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November 1842

“A Woman of Spunk:” Ann Parlin’s Vision for Revolution

“No one dared to act, but few ventured to speak…She looked round her for a leader to step forward to the rescue of American freedom!  None appeared…”

Editor’s Introduction

From August 4, 1842 to September 6, 1844, tens of thousands of radical “locofocos” and “Dorrites” from throughout New England gathered intermittently—but persistently—at some of the grandest and most interesting popular expressions of political ideas and activism in the entire Jacksonian period.  These “Great Clam Bakes” joined the traditional, ancient Narragansett feast with rabid, radical locofocoism and the rhetorical stirrings of republican revolution.  The “clambakarians,” as one hostile press dubbed them, drew their inspiration from the ongoing constitutional crisis in Rhode Island, what historians have called the “Dorr War,” after the reformist leader Thomas Wilson Dorr.  Rhode Island possessed, as of August 1842, the oldest existing written constitution in the world.  King Charles II issued the famous “Charter” in 1663 and it was hallowed by virtually all Americans as one of the country’s truly great founding documents.  By the late 1830s, however, the Charter positively disenfranchised a majority of the state’s white male population and critics charged that the state no longer qualified as a republic.  Accordingly, “Suffragists” gradually built a grassroots reform movement culminating in a new constitution approved by popular vote (“The People’s Constitution”) and a new governor (Thomas W. Dorr) in the Spring of 1842.  The Charter government, however, refused to yield power to the irregularly-formed People’s Government, successfully resisting Dorr’s hapless efforts at military confrontation at the Providence (May 1842) and Chepachet (June 1842) arsenals.

Though the military struggle for a new constitution ended as a farcical failure and most members of the Dorr government were either exiled or in prison, the suffragist women of Rhode Island refused to relinquish the revolutionary principles involved.  Ann Parlin was one such woman, and as her speech before New York locofocos at the Shakespeare Hotel indicates, Parlin devised and implemented the Great Clam Bakes, marking her as the key activist figure in the Suffragist movement while Dorr languished in exile.  Parlin made her speech on November 5, 1842 at the end of the clam-baking season, which no doubt left her in a reflective mood.  Fully aware that hers would be the first speech by a woman ever delivered at that venue, Parlin spent the majority of her time reminding her audience that women shaped history in places and times far removed from Jacksonian Rhode Island.  Parlin argued that right-thinking radical men and women alike shared responsibility for the future.  Most importantly, women’s capacity to produce new generations and etch upon them the past’s wisdom all but destined the historical victory of republican principles.  People do, in fact, govern themselves, and so long as warriors in the present kept alive this great republican idea, the young would inexorably embrace its truth.

 

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

 

“Great Meeting in Relation to Rhode Island”

New York Daily Plebeian, 1 No. 110, 5 November 1842.

A speech by Ann Parlin

The large ball room of the Shakespeare Hotel was last night filled with the most respectable audience we have ever known at a meeting the object of which was directly associated with politics.  The announcement that Mrs. Dr. Parlin would address the citizens of New York, had attracted a large number of the fair sex, who testified by their enthusiasm their deep interest in the cause for the support of which the meeting had been called.  On entering the room, Mrs. Parlin was received with every demonstration of favor.  Mr. Edward J. Webb was called to the chair, and opened the proceedings…

He introduced Mrs. Parlin by some neat complimentary remarks.

Mrs. Parlin then rose and addressed the meeting.  She was aware, that in appearing before them, she might be accused of departing from the social forms and usages, which, from the earliest times, have restricted the action of the sex to which she belonged within the narrow circle of domestic occupations.  Nor could they be more surprised to see her there than she herself was, to be on a stand hitherto occupied by men only.  But, like the dumb son of Cresus, on whose tongue words distinct and clear were forced by his fear for a father’s life, when the assassin’s dagger was lifted over his head, accents of unwonted force and import came on her lips in defence of her husband, his freedom, reputation and life.  She deemed it unnecessary, in a country where a virile education was given to so many women, to apologise for having acted a manly part during their civil discords—for presenting herself then, before them, on behalf of the unfortunate victims of aristocratic tyranny.

She was not learned either in ancient or in modern annals, but she had read in elementary books of history, that the wrongs of a Roman matron changed the Roman government from a monarchy into a republic—that the indignant aspirations of a plebeian wife was the cause of elevating to the consulate Roman citizens of plebeian birth—that the high daring of a virgin shepherdess turned in favor of France the tide of war, which for half a century had rolled adverse to her arms—that in Greece, when she awakened from the deathlike sleep of centuries of bondage, fierce Amazons led her fleet to glorious battles, once more presenting to an astonished world the spectacle of women fighting like men, and men flying from the contest like women.  In Spain, young, (and before the voice of patriotism had called them to act,) retiring and timid maids were seen standing undaunted on the gory beach, inspiring the enthusiasm of their own heroic valor in the warriors of Arragon and Castile.

It had not yet been her fortune to emulate those heroines whose names will forever live in the annals of fame—but she felt here a spirit which convinced her that it required no greater exertion of physical courage to meet the swords of soldiers than she had exercised to assume enough of moral courage to sustain her in asserting the cause of popular freedom, retiring as she had ever been before (Cheers).

For she could not foresee the kindness of their reception, and the encouragement of their looks, which so eloquently told her that they understood her position, communed with her feelings, shared in all her patriotic sympathies, and did full justice to the purity and singleness of her motives.  Allow her to state to them very briefly the circumstances which had led her to endeavor to awaken the patriots of Rhode Island from the torpor of discouragement, to inspire in the women there her own sentiments, and which had at last brought her from a home where she had always before kept strictly within the bounds of female avocations, to this great emporium of salutary political agitations, this fountain city from which has so often emanated the pure streams of Democratic principles.

After untoward events, to recent too require a recital, had destroyed their hopes of immediate emancipation from aristocratic thralldom, the patriots who had not fled were thrown into prison, and there dealt with as felons.  A band of ruthless aristocrats strode over their State, spreading terror throughout the land.  Informers, spies, denunciators crowded the cities, the hamlets, and the isolated abodes of husbandmen, violating everywhere the sanctities of private life—vengeance, and all the resentments of individual hatred mingling all the while their vile worship to the despotic measures of the victorious party.  The press, too, faithless to its high mission of enlightenment and freedom, had passed to the side of fortune, and to add to their calamities, the President of the United States, yielding to the perfidious arts of some of his advisers, had given to their adversaries the sanction of his name. 

No one dared to act, but few ventured to speak.  In that period of gloom she looked round her for a leader to step forward to the rescue of American freedom!  None appeared…

In conversing with her female friends, she ascertained that they were animated with sentiments kindred with those feelings that made her heart to pant with emotions of alternate grief and indignation.  She took in her own name, and careless of the consequences, spurning the abuse of the Algerine press, the initiative of calling these great gatherings, in which the spirit of resistance to oppression suddenly revived in every breast.  These meetings had reanimated the desponding, infused life and daring into hearts before infirm of purpose.  Their tyrants had marked these symptoms of returning energy.  They were aware that there still rankled in every soul a deep undying hatred of their acts, in every generous mind, an inflexible resolution to throw off their ignoble sway.  That she had been (citizens of New York) one of the humble instruments in the hands of God to rekindle from under the ashes where they slumbered, the noble passions in the hearts of their patriots might well make her proud, did she not recollect that between these symptoms of future success, and a full accomplishment of their designs, a wide field still spread before them…

She asked them to listen to the testimony of one who daily visited the captives in their dungeons.  The horrors of the British prison-ships, of which she heard, in the history of their first war, could bear no comparison with what she witnessed in the jails of Rhode Island, aggravated, too, as they were by the reflection that the executors of cruelties which no nation save England was supposed capable of inflicting on prisoners of war, were Americans.  [Applause.]

It was the indignation inspired within her by scenes like those, which drove her from her quiet home, and urged her before the public, to breathe into the hearts of matrons and maidens the energy of her own feelings.  She believed, when she began this pilgrimage in behalf of human rights and she still believed, that the cause which enlisted the sympathies of woman, would triumph at last by the action of men.  Let such as might be tempted to censure her for appearing before the people in her own state, and presenting herself to that auspicious gathering of democracy—let them, she said, remember the patriotism of American women during the revolutionary war—their urging their husbands, brothers and sons, like Spartan matrons, to enlist under the banners of freedom; their memorable resolution to forego, as long as the war continued, the use of all those luxuries imported in British ships or manufactured in England, which she lavishly spread over the land, to enervate men and corrupt women.

It was (Mrs. P. continued) only the adolescence of the coming generation which was confided to the tuition of men; their earlier childhood was entrusted to them.  It was from woman they received the precepts which their tender minds, then more easily impressed, imbibed as principles, opinions and rules of action never after to be effaced.  So far it might truly be asserted, that the future of a nation was always prepared and moulded by women.

The present, which in Rhode Island belonged to the oligarchy, was like the leaves of this protracted autumn still, hanging on the trees, but sere, withered and ready to fall before the first blast, never again to resume life and verdure.  The aristocracy had lived one season; but they had no harvest to expect from coming years.  Every spring, together with the renovated life it breathes into matter, sends forth on the stage of political action, thousands of Suffrage youths.  It was out of their hands they should receive, from the grave where it now rested, embalmed in a Nation’s tears, the true, the real, the only constitution Rhode Island ever had or ever would accept. [Cheering.]…

When the majority of the present Congress, already morally dead, shall have come to its dissolution; when the Senate should have received, as new blood infused into their bodies, another and a better life, in the accession of new members fresh from the people, instinct with their opinions and obeying their dictates; when John Tyler (the glorious affixer of five vetoes on five unconstitutional bills,) [Cheers] restored by the cheerings of a grateful nation to the full vigor of his native energies, shall have brushed away both the spiders and the webs which those obscene insects had spun in his cabinet, then would come the auspicious time for a mightier effort to enfranchise Rhode Island!  Then the voice of the first Magistrate will not be heard as it was before, condemning her right to obtain equal justice.  Then she will have a fair field; reason and right her only weapons—public opinion the umpire between her and her oppressors—and the prayers of the good and the enlightened for the success of her holy cause.  [Cheers.]

But while those events foretold by all the signs that ever mark the coming triumph of the people, are yet unaccomplished—the victims of their love of freedom—of their faith in the principles proclaimed by the venerable fathers of Democracy, languish in fetid dungeons—they are fed with loathsome aliments, which the famished serfs of English aristocracy would spurn!   They were even deprived of sleep, that balmy solace of the wretched sufferer, is driven from their very lids by vermin which prey on their living bodies, as if they were already given up, to the noxious insects of the tomb.

It is in order to alleviate these sufferings of their fellow citizens that she now addressed them, not to ask for munificent contributions (those she well knew were obtained from the opulent, and they never tax themselves except to reward such as they use as instruments for their purpose,) but from every one here to solicit a small portion of one day’s earnings, the numbers will make up for the smallness of the offering.  Bread, and the coarsest garments, to the purchase of those only would their alimonies be applied.  (Cheers.)

Mrs. Parlin then concluded.  She would now close her remarks (for she had said enough for such as could feel).  To them she offered in acknowledgment the grateful thanks of the victims.  To such as would give, if they had it to give, she offered the same thanks for their kind sympathies.  Allow her to say, that it was only after she had exhausted her own means that she applied to others to relieve her unfortunate fellow citizens.  And now she bade them farewell.  Defend me when I am gone against the slanders of those who would say that vanity, a desire of notoriety, brought me here.  She could read in the kindness of their looks a better appreciation, a more righteous judgment on her motives and purpose.  It was their good opinion she wished to have and to preserve.  As regarded the Algerines, what had she to hope from them—from men who brutally assailed and bruised a woman in the street, and as an apology for the brutal act, declared that they had mistaken her for her (Mrs. P.).  And this, too, because she maintained the heaven-born sentiment that government should be a shield and buckler for the protection, not a chain and manacle for the enslavement of the people.  Mrs. P. sat down amid tremendous and enthusiastic cheering.

 

For Further Reading

Chaput, Erik.  The People’s Martyr:  Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion. Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas Press. 2013.

DeSimone, Russel J.  Rhode Island’s Rebellion:  A Look at Some Aspects of the Dorr War, Number Six, Lewis and Ann Parlin.  Middletown, RI:  Bartlett Press.  2009.

Gettleman, Marvin.  The Dorr Rebellion:  A Study in American Radicalism:  1833-1849.  New York:  Random House.  1973.

Zboray, Ronald & Mary.  Voices Without Votes:  Women and Politics in Antebellum New England.  Durham, NH:  University of New Hampshire Press.  2010.

Dennison, George M.  The Dorr War:  Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861.  Lexington:  The University of Kentucky Press. 1976.

Conley, Patrick T.  Democracy in Decline:  Rhode Island’s Constitutional Development, 1776-1841.  Providence:  Rhode Island Historical Society.  1977.