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Women and the Alphabet By Thomas Wentworth Higginson Characters: 29130

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"That liberty, or freedom, consists in having an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man's life, property, and peace; for the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another, and the poor man has an equal right, but more need, to have representatives in the legislature than the rich one. That they who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes, and to their representatives; for to be enslaved is to have governors whom other men have set over us, and be subject to laws made by the representatives of others, without having had representatives of our own to give consent in our behalf."--BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, in Sparks's Franklin, ii. 372.


I remember that when I went to school I used to look with wonder on the title of a now forgotten newspaper of those days which was then often in the hands of one of the older scholars. I remember nothing else about the newspaper, or about the boy, except that the title of the sheet he used to unfold was "We the People;" and that he derived from it his school nickname, by a characteristic boyish parody, and was usually mentioned as "Us the Folks."

Probably all that was taught in that school, in regard to American history, was not of so much value as the permanent fixing of this phrase in our memories. It seemed very natural, in later years, to come upon my old friend "Us the Folks," reproduced in almost every charter of our national government, as thus:--

"WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."--United States Constitution, Preamble.

"WE THE PEOPLE of Maine do agree," etc.--Constitution of Maine.

"All government of right originates from THE PEOPLE, is founded in their consent, and instituted for the general good."--Constitution of New Hampshire.

"The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact, 'by which THE WHOLE PEOPLE covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."--Constitution of Massachusetts.

"WE THE PEOPLE of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations ... do ordain and establish this constitution of government."--Constitution of Rhode Island.

"The people of Connecticut do, in order more effectually to define, secure, and perpetuate the liberties, rights, and privileges which they have derived from their ancestors, hereby ordain and establish the following constitution and form of civil government."--Constitution of Connecticut.

And so on through the constitutions of almost every State in the Union. Our government is, as Lincoln said, "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." There is no escaping it. To question this is to deny the foundations of the American government. Granted that those who framed these provisions may not have understood the full extent of the principles they announced. No matter: they gave us those principles; and, having them, we must apply them.

Now, women may be voters or not, citizens or not; but that they are a part of the people, no one has denied in Christendom--however it may be in Japan, where, as Mrs. Leonowens tells us, the census of population takes in only men, and the women and children are left to be inferred. "WE THE PEOPLE," then, includes women. Be the superstructure what it may, the foundation of the government clearly provides a place for them: it is impossible to state the national theory in such a way that it shall not include them. It is impossible to deny the natural right of women to vote, except on grounds which exclude all natural right.

The fundamental charters are on our side. There are certain statute limitations which may prove greater or less. But these are temporary and trivial things, always to be interpreted, often to be modified, by reference to the principles of the Constitution. For instance, when a constitutional convention is to be held, or new conditions of suffrage to be created, the whole people should vote upon the matter, including those not hitherto enfranchised. This is the view insisted on, many years since, by that eminent jurist, William Beach Lawrence. He maintained, in a letter to Charles Sumner and in opposition to his own party, that if the question of "negro suffrage" in the Southern States of the Union were put to vote, the colored people themselves had a natural right to vote on the question. The same is true of women. It should never be forgotten by advocates of woman suffrage, that the deeper their reasonings go, the stronger foundation they find; and that we have always a solid fulcrum for our lever in that phrase of our charters, "We the people."


When young people begin to study geometry, they expect to begin with hard reasoning on the very first page. To their surprise, they find that the early pages are not occupied by reasoning, but by a few simple, easy, and rather commonplace sentences, called "axioms," which are really a set of pegs on which all the reasoning is hung. Pupils are not expected to go back in every demonstration and prove the axioms. If Almira Jones happens to be doing a problem at the blackboard on examination day, at the high school, and remarks in the course of her demonstration that "things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another," and if a sharp questioner jumps up, and says, "How do you know it?" she simply lays down her bit of chalk, and says fearlessly, "That is an axiom," and the teacher sustains her. Some things must be taken for granted.

The same service rendered by axioms in the geometry is supplied in America, as to government, by the simple principles of the Declaration of Independence. Right or wrong, they are taken for granted. Inasmuch as all the legislation of the country is supposed to be based in them,--they stating the theory of our government, while the Constitution itself only puts into organic shape the application,--we must all begin with them. It is a great advantage, and saves great trouble in all reforms. To the Abolitionists, for instance, what an inestimable labor-saving machine was the Declaration of Independence! Let them have that, and they asked no more. Even the brilliant lawyer Rufus Choate, when confronted with its plain provisions, could only sneer at them as "glittering generalities," which was equivalent to throwing down his brief, and throwing up his case. It was an admission that, if you were so foolish as to insist on applying the first principles of the government, it was all over with him.

Now, the whole doctrine of woman suffrage follows so directly from these same political axioms, that they are especially convenient for women to have in the house. When the Declaration of Independence enumerates as among "self-evident" truths the fact of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," then that point may be considered as settled. In this school-examination of maturer life, in this grown-up geometry class, the student is not to be called upon by the committee to prove that. She may rightfully lay down her demonstrating chalk, and say, "That is an axiom. You admit that yourselves."

It is a great convenience. We cannot always be going back, like a Hindoo history, to the foundations of the world. Some things may be taken for granted. How this simple axiom sweeps away, for instance, the cobweb speculations as to whether voting is a natural right, or a privilege delegated by society! No matter which. Take it which way you please. That is an abstract question; but the practical question is a very simple one. "Governments owe their just powers to the consent of the governed." Either that axiom is false, or, whenever women as a class refuse their consent to the present exclusively masculine government, it can no longer claim just powers. The remedy then may be rightly demanded, which the Declaration of Independence goes on to state: "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

This is the use of the Declaration of Independence. Women, as a class, may not be quite ready to use it. It is the business of this book to help make them ready. But so far as they are ready these plain provisions are the axioms of their political faith. If the axioms mean anything for men, they mean something for women. If men deride the axioms, it is a concession, like that of Rufus Choate, that these fundamental principles are very much in their way. But so long as the sentences stand in that document they can be made useful. If men try to get away from the arguments of women by saving, "But suppose we have nothing in our theory of government which requires us to grant your demand?" then women can answer, as the straightforward Traddles answered Uriah Heep, "But you have, you know: therefore, if you please, we won't suppose any such thing."


There has been an effort, lately, to show that when our fathers said, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," they referred not to personal liberties, but to the freedom of a state from foreign power. It is fortunate that this criticism has been made, for it has led to a more careful examination of passages; and this has made it clear, beyond dispute, that the Revolutionary patriots carried their statements more into detail than is generally supposed, and affirmed their principles for individuals, not merely for the state as a whole.

In that celebrated pamphlet by James Otis, for instance, published as early as 1764, "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated," he thus clearly lays down the rights of the individual as to taxation:--

"The very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights as freemen; and, if continued, seems to be, in effect, an entire disfranchisement of every civil right. For what one civil right is worth a rush, after a man's property is subject to be taken from him at pleasure, without his consent? If a man is not his own assessor, in person or by deputy, his liberty is gone, or he is entirely at the mercy of others." [1]

This fine statement has already done duty for liberty, in another contest; for it was quoted by Mr. Sumner in his speech of March 7, 1866, with this commentary:--

"Stronger words for universal suffrage could not be employed. His argument is that if men are taxed without being represented, they are deprived of essential rights; and the continuance of this deprivation despoils them of every civil right, thus making the latter depend upon the right of suffrage, which by a neologism of our day is known as a political right instead of a civil right. Then, to give point to this argument, the patriot insists that in determining taxation, 'every man must be his own assessor, in person or by deputy,' without which his liberty is entirely at the mercy of others. Here, again, in a different form, is the original thunderbolt, 'Taxation without representation is tyranny;' and the claim is made not merely for communities, but for 'every man.'"

In a similar way wrote Benjamin Franklin, some six years after, in that remarkable sheet found among his papers, and called "Declaration of those Rights of the Commonalty of Great Britain, without which they cannot be free." The leading propositions were these three:--

"That every man of the commonalty (excepting infants, insane persons, and criminals) is of common right and by the laws of God a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty. That liberty, or freedom, consists in having an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man's life, property, and peace; for the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another; and the poor man has an equal right, but more need, to have representatives in the legislature than the rich one. That they who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes, and to their representatives; for to be enslaved is to have governors whom other men have set over us, and be subject to laws made by the representatives of others, without having had representatives of our own to give consent in our behalf."[2]

In quoting these words of Dr. Franklin, one of his biographers feels moved to add, "These principles, so familiar to us now and so obviously just, were startling and incredible novelties in 1770, abhorrent to nearly all Englishmen, and to great numbers of Americans." Their fair application is still abhorrent to a great many; or else, not willing quite to deny the theory, they limit the application by some such device as "virtual representation." Here, again, James Otis is ready for them; and Charles Sumner is ready to quote Otis, as thus:--

"No such phrase as virtual representation was ever known in law or constitution. It is altogether a subtlety and illusion, wholly unfounded and absurd. We must not be cheated by any such phantom, or any other fiction of law or politics, or any monkish trick of deceit or blasphemy."

These are the sharp words used by the patriot Otis, speaking of those who were trying to convince American citizens that they were virtually represented in Parliament Sumner applied the same principle to the freedmen: it is now applied to women. "Taxation without representation is tyranny." "Virtual representation is altogether a subtlety and illusion, wholly unfounded and absurd." No ingenuity, no evasion, can give any escape from these plain principles. Either you must revoke the maxims of the American Revolution, or you must enfranchise woman. Stuart Mill well says in his autobiography, "The interest of woman is included in that of man exactly as much (and no more)

as that of subjects in that of kings."

[Footnote 1: Otis, Rights of the Colonies, p. 58.]

[Footnote 2: Sparks's Franklin, ii. 372.]


If there is any one who is recognized as a fair exponent of our national principles, it is our martyr-president Abraham Lincoln; whom Lowell calls, in his noble Commemoration Ode at Cambridge,--

"New birth of our new soil, the first American."

What President Lincoln's political principle was, we know. On his journey to Washington for his first inauguration he said, "I have never had a feeling that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." To find out what was his view of those sentiments, we must go back several years earlier, and consider that remarkable letter of his to the Boston Republicans who had invited him to join them in celebrating Jefferson's birthday, in April, 1859. It was well called by Charles Sumner "a gem in political literature;" and it seems to me almost as admirable, in its way, as the Gettysburg address.

"The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them 'glittering generalities.' Another bluntly styles them 'self-evident lies.' And others insidiously argue that they apply only to 'superior races.'"

"These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect,-- the subverting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads plotting against the people. They are the vanguard, the sappers and miners of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us."

"All honor to Jefferson.'--the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there that to-day and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling- block to the harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."

The special "abstract truth" to which President Lincoln thus attaches a value so great, and which he pronounces "applicable to all men and all times," is evidently the assertion of the Declaration that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, following the assertion that all men are born free and equal; that is, as some one has well interpreted it, equally men. I do not see how any person but a dreamy recluse can deny that the strength of our republic rests on these principles; which are so thoroughly embedded in the average American mind that they take in it, to some extent, the place occupied in the average English mind by the emotion of personal loyalty to a certain reigning family. But it is impossible to defend these principles logically, as Senator Hoar has well pointed out, without recognizing that they are as applicable to women as to men. If this is the case, the claim of women rests on a right,--indeed, upon the same right which is the foundation of all our institutions.

The encouraging fact in the present condition of the whole matter is not that we get more votes here or there for this or that form of woman suffrage--for experience has shown that there are great ups and downs in that respect; and States that at one time seemed nearest to woman suffrage, as Maine and Kansas, now seem quite apathetic. But the real encouragement is that the logical ground is more and more conceded; and the point now usually made is not that the Jeffersonian maxim excludes women, but that "the consent of the governed" is substantially given by the general consent of women. That this argument has a certain plausibility may be conceded; but it is equally clear that the minority of women, those who do wish to vote, includes on the whole the natural leaders,- -those who are foremost in activity of mind, in literature, in art, in good works of charity. It is, therefore, pretty sure that they only predict the opinions of the rest, who will follow them in time. And even while waiting it is a fair question whether the "governed" have not the right to give their votes when they wish, even if the majority of them prefer to stay away from the polls. We do not repeal our naturalization laws, although only the minority of our foreign-born inhabitants as yet take the pains to become naturalized.


In Paris, some years ago, I was for a time a resident in a cultivated French family, where the father was non-committal in politics, the mother and son were republicans, and the daughter was a Bonapartist. Asking the mother why the young lady thus held to a different creed from the rest, I was told that she had made up her mind that the streets of Paris were kept cleaner under the empire than since its disappearance: hence her imperialism.

I have heard American men advocate the French empire at home and abroad, without offering reasons so good as those of the lively French maiden. But I always think of her remark when the question is seriously asked, as Mr. Parkman, for instance, once gravely put it in "The North American Review,"--"The real issue is this: Is the object of government the good of the governed, or is it not?" Taken in a general sense, there is probably no disposition to discuss this conundrum, for the simple reason that nobody dissents from it. But the important point is: What does "the good of the governed" mean? Does it merely mean better street cleaning, or something more essential?

There is nothing new in the distinction. Ever since De Tocqueville wrote his "Democracy in America," forty years ago, this precise point has been under active discussion. That acute writer himself recurs to it again and again. Every government, he points out, nominally seeks the good of the people, and rests on their will at last. But there is this difference: A monarchy organizes better, does its work better, cleans the streets better. Nevertheless De Tocqueville, a monarchist, sees this advantage in a republic, that when all this is done by the people for themselves, although the work done may be less perfect, yet the people themselves are more enlightened, better satisfied, and, in the end, their good is better served. Thus in one place he quotes "a writer of talent" who complains of the want of administrative perfection in the United States, and says, "We are indebted to centralization, that admirable invention of a great man, for the uniform order and method which prevails alike in all the municipal budgets (of France) from the largest town to the humblest commune." But, says De Tocqueville,--

"Whatever may be my admiration of this result, when I see the communes (municipalities) of France, with their excellent system of accounts, plunged in the grossest ignorance of their true interests, and abandoned to so incorrigible an apathy that they seem to vegetate rather than to live; when, on the other hand, I observe the activity, the information, and the spirit of enterprise which keeps society in perpetual labor, in these American townships, whose budgets are drawn up with small method and with still less uniformity,--I am struck by the spectacle; for, to my mind, the end of a good government is to insure the welfare of a people, and not to establish order and regularity in the midst of its misery and its distress."[1]

The italics are my own; but it will be seen that he uses a phrase almost identical with Mr. Parkman's, and that he uses it to show that there is something to be looked at beyond good laws,--namely, the beneficial effect of self-government. In another place he comes back to the subject again:--

"It is incontestable that the people frequently conducts public business very ill; but it is impossible that the lower order should take a part in public business without extending the circle of their ideas, and without quitting the ordinary routine of their mental acquirements; the humblest individual who is called upon to cooperate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect; and, as he possesses authority, he can command the services of minds much more enlightened than his own. He is canvassed by a multitude of applicants, who seek to deceive him in a thousand different ways, but who instruct him by their deceit.... Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people; but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy."[2]

These passages and others like them are worth careful study. They clearly point out the two different standards by which we may criticise all political systems. One class of thinkers, of whom Froude is the most conspicuous, holds that the "good of the people" means good laws and good administration, and that, if these are only provided, it makes no sort of difference whether they themselves make the laws, or whether some Caesar or Louis Napoleon provides them. All the traditions of the early and later Federalists point this way. But it has always seemed to me a theory of government essentially incompatible with American institutions. If we could once get our people saturated with it, they would soon be at the mercy of some Louis Napoleon of their own.

When President Lincoln claimed, following Theodore Parker, that ours was not merely a government for the people, but of the people, and by the people as well, he recognized the other side of the matter,--that it is not only important what laws we have, but who makes the laws; and that "the end of a good government is to insure the welfare of a people," in this far wider sense. That advantage which the French writer admits in democracy, that it develops force, energy, and self-respect, is as essentially a part of "the good of the governed" as is any perfection in the details of government. And it is precisely these advantages which we expect that women, sooner or later, are to share. For them, as for men, "the good of the governed" is not genuine unless it is that kind of good which belongs to the self-governed.

[Footnote 1: Sparks's Franklin, ii. 372.]

[Footnote 2: De Tocqueville, vol. ii. pp. 74, 75.]


In the last century the bitter satirist, Charles Churchill, wrote a verse which will do something to keep alive his name. It is as follows:--

"Women ruled all; and ministers of state

Were at the doors of women forced to wait,--

Women, who we oft as sovereigns graced the land,

But never governed well at second-hand."

He touches the very kernel of the matter, and all history is on his side. The Salic Law excluded women from the throne of France,--"the kingdom of France being too noble to be governed by a woman," as it said. Accordingly the history of France shows one long line of royal mistresses ruling in secret for mischief; while more liberal England points to the reigns of Elizabeth and Anne and Victoria, to show how usefully a woman may sit upon a throne.

It was one of the merits of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, that she always pointed out this distinction. "Any woman can have influence," she said, "in some way. She need only to be a good cook or a good scold, to secure that. Woman should not merely have a share in the power of man,--for of that omnipotent Nature will not suffer her to be defrauded,--but it should be a chartered power, too fully recognized to be abused." We have got to meet, at any rate, this fact of feminine influence in the world. Demosthenes said that the measures which a statesman had meditated for a year might be overturned in a day by a woman. How infinitely more sensible then, to train the woman herself in statesmanship, and give her open responsibility as well as concealed power!

The same demoralizing principle of subordination runs through the whole position of women. Many a husband makes of his wife a doll, dresses her in fine clothes, gives or withholds money according to his whims, and laughs or frowns if she asks any questions about his business. If only a petted slave, she naturally develops the vices of a slave; and when she wants more money for more fine clothes, and finds her husband out of humor, she coaxes, cheats, and lies. Many a woman half ruins her husband by her extravagance, simply because he has never told her frankly what his income is, or treated her, in money matters, like a rational being. Bankruptcy, perhaps, brings both to their senses; and thenceforward the husband discovers that his wife is a woman, not a child. But for want of this whole families and generations of women are trained to deception. I knew an instance where a fashionable dressmaker in New York urged an economical young girl, about to be married, to buy of her a costly trousseau or wedding outfit.

"But I have not the money," said the maiden. "No matter," said the complaisant tempter: "I will wait four years, and send in the bill to your husband by degrees. Many ladies do it." Fancy the position of a pure young girl, wishing innocently to make herself beautiful in the eyes of her husband, and persuaded to go into his house with a trick like this upon her conscience! Yet it grows directly out of the whole theory of life which is preached to many women,--that all they seek must be won by indirect manoeuvres, and not by straightforward living.

It is a mistaken system. Once recognize woman as born to be the equal, not inferior, of man, and she accepts as a right her share of the family income, of political power, and of all else that is capable of distribution. As it is, we are in danger of forgetting that woman, in mind as in body, was-born to be upright. The women of Charles Reade--never by any possibility moving in a straight line where it is possible to find a crooked one--are distorted women; and Nature is no more responsible for them than for the figures produced by tight lacing and by high-heeled boots. These physical deformities acquire a charm, when the taste adjusts itself to them; and so do those pretty tricks and those interminable lies. But after all, to make a noble woman you must give a noble training.

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