Countdown In Tennessee, 1920


What followed, though it seemed important at the time, was mostly anticlimax—or, as many claimed, comic opera. Now, predictably, it was the Antis who charged bribery. There were speculations, rumors, accusations: Joe Hanover had bribed Harry Burn; the governor’s secretary had gotten to Harry Burn; Mrs. Leslie Warner had said in the presence of Harry Burn that she would pay ten thousand dollars for just one more vote for ratification. One elaborate and convoluted theory even had Seth Walker publicly playing the role of an Anti for reasons best known to himself, while remaining at heart a true ratificationist who knew exactly what he was doing when he changed his vote to give the suffragists their unbudgeable constitutional majority. But this theory never gained much currency, even in later years when the L & N Railroad named Seth Walker their legal counsel in Nashville.

In any case, young Harry Burn put himself forever above suspicion or censure when he rose in the House chamber the day after the vote to explain his decision to change sides: “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

The drama played itself out. In order to “build fires” under the Suffs’ legislators, the Antis held mass rallies (“To Save the South!”) all over Tennessee during the next few days. Suffragist legislators were tested with new and unalloyed temptations and threats. But no weak brethren turned up among the “Sterling 49.” None fell by the wayside drunk or disabled. They all showed up in the House, ready to vote full force against any reconsideration of ratification on Saturday morning, August 21, when Seth Walker’s control of the motion ran out.

They found only nine Antis in attendance that morning. The others had skipped town. In one of the more bizarre filibusters on record, thirty-eight Tennessee lawmakers—Antis called them the Red Rose Brigade—had stolen away in little groups of two or three in the middle of the previous night, and taken the train over the state line to Decatur, Alabama, where they were hiding out rather publicly in the lobby of the local hotel. But there were not enough of them to achieve their aim: to prevent the assembling of a quorum in the Tennessee legislature, and thus prevent action on reconsideration.

The “Sterling 49” proceeded joyfully to do business without them. (The House’s anti-suffrage chaplain added to their merriment when he opened the morning’s session with a prayer that “God’s richest blessing be granted to our absent ones.”) The pending motion to reconsider was called up, voted down, and the ratified Amendment was returned to the Senate. From there it went to the governor for certification, to be followed by delivery to Washington.

On Tuesday, August 24, Governor Roberts signed, sealed, and sent off by special delivery registered mail to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby the certificate of Tennessee’s ratification. That same day, Mrs. Catt, Mrs. Upton, and Miss Charl Ormond Williams boarded the train to Washington, hoping to be on hand for ceremonies when the secretary issued his proclamation—the final, formal step in the seventy-two-year-long suffrage journey. But when they arrived, early on the morning of August 26, 1920, it was all over. The certificate had preceded them by a few hours, and Secretary Colby, to preclude any further last-ditch legal obstructionism by the Antis, had issued his proclamation on the instant, before breakfast. While most of the country was in bed, asleep or otherwise occupied, votes for women had become the law of the land.