Steve Cottrell: Aaron and Ellen Sargent — embedded in U.S. history | TheUnion.com
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Steve Cottrell: Aaron and Ellen Sargent — embedded in U.S. history

This has been the month for Nevada County to honor Ellen Clark Sargent and her husband, Aaron, who, as a member of the United States Senate in 1878 introduced the exact words that would, in 1920, be ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

While we celebrate the 19th Amendment’s centennial, however, let’s look at what Aaron and Ellen were doing in 1876 when the United States was celebrating a centennial of its own.

In January 1876, Sen. Sargent introduced a bill aimed at extending the right to vote to women who lived in the District of Columbia. It was not a request of support for the proposed constitutional amendment he would introduce in 1878; it was a bill granting women residents of Washington, D. C. the right to vote — several of whom, of course, were wives of members of Congress.



When Sargent introduced his bold concept on Jan. 24, 1876, he told his Senate colleagues, “I know of no better place than the capital of the nation where such a decided experiment can be made.”

Sargent brought with him a resolution signed by suffrage leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and his wife, Ellen, treasurer of the national organization. Among the clauses of the resolution were the following:



“Whereas a fair trial of equal suffrage for men and women in the District of Columbia, under the supervision of Congress, would demonstrate to the people of the whole country that justice to women is policy for men; and

“Whereas this Centennial year of ’76 is breathing its influence upon the people, melting away all prejudices and animosities, and inspiring into our national councils a finer sense of justice and a clearer perception of individual rights; therefore

“We pray your honorable body to frame a government for the District of Columbia which shall secure to its women citizens the right to vote.”

The Jan. 26 National Republican newspaper in Washington, D. C., said of Sargent’s presentation, “This is probably the most outspoken endorsement of the doctrine of women’s political rights ever made on the floor of the Senate.”

Sargent’s bill was referred to the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia where, on Jan. 31, the committee held a public hearing and listened to several woman, including Ellen, make a case for support and adoption of the suffrage measure. Some senators supported the idea, but not enough to move it forward to a full Senate vote.

Eventually, Sargent’s first suffrage bill was deemed dead at committee level, but another opportunity to promote women’s suffrage came July 4, 1876, on the occasion of the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia. Naturally, Ellen Sargent would be there to lend her voice to a chorus of suffrage leaders ready to unveil the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.

The women wanted their document read aloud following a reading of the Declaration of Independence, but as the July 6 Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “The officers of the National Women’s Suffrage Association made an effort Tuesday to obtain permission to read the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States from the platform in Independence Square…but they did not succeed,.”

Instead, they read the Declaration of Rights aloud in front of nearby Independence Hall. It was lengthy, so several women, including Ellen, took turns reading portions — a document that ended, “We ask our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”

The Declaration of Rights was signed by 24 women, including Nevada City pioneer Ellen Clark Sargent, who founded the Nevada County Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869 and served as treasurer of the national organization from 1873-79.

Eighteen months after his wife and other women’s suffrage leaders were snubbed in Philadelphia, Aaron Sargent went to the well of the U. S. Senate and introduced the words that would, 42 years later, be ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Aaron Sargent died in 1887, Ellen in 1911. Neither lived to see universal suffrage become reality, but their respective legacies are forever embedded in Nevada County and United States history.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.


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