Standing in the White House Blue Room on Tuesday, President Donald Trump expressed surprise that Susan B. Anthony, the woman’s rights activist who was arrested and found guilty for voting in 1872, had never been pardoned.
“This was brought up a week ago, and I was so surprised that it was never done before,” he mused, announcing he would take the step later in the day. “What took so long?”
The answer, it turns out, is that Anthony may not have wanted presidential clemency in the first place – even though historians say it was likely available to her during her own lifetime – both because it would have admitted guilt and because she wore her conviction with pride.
“She absolutely would not have wanted the pardon,” said Deborah Hughes, the president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester, New York, where on Tuesday the news of Trump’s pardon was met with surprise.
“Absolutely not,” said Ann Gordon, a former Rutgers University professor who edited an extensive collection, “The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.” “When you’re asking for a pardon, you’re saying, I did something wrong.”
Issued on the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Trump’s pardon appeared designed to commemorate an American icon whose work helped transform American society. He first teased the pardon to reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday, saying it would be directed at someone “very, very important.” In a morning event marking the 19th Amendment anniversary, Trump revealed the pick and noted Anthony’s history.
“She was guilty for voting,” he said. “And we are going to be signing a full and complete pardon.”
Later, Trump appeared to acknowledge that Anthony may not have wanted a pardon – but said he had gone ahead and granted one anyway.
“I actually asked the other day and they were talking about Susan B. Anthony, and she did that for other people and she didn’t want herself included. She wasn’t included in the pardon from many years ago,” he said during a stop in Arizona.
“Why can’t we pardon her?” Trump said he asked his aides. “They said that’s the coolest idea I’ve ever heard. And it’s been very, very popular.”
The morning event, which like most of Trump’s official events took on a highly political tone, appeared designed to appeal to female voters. In the same speech, Trump repeated false claims about mail-in voting and criticized former first lady Michelle Obama for her convention speech the evening before.
His announcement about pardoning Anthony was met with approval from guests in the room, who included Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List.
“We are deeply moved and grateful to President Trump for honoring the legacy of this great American hero and we pledge never to tire in carrying on her unfinished work,” Dannenfelser said in a statement later.
Yet the conservative Susan B. Anthony List does not purport to act as the modern-day agent of Anthony’s name or legacy; its leaders chose their name because they claim Anthony voiced anti-abortion views, which is disputed by historians.
Speaking at the Susan B. Anthony House on Tuesday, New York’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul described Trump’s move as misguided and called on him to reverse it.
“She was proud of her arrest to draw attention to the cause for women’s rights, and never paid her fine,” she said. “Let her rest in peace.”
Anthony never married or had children, so has no direct descendants who manage her estate or rights. That has largely fallen on the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, which was established in 1945 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
Asked about the criticism from historians, a senior administration official said Tuesday: “This was a symbolic gesture to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.”
Two of the country’s leading authorities on Anthony – Hughes and Gordon – say they did not hear from the White House ahead of the pardon announcement on Tuesday.
In interviews, both said they have been approached previously by members of the New York congressional delegation about proposing a pardon for Anthony.
“Well-meaning people have brought it up before,” Hughes said.
They advised against it, saying Anthony herself would have viewed a pardon as an admission of guilt and that she wore her conviction as something like a badge of honor.
“I think there’s a certain pride in it,” Gordon said.
Veterans of the Obama and Bush administrations said they did not remember the issue of a pardon for Anthony arising during their tenures.
Until recently, the Justice Department – which traditionally acts as the clearinghouse for pardon requests for the president – declined to even consider requests for posthumous pardons, citing a lack of resources.
Trump, however, has largely bypassed the Justice Department in his pardons, which he has granted to political allies or people with very high-profile cases. He previously posthumously pardoned the boxer Jack Johnson and Zay Jeffries, who helped develop the nuclear bomb.
Susan B. Anthony’s arrest and trial after she voted in the 1872 presidential and congressional elections helped galvanize the women’s suffrage movement, leading ultimately to the ratification of the 19th Amendment decades later.
During her highly publicized trial, Anthony declared the proceedings unjust: “My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.”
“Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject,” she said.
The judge ultimately sentenced her to a $100 fine, which Anthony refused to pay, declaring it “unjust.”
Anthony was not the only person arrested in conjunction with her vote; the inspectors of election who had allowed her to cast a ballot were also arrested and fined. Later, Anthony worked through her lawyers and Congress to help secure them pardons from President Ulysses S. Grant.
Both historians suggested it was likely a pardon would have been available to Anthony as well.
“It is our understanding that there were discussions about a pardon for her as well and she didn’t want it,” Hughes said.
“She certainly knew how to get one,” Gordon added. “But she doesn’t think she did anything wrong and she firmly believes that all US citizens have the right to vote.”
Trump has rarely mentioned Anthony in speeches during his tenure in office, though her name did appear on the list of statues that he has ordered for his “Garden of Heroes,” which he announced during a speech at Mount Rushmore in July.