Sojourner Truth is one of the most famous figures of ante-bellum reform. And, as Nell Painter's recent biography makes plain, one of the most elusive. Truth was illiterate yet supported herself through the sale of her autobiography. She gave a number of famous speeches but, since the versions that come down to us were all transcribed by others, it is often difficult to know what Truth actually said. Painter gives numerous instances in which white abolitionists and woman's rights advocates apparently changed Truth's words. A case in point is Harriet Beecher Stowe's account of her own encounter with Truth, "Sojourner Truth: Lybian Sybil." So, even in life, Truth was a legendary creation. She created herself, starting with her name. And then others recreated her for their own purposes.
On October 24, 1850 Truth gave her first major speech on woman's rights and on the connections between the fledging woman's movement and abolition. If we could pick one speech of hers that we would most wish to recover verbatim, this might well be it. By the time she spoke to the Akron Convention of 1852 and proclaimed (or maybe did not) "Ain't I A Woman?" she had been speaking out on woman's rights for several years. Other woman's activists had transformed some of her ideas by merging them with their own. Truth, Painter argues, like other popular speakers of the day, was not adverse to picking up the ideas of others. As a result, we need to go back to the Worcester speech to find Truth speaking her own thoughts and only her own thoughts.
The question is: Can we figure out what she said?
Here, in its entirety, is what the official Proceedings of the Convention says about this speech:
Business before the Convention - the discussion of the resolutions offered at the morning session. Speakers - W.A. Alcott, E.L. Rose, Sojourner Truth, A. Brown, L. Mott, Frederick Douglass, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, C.C. Burleigh, and A.K. Foster.
Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune reported the Convention very extensively and very sympathetically. Its "correspondent" was a minister from central Massachusetts named to one of the committees established at the end of the meeting to carry out its resolutions. Here, again in its entirety, is his account:
Sojourner Truth, a colored woman, once a slave, spoke, and gratified the audience highly. She showed that beneath her dark skin, and uncomely exterior there was a true, womanly heart. She uttered some truths that told well. She said Woman set the world wrong by eating the forbidden fruit, and now she was going to set it right. She said Goodness never had any beginning; it was from everlasting and could never die. But Evil had a beginning, and must have an end. She expressed great reverence for God, and faith he will bring about his own purposes and plans.
You can read the full text of all the papers' coverage here. You can also find a more detailed discussion of the extent and nature of the newspaper reporting of the convention.
James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald opposed on principle everything Greeley's Tribune supported. Its coverage of the Convention, as a result, is as hostile as the Tribune's is sympathetic. Bennett apparently lifted his account of the second day's proceedings from the Tribune, a common journalistic practice of the day. This, unfortunately, is the day Truth spoke. Here is the Herald's account:
Mrs. Sojourner Truth, (a lady of color, doubtless of New England origin, from the Puritanical title she has the honor to bear) next came forward. And why not? In a convention where sex and color are mingled together in the common rights of humanity, Dinah [a derogatory slang term for a black servant or house slave], and [Charles C.] Burleigh, and Lucretia [Mott], and Frederick Douglas, are all spiritually of one color and one sex, and all on a perfect footing of reciprocity. Most assuredly, Dinah was well posted up on the rights of woman, and with something of the ardor and the odor of her native Africa, she contended for her right to vote, to hold office, to practice medicine and the law, and to wear the breeches with the best white man that walks upon God's earth.
Boston Daily Mail coverage resembled the Herald's, according to a disapproving John Milton Earle, editor of the Massachusetts Spy, whose wife played a key role in the Convention, but without Bennett's "wit." Nonetheless, it offered by far the fullest account of Truth's speech:
Sojourner Truth (a colored woman) next spoke. She advocated woman's rights. She had looked on men and was sorry for them. The slaves all came on them, and now the women came on them. This sorrow was great last night when Wendell Phillips spoke, and had to defend himself against saying what he did not know was wrong -- and was not convinced when he saw he was clearly wrong. One curious thing was to be thought about, viz: when man's rule began, and what gave him authority to rule. There was nothing in Adam's fall to tolerate his rule, and certainly nothing in his general conduct that said he was fit to rule himself -- let alone others. If people would only think, they would see that man was only one half of himself, and the other half very well used up. It was said that, in the treatment of woman in this country was a proof of its civilization; but the heathen would have to come yet and teach them civilization. It was time for the heathen to commence, for things could not be worse. It was not fair to let woman suffer because she ate the apple, and to say that she was the weaker vessel, and turned the world upside down accordingly. If she had really done so, what should hinder her to turn it back again? Nothing but the intolerance of man! Knock down that, and all would come right; that was a plain truth, and it was wonderful that truth which could be so easily told was not invariably and plainly told. Sojourner said she had no education; and she was not ambitious of having it, as she saw that those who boasted of it had all of it in their feet and none of it in their heads. Respecting the present agitation she said it was wonderful how things came round. Slaves used to do all the rubbing [scrubbing?] in New England, and they complained of the hard work; they were emancipated and the hard work fell on the wives and daughters of New England, and they had begun to complain. The men, seeing that they had got into a fix, were, too, beginning to squirm and complain; and improvement in the condition of their wives and daughters would have to come before their complaints would have cause to be at an end; and all this arose out of the abolition of slavery. Sojourner made one of the best speeches that were spoken at the Convention, and was several times loudly applauded.
Historians have taken their account of Truth's speech from the Tribune report, scant as it is. As a result, several historical accounts credit Truth with saying that women introduced evil into the world and that, therefore, it was their responsibility to set things right again. The Boston Daily Mail has her saying something very different. What are those differences?
What differences would it make in our understanding of this period if theDaily Mail version were correct?
Are there iinternal clues in the several accounts which would lead you to trust one version over the another?
What did Wendell Phillips say the previous night? Does the Daily Mail's account of Truth's "sorrow" over his comments make sense? [Remember, you can find the various newspaper accounts here.]