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Tuesday, July 18, 2023

July 18, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: The Declaration

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On one obviously important choice in a historic document, and one subtler one.

I’m quite sure that the Seneca Falls Convention would have had a lasting impact no matter what, not least because (as I’ll write about later in the week) it immediately spawned other such gatherings both near and far. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who as I wrote yesterday was one of the convention’s initial originators and organizers, took an extra step to make sure its defining ideas and conversations would endure, drafting a “Declaration of Sentiments” (also known as the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments”) that would be endorsed and signed by 100 convention attendees (roughly a third of the group). As Frederick Douglass, who signed and also helped garner that widespread convention support for the Declaration (and about whom I’ll write in tomorrow’s post), wrote in his North Star newspaper a couple weeks after the convention’s close, this document would become “the grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”

Stanton’s most famous choice and strategy in the Declaration is implied in its title: she modeled her text quite closely on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. That’s especially true in her opening paragraphs, which include such overtly parallel but importantly revised lines as “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” But the “Sentiments” section, for another example, likewise closely parallels the list of “oppressions” with which the Declaration of Independence charges the King of England, in Stanton’s text describing what “he” has done to “her.” This choice of Stanton’s is one of the most impressive in that long list of American texts and voices that have reused  and yet revised the works and ideas of the Founding, and I would argue that it was particularly important as a way to link this 1848 Convention to the 1776 Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence. I’ve written of Abigail Adams and other late 18th century American women writers that they were truly Revolutionary, but it’s fair to say that they often operated individually; the 1848 Convention was an overtly communal effort and Stanton helped put it in direct conversation with the similarly communal framing of the American Revolution and Founding.

Yet if Stanton’s Declaration were simply a parallel to the original, I don’t know that it would have had that staying power that it did and has. It had to and did stand on its own as well, and the place it does that most powerfully is in the conclusion where she lays out “the great work before us…We shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a statement of principles that includes such an extended and comprehensive (and quite practical) plan for how to achieve those goals, and again the immediate and consistent existence of additional such Conventions (for example) suggests that the practicality did indeed help put the principles into practice. Inspired by the past but directly imagining and helping produce the future—sounds like a recipe for a great text to me!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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