J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Growing Legend of Lydia Taft

Today is the anniversary of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing American women the same voting rights as men.

Some sources, such as this Wikipedia article, say that a widow named Lydia Taft actually voted in the Uxbridge, Massachusetts, town meeting in 1756. In recent years people have named a stretch of highway and a nursing home after Taft.

However, the earliest description of her vote apparently dates from over a century later. In 1881, Rushton D. Burr published an 1864 address in Uxbridge, adding extensive appendices on town history. One of those appendices, titled “The Taft Family,” said this about Lydia Taft:

Her husband died in 1756. The French and Indian war was at hand; the Revolution not far distant [i.e., nearly twenty years later]. A requisition was made upon the town of Uxbridge for a certain sum of money for colonial purposes [i.e., a tax hike]. A meeting of the legal voters was held to see if the money should be granted. The estate of Josiah Taft paid the largest tax in Uxbridge, and his son Bezaleel was a minor [six years old]; but with a sturdy sense of justice that there should be “no taxation without representation [a phrase not coined for years],” the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote upon the question. She did so, and her vote was the one that decided in the affirmative that the money should be paid.
More recently, Carol Masiello mined Uxbridge’s vital records to find details of Lydia Taft’s life for this local newspaper article. For example, while Burr remembered her youngest son Bazaleel Taft, the town apparently forgot his older brother Asahel, who was also a minor in 1756. And what about the oldest son, Josiah Taft, who turned twenty-three in 1756 and would ordinarily inherit his father’s place as head of the family with voting rights?

All in all, I’m a little suspicious of the story, for a few reasons. First, I’m not seeing any quotes from 1756 documents. When Uxbridge bent the usual rules to let Lydia Taft vote on the tax hike, was there no complaint from the voters who opposed the tax? There was supposedly an equal number of men on each side. People of the time would complain about “a trifling majority” after losing a close vote, so why accept a decision made by an illegal voter?

Why was there no comment in newspapers or government records on Lydia Taft’s vote or what precedent it might set? (I just looked for reports, and couldn’t find any.)

Second, I see some “memory creep” as people interpret previous writings to make more of Lydia Taft’s suffrage. For example, Masiello’s article reports: “She is mentioned in town records a few times more, once in 1758 to reduce her highway rates and another in 1765 was to change her school district.” In the Wikipedia entry, those mentions of her as a property owner become additional times that Taft voted.

Finally, several articles about Taft (not Masiello’s) reflect later customs, such as stating “she became known as Lydia Chapin Taft.” Actually, she didn’t; she appears in Uxbridge records as “Lydia Taft.” Most eighteenth-century wives didn’t keep their maiden names as middle names; later genealogists (and collateral descendants) like to do that. That makes me question how reliably authors can interpret information about colonial customs.

I can picture the men of Uxbridge deciding to let Lydia Taft participate in this town meeting as her late husband’s administrator, and a sort of proxy for her son. She was a member of the Uxbridge elite, her husband having been one of the richest men in town. Her support for the new colony tax might have carried weight. But I can’t see the men of Uxbridge bending the rules on such a close vote, at least without causing a lot of talk.

It would be nice to see the official records of this town meeting. They might be very skimpy—clerks often tried to avoid recording divisive controversies, so they wrote down only final decisions. If Uxbridge’s 1756 records confirm that “the citizens declared that the widow Josiah Taft should vote,” then Lydia Taft’s place in history is clear. If not, this looks like a local legend—interesting, but not well supported.


Anonymous said...

It is more than highly possible. The Tafts at that time had some Quakers in their family, e.g., Benjamin Taft, although the others' religions I am unfamiliar with. If you read the documents by descendants of hers, e.g., President William Howard Taft and Alphonso Taft, father of the former President, they were strongly for women's suffrage and education for their women in the 19th century. The Quakers were egalitarian in the 1700's and later took large interest in women's suffrage. Although many (most) of the Taft family attended other churches, e.g., the Unitarian church which was also considered progressive, due to the documents and first hand accounts of the Taft family, this looks legitimate. They always were, intelligently, ahead of their times according to what I have learned about them.

J. L. Bell said...

Again, I’d like to see the actual documentation of the vote. Some webpages point to a specific date: 30 Oct 1756, which should be checkable. But none quote sources earlier than 1864.

Uxbridge and Mendon, being close to the Rhode Island border, may have had a Quaker presence in 1756. But was it strong enough to allow a woman to vote in a town meeting? Were Lydia and Josiah Taft themselves Quaker? As I recall, in Quaker meetings at the time women voted as well as men but in a separate, parallel body, and the meetings preferred to reach consensus rather than count noses.

The progressive views of descendants a century or more later is admirable, but it's not evidence of what happened in 1756. In fact, sometimes later attitudes are most significant as an influence on how we remember the past.

Unknown said...

Uxbridge records for the period are extant both as physical documents in the possession of the Town Clerk and as part of the Holbrook group's microfiche collection. There is no mention of Lydia having voted. The book that carries the myth was a published version of an address that Judge Henry Chapin gave in Uxbridge in 1864. Chapin died in 1878 and his address was published in 1881. The story of Lydia having voted is contained in an appendix that was included as part of the book but were not part of Chapin's actual address. Lydia's son Caleb was at Harvard when he died on 19 September 1756 and he was buried in the "old burying ground" in Cambridge. Lydia's husband Josiah is said to have travelled to Cambridge to attend to his son and he died on 30 September after returning to Uxbridge.