Putting the “Rat” in Ratification: Tennessee’s role in the 19th amendment

Joint Resolution Proposing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, June 4, 1919. (National Archives Identifier 596314)

In 1878 Senator Aaron A. Sargent introduced into Congress a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.

On June 4, 1919,  after 40 years—and much effort and debate—Congress passed, by a two-thirds vote of both houses, that proposed amendment.

It was then up to the states to ratify it. 

Many states quickly approved the amendment, and by the end of March 1920, it was just one state shy of ratification.

Mississippi could have been the final vote needed to make the amendment law, but the state rejected it on March 29.

The amendment still needed one more state for ratification when the Tennessee legislature met in special session that summer.

The Tennessee Senate passed the amendment, so ratification rested with the Tennessee House of Representatives. After weeks of intense lobbying and debate, on August 18, 1920, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie.

The speaker then called the for the vote to ratify. It seemed certain the result would be another deadlock, but that morning a son received a letter from his mother that changed everything.

The son was Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee. Just two years earlier Burn had become the youngest to be elected to the state’s legislature. Burn, who had been seemingly solidly in the anti-suffrage camp, received a seven-page letter from his mother asking him to support the amendment.

Dear Son, . . . Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I
noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you
stood but have not seen anything yet. . . . Don’t forget to be a good boy, and help
Mrs. “Thomas Catt” with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time. With lots of love, Mama.

Tennessee Governor’s Certification of the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, August 24, 1920. (National Archives Identifier 1501900)

Burn had hoped the issue wouldn’t rest with him—he supported suffrage himself, but his constituents were opposed, and he faced an election that fall. Burn was torn, and when the issue came to vote he blurted out “aye,” without thinking, thus breaking the tie.

The Tennessee legislative had passed the amendment making it law of the land. 

Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts sent notice of the ratification to Washington, DC, and on August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification of the 19th Amendment effective August 18, 1920.

Want to know more about Burn’s role in passing the 19th Amendment? During all of August the ReSource Room in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, is holding activities relating to Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment.

And don’t miss your last chance to see the National Archives exhibit “Amending America,” which is open in Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, through September 4, 2017.

H-23Job A1 11-009 NWL Berryman
“April First,” by Clifford Berryman. Berryman shows Mississippi’s rejection of the 19th Amendment as a cruel April Fool’s joke played on the woman suffrage movement, 4/1/1920. (National Archives Identifier 6011595)


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