George Geddes: Letter to Matilda Joslyn Gage on 1848 Property Bill

Source: History of Woman Suffrage, 1848-1861, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage – pp. 64-67

[Geddes responds to Gage with his recollections of his role in the state Senate passage of the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act.]

FAIRMOUNT, ONONDAGA Co, NY

November 25 1880

MRS MATILDA JOSLYN GAGE:

Dear Madam:

I was much gratified at the receipt of your letter of the 22d inst., making inquiries into the history of the law of 1848 in regard to married women holding property independently of their husbands. That the “truth of history” may be made plain, I have looked over the journals of the Senate and Assembly, and taken full notes, which I request you to publish if you put any part of this letter in print.

I have very distinct recollections of the whole history of this very radical measure. Judge Fine of St Lawrence was its originator and he gave me his reasons for introducing the bill. He said that he married a lady who had some property of her own, which he had all his life tried to keep distinct from his, that she might have the benefit of her own in the event of any disaster happening to him in pecuniary matters. He had found much difficulty growing out of the old laws in this effort to protect his wife’s interests. Judge Fine was a stately man and of general conservative tendencies, just the one to hold on to the past, but he was a just man, and did not allow his practice as a lawyer or his experience on the bench to obscure his sense of right. I followed him, glad of such a leader.

I, too, had special reasons for desiring this change in the law. I had a young daughter who, in the then condition of my health, was quite likely to be left in tender years without a father, and I very much desired to protect her in the little property I might be able to leave. I had an elaborate will drawn by my old law preceptor, Vice Chancellor Lewis H. Sandford, creating a trust with all the care and learning he could bring to my aid. But when the elaborate paper was finished, neither he or I felt satisfied with it. When the law of 1848 was passed, all I had to do was to burn this will.

In this connection, I wish to say that the Speaker of the Assembly Mr Hadley gave aid in the passage of this law that was essential. Very near the end of the session of the Legislature he assured me that if the bill passed the Senate, he would see that it passed the House. By examining my notes of the Assembly’s action, you will see that the bill never went to a committee of the whole in that body, but was sent directly to a select committee to report complete. It was the power of the Speaker that in this summary manner overrode the usual legislative forms. The only reason Mr. Hadley gave me for his zeal in this matter, was that it was a good bill and ought to pass.

I believe this law originated with Judge Fine, without any outside prompting. On the third day of the session he gave notice of his intention to introduce it, and only one petition was presented in favor of the bill, and that came from Syracuse, and was due to the action of my personal friends — I presented it nearly two months after the bill had been introduced to the Senate.

The reception of the bill by the Senate showed unlooked-for support as well as opposition. The measure was so radical, so extreme, that even its friends had doubts; but the moment any important amendment was offered, up rose the whole question of woman’s proper place in society, in the family, and everywhere. We all felt that the laws regulating married women’s, as well as married men’s rights, demanded careful revision and adaptation to our times and to our civilization. But no such revision could be perfected then, nor has it been since. We meant to strike a hard blow, and if possible shake the old system of laws to their foundations, and leave it to other times and wiser councils to perfect a new system.

We had in the Senate a man of matured years who had never had a wife. He was a lawyer well-read in the old books, and versed in the adjudications which had determined that husband and wife were but one person, and the husband that person; and he expressed great fears in regard to meddling with this well-settled condition of domestic happiness. This champion of the past made long and very able arguments to show the ruin this law must work, but he voted for the bill in the final decision.

The bill hung along in Committee of the Whole until March 21st, when its great opponent being absent, I moved its reference to a select Committee, with power to report it complete; that is, matured ready for its passage. So the bill was out of the arena of debate, and on my motion was ordered to its third reading.

In reply to your inquiries in regard to debates that preceded the action of 1848, I must say I know of none, and I am quite sure that in our long discussions no allusion was made to anything of the kind. Great measures often occupy the thoughts of men and women, long before they take substantial form and become things of life, and I shall not dispute any one who says that this reform had been thought of before 1848. But I do insist the record shows that Judge Fine is the author.

[Geddes’ notes redacted here – see PDF]

Please reply to me and let me know whether I have made this matter clear to you.

Very respectfully,

GEO. GEDDES.

 

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