almost exclusively by men. Women's efforts enabled abolitionists to send enough petitions to Congress to provoke debate over the question of slavery, a feat petitioning by men alone had failed to accomplish. Sparking discussion of slavery proved to be a crucial victory for the abolitionist movement, for as William Freehling has observed, the debates prompted by antislavery petitions in the 1830s were "the Pearl Harbor of the slavery controversy." Deluged with petitions, in June 1836 the House of Representatives passed a rule immediately tabling all memorials on the subject of slavery. The rule proved a "godsend" to the struggling antislavery movement, for it linked the popular right of petition with the unpopular cause of immediate abolitionism. Petitioning was intended not only to pressure congressmen but also to rectify public opinion with regard to the sinfulness of slavery. By gathering signatures in family and female social networks as well as through soliciting door-to-door, women discussed the issue of slavery with people who would never go to hear an abolitionist lecturer and who could not read abolitionist tracts.[2]

Petitioning fit hand in glove with immediate abolitionists' strategy of moral suasion, which called for the use of moral appeals to awaken public sentiment to induce slaveholders to forsake human bondage. Although women's petitioning soon became highly controversial, at the outset the philosophy of moral suasion and the tool of petitioning seemed to offer an especially suitable means for women to participate in the abolition movement. Women could use the right of petition—a right that, unlike the ballot, they were generally understood to possess—to apply the force of their supposedly superior morality to reform public opinion with regard to the sin of slavery. Although petitioning was less direct than voting, in the 1830s at least, it was not necessarily considered less powerful. Petitioning was seen as a pure expression of individual moral conscience, as opposed to the vote, which was viewed as tainted with personal interest and party spirit. So central was petitioning to antebellum political culture that certain men, particularly radical reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison, eschewed voting in favor of petitioning as a tool to reform the morals of the republic. Although women did not have the luxury of forsaking the vote, they could use petitioning to join their male abolitionist colleagues in attempting to effect a moral transformation in public opinion.[3]

Central to comprehending the history of women's antislavery petitioning and its effect on women's political status is an understanding of the nature of the right of petition. At its core a petition is a request for redress of grievances sent from a subordinate (whether an individual or a group) to a superior (whether a ruler or a representative). As a genre of political communication, the petition is characterized by a humble tone and an acknowledgment of the superior status of the recipient. While the practice of petitioning began as an individual making a request of his or her ruler for redress of personal grievances, over time the meaning and function of petitioning changed drastically. By the advent of the Jacksonian era, men were frequently using organized mass petitioning to agitate public opinion in order to achieve their political goals. But even as a greater number of white men used collective petitioning, prior to 1829 the petitioning of white and black women remained limited for the most part to individual prayers regarding personal issues. A particular innovation of antislavery women was to defy on a mass scale the customary limitations on female petitioning and to justify the collective exercise of the right of petition by their sex.[4]

The supplicatory nature of the right of petition held radical potential for women, for natural law assumed that all subjects (and later all citizens) possessed the right of petition and that rulers (and later representatives) were obliged to receive and respond to petitions regardless of the subject of their prayer. Abolition women relied on the first assumption in order to claim and defend their right to petition amidst an environment in which their political status, like that of free blacks, was undergoing constant renegotiation. In fact, so labile was the political status of certain groups of inhabitants of the republic that state constitutional reform conventions of the 1820s and 1830s revoked free black men's voting rights, rights they had previously possessed and exercised. In 1837 the House of Representatives decided that slaves were not citizens and passed a resolution stating that they had no right of petition. For women, also a group whose political rights were vulnerable, petitioning amounted to an assertion that they possessed the right of petition and that they were citizens, though a type of citizen different from enfranchised men. By assuming the status of petitioners, women, though they lacked the vote, forced a hearing of their requests, for their representatives were obligated, in principle at least, to receive and respond to their grievances. Even when the House repeatedly passed gag rules that immediately tabled all antislavery petitions, through their continued petitioning, women kept alive the slavery question in public discourse. They added to congressional and general public debate, moreover, discussion of women's rights and the nature of female citizenship.[5]

This study seeks to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the role of women in U.S. political culture both by documenting women's impact on the public debate over slavery and by demonstrating how, by participating in that debate, women transformed their political identities. By exploring the rhetoric of female antislavery petitions, addresses calling women to petition, reactions to women's petitioning, and congressional responses to women's petitions, this book reconstructs debate over women's exercise of the one political right they could convincingly claim. By charting changes over time in the way women identified themselves in their petitions, the patterns of their signatures, and the arguments they employed in petitions as well as other discourse related to the campaign, this study excavates from rhetorical texts a history of transformations of individual women's political identities and formations of collective female subjectivities.[6]

Approaching the petitions and addresses with an eye to the reconstruction of female political subjectivity, I focus on a cultural process related to individuals' living experience and the ever-changing discursive resources available to them. This process involves discursive practices that facilitate not only development of an isolated individual identity but also "identity in relationship," or collective subjectivities. Yet as much as collective subjectivities function as categories of inclusion, they function also as rules of exclusion, particularly exclusion from political power along the lines of gender, race, class, and sexual preference. In other words, when requirements for inclusion in dominant subjectivities such as "citizen" differ from prevailing identities of certain groups such as women or free blacks, members of these groups are delegitimated from participation in the public sphere and denied political power.[7]

The dual nature of political subjectivities as paradigms of both inclusion and exclusion is readily apparent in the history of the Jacksonian period. The growth of party organizing and political participation during the mid- to late 1820s is widely accepted as a marker of a turning point in the nature of American democracy and the character of the political subject. Andrew Jackson's ascendancy coincided with the ongoing expansion of white manhood suffrage, mass literacy, proliferation of newspapers and magazines, and developments in transportation, all of which led to the politicization of the public. The "people" had come to exert greater power over their representatives not only through the vote but also through the pressure of public opinion. Yet although the rise of mass democracy enhanced the political power of white males, people of color and women continued to be excluded or were newly excluded from the rights of citizenship.[8]

Yet despite principles of exclusion and lack of access to popular means of participation such as public speaking, publishing in newspapers, and pamphleteering, women and people of color did find avenues to influence public debate. Mary Ryan has described the "circuitous routes" women traveled to enter public discourse in the nineteenth-century United States, such as "corrupted forms, like the cloying feminine symbols used in electoral campaigns" and deployment of "ladies" at political rallies as "badges of respectability." While I agree with Ryan that women were forced to seek alternative routes to the polis, I think we need not travel so far afield to find women in public during the antebellum period. By petitioning Congress, middle-class, northern, mostly white women insinuated themselves into public discussion through use of a highly traditional form of political communication. Rather than operating at the margins of the bourgeois pubic sphere, petitioning women inserted their opinions into central sites of public debate such as the U.S. Congress and newspapers circulated throughout the nation.[9]

The bulk of the research for this book was drawn from petitions sent to Congress, which are stored at the National Archives and maintained by the Center for Legislative Archives. It would have been nearly impossible to complete a study of this magnitude were it not for the existence of the Our Mothers before Us project at the Outreach Branch of the Center for Legislative Archives, for which archivists systematically combed the records of every session of Congress to extract documents submitted by women. This study is based not only on extant petitions signed by women from the full gamut of their involvement in the abolition petition campaign (1831 to 1865) located by the Our Mothers before Us project, but it also considers those signed by men or by men and women from 1819 to 1865 that remain uncataloged as well as oversized antislavery petitions that were not cataloged by the National Archives until 1995. It also draws on petitions employed in subsequent movements such as antilynching and woman suffrage, which have been identified by the Our Mothers before Us project. To account for potential regional differences in the rhetoric of petitions, the forms used for close readings include those emanating from throughout New England, Pennsylvania, and New York as well as from the western frontier of Ohio and from both urban and rural communities.[10]

By offering a comprehensive study focused on women's petitioning of Congress, in no sense does this analysis gainsay the significance of antislavery petitioning directed at state legislatures. Indeed, thousands of women and men petitioned their legislatures at a time when state governmental bodies played a larger role in lawmaking than the federal government. It is certainly important to account for women's petitioning of state legislatures as a step in transforming female political identities, yet because of the enormous numbers of female antislavery petitions sent to Congress, accounting also for women's petitions to state legislatures is beyond the practical means of this study. I decided to focus tightly on women's congressional antislavery petitioning, moreover, because it marked a significant change in women's political activism and signaled the growth of an identity of national citizenship. While women's antislavery petitioning of Congress was coordinated at the state level and executed locally, it linked abolition women as a group to national institutions and leaders. In the process of seeking freedom for slaves from the federal government, female petitioners went from identifying themselves in their petitions as the "female inhabitants" or "ladies" of a given town during the 1830s to calling themselves "Women of America" in the later 1840s. Defining themselves as members of the national polity moved women closer to seeing themselves as national citizens entitled to the rights accorded by national citizenship.

This book proceeds chronologically in describing the fluidity in the meaning and function of the right of petition in Western political history, its adoption by antislavery women, and its use by women as an instrument to shape public opinion in social movements through the end of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Chapter 1 places women's antislavery petitioning in the context of the changing function and meaning of the right of petition from its origins in the Magna Carta to its use in the mass politics of Jacksonian America. Long before abolitionists embraced petitioning in their campaign against slavery, other groups outside the domains of institutionalized government had exploited the subversive potential of the right of petition by using it as an entering wedge into various realms of political power. It was this radical potential of petitioning that antislavery women, denied the full rights of republican citizenship, seized in order to pressure their representatives by appealing to the power of public opinion, which propelled them into the midst of a major national political debate.

Chapter 2 identifies the multiple forces that led women to begin petitioning Congress to end slavery. It traces the transatlantic effects of abolitionism and demonstrates that the success of British women's antislavery petitioning played a large part in convincing American male antislavery leaders of the efficacy of encouraging women to petition. Before female antislavery societies took up the call to petition in 1834, they had concentrated their efforts on teaching free blacks, boycotting products of slave labor, and conversing with relatives and friends about the evils of slavery; they had generally refrained from petitioning, despite the fact that by 1833 antislavery men had embraced it as a major means of agitation. Chapter 3 demonstrates that during the first phase of female antislavery petitioning from 1831 to 1836, as women crossed into new terrain by petitioning their political representatives in hopes of influencing debate on a national issue, their petition forms employed a rhetoric of humility and disavowal. Rather than justifying exercise of the right of petition on the grounds of natural rights principles, women described their actions as motivated by Christian duty and as an extension of the religious speech act of prayer. Yet women's petitions were infused with republican and free labor rhetoric that in effect constructed a uniquely northern middle-class conception of citizenship, a conception that relied heavily on notions of virtue and elevated the moral power of women.

Chapter 4 argues that in addition to substantially increasing the appeal of abolitionism by linking the institution of slavery with the denial of northern civil rights, passage of the gag rule in June 1836 also had a significant impact on discourse about women's political rights. In four major addresses published during the summer of 1836, female antislavery leaders denounced the gag rule as an unjust law enacted by morally flawed men and instructed women to ignore the will of men who wished to suppress their pleas and to follow their own moral conscience with respect to the sin of slavery. The addresses directed women to ignore not only the will of slaveholding congressmen but also that of northern men who questioned the propriety of women petitioning Congress. Abolition women initiated further discussion of their rights and responsibilities as activists by taking the unprecedented step of meeting in convention and answering the gag rule by intensifying their petitioning. By doing so women gained important skills of political organizing and set in place a systematic petitioning plan, for which they adopted short petitions that excluded the expressions of humility and disassociation with politics characteristic of their previous petitions. Likewise, the addresses that issued from the convention advanced beyond those published in 1836 that claimed that women possessed a moral duty to petition to asserting that women were citizens and, as such, possessed a constitutional right to petition.

Chapter 5 maintains that for the hundreds of thousands of women who in 1837 lent their names to antislavery memorials, signing petitions marked a significant development in their political identities. By entering public dialogue on the issue of slavery, women transformed themselves from private individuals into public actors who operated independent of male guardians. Those women who circulated petitions, moreover, exercised a degree of political literacy by familiarizing themselves with antislavery arguments and employing them in face-to-face persuasive exchanges. Yet as more women than ever signed and circulated abolition petitions in 1837, northern defenders of male political dominance and traditional gender roles attempted to halt their progress. Such attacks succeeded only in pushing women abolitionists to develop stronger arguments about their right as citizens to petition, to take the unprecedented step of threatening to unseat congressmen who ignored them as constituents, and to link the right of petition with the right of suffrage.

Chapter 6 focuses on debates in Congress sparked by the influx of women's antislavery petitions from 1835 to 1839, which led to what was perhaps the first sustained discussion of the political rights of women in the history of the federal legislature. Slaveholding members as a well as a number of northern representatives conflated gendered norms of respectable behavior with constitutional rights, arguing that because it was improper for women to petition Congress, they had no right to petition Congress. Women, they argued, moreover lacked basic qualifications for republican citizenship—they could neither reason logically nor act independently—therefore their petitions should not be seriously considered. Throughout the debates Representative John Quincy Adams responded to attacks on female antislavery petitions by exposing the confounding of acceptable gender conduct with the exercise of natural rights. There was no doubt that women possessed a constitutional right of petition, he argued, and exercise of that right should not be contingent on the character of petitioners. Not only did Adams attempt to safeguard women's right of petition, but he insisted that women were citizens and, notably, questioned whether women might not also possess the right to vote.

Chapter 7 argues that although female petitioning decreased appreciably after 1839 when abolitionists adopted a strategy of direct political action, those women who continued to petition embraced a more clearly political stance than they had in the past and identified themselves as national citizens. As they became involved in electoral politics and saw themselves as constituents to whom congressmen were accountable, their petitions instructed representatives about specific federal legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in remarkably bold republican language. By the mid-1850s women's petitioning on the clearly political issue of slavery had become so acceptable that even one of the most outspoken critics of this practice during the 1830s, Catharine Beecher, signed a petition. Acceptance of the propriety of women exercising their right to petition on political issues, even an issue as political as amending the U.S. Constitution, was crucial to the success of 1860s petition campaigns, which were dominated by women, to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

After 1865 the right of petition continued to function as a crucial and persistent means of influence employed by women determined to participate in politics despite the fact that neither the Constitution nor custom recognized their full rights as citizens. Women's antislavery petitioning not only contributed significantly to the abolitionist movement but also made the use of collective petitioning of Congress to push for legislation and arouse public opinion a more acceptable form of political activity for women. After female abolitionists set the precedent of mass petitioning of Congress, women took up this tool and began to work on a long list of reforms such as temperance, antilynching, and antipolygamy. Ultimately, mass petitioning provided a primary means through which women expanded their citizenship by securing the right to vote. Though she did not live to witness the enfranchisement of women in 1920, almost six decades earlier Susan B. Anthony had emphasized the importance of petitioning to women as political beings. "Women can neither take the ballot nor the bullet to settle" political questions of the day, she said. "Therefore, to us, the right to petition is one sacred right which we ought not to neglect."[11]

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