Daily Archives: August 22, 2011

A Boy, A Mother, and Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment

One of the great moments in American history occurred on the hot, muggy afternoon of August 18, 1920.  The place was Nashville, Tennessee.  The issue at hand was whether or not women would be granted the right to vote.

On June 4, 1919, the U. S. Congress voted to add a brief sentence to the Constitution.   They were simple, straightforward words, no confusing legal jargon which lawyers would spend decades interpreting.  What would become the Nineteenth Amendment read:  “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

In order for the amendment to become the law of the land, 36 of the then 48  states had to ratify it.  Thirty-five states ratified the amendment by the summer of 1920.  Four states were expected to call special sessions of their legislatures to consider the amendment.  Of the four, three chose not to do so.  Only Tennessee agreed to call a special session.

It was widely believed that if Tennessee voted the amendment down, it would never secure the necessary 36 states needed to make the Nineteenth Amendment the law of the land.  All eyes were on the Tennessee legislature on August 18, the day the delegates would vote “yea” or “nay”.

The leaders of both sides, the suffragists and the anti-suffragists, set up headquarters in the Hermitage Hotel.  The opposing sides identified their supporters by wearing a yellow rose (suffragists) or red rose (anti-suffragists) in their lapel.  Members of the legislature did likewise.

A quick glance at the legislators revealed that the suffragists were in trouble.  In this “War of the Roses,” there appeared to be more red than yellow.  The first roll call revealed a deadlock, 48 to 48.  A second roll call resulted in the same.

Nerves became frayed and the tension grew moment by moment.  Then, the decisive third roll call began.  It appeared the deadlock would continue, that is, until the youngest member, twenty-four year old Harry T. Burn, elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1919, cast his vote.

Burn wore a red rose in his lapel.  He was a member of the anti-suffragists.  He voted against the amendment on the two previous roll calls.  But on the third he switched his vote to “yea”.  At first it was thought that Burn was confused.  He must have meant to say “nay” rather than “yea”.  When asked to clarify, Burn boldly affirmed that he had voted in favor.

Shock was followed by pandemonium.  The anti-suffragists were enraged at what they regarded as Burn’s betrayal.  According to one account, in order to escape their anger, Burn climbed out a third story window and crawled along a ledge to a hiding place in the Capitol building’s attic.  Everyone, suffragists and anti-suffragists alike, wondered why the young freshman legislator switched his vote.

Before the third roll call, Burn received a telegram from his mother.  In it, Mrs. Burn told her son, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt, the national women’s suffrage leader] with her ‘Rats.’ Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.”

Years later, Burn explained his vote: “I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification.”

At another time, Burn gave five reasons for his voting in favor of women’s suffrage.  Among them, number three, was perhaps the real reason:  “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

On August 24, 1920, two days after Burn followed his mother’s advice, Governor A. H. Roberts signed the bill.  Two days after that, on August 26, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution became the law of the land.  Women were now equal to men, at least so far as the right to vote was concerned.

Harry T. Burn was reelected to a second term in 1921, while others who had voted “yea” on that fateful day were defeated.  He later served as a state senator, member of the state planning commission, and as a delegate to the state Constitutional Conventions of 1953, 1959, and 1965.  Harry T. Burn died on February 19, 1977.  He was 81 years old.

What is the moral of this story?  Never underestimate the influence of a mother on her children, nor a son’s love for his mother.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.