The Declaration of Sentiments: American Primary Source Analysis
By Dr. Austin Mardon & Jessica C. Henschel
The American War of Independence is known for bringing about momentous change and producing one of the most important documents in American history — the Declaration of Independence. It is with this document that the freemen of America marked their legacy and will in ink, cementing it in history. However, it is often overlooked that this piece of foundational American principles and literature was written by men for men and blatantly ignored the rights and voices of women. For this reason, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote her document “Declaration of Sentiments” on women’s citizenship in America in 1848, arguing for the rights of women and modelling her argument after the Declaration of Independence to showcase the injustices within its fabrication (Schaller et al., 2018). By writing and publishing the document for the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton was able to manipulate the written word of men to work in her favour and inspire women’s voices, going with the cultural milieu of 19th century women’s publication and literary recognition. Using the pre-existing patriarchal writing in the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of her call for equality in the Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton demonstrated that the power of the written word could be wielded equally by women as by men.
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in New York was the first women’s rights meeting in the world, gathering women to advocate for citizenship and liberty (Wellman, 2004). Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the convention produced significant oratory and written proclamations, specifically Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments.” This document was written to replicate the Declaration of Independence but used female pronouns and declared the injustices that had been done to women in the same manner as Britain had to America. Over 100 men and women attended the convention, asserting for the first time that both sexes were created equal and had a right to citizenship and voting. By challenging social order and protesting long-standing doctrines, Stanton’s gathering spurred a series of other women’s rights conventions (Wellman, 2004). She used her excellent literary skills to instill her sentiments into the audience and take control of something that had once been a tool of men — the pen.
By presenting her writing in the same format as the Declaration of Independence, Stanton formulated a feminist argument that took the words of the founding fathers and used them to her advantage. By modelling her document in this manner, Stanton was able to highlight the core principles of America’s formation in her writing to argue that women were entitled to the same natural born rights that men claimed to possess; in doing so, she endeavoured to make these constitutional rights for women an ingrained part of society. One of the Declaration of Independence’s main sentiments was the separation of power by demanding parliamentary representation and taking a stand against the ultimate power of the British monarchy (Vile, 2019). Similarly, Stanton argues that like the English king, men had made a series of injustices and usurpations towards women with the “establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” (Schaller et al., p. 86). She continues to support this by listing the inequalities that have been made against women such as the inability to vote, own property, to make decisions as a single woman, and to have education or respectable employment — all rights in which the Declaration of Independence grants to men (US History, 1995). Through this comparison, she successfully inserts her ideas into a pre-existing foundation that is accepted and seen as doctrine for men, suggesting that women face the same inequalities and tyranny American men had faced from the British. Stanton asserted that this treatment was intolerable to women and she put forth a strong claim that the restrictions on women were just as — if not more — unbearable and prejudiced. Using the words and ideas of the Declaration would have made it difficult for Stanton’s opposition to gain a foothold, as it would be going against the decrees from the most important document and men in America.
Stanton uses the fundamental idea of men being created equal from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce her view of equality. It was written that “all men are created equal” and that there were certain “inalienable” rights and morals given to men by their creator (US History, 1995). It can be inferred that this statement may have been a reaction to hereditary rights and primogeniture, putting forth the notion that all men should have access to land, wealth, and rights despite their birth (Vile, 2019). Through Stanton’s replication of the Declaration’s position and decrees, she takes the words of Thomas Jefferson and reinstates that no one should be excluded from these liberties based on their birth, including if they were born female. Stanton takes the original idea and changes it to “all men and women are created equal,” claiming that women too are entitled to the same rights as men: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Shaller et al., 2018). If natural rights are to be truly exercised in the way they are portrayed in the Declaration of Independence, then women would also be governed by nature and nature’s god, as they were considered to be created from the same source as men (this would be considered God in the Christian fabric of the 19th century). Subsequently, this natural law also could be linked to the moral sense that men were supposedly had possession of through their use of reasoning (Vile, 2019). Stanton asserts that women were not held to the same moral code as they were not considered to have the same sensibilities as men, but in reality men had created “a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women.” (Schaller et al., 2018, p. 87). Through this assertion, Stanton supports her argument that women could write as prolifically and competently as men by using direct phrasing from the Declaration of Independence and exposing the meanings within the document to directly channel its authority to her cause.
The effectiveness of Stanton’s document also lies with the replication of the Declaration of Independence’s theme of challenging authority, shaping how her arguments would make an impact with other women who felt suppressed. When Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper and wrote the Declaration of Independence, he knew that he — and all the men who signed — were committing treason. It was through the power of their united goals that they went against the Crown and were able to make an official document that mandated their freedom. Stanton and those who attended the Seneca Falls Convention committed a similar act with the “Declaration of Sentiments”, going against patriarchal authority and writing what they believed they were entitled to as members of society. In the same fashion as the Declaration of Independence, Stanton lists the injustices women were subjected to, stating that women had been denied basic rights such as education and elective franchise (Shaller et al., 2018). Basing her call for action on this intolerable treatment, Stanton does what had been previously done by the founding fathers — demanded attention and refused to back down until her words were heard and specified “we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.” (Shaller et al., 2018, p. 87.) This document was written and presented with the knowledge that it was not socially acceptable and went against a deeply rooted tradition of feminine oppression, embodying the rebellious spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of America itself. It is this motivation that makes Stanton’s article so powerful. By utilizing the written word and advocating that all women deserved to be free, she re-enacted the same defiance and call for justice the men who signed the Declaration of Independence did in 1776. Stanton knew that challenging their authority was the only way they would attain what they knew they deserved, both as human beings and as members of society.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a multitude of changes for women that were powered by strong individuals fighting for the rights of everyone. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of these individuals and forever made her mark in Seneca Falls. Through the formatting, writing, and detailed formation of the “Declaration of Sentiments” after the Declaration of Independence, Stanton was able to create a powerful statement on equality that projected the voices of women across America. Her production of this document and clear call to action was part of a movement that took the writing of men and made it into the writing of all.
Schaller, M., Thomas-Greenwood, J., Kirk, A., Puracell, S. J., Sheehan-Dean, A., & Snyder, C. (2018). Reading American Horizons: Primary sources for U.S. history in a global context (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Vile, J. R. (2019). The declaration of independence: America’s first founding document in U.S. history and culture. ABC-CLIO.
Wellman, J. (2004). The road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the first women’s rights convention. University of Illinois Press.
US History. (1995, July 4). The declaration of independence. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.
Jessica C. Henschel is an article writer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada.
Austin Mardon, PhD, CM, FRSC, is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta