Abby, Julia, And The Cows

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The town voters received the speech in complete silence, and at its end resumed the business of the meeting as though the interruption had never occurred. Julia and Abby returned home with hardened resolution. Taxation without representation had been out of fashion for a hundred years; they would pay no further taxes to the town of Glastonbury until they could have some say in the town spending. When the collector called again they informed him that “it really does not belong to us to assist in any way, having no voice in the matter.”

It was customary at that time for property-holding women to be represented “constructively” at town meetings by their male relatives. The Smith sisters had no means of representation. Furthermore, it was allowable for any citizen to withhold taxes upon payment of twelve per cent interest, and the sisters were aware that thousands of dollars in taxes were at that time outstanding. No such privilege was extended to the old ladies. Instead, the collector attached seven of the Smith cows for taxes amounting to $101.39. Despite the sisters’ pleading, the cows were led, with considerable difficulty, out of their familiar stable and lodged for seven days in the small tobacco shed of a neighbor.

The officials soon discovered that they had no ordinary cows on their hands. These creatures had been delicately and lovingly reared. They responded at a gallop to the names of Jessie, Daisy, Proxy, Minnie, Bessie, Whitey, and Lily. They were so emotionally dependent that every day of their captivity they refused to be milked until Julia came and stood reassuringly in sight. Their plaintive lowing rent the sisters’ hearts and distracted the neighbors.

On the morning when the cows marched to the auction block, the Glastonbury citizens who had come expecting to buy some fine Alderney cows for a song were chagrined to find that the Smith sisters, while refusing to pay a tax of $101.39, were prepared to outbid all comers to redeem their pets. The Smiths’ agent bought back four of the cows but was obliged to sacrifice the others.

It was the editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican who first recognized in an amusing local incident implications of national importance. He reprinted Abby’s entire speech and ran a flag-waving account of her first skirmish with the tax collector, adding that “Abby Smith and her sister as truly stand for the American principle as did the citizens who ripped open the tea chests in Boston Harbor, or the farmers who leveled their muskets at Concord…. It will not be creditable if Abby Smith and her sister are left to stand alone … to fight the battle of principle unaided.” Without the sisters’ knowledge the editor proposed an Abby Smith defense fund and solicited contributions.

As money and encouragement began to pour in, editors across the country sensed that a good fight was just beginning. A writer in Harper’s Weekly referred to Abby Smith as “Sam Adams redivivus.” Overnight the seven cows of Glastonbury became so famous that flowers made from hairs of their tails, tied with ribbons bearing the slogan “Taxation without Representation,” were featured at a bazaar in Chicago.

National leaders of woman suffrage respectfully welcomed the sisters to a place of honor in their ranks. Lucy Stone traveled to Glastonbury to meet them and wrote back to the Woman’s Journal: “Here some day, as to Bunker Hill now, will come men and women who are reverent of the great principle of the consent of the governed, who respect courage and fidelity to principle, and who will hold at its true value the part which these sisters have taken in solving the meaning of a representative government.”

Abby’s first taste of public speaking had apparently been exhilarating. In February, 1874, the two sisters accepted an invitation to appear at a convention on woman suffrage at Worcester, Massachusetts, where Abby made another spirited appeal, ending on the defiant note: “I fear we shall receive no mercy at their hands, and must rest content that they can’t shut us up as they did our cows, and what is worse still they cannot shut our mouths.”

Glastonbury males could refuse to listen, however. When in April the sisters appeared for a second time at the town meeting, Abby’s petition to speak was denied. Undaunted, Abby mounted an old wagon which stood outside the town hall, pulled from her pocket the speech she had prepared, and directed her vigorous logic toward a handful of curious spectators. Julia circulated among the audience, emphasizing her sister’s arguments by the vehement little jerks of her head that were forever sending her black bonnet down over one ear.

Unimpressed, the tax collector called once more with the suggestion that the ladies might now be ready to pay. “We cannot think it right to do so,” they replied, “and you will have to do as you think best in the matter.”