Tax Resisting American Women’s Rights Activists Abby & Julia Smith

I managed to get a copy of Abby Smith and Her Cows (by her sister Julia Smith) through inter-library loan. It’s mostly a collection of newspaper articles concerning the Smith sisters’ tax resistance campaign in Glastonbury, Connecticut (see the tale of “Votey” and “Taxey” in The Picket Line for ).

From this, I’ll reprint a few pieces today. The first is an excerpt from Julia Smith’s introduction:

Perhaps the public would like to learn the circumstances which first led two defenceless women, to make such a stand as they have done against taxation without representation.

They were quiet peaceable citizens of the town of Glastonbury, Ct., born and brought up there, having no idea of going contrary to men’s laws, neither have they by any means broken one of them. Without any fault of their own, have they been driven into their present unpleasant situation.

The first time I ever said anything in self-defense to any of the town officers was in . An overseer of the highway called here in , and brought a bill of about eighteen dollars and said it was not due till , but wished we would furnish the money beforehand, for he must pay the laborers and could get no money from the men. I paid it, and there was another highway tax sent in of about the same amount. I thought there must be a mistake, and did not want to pay it over twice. I called on the overseer, but he seemed to know nothing how it happened. He was a republican and wanted to give me some insight into town affairs, and show me how miserably the democrats governed the town, and got the late town report to read to me. I told him I knew not how to stay, and I had no power to help it. But he read several items and among the rest was more than $700 for registering men’s names. “What’s that?” said I. “Why there has been a law passed, which I approve; for some men would vote twice over if their names were not put down.” “But who pays this?” “Why the tax payers of course.” “But if I wanted my name set down would they do it?” “Oh no! it is the voter’s names.” “What! and make the women pay for it?” He said the democrats charged a third more than the republicans, for the democrats charged three dollars a day, horse hire and a dinner. “And then make the women pay for it? If they are going on at this rate, I must go to that suffrage meeting in Hartford and see if we cannot do better, for I have no doubt one woman would write down every name in town for half that money.”

To the suffrage meeting we went, the day but one after. It was presided over by Dr. Burton, and capital speeches were made. Snow on the ground, travelling bad, a raw, sour day; we could stay at only one session, and came home believing that the women had truth on their side; but never did it once enter our heads to refuse to pay taxes. Not long after we had sickness and death in the family, and lost our eldest sister, the life of the house, who had a keen sense of injustice. In when Collector Cornish called for our taxes, (not collector Andrews the cow auctioneer) I asked him why our assessment was more than , for we laid up no money and did not intend to. He replied, the assessor had a right to add to our tax as much as he pleased, and he had assessed our house and homestead a hundred dollars more. To be sure it increased our tax but a little, but what is unjust in least is unjust in much. I inquired if it was done so to any man’s property. He looked over his book to see, and not a man had his tax raised; there were only two widows in our neighborhood that were so used. I told him how wrong it was to treat us in this manner, for we could not even raise money enough from our land to pay its taxes, but men had strength and could raise tobacco and pay theirs readily. He said he would see the selectmen and call again. He did call again with peremptory orders to collect it, and that year we paid over $200 to the town. That man was killed the next winter by being thrown out of his sleigh against a post near his own door. Had he lived, I do not believe he would ever been forced by any authority to use us so outrageously as collector Andrews has done.

My sister who has the most courage of the two, and seemed to think almost the whole of our native town friendly to us, declared she was not going to be so unjustly used, without telling of it. I warned her of the consequences, and as we had so short a time to stay here, we had better submit; and asked how she would do it? She said, when the men met in town meeting. I at last consented to go with her to the town hall, she having written better than I thought possible. My scrap book entitled “Abby Smith and her Cows” must give the sequel.

The second excerpt is Abby Smith’s address to the Glastonbury town meeting:

It is not without due deliberation that we have been willing to attend this meeting, but we had no other way of coming before the men of the town. Others, our neighbours, can complain more effectually than we can, without speaking a word, when they think those who rule over them rule with injustice; but we are not put under the laws of the land as they are — we are wholly in the power of those we have come to address. You have the power over our property to take it from us whenever you chose, and we can have no voice in the matter whatever, not even to say what shall be done with it, and no power to appeal to; we are perfectly defenseless. Can you wonder, then, we should wish to speak with you?

People do not generally hold power without exercising it, and those who exercise it do not appear to have the least idea of its injustice. The Southern slaveholder only possessed the same power that you have to rule over us. “Happy dog,” he would say of his slave, “I have given him everything; I am the slave, and he the master; does he complain? give him ten lashes.” The slaveholder really thought they had done so much for their slaves they would not leave them, when the great consideration was, the slave wanted control of his own earnings; and so does every human being of what rightfully belongs to him.

We do not suppose the men of the town think they have done so much for us that they have a right to take our money when they please. But then there is always excuse enough where there is power. They say all the property of the town should be taxed for the expenses of the town, according to its valuation, and as taxation without representation is wrong, they give permission to a part of these owners to say what valuation shall be made, and how the money can best be applied for their benefit. They meet together to consult who among them shall have the offices of the town and what salary they will give them. All is this done without ever consulting or alluding to the other part of the owners of this property. But they tax the other owners and take from them just what amount they please.

We had two hundred dollars taken from us in this way , by the same power the robber takes his money, because we are defenceless and cannot resist. But the robber would have the whole community against him, and he would not be apt to come but once; but from the men of our town we are never safe — they can come in and take our money from us just when they choose.

Now, we cannot see any justice, any right, or any reason in this thing. We cannot see why we are not just as capable of assisting in managing the affairs of the town as the men are. We cannot possibly see why we have not just as much intelligence and information or as much capacity for doing business, as they have. Are we not as far-seeing, and do we not manage our own affairs, as far as we are permitted by the laws, as well as they do? Is it any more just to take a woman’s property without her consent, than it is to take a man’s property without his consent?

Those whom the town put over us are the very dregs of society, those who are making the town and their families continual expense and trouble, for which we are liable, and the authorities make the town pay the expense of meeting to take off their poll tax, for they can’t pay a dollar; and they have taken some from the insane retreat and kept them in a barn over night to vote the next day. Now all these things clearly prove how much more these lawless men are valued by the town than such citizens as we are, who never make it the least trouble or expense. Such men as these are set over us and can vote away our property; indeed, our property is liable for their support. Now all we ask of the town is to put us on an equality with these men, not to rule over them as they rule over us, but to be put on an equality with them. Is this an unreasonable request? Do we not stand on an equality with them, and every man in this assembly, before the law of God?

God is a God of justice; men and women stand alike in his sight; he has but one law for both. And why should man have but one law for both, to which both shall be accountable alike? Let each rise if they can by their own ability, and put no obstructions in their way. Is it right because men are the strongest, that they should go into the women’s houses and take their money from them, knowing they cannot resist? It is not physical strength that akes a town prosper; it is mind; it is capability to guide the physical strength and put its resources to the best possible advantage. You are rejecting just half of the very element you need.

You well know that a man and his wife must counsel together to make the affairs of their household prosper; they must be one in the business, and if they are one, I cannot see how one can rule over the other, from which idea comes all the disturbance between them. Ought not this town to represent one great family all equally interested in its government? As it is, its government is no concern of ours whatever. We cannot alter it if we see ever so much injustice. No woman concerns herself about the government of the town, being placed under the men, instead of being placed under the laws, their whole business is to please the men as the slave’s business is to please his master, because their living comes from the men; the laws are such that they can get it in no other way.

The motto of our government is “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land,” and here where liberty is so highly extolled and gloried by every man in it, one-half the inhabitants are not put under her laws, but are ruled over by the other half, who can by their own laws, not hers, take from the other half all they possess. How is Liberty pleased with such worship? Would she not be apt to think of her own sex?

This assembly have put such men as Judge Hunt over us, to fine a woman one hundred dollars for doing what is an honor for a man to do, and denied us a trial by jury. This is the highest court in the land made by your votes. No man ever had more regard for this town than our father had. He was born and brought up here, and all his ancestors before him. He knew ever man in it, and seemed as much interested in their welfare as his own. He was a man that any town would be proud of. He did all its law business for nearly forty years. Did he ever take any of its money without giving full compensation? It was never said of him.

Is not this the great law of nations, that compensation shall be made when money is taken from women as well as men? But instead of compensation it is taken from us and every other woman in the place, to strengthen the power of those that rule over us. It is taken to pay the men for making laws to govern us, by which they themselves would not be governed under any consideration. Neither would we, if we could help it.

Some of it is given to buy votes which add to their power. A man’s wife told me they gave her husband four dollars, which kept him drunk a long time to abuse his family. His wife said if she could vote, her vote would be as good as her husband’s, and the men which came after him to carry him to the polls would treat her as well as they treated him. Her hard earnings could not be taken for his drams.

And some of the money is taken for the authorities of the town to meet at all the different hotels in it, to make voters and take off the poll tax of all the poor vagabonds, that they may vote; then the authorities want to meet to consult what would be most for the advantage of half of the inhabitants of the town, who do the business and put them into office (the women are not mentioned, of course, for having no power they are of no consequence) and then these officers are furnished with an entertainment at the expense of all the inhabitants of the town.

But the roads make the most complaint to every woman that owns property; they all know as well as we do, that they would not be made as they are before their houses if they could vote.

We have every reason to think the officers of the town add what they please to our taxes. they added $100 to our homestead without giving us any notice, and the same amount to two widows in the neighborhood, who cannot work their land, and not a man who can work it had his property raised, for he could find it out and a woman could not.

We have paid the town of Glastonbury during more than $1000, and for what? to be ruled over and be put under, what all the citizens know to be the lowest and worthless of any in the place. We ask only for ourselves and our property. Why should we be cast out? Why should we be outlawed? We should be glad to stay in our homestead where we were born and have always lived, the little time we have to stay, and to be buried with our family and ancestors, but its pleasantness is gone, for we know we do not hold it in security as our neighbors hold theirs; that it is liable to be taken from us whenever the town sees fit.

The town collector called for our taxes on at sunset — the last day and hour he could call. We told him we would prefer to wait till we had been heard by the town, for if they gave us no hopes of voting, we wanted them to sell our farm for the taxes, for it was but reasonable, if they owned it, to get the taxes from it, we could not; and we wished they would begin at the east end and come into the street, for we wanted to save our homestead while we lived, and thought it would last us. He said he hoped he should not be the collector then. He agreed to all the injustice of which we complained.

The Hartford Courant printed this address, and then Abby Smith wrote a follow-up article for them:

To the Editor of the Courant:

Several having read my speech in your paper have requested to know how it was received by the town, and if you would publish the sequel I should feel greatly obliged. The collector called a second time this evening, as we had told him our paying the tax depended entirely on the encouragement we received about voting, after addressing the meeting. We told him tonight we received none at all. We thought no man had spoken about it, for what could they say? The facts must be admitted, and their not speaking of them allowed they did not intend that we should vote.

Now what would you do? Mr. A., said we, if some men should get together and agree that you should pay them a certain sum, every little while, without your consent, and without your having the least advantage by it; would you pay it, or would you let them get it as they could? This is precisely our case; there is no difference between us; it is just as wrong to take it from us as it is to take it from you. Therefore we had come to the conclusion, if the town owned our farm (about 130 acres), it belonged to the men to get out of it what they said we should pay, for we never could; and it surely did not belong to us to assist them in any way, having no voice in the matter.

As to the expense of selling it off, it made no difference to us by what name they called it, expense or anything else, so long as they could take the whole. Our money we owned, and we were not willing, any more, to take what we owned to pay for what we did not own.

Our father, when he advised us to keep the farm, said, “You need not cultivate it, but it wont run away from you.” It did not seem to enter his mind but what we might hold it as securely as the men held theirs; but, being a lawyer he must have known that as soon as he died it would pass into the hands of the men of the town, and not be secured to us by the laws of the land, as the men hold their property.

The collector enquired if we wished to begin at the east end first (the farm is three miles long and twenty-two and a half rods wide). We said we would be glad to save our homestead, while we lived, but then our homestead did not look so well to us as it did when we thought we owned it. The movable property would not go very far, for we believed they must leave us, as they did to the poor man, one cow and its keeping, and a part of our furniture.

Mr. A., the collector, said, as many do, he thought women that had property ought to vote. We said those that had none needed it more. If they could have the power to vote against the grog shops, their drunken husbands would never dare to abuse them as they did, but they could do it now with impunity, for the town officers would not punish a voter; women have no redress for whatever injury they may receive from a voter! If the women could have voted, the town would never have been so in debt. It is very hard for them to earn their money, and they are more careful whom they trust, and would never have employed those men who have brought in such enormous bills against the town.

We inquired of the collector if there were any in the place that are taxed higher than we are. We knew of one that was, but never paid any money; he took much more from the town than he paid it. The collector mentioned but one other that was taxed higher, but said he had orders on the town to pay. Of course they have orders on the town to pay — those that rule — and many work out their taxes on the roads, bridges, etc., and then there is a rotation in office that gives them all a chance at the money, which is taken mostly from the women. The town is six miles on the river and eight miles east from the river, seven miles from Hartford. And now, if my sister and I pay the highest taxes, in money, of any of the inhabitants of this large place, how does it look as to the administration of its justice? The town is doubtless managed like our school districts in which we pay the highest tax, double to any of the men but one. The voters decided a few years ago to have a new schoolhouse, and a contractor offered to build it for the same price he had just finished one a few miles off. But the men rejected the offer, for they said they wanted to work out their taxes, which they did, and more too, charging what they pleased to the district, which made the expense to the women nearly as much again as what the contractor offered to do the whole for.

There is not a man but what knows it is perfectly just and right for us to have the same protection, under the laws, that he has; neither does he fear Judge Hunt, but it is hard to give up power. Some of them mention the Catholics, forgetting that all the command which is given to man is, “Do justly.” God alone controls the consequences. The collector said, when he left, that he should call again.