From Slavery To Suffrage: Two Centuries of Political Education on Nantucket

The history of political power on Nantucket is complicated. On the one hand isolated and largely left to its own devices in the early English period, it was also representative of the political tenor of the times. Like the rest of colonial New England, full political rights were only accorded to English landowners. Others—indigenous people, those of African descent, landless workers and women of all heritages—were relegated to various levels of second-class dependency.

On Nantucket, however, several factors occasionally allowed a different perspective to emerge. By 1717, the local Friends meeting had publicly disavowed enslavement of human beings, although individual Quakers continued to own slaves for 60 years or more. As anti-slavery sentiment grew across the northern United States following the Revolutionary war, a number of African- and European-American Nantucketers began to advocate actively for abolition and, in some cases, integration.

Furthermore, since the early days of English settlement Nantucket men were often at sea for years at a time, leaving women to fill important roles in the economy and politics of the island. With the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution abolishing slavery and establishing citizenship and voting rights for all people “born or naturalized” in the United States, politically progressive Nantucketers began to focus on securing those rights for women. Supporters such as the Hadwens and Barneys engaged both locally and at the national level to advocate the change secured by the 19th amendment in 1920.

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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