We can’t see why color is not just as good a qualification for voting as sex, nor why a woman is not just as competent to choose a member of the Legislature as a negro.
Sarah Burger Stearns, 1866
On February 3, 1866, the Rochester Post reported that Representative John B. H. Mitchell, a farmer from Stillwater, introduced a bill to amend the state constitution, striking out the word “white” from the qualifications for voters and requiring that the voter “shall be able to read and write in the English language, or the language of the country of which he may be a native.” Essentially, if approved, the voters of Minnesota would once again vote whether black men should be given the franchise, a question they had faced and rejected in 1865, and bar white illiterate men who had previously voted. The writer surmised that the proposition would pass the legislature and be submitted to the people. In that the people had voted to reject a black suffrage question the year before, the writer hoped that the question would be allowed to rest a year or two. If it were to come to a popular vote again, the writer would support the proposition:
But as we know of no argument for the extension of suffrage that will not apply to women, we are sorry that Mister Mitchell did not strike out the word “male” and make all persons over the age of twenty-one years . . . voters. We can’t see why color is not just as good a qualification for voting as sex, nor why a woman is not just as competent to choose a member of the Legislature as a negro.
Though the writer was especially interested in a proposition that required a certain level of education as a measure for one’s qualifications to vote, the writer concluded, “on the whole the amendment will be an improvement on the Constitution.”
The Rochester Post was owned and edited by Joseph A. Leonard, a Maryland-born Lincoln Republican of the strong reformer stripe. He had come to Minnesota in 1858, the year of statehood, and settled in the small prairie town on the Minnesota border that developed as a stagecoach stop on the road between St. Paul and Dubuque. His entrepreneurial vision for the community was vindicated with the arrival of the railroad in the 1860s, which brought new residents and business opportunities. One such man was Dr. William Mayo, who arrived in 1863 after having served as an examining surgeon for draftees in the Civil War. With a newspaper, Leonard played a central role in promoting the dusty town into a thriving community, and set the moral tone, as leader of the local temperance society and advocate for black suffrage and women’s rights, that would later characterize the city as a progressive place.
Those of like minds sought him out, including Ozora Stearns, a young attorney who, with his wife, had just moved to Rochester during the earliest days of 1866, after having served as a colonel in the Thirty-Fifth Colored Infantry. By February the young lawyer was Olmsted County attorney, and by May he had been elected mayor. Every step of his progress was documented in the Post. But as impressed as Leonard was with the young mayor, it was the intellect, passion, and talent of Stearns’s wife that had impressed Leonard more, so much so that he printed her articles in his paper, articles that were unconventional in the sense that they illuminated the daily adversities that Minnesota women faced.
Sarah Burger Stearns had been an advocate for women’s rights since she was fourteen years old, when she began as an editor of her school paper in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her first article was on the exclusion of women from the state university. Two years later, at age sixteen, she attended a suffrage convention in Ohio, where she was inspired by speeches by such famous leaders as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. By the time Stearns was in her early twenties she had started to turn her ideas into action. In 1858 she and twelve other young women petitioned the University of Michigan to admit women. Unsuccessful, she entered the State Normal School in Ypsilanti and became a teacher after completing her education. In 1863 she married Ozora Stearns, who had graduated from the very university that refused to admit her. He was in the service and was sent to the front lines in the Civil War shortly after they married. While he was away, Sarah moved back to her family home in Ann Arbor. After the war, in 1866, the couple moved to Rochester, where even as the city’s First Lady she partook in the controversial matter of women’s rights, “where by lectures, newspaper articles, petitions and appeals to the legislature Mrs. Stearns [did] much to stir the women of the State to thought and action upon the question of women’s enfranchisement.”
In the same year of their arrival, Republican legislators, who held the majority in both chambers, were still smarting, not just from the recent defeat of black suffrage in 1865 but also from what appeared to be the declining power of the Republican Party at the hands of the reactionary Democrat who then occupied the president’s chair in the White House. Skittish about mounting another campaign for black suffrage, for at least the time being, the special joint committee returned Mitchell’s bill with a recommendation to “indefinitely postpone” HF No. 18. The motion to postpone passed by a vote of 24 to 2, thus, as they claimed, honoring the wishes of the voters of Minnesota who had rejected the black suffrage question the year before. Still, though black suffrage had been overwhelmingly rejected, Stearns resented that not one legislator was willing even to mention that women should be included in the franchise. She predicted that “the time will come when readers of history will be astonished of the obtuseness of the leaders of the Republican party in not perceiving that every argument they have made in favor of negro suffrage applies with yet greater force to the right of women to the elective franchise.”
She asserted that women made up one-half the population of the country—“intelligent, virtuous, native-born American citizens; [who] yet stand outside the pale of political recognition.” Her exclusive reference to “native-born American citizens” reflected an ethnocentric streak that was then characteristic of eastern Yankees, suggesting that she had not been in the state long enough to recognize the significance of foreign-born Minnesotans in the political equation. She continued, stating that the Constitution classified women as free people and counted women “whole persons” in the basis of representation, “and yet are we governed without our consent, compelled to pay taxes without appeal, and punished for violations of law without choice of judge or jury. . . . The experience of all ages, the declarations of the fathers, the statute laws of our day, and the fearful revelation through which we have just passed; all prove the uncertain tenure of life, liberty, and property so long as the ballot, the only weapon of self-protection, is not in the hand of every citizen.” She therefore called on lawmakers to amend the state constitution, and, “in harmony with advancing civilization, placing new safeguards around the individual rights of four million emancipated slaves, we ask that you extend the right of suffrage to women, the only remaining class of disenfranchised citizens.”
Even within this southernmost Minnesota town nestled along the sleepy Zumbro River, yet land-locked by prairie and farmland, it was easy for one with such progressive views to feel isolated; but Stearns knew others felt the same way, or had these feelings that were yet to be born. She was determined to speak to and for her readers, to let them know that they were not alone in their muted awareness and self-imposed silence. She wanted her readers to know that they were part of a larger movement that would amplify their concerns and demands, a movement that was just then gathering momentum in the eastern centers of progressive thought—in Boston and New York and Philadelphia—as well as in the corridors of power. To begin drawing that connection, she reprinted the petition introduced in Congress as senators debated the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, drafted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which called for universal suffrage. And she did so, punctuating the message by reporting that the petition was presented by a Democrat when no Republican could be found to be “bold enough, or manly enough.” In this assertion, she was highlighting the dawning of a new political era.
The political landscape had shifted profoundly. The abolitionists, who had labored on the fringes of the political mainstream of the Republican Party, were now firmly planted within the established political order. From there they could influence federal policy; and the policy that now received their more urgent attention was the enfranchisement of the nation’s freedmen, most of whom continued to live under the unrepentant specter of Old Dixie. To abolitionists and Radical Republicans, black suffrage best protected freedmen. With abolitionists seated so prominently at the elbows of lawmakers, feminists felt encouraged at the prospect of their friends and allies pressing forward on universal political equality. This was when the rupture between the suffragists and their allies within the party began.
It was the beginning of the postwar era that had been declared “the Negro hour” by Wendell Phillips, leader of the movement for black equality, former abolitionist, and, as many suffragists believed, former ally in the struggle for a woman’s right to vote: it was critical for Stearns’s readers to see the shifting political landscape through clear eyes, without the tint of sentiment and unrequited loyalty. Phillips had set the tone for the Republican caucus in Congress and by extension, the Republican leadership in Minnesota, when he insisted that women’s suffrage, which he had long supported, now for the time being had to be set aside in favor of black male suffrage: “Success,” he had stated the month before, “was best obtained by doing one thing at a time.” To Stearns’s ears, this meant that for the women of Minnesota, where black suffrage had already been soundly rejected and with little hope of future success, Republicans were relieved of any sense of duty to their womenfolk. Worse, they could hide behind the pretext of fatalism. Phillips had spoken in the most respectful way possible, but his words felt like thinly veiled paternalism. Women were being betrayed by so-called friends, and she wanted her readers to know this to be true.
Stearns’s message, for some, may have been uncomfortable to read, especially for those who considered themselves devout Lincoln Republicans, investing their hearts and efforts in the cause to preserve the Union and to end slavery once and for all. But within the year following Appomattox and the assassination of their beloved President Lincoln, so much had changed. What should have been a gratifying, high-minded campaign by friends and allies to achieve universal enfranchisement had instead all gone wrong, and what was left was a powerful sense of betrayal followed by a painful recognition that attaining full rights for women would have to be done alone. Stearns’s message was discomfiting, for it derided convention that shrouded an ugly truth her readers fundamentally knew about the unique nature of the oppression of women, yet had learned to endure. For many, accepting the message meant that nothing in their lives, including their relationships with husbands and friends, would remain the same. In this, her message was at once cathartic and unnerving. Sacred cows would need to be slain, as she echoed Susan B. Anthony—“The Republicans are cowardly”—with her own experience with Minnesota legislators: “It is a singular fact that while the radical politicians of the country are urging the extension of the elective franchise to all men, there has not yet been found a man in Congress or even in the Legislature bold enough, or manly enough, to urge the right of women to vote.”
But for all of the righteous anger Stearns felt about the Republicans, she also recognized one constraining fact: her devoted husband was very much a member of the party’s establishment, getting elected county attorney, then mayor, within the first year of their Rochester residency. Throughout the dispiriting year of 1866, as President Johnson railed against the Radicals’ control in Congress, Mayor Stearns joined prominent party leaders to offset the resurgence of Democratic power. Ultimately, instead of rewarding the president in the midterm elections of 1866, the voters nationwide repudiated his policies by vindicating the Republicans with a landslide victory that included candidates who had supported black suffrage, revitalized the state-by-state canvass to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and revived among Minnesota Republicans a commitment to mount a new referendum in Minnesota for universal male enfranchisement.
On January 15, the Minnesota House voted 40–5 to add the amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which began with the words, “All persons born and naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The Senate ratified the amendment the next day. That day, Minnesota legislators ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. It would not be until July 28 of the following year that the campaign to secure support from the requisite number of states—twenty-eight in all—would finally be done. Though in some states the campaign was not easy, in Minnesota the vote was virtually pro forma; the matter was incontrovertible. The Party of Lincoln was indeed securely in control of the body politic, and it was now setting its sights on extending the vote to the black men of the state.
For weeks following Minnesota’s ratification, Morton Wilkinson and other congressional nominees reiterated their call for universal manhood suffrage, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment did not go far enough to protect the rights of black men. Wilkinson was joined by a number of party leaders, including Rochester mayor Ozora Stearns and, later, Samuel Jemison, assistant editor of the St. Paul Press, who refrained in his endorsement from speaking for the newspaper. The paper’s endorsement would come soon afterward. They all urged their Minnesota constituents to support a constitutional amendment to extend to black men suffrage rights that were not provided by the Fourteenth Amendment. Even moderate Republicans felt emboldened to support black suffrage.
Sarah Stearns did not want them to forget about the women:
There is no doubt that the next Legislature will provide for the submission of the question of negro suffrage to the people. We hope that we may have among the fifty-six Republicans in that body, one of independence enough to propose universal suffrage. It would be just as easy to strike “male” from the Constitution at the same time as the word “white”; and there can be no stronger argument in favor of the discrimination in sex than of color. But both Legislators and people will doubtless insist on making two bites of a cherry. They will adopt negro suffrage within twelve months, and after quarreling for years about the right of women, to vote, if they want to, they will amend that, and then wonder why they had not done it long before.
This the legislature did not do. Instead, in their tribute to the tens of thousands of Minnesotans who labored to support the boys in uniform, party leaders linked all that was noble and patriotic to the issue of expanding the franchise. In February Sarah Burger Stearns and Mary Jackman Colburn requested to speak before an expectedly respectful legislature in support of removing the word “male” from the bill, but this presumably easy task would prove byzantine. Stearns’s being married to one of their brethren meant little to many of the legislators, as she would soon discover.
On February 7 the House adopted a resolution to invite the two women to address the body at seven o’clock on the evening of the twelfth. The address did not occur as scheduled, however, apparently owing to miscommunications. On the fourteenth, Representative John Sebolski of Hennepin presented a letter from Mrs. Stearns containing the remarks she had intended to make, and it was tabled and ordered to be printed. The petition was formally referred to a special committee of five. Accompanying the letter was a “petition of two hundred citizens, male and female, praying for the extension of the right to suffrage to females.” The Speaker announced that the committee would be composed of Sebolski, John Randall of Ramsey, C. A. Wheaton of the Eighth District, C. J. Fetch of the Fifteenth District, and John A. Reed of the Seventeenth District.
The mood was changing, however. Since February 14, when Governor Marshall signed the joint House and Senate resolution ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, legislators were not of a mind to have their reform-inspired bona fides tested. On the morning of the twenty-first, the St. Paul Press captured the mounting annoyance with the whole matter that could be heard from within the caucus, reporting in mocking terms:
The meeting announced to take place at the Capitol last night, was a more common failure than the previous one. The lady announced to speak failed to make her appearance and the time was occupied by three of the masculine persuasion, who made the speeches, most of which [were] burlesque and ridiculous.
Nonetheless, Representative Richardson, who had first presented Colburn’s request, pressed forward by offering the following resolution: “Resolved, That Mrs. Mary J. Colburn be granted the use of the hall this evening, to lecture on the subject of female suffrage.” The resolution was tabled. It was apparently widely felt among the legislators that uncourtly manners ought to be demonstrated behind the scenes. At this point, Representative Ebenezer Ayres of the Second District introduced a resolution inviting Dr. Colburn to speak in the chamber, this time using far more pointed language aimed at his disrespectful colleague, urging that “gentlemanly courtesy on the part of the sterner sex, in this refined, enlightened and magnanimous age, dictate the tender of the use of the Hall of Representatives for the purpose of said address.” The resolution was adopted. The House then adjourned until Saturday evening.
With this, Dr. Colburn was granted a hearing within the state’s most august chamber, but despite the gesture, few legislators actually attended. Only the handful who already counted themselves as supporters of the cause appeared. As the Press reported the next day, “Owing to [another] lecture in Ingersoll’s hall, and the fact that the Governor had a reception last evening, the audience was not so large as it probably would otherwise have been, or as large as the audiences were that assembled at the same place on two previous occasions.” Representative Wheaton, a member of the House Committee of Five who now acted as chair for the occasion, “congratulated the audience because this time, the friends of the cause would not be disappointed by having no speaker. On the evening of February 21, she spoke. He was pleased to say that Mrs. Colburn was present, and called on Mr. Sebolski to wait upon the lady to the desk.” The Press described the guest speaker:
Mrs. Colburn is a lady of medium height, somewhat thin, about forty-five years of age, and a high prominent forehead and clear eyes. She read from manuscript, and prefaced her lecture with the statement that she had recently been suffering from bronchitis, but hoped to be able to get through her lecture without difficulty. Speaking to the audience does not disturb her in the least. . . . Mrs. Colburn does not have a loud voice, but can be heard with great distinctness in every part of the House.
According to one account from a sympathizer, she made a “carefully prepared argument.” The account in the Press, however, was more expansive and characteristic of the political establishment. “If the lecture, or address which she delivered last night was her own production, it is very clear she is a lady of no very ordinary powers of mind and who had very positive and clear ideas upon this subject, and the necessary ability to enable her to express them with precision”:
Like all who think with her she goes back to the foundation—to first principles. To her mind the phrase “all men,” as used by Jefferson and the fathers, is a generic term and includes women as well as men. From this is induced the right of women to vote.
“Altogether,” adjudged the Press of her performance, “the address appeared to be an able and forcible presentation of that side of the question.” In the end, the women had been placated. Legislators could at last resume the work of the state.
This was not Colburn’s first encounter with the legislature. In 1864 the fifty-three-year old medical doctor and Massachusetts native won an essay contest that was sponsored by the legislature. When she went to receive the award, legislators questioned her right to the recognition when they learned that she was in fact a woman: she had signed the essay “M. J. Colburn.” Exasperated from the experience, she later wrote in a letter to a friend, “I am but doing little now on the suffrage question, for I will not stoop longer to ask of my congress or legislature for that which I know to be mine.” Though her sentiment was sparked then by her reception at the legislature over her duly won award, the words had a deeper meaning now, three years later. The legislative session of 1867 would be the last time she would appear before that body; and for good reason, for increasingly, there was a sense that Minnesota’s lawmakers not only held the matter of voting rights for women in disdain, but that any further effort initiated could be trifled with, as would be evident in the sessions of 1868 and 1870.
On the other side of the spectrum, Republican leaders had only to look beyond Dr. Colburn and southwest to Kansas to justify their strategy. They knew the hearts and minds and limitations of the men they represented.