The Rule-Breaking Sisters Grimké

Digitized antislavery petitions are a boon to scholars
Daniel Carpenter and Louise Knight before Knight's lecture on the Grimke sisters. Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff PhotographerDaniel Carpenter and Louise Knight before Knight's lecture on the Grimke sisters. Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer
By Corydon Ireland

The Grimké sisters—Angelina and Sarah—were famous for breaking rules. As antislavery advocates canvassing for the cause, they addressed large mixed-gender audiences in public venues, a reversal of custom. And in prescient essays and speeches, they delivered a message that combined distress at slavery (widespread and legal) with distress over the status of American women (homebound and unable to vote).

As for slavery, the sisters knew it close up. They were members of a wealthy slave holding family in South Carolina, but they made a cultural escape north to embrace Quaker pacifism. Born in 1792 (Sarah) and 1805 (Angelina), by 1829 they were both living in Philadelphia. By 1835 they were writing essays and, later, making speeches on behalf of abolitionist causes that helped start the Civil War.

In 1838 Angelina Grimké went to the State House in Boston to deliver antislavery petitions signed by 20,000 Massachusetts women. It was the first time in US history that a woman had addressed a legislative body. She told her audience of 3,000 that she had been “exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave.”

She asked, “Are we aliens because we are women? . . . Have women no country?”

Angelina GrimkeAngelina Grimke

The Grimké sisters represent a breakthrough 19th-century moment in which American women became political. “The 1837-to-1839 period was the peak,” said historian Louise Knight in her spring lecture at the Radcliffe Institute. She is writing a biography of the sisters.

Shut out of the voting arena, women in that era turned increasingly to the art of the petition. Often called “prayers,” these were earnest arguments against slavery (or the death penalty or alcohol), most often appended by collected signatures. These documents—a traditional way of prompting new laws—were sent to Congress or state legislatures.

A recent study coauthored by Daniel Carpenter—faculty director of the social sciences at the Radcliffe Institute and the Al ie S. Freed Professor of Government at Harvard—backed up the notion that antebellum petitioning represented a landmark moment in which women learned lessons about political organization that they later applied to the suffrage movement.

The study also underscored what is now a historian’s commonplace: that women were far better at petitioning and at gathering signatures than their male counterparts. (“Forget fatigue,” one pamphlet urged women canvassers.) During one 1836 antislavery campaign in Massachusetts, women’s groups sent 3,100 petitions to Congress—twice the number sent by men.

That fervor in 1836 was inspired, in part, by a gag rule on antislavery petitions passed by the 25th Congress the year before under pressure from proslavery southern Democrats. During this time, former president John Quincy Adams, then a congressman representing the Quincy-Braintree district of Massachusetts, would rise from his seat to offer an antislavery petition, only to be shouted down.

Sarah GrimkeSarah GrimkeThe gag rule, Pinckney Resolution 3, was repealed in 1844. But in its day, the rule led—ironically—to an upsurge in such petitions to Congress; inspired more such pleas going to state legislatures; and—above all, said Carpenter—lit a fire under women incensed that their freedom of speech was being even further curtailed.

Among those incensed, and empowered, by the gag rule were the Grimké sisters. Their skill as petitioners—and that of hundreds of other men and women—is now memorialized in a new database.

The Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions is the first of its kind, said Carpenter, who is the project’s principal investigator. It represents a largely untapped source of insight and information for scholars: thousands of voices and ideas that were once lost and now—based on the Harvard model—might be found again. (Carpenter has a book under way on the potential of petition archives for scholars, and even for citizens doing genealogical research.)

The Massachusetts iteration includes 3,487 digitized petitions from 1649 to 1870, said Nicole Topich, an archivist at the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard and Carpenter’s collaborator on the new digital archive.

Work on the archive, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, began in 2013 in cooperation with the Massachusetts Archives of the Commonwealth, where Topich set up a small office. The mission: identify, catalog, and then digitize the thousands of antislavery and antisegregation petitions that had lain largely untouched for decades, or even centuries.

Now that the petitions are digitized, said Carpenter, historians and social scientists can do more than read them. Using metadata, they can compare the documents across locations and time periods. Signatories can be analyzed, he said, to reveal treelike social networks. Such aggregating, comparative techniques for digital humanities scholarship will provide perspectives not possible by working only with the physical documents.

The database, distributed by the Harvard Dataverse Network, is now available. The prospect of such searchable digital documents, along with images and metadata, excites scholars like Knight, whose previous work includes two books on pioneering social activist Jane Addams. “They discovered petitions,” she said of Carpenter and Topich, “that everyone thought—that I thought—were lost.”

It was these petitions that opened new worlds to 19th-century women to whom the civic arena was otherwise closed, said Knight. “Petitioning returned their political voices. It was the one legal means they had” for expressing their views and desires and demands.

That legal means, Knight told her audience, was in full flower during the summer and fall of 1837, when the Grimké sisters were hired as agents in a Massachusetts antislavery campaign. The number of petitions signed that year more than doubled compared with 1836; the number of antislavery societies in the state nearly doubled, to 47.

The Grimké sisters whirled through the state like dervishes, filling churches and halls with record audiences during days that sometimes included three events. And they spoke to mixed-gender audiences in public.

In all, Massachusetts in 1837 represented that moment in American history that “made women political,” said Knight. “Something historic happened.”

Corydon Ireland is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette. This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the Gazette.

Search Year: