JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, May 02, 2014


I admit that eventually we must all bow to the will of genetics, even if we aren’t common cattle. And when you come up against a human family like the Smith’s of Glastonbury, Connecticut, any argument of nature verses nurture seems almost pointless. Zephaniah Hollister Smith graduated an ordained minister from Yale, but he gave it up because he did not believe in mixing prophets with profits. Allegedly he excommunicated his entire congregation, and they returned the favor. Swinging to the other extreme Zephaniah then became a successful lawyer. His wife, Hannah Hadassah Hickock Smith was a linguist, a mathematician and a poet, all the more amazing an achievement since she lived in the second half of the 18th century when women were little more than chattel. The couple shared a fascination for astronomy, a passion for the abolition of slavery, and five girls.
 First there was Laurilla Aleroyia Smith, born in 1785, who painted portraits in her own studio on Main Street in Glastonbury. She also taught French in nearby Hartford. Then there was Hancy Zephina Smith, born in 1787. She was of a mechanical mind. She built her own boat, and invented a machine to shoe horses. Then there was Cyrinthia Scretuia Smith, born in 1788 with a green thumb. She raised fruit trees, grapes, strawberries, and grafted her own varieties of apple trees. In her free time she was also a scholar of Latin and Greek literature. But the real revolutionaries were the two youngest girls.
They told a story about Julia Evelina Smith (born in 1792.) While trapped during a long stage trip with a Chancellor and a professor, both from Yale, “Miss” Julia was insulted when the two men began an animated conversation in French, ignoring her completely. After listening for several minutes, Julia spoke up, saying “Excusez-moi, mais je comprends le français.” Without an acknowledgement of her presence, the two men immediately shifted their discussion to Latin, whereupon Julia interrupted again; “Excuse mihi , EGO quoque narro Latin.” The intellectuals were appalled at the continued interruption and shifted to Greek, and Julia responded with “Και κατανοώ επίσης ελληνική". Finally the Chancellor spoke to the lady directly, demanding, “Who the devil are you!?”
Julia also spoke Hebrew, and had been conducting her own study of both the Old and the New Testaments. You see, she had expected the world to end in December of 1843, and was determined to find it why it had not. Her younger sister, Abby Adassah Smith (born in 1797) was the quietest of the five, and much to everyone’s surprise (including herself) was perhaps the best public speaker of all. It seems a pity to point out that none of men in the area seemed to have been bright enough to garner any of the ladies’ interests in marriage.
It also seems a pity that of this entire family, all of them independently financially successful, intellectually powerful and culturally sophisticated, only the father, Zephaniah, was politically empowered. And when he died, on February 1, 1836, the richest, best educated family in central Connecticut, was no longer allowed to cast a single vote.
This oddity lay simmering beneath the surface until November of 1873. By now most of the female members of the Smith family had gone on to meet their maker, until only Julia, now aged 82, and Abby, now aged 77, were left to bear the Smith genetic code. It was then that the male officials of Glastonbury made the decision to raise the property tax assessment on the Smith farm by $100. The sisters would have no trouble meeting the obligation, but the increase bothered Abby, and she looked into it.
What she discovered was that in the entire town, only three properties had suffered the reassessment; the Smith farm, and the properties of two widows. Not a single male property owner had been reassessed. Abby was so incensed that she wrote a speech, which she delivered at the next town meeting. “…here, where liberty is so highly extolled and glorified by every man in it, one half of the inhabitants…are ruled over by the other half...All we ask of the town, is not to rule over them as they rule over us, but to be on an equality with them.”
Well, the male citizens at the meeting responded to the speech in the same way the Yale Chancellor and Professor in the coach had responded to Julia. They ignored the little lady. So, the sisters decided more radical action was required. They announced that until they received representation (the right to vote), they would no longer submit to any additional taxation. Oh, they paid their property taxes each year, and promptly, but they refused to pay the reassessment.
In response the tax collector, Mr. George C. Andrews, seized from the Smith farm seven cows. The bovines were almost pets of the Smith sisters -  named, Jessie, Daisy, Proxy, Minnie, Bessie, Whitey, and Lily. The cows were valued well beyond the $101.39 additional tax bill. So the determined sisters dispatched an agent to buy the beloved pets at auction, paying far in excess of the tax bill to save four of them. The remaining three were sold at auction, although I doubt they proved to be worth the price since none of the cows were willing to be milked unless Julia was present.
Meantime, the Springfield Massachusetts Republican newspaper reprinted Abby’s speech, and it was picked up and reprinted in newspapers nationwide. The story was even repeated in Europe. It was, wrote one newspaper, “A fit centennial celebration to the Boston Tea Party.”
In April Abby was denied time to speak again at the next town meeting. So she climbed on board a wagon out side and delivered her remarks from there, this time heard about equally by men and women. When tax time came around again, the sisters still refused to pay the additional assessment. This time Mr. Andrews seized 15 acres of Smith pasture, worth about $2,000. And this time he moved the location of the auction at the last minute, so the sisters could not even buy back their own land. The valuable property was bought by a male neighbor for less than $80.
In response the sisters sued Mr. Andrews in local court,  and they won. The court ordered the property (and the cows) returned to the sisters, and fined Mr. Andrews $10. The city appealed, and the case began the tortuous climb through the courts. In November of 1876, the old maids won at the Connecticut Supreme Court, and the city finally accepted it had been beaten by two lady spinsters.
Julia wrote an account of their adventure, “Abby Smith and her Cows”, published in 1877. That made the sisters famous, and they spoke at suffragette meetings until Julia’s death in 1878. Abby followed her in 1886. But women still could not vote in Connecticut until the 19th Amendment to the National Constitution was officially passed, in August of 1920. The Smith family home was finally made a National Historical Landmark, but not until 1974.
The history of the Julia and Abby Smith, and their cows ought to be considered by members of the modern Tea Party. In the Smith case it was the right to vote that was denied by the government. While in the modern version of the tea party it is the obligation of citizens to support their government which is denied. The problem is, one is directly connected to the other. In the former case, it was brilliance of mind and spirit that drove the two ladies to protest and win. In the latter it seems it is arrogance and selfishness that fuels the protest, and in the long run it is doomed to lose. He - or she - who holds the purse strings, holds the power. And you can advocate the destruction of the political system for only so long, because if you succeed, you lose.
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