The July 19- 20, 1848, Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York was both watershed and seam in the history of the Republic and its broadening and deepening commitments to the principles of justice, liberty, and rights.
Jefferson’s lofty words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” proved to be the sentiments worthy of a nation a-borning, eager to lift high the hopes that later became part of Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all.”
After Jefferson’s declaration, but before the pledge, the hope for justice was shaping generation after generation. The Seneca Falls Convention was a place where hope for justice and the end of slavery was affirmed and, for the first time, refocused to give encouragement and succor to women’s groups who bore the brunt of the injustice of exclusion from political processes.
The Abolitionist Movement provided a platform for strong, persistent women in England and in the new republic in America who demanded, on moral grounds, the end of slavery. In the United States, two women emerged as leaders of a group that realized that freeing the slaves of African descent was prelude and corollary to freeing women from the bondage of being unfranchised, i.e., deprived of political power by being denied the justice, liberty, and rights of being a voter.
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Those two women were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They were the genius and energy behind the Seneca Falls Convention. Eight years before, they met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Mott, a Quaker minister and activist, was eager to find the company of English abolitionists. Stanton, recently married to noted abolitionist, lecturer and writer, Henry Stanton, was excited by the opportunity to broaden her understanding and participation in a global resistance to slavery.
To their chagrin, Mott and Stanton — and many other women attendees at the convention — were banned from the platform and the floor of the meetings. Hidden away in the gallery, they began to lay plans for a convention they would convene to pursue freedoms from slavery and from exclusion from political processes.
The two-day convention in Seneca Falls intentionally began with a collection of seasoned women leaders in the quest for the end of slavery. Two hundred women were in the hall and heard, among other speeches and appeals, Stanton’s historic “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” (http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/stantonsent.html), an historic revision of the words of Jefferson for a new generation.
Jefferson’s “When in the course of human events . . .” became Stanton’s sentiment, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.”
And, too, Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ,” became Stanton’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Over two days the struggle for the principles of justice, liberty, and rights was changed for the better.
From 1848 to 1870, the Republic changed. The Civil War began and ended. The exertion and compassion of the abolitionists brought the end to slavery and the 13th Amendment (1865). The hopes of abolitionists, who also were early champions of women’s rights, were dashed when the 14th Amendment (1868) only secured the right to vote for males — including freed male slaves. And, in 1870, the 15th Amendment denied voter suppression on the basis of race, but did not address the injustice of depriving women of all races from casting ballots.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/PDFFiles/MLK%20Temple%20Israel%20Hollywood.pdf).
From 1848 until 1870, the arc of the universe continued to bend toward justice. Securing the vote for women would take another 50 years.
Richard F. Wilson is the Columbus Roberts professor of Christianity, and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion at Mercer University.
Next week: Following the arc from women’s suffrage to a focus upon broader civil rights in response to “liberty and justice for all.”