During the controversy over the removal of the Cherokee people from their lands in Georgia, women in America were encouraged by reform-minded authors like Catharine Beecher and others to petition Congress. Such petitions were generally framed in terms of women’s traditional role as keepers of private (and by extension, public) morality. Nevertheless, there were some commentators who viewed even such limited political engagement as an unseemly crossing of the gender divide.
Women continued to petition at the state and federal levels throughout the decade, most often on the subject of slavery. During Congress’ debates over the annexation of Texas, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) presented two petitions signed by roughly four hundred women from Massachusetts against the admission of Texas as a slave state. The chairman of the committee to which the petitions were referred commented that he “felt regret when petitions thus signed were presented to the House relating to political matters,” for he “considered it discreditable, not only to their own particular section of the country, but also to the national character,” for women to concern themselves with such things. Proper women, he argued, ought to be content with limiting their political agency to their domestic circle, allowing their male relatives to represent their opinions to the public sphere.
Incensed, Adams responded with a speech delivered “in fragments of the morning hour” over the course of almost three weeks on the floor of Congress. He wove together practical examples of women’s political activism from the ancient world to the American Revolution with a theoretical argument in favor of women’s essential public role in republican societies, in particular as a natural outgrowth of their private role in the home and family.
Source: Speech of John Quincy Adams, of Massachusetts, upon the Right of the People, Men and Women, to Petition . . . (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1838).
…I will not ask whether it is the judgment of this House, but whether it is the sober judgment of the People of these United States, that the right of petition itself is to be denied to the female sex? to Women? Whether it is their will that women, as such, shall not petition this House? . . .
Yes, sir, he [Benjamin C. Howard, D-MD and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs] considered it “discreditable,” not only to the section of the country whence these memorials come, but discreditable to the nation. Sir, was it from a son—was it from a father—was it from a husband, that I heard these words? Does the gentleman consider that women, by petitioning this House in favor of suffering and of distress, perform an office “discreditable” to themselves, to the section of country where they reside, and to this nation? I trust to the good nature of that gentleman that he will retract such an assertion. I have a right to make this call upon him. It is to the wives and to the daughters of my constituents that he applies this language. Am I to consider their conduct in petitioning this House as a discredit to that section of the Union and to their country? Sir, if there is anything in which they could do honor to their country, it was in this very act. He says that women have no right to petition Congress on political subjects. Why, sir, what does the gentleman understand by “political subjects”? Everything in which this House has an agency—everything which relates to peace and relates to war, or to any other of the great interests of society, is a political subject. Are women to have no opinions or action on subjects relating to the general welfare? This must be the gentleman’s principle. Where did he get it? Did he find it in sacred history? in the account which is given of the emigration of a whole nation from the land of Egypt, under the guidance of Moses and Aaron? . . . This happened in the infancy of the Jewish nation—in its very formation as such. But has the gentleman never read or heard the account which is given, at a later period, of the victory of Deborah? . . .
Is the principle recognized here that women have nothing to do with political affairs? No, not so much as even to petition in regard to them? Has he forgotten the deed of Jael, who slew the dreaded enemy of her country, who had so often invaded and ravaged it? Has he forgotten the name of Esther, who, by a petition, saved her people and her country? . . .
Sir, I might go through the whole of the sacred history of the Jews, down to the advent of our Savior, and find innumerable examples of women who not only took an active part in the politics of their times, but who are held up with honor to posterity because they did so. . . . But let me come down to a happier age under the dispensation of the new covenant.
Since I was last upon this floor addressing the House on this subject, it has been my fortune to hear a discourse on perhaps the greatest miracle ever performed by our Savior while he was on earth—I mean the raising of Lazarus from the dead; and I could not but be struck by the remark of the preacher, a gentleman unknown to me, that the Savior performed this stupendous miracle at the petition of a woman! If gentlemen will consult the sacred record, they will find that the fact is so. . . .
[Adams was forced to leave off here, in the middle of his speech, because Congress adjourned. He resumed the subject over the course of several additional sessions, continuing his catalogue of politically active women given honor and acclaim from the ancient world through the American Revolution, and then turned to the philosophical elements of the question.]
. . . But I say that the correct principle is, that women are not only justified, but exhibit the most exalted virtue when they do depart from the domestic circle, and enter on the concerns of their country, of humanity, and of their God. The mere departure of woman from the duties of the domestic circle, far from being a reproach to her, is a virtue of the highest order, when it is done from purity of motive, by appropriate means, and toward a virtuous purpose. There is the true distinction. The motive must be pure, the means appropriate, and the purpose good. And I say that woman, by the discharge of such duties, has manifested a virtue which is even above the virtues of mankind, and approaches to a superior nature. That is the principle I maintain, and which the chairman of the committee has to refute, if he applies the position he has taken to the mothers, the sisters, and the daughters of the men of my district who voted to send me here. Now, I aver, further, that in the instance to which his observation refers, viz: in the act of petitioning against the annexation of Texas to this Union, the motive was pure, the means appropriate, and the purpose virtuous, in the highest degree. As an evident proof of this I recur to the particular petition from which this debate took its rise, viz: to the first petition I presented here against the annexation—a petition consisting of three lines, and signed by 238 women of Plymouth, a principal town in my own district. Their words are: “The undersigned, women of Plymouth, (Mass.,) thoroughly aware of the sinfulness of slavery, and the consequent impolicy and disastrous tendency of its extension in our country, do most respectfully remonstrate, with all our souls, against the annexation of Texas to the United States, as a slaveholding territory.”
Those are the words of their memorial. And I say that, in presenting it here, their motive was pure, and of the highest order of purity. They petitioned under a conviction that the consequence of the annexation would be the advancement of that which is sin in the sight of God, viz: slavery. I say, further, that the means were appropriate, because it is Congress who must decide on the question; and, therefore, it is proper that they should petition Congress if they wish to prevent the annexation. And I say, in the third place, that the end was virtuous, pure, and of the most exalted character, viz: to prevent the perpetuation and spread of slavery through America. I say, moreover, that I subscribe, in my own person, to every word the petition contains. I do believe slavery to be a sin before God, and that is the reason, and the only insurmountable reason why we should refuse to annex Texas to this Union. For, although the amendment I have moved declares that neither Congress nor any other portion of this government is of itself competent to make such annexation, yet I hold it not impossible, with the consent of the people of the United States and of the people of Texas, that a union might properly be accomplished. It might be effected by an amendment of the Constitution, submitted to the approval of the people of the United States, as all other amendments are to be submitted, and by afterward submitting the question to the decision of the people of both states. I admit that in that way such a union might be, and may be formed. But not with a state tolerating slavery; not with a people who have converted freemen into slaves; not so long as slavery exists in Texas. So long as that continues, I do not hold it practicable, in any form, that the two nations should ever be united. Thus far I go. I concur in every word of the petition I had the honor to present; and I hold it to be proof of pure patriotism, of sincere piety, and of every virtue that can adorn the female character.
- 1.