The Power of Voice, Reflections on Lucretia Mott (1793-1880)

Portrait of Lucretia Mott, by William Henry Furness Jr., ca. early 1850s. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.

She’s the best-kept secret in American history, and even on Nantucket, where she was born in 1793. I met her gaze as a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a serene square of Philadelphia. Her parlor portrait arrested me. I needed to know who that woman was. It turned out Lucretia Coffin Mott was a founder of the college and a major figure in slave emancipation and human rights. So why was she a mystery to me, a history major?

First, don’t be fooled by her sweet appearance. This Friend—or Quaker—was a force. Her Nantucket girlhood in a flourishing Quaker community shaped her like clay into pottery.

In later life as a leading Philadelphia Friend in the “Quaker City,” Mott was an early champion for equality, known for the power of her voice. She reached tens of thousands in her time, traveling across a “House Divided” America. She witnessed the widening river of anger between North and South. The day she was born, George Washington was president, and she outlived Lincoln.

Lucretia and her husband, James Mott, were founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The Motts hosted the inaugural social event. A roaring Southern slaveholder, Andrew Jackson, was president. The small radical gathering was the beginning of something big. Nonviolent resistance to slavery would take time: thirty years. But nonviolent action slowly shifted the public mind.

Among the most famous women in antebellum America, Mott broke silences in the public square, literally. Voice was her gift for creating social change. She spoke in an inspired, spontaneous manner, with no notes. I found much of her eloquence is lost to history.

The idea of a woman public speaker was a shock, but it shouldn’t have been. It’s important to note: her talents were nurtured within the walls of her faith. Quaker women spoke freely, as the spirit moved in worship, just as men did.

That is the secret sauce of Mott’s remarkable success as a public speaker: her Quaker identity formed in Nantucket. Islanders, in general, cultivate independence of mind and thought.

Mott, denied an audience at the U.S. Capitol in 1843, delivered an anti-slavery sermon at the Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., to hushed residents and lawmakers. She was fifty on that historic night, invit-ed by John Quincy Adams, the stern former president. Five years later, Mott was the main speaker at the first American women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Frederick Douglass was also present at this milestone event for women.

Mott stands center stage at the crossroads of the two great human rights movements of the nineteenth century. For her, they were brother and sister causes, inseparable.
What Mott started in 1848, a thoroughly modern leader, Alice Paul, finished with her “Votes for Women” victory in 1920. Interestingly, Paul was also a Quaker, and she graduated from Swarthmore. Mott was a leading light of inspiration to her.

Bronze bust sculpture of Lucretia Coffin Mott,
by Victoria Guerina.
NHA Purchase. 2020.7.1.

Indeed, Mott is the foremother of us all, giving American women a rich lost inheritance, now being found like seaglass. A walk through her life sheds light on a righteous vision and the courage to stand up and speak out. These traits make all the difference to those actively resisting oppression.

Again, Mott’s nonviolent faith informed her outspoken speech in the public square. The Society of Friends embraced nonviolent resistance early on. In England in the 1650s, Quaker men refused to join the king’s army and were jailed because they would not bear arms. They would not tip their hats to authority. They worshiped in stark egalitarian meetinghouses. An emphasis on con-science and “inner light” marked the Protestant sect. The English king was glad to send the dissenters off to the New World, led by William Penn.

Nantucket became a harbor where Quakers could live safely away from hostile Puritan Boston, where some Quakers, including a woman, were hanged in 1660. Mary Dyer sang on her way to the gallows.

My quest revealed Lucretia Coffin was born on sandy Nantucket, many miles off Cape Cod. Her family de-scended from one of the founding white families that settled the windswept island a century earlier. By the time Lucretia was born, the Coffins had a strong sense of belonging to Nantucket and its main religion, the Friends.

In the 1790s, things were looking up in the sunrise of the American age. The bright, hopeful Early Republic was launched in Philadelphia. Lucretia was born into a world still in the making. The victory over Britain’s navy was unlikely, giving the first generation of Americans a sense of providence. It would be up to them to make the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution live and breathe.

As a girl, Lucretia was aware of slavery from reading the British poet, William Cowper. In a seafaring society, she grasped the human misery of slave ships over the Middle Passage. America’s mainland was far in the foggy distance, but she knew slavery was unfinished business, the young nation’s tragic flaw. She felt this with fierce urgency.

Lucretia’s father, Thomas, a sea captain, sailed away for years and was once presumed lost. The day a tanned man walked up Main Street, few recognized Captain Coffin. Lucretia said his homecoming was one of the happiest days of her life. While many island men and boys hunted the sperm whale on voyages, women ran the island’s homes and some of its businesses. They did a lot, caring for children, animals, and business. Nantucket Quaker women were sturdy and self-reliant.

Lucretia, her mother’s best helper, roamed to the market and down to the wharves, bringing home goods for the family. Lucretia Coffin knew nautical talk and island dishes, such as blackberry pudding, that she took with her the rest of her life.

An ancestor of Lucretia’s, Mary Coffin Starbuck, nurtured the Friends religion on island. Among its radical practices was women speaking during meetings for worship, as noted above. This was suspicious and subversive, especially to Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans. Growing up in this tradition, Lucretia buttressed her strong speaking voice, later to be heard in the out-side world. Flowering in her own Society of Friends, Lucretia first became recognized for her rare distinc-tion as a speaker.

The Coffin family lived on Fair Street by School Street. The Nantucket Friends believed in equal education for girls and boys, a practice much less common on the mainland, and Lucretia attended the coeducational school during her island years. Later, her family sent her to the Quakers Nine Partners Boarding School in Duchess County, New York.
In keeping with their belief in a spark or light in everyone, the Society of Friends was the first religion to wholly embrace opposition to human enslavement, a full century before Lucretia was born. This gives glimmers of what made the young Lucretia unusual in her conviction as a young woman when she was ready to face the wider world.

Lucretia Coffin married James Mott, whom she met when they were teachers at the same Quaker boarding school she had attended in Duchess County. She was eighteen. The couple moved to Philadelphia, the Quaker City, where James became a cotton merchant. Lucretia persuaded him to change to wool, since cotton was a product of slavery. The two were devoted, and James always went with Lucretia when she appeared public-ly. They had five children, but their rosy boy Tommy died young at three. His last words were, “I love thee, Mother.”

The Motts became lifelong Philadelphians, pillars of the city, yet in the radical wing. They were not proper Main Line Friends. A visitor to their home might see the first feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by the Enlightenment thinker Mary Wollstonecraft. Lucretia thought the manifesto made perfect sense. Their dining room could seat fifty guests. It was a lighthouse for abolitionists and Black men and women fleeing slavery.

By the 1830s, the Jacksonian era, fault lines were drawn in a burning “sectional divide” over slavery. This chapter was also the decade that mobs came to towns. One midnight mob almost burned down the Mott house after destroying a new assembly hall for abolitionists.

Mott’s speaking voice is lost to us. She was not so much a writer. But her radiant influence lives through a patchwork quilt of her letters, diaries, speeches, and the living witness of other great speakers, men such as Douglass, Emerson, and Adams.
Her voice started low and gathered strength, rising like a river with thoughts pouring upon her like a summer flood, one witness marveled.

For all comers, the Philadelphia Quaker lady had a strik-ing gaze and an unforgettable voice. Way ahead of her time, Mott is a testament to the power of determined peaceful progress.

From the Summer 2020 issue of Historic Nantucket, read here

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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