November 18, 1872 – Susan B. Anthony is Arrested for Voting

Susan Brownell Anthony was an American social reformer who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

On this day in history, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the election that previous November 5. She pled not guilty, and traveled around giving a lecture entitled “Is It A Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? (You can read the text of her speech here.) On January 24, 1873, a grand jury of twenty men returned an indictment against Anthony charging her with “knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully” voting for a member of Congress “without having a lawful right to vote,….the said Susan B. Anthony being then and there a person of the female sex.”  The trial was set for May.

Susan B. Anthony, sometime around the mid 1850's

Susan B. Anthony, sometime around the mid 1850’s

She was tried in Canandaigua, New York. Her lawyer, Henry Selden, argued that Anthony cast a legal vote pursuant to the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment. After both sides completed their arguments, Judge Ward Hunt drew from his pocket a paper and began reading an opinion that he had apparently prepared before the trial started, and reading aloud, declared:

The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law.”

Further, the judge directed a verdict of guilty:

Upon this evidence I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.”

Anthony was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 plus court costs. She refused to pay, submitting a petition to Congress asking that the unjust fine be remitted. Congress never acted on her petition, but no serious effort was ever made by the government to collect the money.

Two years later, in Minor v. Happersett (88 U.S. 162;  21 Wall. 162, 1874), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the 14th Amendment did not give the right to vote to women.  It reasoned that although the Amendment applied to women, the phrase “privileges and immunities” did not include the right to vote.  It agreed that women were “citizens” but found that the fact that a person was a “citizen” did not imply she had the right to vote.  The Court pointed out that prior to the enactment of the Amendment, all the states considered women to be citizens, but none of them had granted them the right to vote.

It was not until the passage of The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified on August 18, 1920) that it was prohibited for any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.

November 15, 1811 – Nomination of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story

On this day in history, Joseph Story was nominated by President James Madison to take the Supreme Court seat vacated by William Cushing. (He was the longest-serving of the Court’s original members, sitting on the bench for 21 years.) Story was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission on November 18, 1811. At age 32, he was the youngest person ever appointed to the Court.

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard, where he graduated second in his class, and practiced law in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1801 to 1811. Politically, he was a member of Jefferson’s Republican-Democrat Party, and so Madison assumed he was appointing an ally when he nominated Story to the Supreme Court in 1811.

Much to the chagrin of Jefferson and Madison, however, Story aligned himself with Jefferson’s nemesis, Chief Justice John Marshall, just as their other appointments had done.

In his later years of his career on the Supreme Court, Justice Story was the author of two of the Court’s most important decisions related to slavery. Though personally opposed to slavery, Story believed the Constitution recognized and legitimized the institution. Nevertheless, he tried to construct his decisions in ways that might aid the cause of abolition.

The 1841 Amistad case (40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826) stemmed from a 1839 incident in which Spanish slave traders had forcibly taken more than 500 captured Africans to Spanish-ruled Cuba. Spanish law prohibited the transportation of African slaves to Cuba. But Spanish officials in Cuba largely ignored that law; there was much money to be made in Cuba for the provision of labor for sugar planters.

At a slave sale in Havana, some of these slaves were purchased and transferred to the schooner Amistad for delivery at plantations along the coast of Cuba. But the slaves revolted, took over the ship, and tried to go back to Africa. They stopped at Long Island Sound in New York to get provisions. A U.S. Navy brig learned of the situation and took custody of the Amistad, requesting a hearing. The case moved up through the courts, reaching the Supreme Court in 1841.

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

Justice Story, speaking for the Court, declared that the men on the Amistad were seized illegally in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain. They were not slaves; they were “kidnapped Africans.” Moreover, “… in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” Thus, he declared them free, to be dismissed from the custody of the Court without delay.

In the 1842 case Prigg v. Pennsylvania (41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 1842), the majority opinion, again written by Justice Story, affirmed the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Justice Story maintained that the fugitive slave clause was in fact essential to the formation of the Union, but only federal agents could enforce it. His decision seemed to say that on the one hand, states had no right to protect its free citizens from being kidnapped and enslaved. But on the other, states did not have any obligation to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The resulting uproar contributed to the insistence by the South of a new fugitive slave law, which they got in 1850, and which played a large role in precipitating the Civil War.


Story’s decisions also helped shaped early American commercial and admiralty law. Moreover, while sitting as a justice of the Supreme Court, he began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1829 and in 1833 published his Commentaries on the Constitution, which became an essential guide for American lawyers.

Story served on the Supreme Court until his death on September 10, 1845.

November 9, 1731 – Birthdate of Benjamin Banneker

On this day in history, Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland to his mother Mary, a free black, and his father Robert, a freed slave from Guinea. Banneker became a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist.

Banneker published a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states for the years 1792 through 1797: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia.

Banneker expressed his views on racial equality in documents that he placed within his almanacs. A book for young readers about Banneker conveys the essence of his thoughts and of his attempts to persuade the leadership of the young country about the iniquity of slavery.


As the authors explain in a forward, in 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose a copy of the almanac Banneker wrote.) (You can read the full text of his letter here.)

As the authors quote from the letter, Banneker argued:

…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.

Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:

I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit.”

[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves.]

Washington and Jefferson did, however, hire Banneker to help survey Washington, D.C. for the new nation’s capital.

The striking and powerful illustrations by Brian Pinkney in this book were prepared as scratchboard rendering, hand-colored with oil paint.


Discussion: The story of Benjamin Banneker is truly inspirational, and Banneker is an important figure in both science and history about whom many are uninformed. However, I don’t think it was necessarily wise to use actual quotes from the correspondence of Banneker and Jefferson in a book intended for ages 5-10. The gist of the letters could have been summarized in simpler syntax to much greater effect. On the other hand, adjusting the suggested age range upward would fix the problem.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gulliver Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998


November 3, 1789 – First Federal Court Session Under the U.S. Constitution

On this day in history, the first-ever federal court session under the U.S. Constitution and Judiciary Act was held in the Royal Exchange Building in Manhattan, New York.

The session, conducted by Judge James Duane, occurred three months before the U.S. Supreme Court also met in the Royal Exchange, which no longer exists.

James Duane, born in 1733, was an American lawyer, jurist, and Revolutionary leader. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, a New York state senator, and as the 44th Mayor of New York City (the first post-British American Mayor).

On September 25, 1789, President Washington named him the first judge of the United States District Court for the District of New York, created by 1 Stat. 73. He was immediately confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission the following day.

Duane served on the Federal bench until March 17, 1794, when his health forced him to resign.

James Duane

James Duane

October 26, 1916 – Feminist Margaret Sanger Arrested for Distributing Birth Control Information

Margaret Higgins Sanger, born in 1879, was a feminist activist who established the organization (American Birth Control League) that eventually became Planned Parenthood.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

As a young woman, Sanger worked as a visiting nurse in the neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side. Many of her patients were poor, immigrant women suffering the health consequences of botched abortions and repeated pregnancies. Thus she redirected her attention from nursing to advocating for the use and legalization of birth control and contraceptives. Access to contraceptive information was then prohibited on grounds of obscenity by the 1873 federal Comstock law and a host of state laws.

The Comstock Law was a federal act passed by the United States Congress on March 3, 1873, as the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use”. The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines. Soon after the federal law was on the books, twenty-four states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level. Thus, for example, in Massachusetts, anyone disseminating contraceptives — or information about contraceptives — faced stiff fines and imprisonment. In Connecticut, the act of using birth control was even prohibited by law. Married couples could be arrested for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and subjected to a one-year prison sentence.

On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. She knew she was violating the Comstock Act but believed the only way to change the law was to break it. On October 29, she was arrested by the NYPD Vice Squad.

At the time of Sanger’s initial arrest, her bail was set at $500 and she went back home. Sanger continued seeing some women in the clinic until the police came a second time. This time both Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne (also a nurse), were arrested for breaking the New York state law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives, and Sanger was also charged with running a public nuisance. Sanger and Ethel went to trial in January 1917.

Ethel Byrne, just to the right of center, and her sister, Margaret Sanger, on the left, in court being tried on the charge of disseminating birth control information.

Ethel Byrne, just to the right of center, and her sister, Margaret Sanger, on the left, in court being tried on the charge of disseminating birth control information.

At the trial, the judge maintained that just because the defendent does not agree with the law does not make it unconstitutional. Further, “…the court is of the opinion that the public good justified the passage of this statute and requires its enforcement,” especially insofar as it helps keep “unmarried people from indulging their passions….” which would otherwise “result in an increase of immorality.” (People v. Byrne, 163 N. Y. Supp. 680, February 3, 1917)

Sanger and Byrne were convicted and sentenced to thirty days in a workhouse. Byrne went on hunger strike, “to die, if need be, for my sex.” Four days after she began her fast, New York City’s corrections commissioner announced Byrne would be the first inmate in U.S. history to be forcibly fed through a tube inserted in her throat. “The New York Times” ran daily coverage of the details of her feedings of brandy, milk, and eggs on its front page.

Nevertheless, Byrne grew weaker, and women rallied and pled with Governor Charles Whitman for her release. Whitman said he would only pardon Byrne if Sanger promised not to reopen the clinic. At first, Sanger refused, but after visiting her weakened sister, she reluctantly accepted the governor’s terms. Against her will, Byrne left the workhouse, carried on a stretcher.

October 24, 1787 – Madison Reports to Jefferson on the Constitutional Convention

On this day in history, James Madison wrote a very long letter to Thomas Jefferson, then in France, making “some observations” about the deliberations on the constitution for Jefferson’s edification.

James Madison

James Madison

Madison begins by noting that “It appeared to be the sincere and unanimous wish of the Convention to cherish and preserve the Union of the States.” He then explains there was general agreement that a mere confederation would be inadequate:

Hence was embraced the alternative of a Government which instead of operating, on the States, should operate without their intervention on the individuals composing them; and hence the change in the principle and proportion of representation.”

This extraordinary letter then goes on to provide justification through examples of historical confederacies that failed, such as that of the Amphyctions, the Achaean League, the Helvetic System, and so on. Moreover:

A constitutional negative on the laws of the States seems equally necessary to secure individuals agst. encroachments on their rights. The mutability of the laws of the States is found to be a serious evil. The injustice of them has been so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism. I am persuaded I do not err in saying that the evils issuing from these sources contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform, than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.”

But of course, a balance is necessary:

The great desideratum in Government is, so to modify the sovereignty as that it may be sufficiently neutral between different parts of the Society to controul one part from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the entire Society. . . . In the extended Republic of the United States, The General Government would hold a pretty even balance between the parties of particular States, and be at the same time sufficiently restrained by its dependence on the community, from betraying its general interests.”

He ends by mentioning some of the compromises that were necessary to adjust for the different interests of different parts of the country. And of course, “S. Carolina & Georgia were inflexible on the point of the slaves.”

You can read the whole letter with its incredibly thorough description of the thinking that went into the construction of the Constitution here.

October 6, 1917 – Birthdate of Fannie Lou Hamer

On this day in history, Fannie Lou Hamer (nee Townsend) was born in Mississippi. She came from a family of poor sharecroppers, often wearing rags tied around her feet instead of shoes.

In the 1940s she met her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer, who worked on the W. D. Marlow plantation, where they worked together for eighteen years until she was fired for trying to vote.

In 1961 she went into a hospital to have a small uterine tumor removed; without her knowledge or consent, she was sterilized by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. (Forced sterilization was so common among African-American women in those days that it became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”)

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

On August 23, 1962, Hamer attended a sermon by Rev. James Bevel, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who ended his talk with an appeal to those assembled to register to vote.

At the time, only 6 percent of eligible black citizens in Mississippi were registered. They knew that to register was to place at risk to their job security, personal safety and even their lives.

Nevertheless, Hamer was the first volunteer to register. She later said:

I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

On August 31, she traveled on a rented bus with other attendees of Bevel’s sermon to Indianola, Mississippi, to register. People in the group were scared, and Hamer began to sing hymns to boost their morale. But none of it was to any avail. As Peter Dreier reported in his book The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012):

Before they could register, they had to take one of the infamous literacy tests designed to disenfranchise black people. Among other questions, they were required to write down the names of their employers, information that would promptly be used against them. They were also required to interpret a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of local white officials. For Hamer, the clerk pointed to a section of the Mississippi Constitution dealing with de facto laws. As she later explained, ‘I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day.’

She failed the test. By the time she returned home, she had lost her job, but she had discovered her passion. She became a leader and public figure in the civil rights movement.”

(She passed the test the next year, making her one of 28,000 blacks registered in Mississippi out of a total of $22,256 eligible black voters.)

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer came to the attention of SNCC organizer Bob Moses, who dispatched Charles McLaurin from the organization with instructions to find “the lady who sings the hymns.” Hamer was recruited by SNCC, and she began traveling around the South doing activist work for the organization.

On June 9, 1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists from a literacy workshop, and the group was stopped in Winona, Mississippi and arrested on a false charge. In jail, Hamer and her colleagues were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death. It took Hamer over a month to recover from the beating.

Again, she was not deterred. She returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. In the summer of 1964 she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, or MFDP, organized to challenge Mississippi’s all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Hamer was elected Vice-Chair.

Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964

Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964

MDFP sent an integrated delegation of sixty-eight members, including Hamer, to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August. This was a direct challenge to the official all-white delegation, which excluded blacks from voting. When they arrived in Atlantic City, the MFDP demanded that the national Democratic Party seat them rather than the segregated official delegation.

In Washington, D.C., President Johnson, fearful of the power of Hamer’s testimony on live television, called an emergency press conference in an effort to divert press coverage. The television networks switched to the White House from their coverage of Hamer’s address, in the belief that Johnson would announce his vice-presidential candidate for the forthcoming November election. Instead, he arbitrarily announced the nine-month anniversary of the shooting of Texas governor, John Connally, during the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But many television networks ran Hamer’s unedited speech on their late news programs. The Credentials Committee received thousands of calls and letters in support of the “Freedom Democrats.”

Johnson then dispatched several Democratic Party operatives to negotiate with the Freedom Democrats, including Senator Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Walter Reuther, and J. Edgar Hoover. They suggested a compromise which would give the MFDP two non-voting seats in exchange for other concessions, and secured the endorsement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the plan. But when Humphrey outlined the compromise to the Credentials Committee, saying that his position on the ticket was at stake, Hamer sharply rebuked him:

Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people’s lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help the MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.”

Hamer’s speech to the Committee brought many to tears, and gained her national attention.

Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in 1964

Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in 1964

While the MFDP rejected the compromise, they had managed to put the issue to the forefront; the Democratic Party adopted a clause that year which demanded equality of representation from their states’ delegations in 1968. At that convention, Hamer became the first African American delegate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and the first-ever woman delegate from Mississippi. She was seated to a thunderous ovation as part of Mississippi’s official delegation to the convention.

Hamer continued to work for Civil Rights until she died of complications of heart disease and breast cancer on March 14, 1977. She is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, where her tombstone reads one of her famous quotes, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

You can listen to her testimony to the 1964 Democratic Convention Credentials Committee here:


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