A Momma’s Letter: The Southern Boy Who Listened to his Mother’s Advice

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by Mike Sparks

Robert Frost once said, “The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” The story of Harry Thomas Burn is one of the hallmarks of the Tennessee State Legislature. Being in and around politics for 20-years, needless to say, I have seen much division and Rep. Harry T. Burn sure had his share of it—We forget that he could have even lost his life over his last minute decision.

“The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat. ~ Robert Frost

Politics can often a very rough sport. Republicans arguing with Democrats, rural issues verses urban, conservatives verses liberals and I could go on and on. Ironically, we all basically want the same thing―Good roads, good schools, quality and affordable health care, a safe neighborhood, a clean environment and more.

I want to share the story of the power of a mother’s influence. As I write this article I am sitting in the living room and caring for my 88-year-old Scotch-Irish mother who’s comfortably sitting in a recliner reading a book. Fortunately, my mom and I agree on most issues—My frugal mother is a strong fiscal Christian conservative who grew up very poor in Scotland. The Scotch-Irish are known for being thrifty, having a strong opinion and even a —Wee drink of Scotch whisky from time to time. 

The Mother Who Saved Suffrage: Passing the 19th Amendment


The American woman achieved her right to vote on August 18, 1920. Many may not know that a state lawmaker’s mother influenced that very important legislative decision.

Rep. Harry Burns, a Momma’s Boy Turned Hero

As we look back at the life of Harry Thomas Burn, he became the youngest member of the state legislature when he was elected at the age of twenty-two and certainly made his mark during his political life. Harry was born in McMinn County in Niota, Tennessee. Burn graduated from Niota High School in 1911. He was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1923. In 1951, he became President of the First National Bank and Trust in Rockwood, Tennessee.

The young politician whose unexpected vote in the Tennessee state legislature gave all women the right to vote. The date was August 18, 1920, and that Tennessee state lawmaker was Harry Burn, the 24-year-old representative from McMinn County, Tennessee.

This awesome story of Harry T. Burn may seem like he was a  momma’s boy, but today we call Rep. Harry T. Burns― A Hero.

Over the years his story and his mother’s influence has become a bit embellished in our hearts. Harry, like most good sons valued his mother’s opinion. 

Women had won the right to vote in some states before the 19th Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the states then in the Union.

But in August 1920, the struggle between the suffrage movement (which wanted the vote for women) and powerful anti-suffrage forces had come down to a series of votes in Tennessee.

The suffrage movement had found a way to get Congress to approve the proposed 19th Amendment, with the endorsement of outgoing President Woodrow Wilson (who hadn’t supported it until it became needed as part of the war effort).

By the middle of 1920, a total of 35 states had voted to ratify the amendment. The problem was that 36 states were needed, and there was only one state left where a vote could be taken that year.

Other states, including Connecticut, North Carolina, Vermont and Florida would not consider taking up the measure. The other remaining states had voted the issue down. But Tennessee had decided to look into the ratification vote.

The Tennessee state capitol had numerous supporters from both sides of the issue and it stated that they even camped out at a Nashville hotel to pressure lawmakers.

The suffrage movement’s intense efforts became known as the War of the Roses. The supporters of women’s suffrage wore yellow roses and the anti-suffragists wore red roses to show their support.

The suffragists had been lobbying lawmakers, including Rep. Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee State House. Many in the suffrage movement were still unsure how the young 24-year-old would vote. They all knew that the vote to hear the amendment on the house floor would be way too close to call—then they would still have to vote for the bill’s ratification.

On August 18, the legislature voted on a motion to table, or delay, any ratification vote. It seemed as if the anti-suffragists had enough votes to delay a 19th Amendment vote after Burn arrived wearing a red rose and voted to table the amendment.

Then, early in the voting, Burn, had received a letter from his mother, Febb E. Burn, in which she asked him to “be a good boy” and vote for the amendment.

 

To the dismay of the many suffragists who had packed into the state capitol with their yellow roses, sashes and signs. Everyone assumed that the final roll call would maintain the deadlock. But that morning, Rep. Harry T Burn voted in favor of the ratification. Burn previously had been in the camp of anti-suffrage group. The many years of the hard fought women’s suffrage movement was over. The battle had been fought for 70- years.

 

The representatives in Tennessee had tried to delay the state’s official approval, but on August 26, 1920, the official documents arrived in Washington, and they were quietly signed by the Secretary of State.

Rep. Burn has said, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification,” he said. “I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.”

~It’s a Good Thing Southern Boys Listen to Their Mommas.

 It is written that just minutes after the vote that ratified the 19th Amendment, thus ending American women’s 70-year battle for the right to vote, Harry T. Burn wearing a young man with a red rose pinned to his lapel fled to the attic of the state capitol and camped out there until the maddening crowds downstairs dispersed. Some say he crept onto a third-floor ledge to escape an angry mob of anti-suffragist lawmakers threatening to rough him up.

The following day, Burn defended his last-minute change of heart in a speech to the legislature.

“I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.”~Rep, Harry Burn

For the first time, he publicly expressed his personal support of universal suffrage, declaring, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.”

But he also made no secret of Miss Febb’s influence—and her crucial role in the story of women’s rights in the United States. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” he explained, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

…By the Way-Rep. Harry Thomas Burn was a Republican.