Mama's boy

An anniversary, a letter, "the low neck and high skirt variety," and a misconception. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A hundred years ago this week, the Tennessee legislature ratified the 19th Amendment, making it the 36th state to do so, and enshrining voting rights* for women into the text of the U.S. Constitution.

You’ll notice that asterisk on the idea of voting rights*. I’ll address that below. But first, let’s mark the occasion with a nice story about Febb Burn, who was a 47-year-old widow in Niota, Tennessee at the time of that momentous vote.

Burn was a farmer, a college graduate, and a suffragist through and through. She was also the mother of 24-year-old Harry T. Burn, who happened to be a freshman delegate in the Tennessee House of Representatives at the time.

Niota is about 135 miles from Nashville as the crow flies, but a world away. It’s a three-hour drive now, but in those pre-Interstate days it was a longer trip.

So, when Harry headed west for the summer legislative session, his mother kept in touch via U.S. Mail.

She sent him one letter in July 1920, six handwritten pages, with news about the the weather and the neighbors and their Ford automobile — and oh, by the way — she weaved in a few subtle notes advising how her son ought to vote on the most pressing matter of the session.

Again, that would be: “voting rights* for women.”

The ratification of the 19th Amendment is yet another one of those things that seems inevitable now, but only in retrospect. At the time, it was incredibly contentious, and covered head to toe with the stink and muck of do-anything politics.

There were 48 U.S. states then, and 75 percent had to approve the amendment. While 35 states had signed off, the remainder were much harder sells. Tennessee was last-ditch.

Arguments against ratification in the South weren’t just over women’s rights; it was what might happen next — the idea that women would be more sympathetic to non-white people.

For example, Burn’s mentor, Tenneesse state Sen. Herschel M. Candler, argued that suffragists were also the type who thought interracial marriage was hunky-dory. That, he claimed, was evidence of their low character:

“I am here representing the mothers who are at home rocking the cradle, and not representing the low-neck and high-skirt variety … They would drag the womanhood of Tennessee down to the level of the Negro woman.”

Well, he sounds nice.

The vote was going to be close. The lobbying and arm-twisting were extreme. Still, Harry T. Burn was seen as a sure-thing vote against ratification, in line with his mentor.

As fate would have it, the lower house of the Tennessee legislature was tied when it was Burn’s turn to vote. But in his vest pocket, he later explained, he kept the letter from his mother, Febb.

Among her entreaties to her son:

Page 2: “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed [Candler’s] speech, it was very bitter.”

Page 4: “I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet...”

Page 6: “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ with her ‘rats.’ Is she the one that put ‘rat’ in ‘ratification?’ Ha! No more from Mama this time. With lots of love.”

(“Mrs. Thomas Catt” referred to Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the most pominent women’s suffrage leaders of the day. You can read Febb Burn’s full letter here.)

Carole Bucy, a history professor at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, described the scene in the legislature for NPR:

“The pressure in Tennessee's House chamber that morning was intense, because every person sitting there knew, ‘It's us [Tennessee] or [ratification] won't happen.’

Harry Burn is called, and he—in what was regarded to be a fairly quiet voice—said, ‘Aye.’

Pandemonium is erupting. The ‘antis’ are furious. They thought they had this locked up!”

So that’s it. Harry T. Burn said, “aye.”

Women of the United States, you have good ol’ “Baby Burn” (that was his nickname) to thank. Look past the fact that he later lobbied vociferously against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s; for this brief moment he was the key to women’s voting rights*!

Afterward, Burn was accused of having accepted a bribe, but he insisted on his innocence. Instead, he said his mother’s letter had changed his mind.

“I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow,” he said the next day. “And my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

The asterisk*

Obviously (I hope it’s obvious), I’m all for women voting—and men voting, and people of every race, color, creed, etc., etc., etc.

Even if you vehemently disagree with me on the issues, I think you should vote.

But this anniversary also gives me a chance to explain the asterisk on our voting rights in the United States—both literally, in this story, and figuratively. (I apologize to the constitutional law scholars on this list who probably know this better than I do.)

In short, of all the legal misconceptions that drive me a bit crazy, it’s when I hear people say we have a “constitutional right to vote” in the United States.

But we don’t! It’s something I think we ought to change!

If I were a bit younger and less weary, I might feign surprise that it hasn’t happened. Still, let’s look at the language:

  • For example, the 19th Amendment that we celebrate this week doesn’t actually guarantee women the right to vote. Instead, it guarantees the right not to have your vote taken away on account of sex.

  • Likewise, going backward, the 15th Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color. Instead, it guarantees the right not to have your vote taken away, “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

  • Last but not least, the 26th Amendment doesn’t guarantee the vote to citizens over age 18. Instead, it gives citizens the right not to have your vote taken away on account of your age, at least over 18.

In other words, government can’t take someone’s vote away for any of these enumerated reasons. But, their votes can be taken away for lots of other reasons.

A few examples: (a) status as a convicted felon, or (b) failing to have a proper postmark on your mail-in ballot, or (c) perhaps most surprisingly to some people—if a state legislature just decided it would rather choose the president directly, leaving the unwashed masses out of the process.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore (2000), which says explicitly:

“The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”

Anyway, if I ran the zoo, I’d push to fix this with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

Of course, if I ran the zoo, I guess we wouldn’t be living in a democracy.

(OK, fine, a republic.)

Anyway, if I were the kind of zoo-running nerd who sits around drafting proposed constitutional amendments in his limited spare time, it might read something like:

“The right of citizens who have attained the age of majority to vote shall not be infringed. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

By the way, “shall not be infringed” is extremely powerful language—meaning more than just that Congress won’t infringe, but it it won’t tolerate anyone else doing so, either.

That’s intentional on my part. Why not shoot for the stars?

I wonder what my mother would say.


Was anyone eagle-eyed enough to notice that:

  • Yesterday’s email was about an event for which the anniversary is today.

  • Today’s email is about an event for which the anniversary was yesterday.

Whoops. I confused the calendar and my editorial schedule. Good thing only 10,000+ people get to see when I mess things up now. :)

In case you ever wondered, here’s your proof: It’s true, I’m just one guy, and sometimes I make goofy mistakes.

7 other things worth your time

  • President Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony (posthumously, of course) for her 1872 conviction for voting, in violation of a law at the time that prohibited women from doing so. (Fox News)

  • At the same press conference where he announced the pardon, Trump mused that the 2020 election might have to be held twice, if there are enough problems with voting by mail. (Mediaite)

  • Seems related: the USPS will suspend any policy or operational changes until after the 2020 election, Postmaster General DeJoy says. (NBC News)

  • Finally (there was a lot of DC news), the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee released the final volume of its Russia investigation, supporting some key findings of the Mueller probe. Among the conclusions: campaign chairman Paul Manafort was a “grave counterintelligence threat,” and one of the people he worked closely with was a Russian intelligence officer. (WSJ, $; Politico)

  • More colleges that had planned to have students on-campus and hold in-person classes are quickly switching to an all-virtual model, in the wake of rising Covid-19 infection rates. Examples: Notre Dame and Michigan State University. (CNBC, MLive)

  • Did you ever see one of those bumper stickers that reads, “GIANT METEOR 2020?” Well, hold that thought, because a car-sized asteroid came within 2,000 miles of Earth, and scientests had no idea it was on its way. (Business Insider)

  • I’ve been pulled in by stories of people who happened to be away when Covid-19 hit, and who are trying to adjust to our new abnormal. Here’s what a sailor on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which left port on Jan. 17 and just returned this week (with no port calls the entire time), said it’s like to step back on dry land for the first time in eight months. (Navy Times)

Leave a comment

If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com.

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, that’s the #1 thing we need right now, is for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share

One-click review and feedback: