Susan B. Anthony Cast Her Ballot For Ulysses S. Grant

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Shortly before the Republicans convened in Philadelphia in 1872 to renominate Ulysses S. Grant for President, Susan Brownell Anthony visited him at the White House. She told the President that her National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) wanted him to make votes for women a plank in his platform. Grant replied that he had “already done more for women than any other president.” He recognized the “right of women to be postmasters,” he said, and had named five thousand to the post, but he would make no promises about the party platform.

Anthony had never been comfortable playing the role of supplicant. The NWSA’s mottoes avoided any pleading tone: “Men—their rights and nothing more. Women—their rights and nothing less”; “Principle, not Policy. Justice, not favors.” But the suffragists believed that Republicans were their best bet in the upcoming election; Henry Wilson, who was to be Grant’s vice-presidential running mate, was less equivocal about women’s suffrage than Grant, while Horace Greeley, the probable Democratic candidate, was outspokenly against it.

Anthony had asked for Greeley’s support five years earlier. “The bullet and the ballot go together, madam,” he had replied. “If you vote, are you prepared to fight?” “Yes, Mr. Greeley. Just as you fought in the late war—at the point of a goose quill.” The answer hardly endeared her cause to him, and Greeley had not changed his position in the intervening years; he had stated publicly that “the best women I know do not want to vote.”

She knew better than to expect much progress, however, when she arrived in Philadelphia for the Republican convention on Friday, June 7. The NWSA delegation was met, as often before, with gallant words and the excuse of “party expediency.” Anthony was told that the chief objective of the convention was to ensure full citizenship and voting rights for the “colored male citizen.” Distractions would have to be postponed. Anthony had fought against slavery for years, but she rejected an application of the Thirteenth Amendment that left black and white women alike enslaved to male relatives.

In the end, Anthony’s delegation had to accept a campaign plank that soothingly cited Republican “obligations to the loyal women of America for their noble devotion to the cause of freedom” and the hope for “their admission to wider fields of usefulness.” Nevertheless, the plank ended with the statement, “The honest demands of any class of citizens for equal rights should be treated with respectful consideration.” No national party had said even that much before.

Having decided to throw her organization’s support to the Republicans, Anthony started a speaking tour on September 20. She was convinced “without a particle of doubt” that, in fact, the Constitution already guaranteed women’s right to vote. The new Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments assured it. The Fourteenth, just four years old, decreed that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens” and “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens.” The Fifteenth, added in 1870, prohibited any state from withholding the right to vote from any citizen “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The suffragists had lobbied to include the word sex, but again, the excuse of “party expediency” had prevailed. Nonetheless there could be no justifiable doubt because the Fourteenth also included the caveat that no state could deny “to any person… the equal protection of the laws.” Totally convinced of women’s constitutional right to vote, Anthony decided to present herself to the board of registry on the designated date; on Election Day, she would cast her ballot.

Two territories had already recognized women’s voting rights: Wyoming in 1869 and Utah in 1870. Nor would Anthony be the first woman to attempt to vote in one of the states. Marilla M. Ricker of Dover, New Hampshire, had been rebuffed in 1870, but in April of 1871 Nanette B. Gardner voted in Detroit and got away with it. That same month seventy-two women had tried to register in the District of Columbia but had been denied. When they had appealed to the supreme court of the district, the judges proclaimed that the granting of citizenship did not necessarily confer the right to vote, thereby ignoring several law dictionaries that defined citizenship as including the “right to vote… for public officers.” The United States Supreme Court saw no reason to overturn the lower court’s decision.

Several other voting attempts had been frustrated at one level or another, but Mrs. L. D. Mansfield and “three other ladies” had registered and succeeded in voting in Nyack, New York, in 1871. “No evil results followed,” The New York Times concluded in an editorial.

Anthony sought substantiation for her decision to vote from lawyers in her hometown of Rochester, New York, but none was interested until she called upon Henry R. Selden, a former judge of the New York Court of Appeals and of the state supreme court. Like the others, Selden had never considered the issue, but he agreed to review it. After doing so, he told Anthony the amendments did guarantee voting rights to women. He promised to support her claim.