A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
A Crime To Vote
Title: Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? Speech By: Susan B. Anthony Date: 1873 Location: Monroe and Ontario Counties, New York Occasion: Response to indictment for voting in a federal election Analysis:
Quick question - when did women first vote in a Presidential election?
Was it in 1920, after passage of the Nineteenth amendment? How about two years after the admission of Wyoming to the Union in 1890? Or perhaps it was Susan B. Anthony's solitary act of defiance in 1872? We'll return to that question later.
Having cast a ballot in the 1872 Presidential election, Anthony was indicted a few weeks later for - having voted illegally in a federal election. She responded by delivering this speech.
She gave it in every Town and Village in Monroe County and twenty-one Towns in Ontario County fifty locations in all! Her question to her listeners was - Is it a crime for a citizen of the United States to vote?
At more than ten thousand words, it is a fairly long speech - probably at least an hour in length.
It is also one of those speeches that might well be considered a “Contra speech,” in that it had an effect that wasn’t considered when it was given. It turned out to be so effective that the federal prosecutor had the trial moved to Canandaigua, to avoid prejudice in the jury pool. Generally, that’s a move the defense makes, not the prosecution.
In the end, Anthony was fined $100 - a fine she never paid.
As for the question at the beginning of this post - when did women first vote in a Presidential election? It was in New Jersey during the election of 1800, the contest between President John Adams, and his Vice President - Thomas Jefferson. The women who voted were either widows or old maids. Why “widows and maids?” New Jersey had a residency requirement, but its constitution made no mention of any gender restrictions. Like most states of that era, New Jersey required voters to own a certain amount of property, and married women could not own property independent of their husbands - while adult women who were not married, could.
By 1807, New Jersey’s election laws had been clarified to reflect the original understanding - that women were not meant to vote. That right had been taken away from them.
The lesson? No right is guaranteed to any of us, unless we speak powerfully in its defense.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.