Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Lucretia Mott,
the Quakeress Advocate of Reform

Of late years hosts of women have come forward in favor of reforms of many kinds, but a century ago such a thing was almost unthought of in America. Women's sphere was held to be the parlor or the kitchen, and the pioneers in the struggle for women's rights were met with ridicule or with sharp censure. It needed great strength of character in those days for a woman to come out as a supporter of any cause not directly connected with household affairs, and it is interesting that one of the first to do so in this country was a small, slight, sweet-faced Friend, mild and gentle in nature, who seemed unfitted to indulge in anything needing courage and energy.

The woman in question was Lucretia Mott, one of the ablest members of the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, and among the first in this country to take an open stand against the system of slave-holding.

We are apt to look upon William Lloyd Garrison as the pioneer of the active advocates of freedom for the slaves, but long before his name had been heard Miss Lucretia Coffin, a young lady from New England at a Friends' School in New York State, was speaking warmly against slavery in her narrow circle of influence. Her feeling against the slave system early displayed itself, and so strongly that she felt it her duty not to use anything made by slave labor, and while still a schoolgirl she did not hesitate to speak her mind openly and freely on this tabooed subject.

'Roadside', the Home of Lucretia Mott


Miss Coffin was born on the island of Nantucket, January 3, 1793. When nineteen years of age, after some experience as a teacher, she married William Mott of New York. Her parents were at that time living in Philadelphia, and there she and her husband went to reside, and there they spent the remainder of their lives. This was in 1812, the year the second war with Great Britain began. The horrors of this war were a source of deep sorrow to the peace-loving mind of the young Quakeress, and probably had their share in strengthening her sense of indignation against wrong or injustice of any kind.

Shortly after the war ended, Mrs. Mott began to speak in public, her voice being first mildly raised in the meeting-house which she and her people attended. Among the Friends it was quite common for women to speak in meeting, and she soon became one of their favorite speakers. Her slender, small figure, her delicate and charming face, at once tender and strong; her soft grey eyes, that glowed as if they were black when she was much moved; the sweetness of her voice, the convincing earnestness of her manner, all tended to give her power over her audiences, while her fine powers of intellect and cultivated mind added weight and force to all she said.

Earnestness made her eloquent, her hearers were charmed, and her influence became so marked that she began to travel around the country, speaking of the Quaker meeting-houses, dwelling upon the peace-loving principles of the Friends, and pointing out the evils of slavery, intemperance, and strife or in justice in any form.

A schism took place in the Society of Friends in 1827, as a result of the preaching of Elias Hicks, a speaker of great power and influence, who advocated Unitarian doctrines in the meetings of the society. The result was its division into Orthodox and Unitarian branches, Mr. and Mrs. Mott joining the Hicksites, as those who accepted the doctrines of Elias Hicks were called. Accepting the Unitarian view strongly, she felt it her duty to work for it, and during the remainder of her life was one of the ablest and most influential speakers of this branch of the Society of Friends.

Soon after this the feeling of opposition to the slave system, which she had long taught in the meetings of her people, began to win public advocates, the Garrison campaign was opened, and on every side the friends of freedom for the slave were coming out openly. New England formed its anti-slavery society, and in 1833 a national society was formed in Philadelphia. In organizing this Lucretia Mott took one of the most active parts and she became president of the Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded the same year. It was a work with which she had been warmly in sympathy since girlhood, and she entered upon the duties involved with the earnestness of conviction, working in her quiet and modest but convincing way.

Six years later, when a World's Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London, Mr. and Mrs. Mott were among the American delegates, in company with other men and women who had made themselves leaders in the cause. They went to London full of enthusiasm, but on arriving there found themselves in face of a deep-seated prejudice which was many centuries old.

For women to take any part in public affairs, or in any way to place themselves on an equal footing with men in questions of importance, was looked upon as out of all sense and reason. It was improper; women should keep within their sphere; they should stay at home and make themselves pretty and entertaining; to mingle in public matters robbed woman of her sweetest charm—such was the type of the arguments that were used, and when these women delegates from America came to attend the meetings of the society they found the doors shut against them.

They were indignant at this treatment, and so were some of the men who had come out with them. William Lloyd Garrison was among these, and he was so vexed with this example of British conservatism that he refused to attend any meetings to which his fair friends were not admitted. Thus the convention shut out not only the women, but the most famous abolitionist among the men of the world. Among the English women excluded were such well known persons as Elizabeth Fry, Amelia Opie, and Mary Howitt.

To soften the indignity of this refusal, a social entertainment, called a breakfast, was got up for the delegates, and to this the women were invited. The company that came to the breakfast was a distinguished one, many of the guests being men of high rank and prominence. Among them were a number of those who had voted against admitting women to the convention, and their surprise was almost consternation when a small, sweet-faced, soft-spoken woman rose and began to address them with a gentle dignity that carried much force with it. It was Mrs. Mott, who chose this way of saying what she had proposed to say before the convention.

To many of the Englishmen present this seemed unwomanly boldness, but her manner was so soft and sweet, her face and expression so attractive, her words so earnest and eloquent, her advocacy of freedom for all, black and white alike, so warm and logical, that their displeasure soon vanished and they found themselves listening with pleasure and admiration. If the vote had been taken after that address there would have been little question as to the admission of the women delegates, but as it was, Mrs. Mott succeeded in expressing her views before the members of the society and doing her duty as a member of the convention to which she had been sent.

At home, during the long agitation on the subject of slavery, Mrs. Mott continued to support the cause of human freedom with all her earnest enthusiasm. It was a work that exposed its advocates to obloquy and even to peril. Those opposed to it were often violent. Attacks were made on the abolitionists, their meetings were broken up, their members threatened and abused, and one of their meeting halls in Philadelphia was set on fire and burned. The fervent believers walked in an atmosphere of danger, but quiet Mrs. Mott had the courage of her convictions and let no fear of violence deter her in her work for the enslaved. When brickbats were flying or rioters swarming around the hall, she retained her calm demeanor and sought to dispel the apprehensions of those present.

It is said that on one occasion, when a violent mob threatened meeting to which she was going, this delicate little lady, with the courage of wisdom, asked in her soft voice for the protection of the burly leader of the mob. Astonished by the request and disarmed by her appeal to his chivalry, the loud-voiced bully took her under his care, escorted her to the hall, and saw that she had safe entrance within. The story does not say that he was greeted with the cheers of his fellows, but no one ventured to interfere with the lady under his charge, if any had thoughts of so doing.

Mrs. Mott did not confine herself to the anti-slavery cause. She was as firm an advocate of the right of women to be put on an equality with men in the eyes of the law, and to have an equal voice with men in choosing the representatives of the people. In 1848 there was held at Genesee Falls, New York, the first convention ever called together in which the rights of woman to the ballot and the equality with man under the law were the subjects discussed.

The convention and all who took part in it were ridiculed from end to end of the country, and almost the entire press broke out in a chorus of sharp criticism and satirical comment on the coming together of the strong-minded. Yet all that was said did not prevent a body of earnest women, and some men who believed in their cause, from meeting and debating the subject. William Mott, who was as earnest for reform as his wife, presided, and Mrs. Mott was one of the ablest and most earnest of the speakers. Despite the roar of laughter and the torrent of ridicule and abuse with which the movement was hailed, the little band of reformers kept on fighting their battle in their own way, growing and spreading, winning tolerance first and afterwards slowly gaining the rights for which they so earnestly labored.

Mrs. Mott was long one of the earnest workers in this new cause, as also in the temperance crusade and the question of women's wages. Her voice was raised wherever needed, and she lived to see much of what she had worked for achieved. The war came and the slaves were set free. Her work in this field was at an end. And the cause of Women's Rights had outlived the era of ridicule and won toleration and respect from many who had once derided it. The ideas of its champions became endorsed by a large body in the community, and by the time Mrs. Mott had become an old lady she had seen some of them accepted and others with fair promise of final success. Her last public appearance was at the suffrage convention in New York in her eighty-sixth year.

The noble character and constancy of purpose of Lucretia Mott added greatly to the effect of her eloquence and ability. As a speaker, a simple, earnest, unaffected manner and clearness and propriety of expression gave force to her words. Her high moral qualities, her developed intelligence, the beauty and consistency of her character, won her respect and admiration even from the opponents of her views. And none could say that she kept herself in public to the neglect of her home duties, for she was a model house-keeper, keeping her home in order and comfort, and holding throughout the love and admiration of her husband, who was mutually in close sympathy with her.

Mrs. Mott was a guardian angel to the poor of her vicinity. She attended them in sickness, sympathized with them in their troubles, gave them aid where needed, and did it all in a way to win their deepest gratitude. They lost a good and charitable friend when she died, November x t, 1880.