Illustrating the self-promotional flair that propelled him to national prominence in the first place, Donald Trump is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment Tuesday with a presidential pardon for the ages.
“Later today, I will be signing a full and complete pardon for Susan B. Anthony,” he told reporters at the White House. “She was never pardoned. What took so long?”
Whatever one thinks of President Trump, this is genius. And though Trump may have only recently learned that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, his musings about America’s most influential 19th century suffragist link him directly to the Grand Old Party’s crusading roots.
On Nov. 5, 1872, Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president. One of the votes received by the Republican ticket was adjudged to be illegal. This was the ballot cast in Rochester, N.Y., by Susan B. Anthony, who subsequently stood trial for the “crime” of voting while female.
By 1872, the 14th Amendment (granting equal protection under the law) had been ratified, Reconstruction was underway, and wildflowers once again grew in the fields that had been covered with the dead and wounded a decade earlier. Our nation’s Civil War widows, along with the hundreds of thousands of children left fatherless by that great conflict, were finding their way in life as best they could.
After such a cataclysm, fought on the Northern side under the banner of ending slavery, it seemed obscene to many Americans that half the adults in the country couldn’t participate in the most basic democratic exercise on account of their sex. The women who pressed this case were called suffragists (or “suffragettes” in the parlance of the day), and they had no bolder champion than Massachusetts-born Susan B. Anthony.
In the years before the war, she has been an abolitionist and prohibitionist — the prohibition in question relating to of alcohol. The temperance movement radicalized Anthony, however, and not in the way its leadership intended. Barred by men from speaking at anti-drinking rallies, she turned her intellect and her ire away from the distillers and toward a larger target: the nation’s male-dominated political system itself.
And so, on Nov. 1, 1872, Anthony and her three sisters talked their way into registering to vote in a barbershop in Rochester’s Eighth Ward. The male registrars didn’t want to do it, but Susan Anthony threatened to sue them personally unless they relented. Elsewhere in the city, as part of a plan, several groups of women attempted to register to vote, 14 or 15 of them succeeding.
The ballots they cast four days later were secret, but the women’s sympathies were not: President Grant and his Republican Party, the party that ended slavery, was far more receptive to the idea of women’s rights than the Democratic Party. And so, as she informed Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a letter, Susan Anthony enthusiastically voted for Grant and a straight party-line ticket. A Democratic Party poll watcher named Sylvester Lewis didn’t want to accept the vote, but the two Republicans registrars did; on a 2-1 vote, it went in the hopper.
Pettiness and pettifoggery characterized the response of the city’s male burghers to this affront. The same was true for the loyal lapdogs in the Democratic Party-leaning media, which in those days consisted solely of newspapers and magazines.
“Citizenship no more carries the right to vote than it carries the power to fly to the moon,” harrumphed the Rochester Union and Advertiser, the city’s leading Democratic Party newspaper. “If these women in the Eighth Ward offer to vote, they should be challenged, and if they take the oaths and the Inspectors receive and deposit their ballots, they should all be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
This advice was duly followed. Sylvester Lewis registered a formal complaint accusing Susan B. Anthony with casting an illegal vote. The local U.S. attorney charged her with a federal crime. This was precisely the discussion Anthony hoped to launch, and after being indicted (by an all-male grand jury) on Jan. 24, 1873, she embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour in every corner of Rochester, consciously trying to open the minds of anyone who might be seated on her jury.
Her reasoning was forceful, but basic. The right to vote, she said, was an inherent right of every citizen and couldn’t be taken away by voting registrars, courts, state legislatures — or even Congress.
“Friends and fellow-citizens,” she would begin. “I stand before you tonight, under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the national Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.”
Ms. Anthony wasn’t coy about the result she was trying to bring about: jury nullification, and eventual ratification of her view by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We ask the juries to fail to return verdicts of ‘guilty’ against honest, law-abiding, tax-paying United States citizens for offering their votes at our elections,” she said. “We ask the judges to render true and unprejudiced opinions of the law, and wherever there is room for a doubt to give its benefit on the side of liberty and equal rights to women.”
In response, the federal prosecutor convinced a judge to move the trial out of Monroe County to Ontario County and to delay the trial from May to June. This gambit merely offered Anthony the opportunity to proselytize prospective jurors in another venue, which she did with gusto, speaking in that other county for 21 days in a row before concluding with a passionate oration in the county seat of Canandaigua the night before her trial.
The presiding judge was Ward Hunt, whom Susan Anthony seems to have considered a dimwitted political hack. But he was a high-level hack: A crony of New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, Judge Hunt had at the time of the trial been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve, albeit with little distinction, for nine years.
In the months between Anthony’s arrest and her trial, the Supreme Court that would soon welcome Hunt as a member undercut her legal rationale by issuing two very narrow interpretations of the 14th Amendment. The New York Times, for one, hid neither its glee nor its hostility to Susan B. Anthony and her cause.
“Miss Anthony is not in the remotest degree likely to gain her case, nor if it were ever so desirable that women should vote, would hers be a good case,” barked a Times editorial. “When so important a change in our Constitution as she proposes is made, it will be done openly and unmistakably, and not left to the subtle interpretation of a clause adopted for a wholly different purpose.”
For his part, Judge Hunt essentially rigged the trial against Anthony, ruling that she could not testify in her own behalf, and then reading a handwritten ruling from the bench — apparently penned before the trial — that directed the jury to render a guilty verdict.
Anthony later revealed her own views of the trial judge, describing him as “a small-brained, pale-faced, prim-looking man, enveloped in a faultless black suit and a snowy white tie.” And after he pronounced his sentence (a $100 fine, no jail time), she stood up and denounced his verdict, despite Hunt’s repeated attempts to make her sit down and be quiet. She did neither.
“It was ‘We, the People,’ not ‘We, the white male citizens’…who formed this Union,” she told the court. “and we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them. Not to the half of ourselves and half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”
The fine and court costs have gone unpaid to this day. Now, thanks to a creative incumbent president seeking to do what Ulysses Grant did, which is win a second term, her shameful conviction will be forever set aside.