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How Harry T. Burn Saved the 19th Amendment

Tennessee was the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment - but it was a close call.

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Both men and women have the right to vote in the United States. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the 19th Amendment, only men could vote.

The 19th Amendment guaranteed that no one would be denied the right to vote based on sex. It almost didn’t happen, though – the choice to pass the amendment came down to one man in the state of Tennessee, Representative Harry T. Burn.

By 1920, both houses of Congress had voted for the 19th Amendment, and almost enough states had agreed to it. Since not every state had agreed, it came down to one last state. Tennessee would have to cast the final vote. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives gathered. People wore rose-shaped pins to show which side they were on. Those who supported suffrage wore yellow roses. Those who opposed wore red roses. The House was evenly split.

Harry T. Burn

Rep. Burn actually wore a red rose on his lapel. He voted to delay the vote twice. But he also had a letter from his mother, Febb E. Burn, in his suit pocket. In it, she had written, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt.”

So, after the vote to delay tied 48-48 twice in a row, Rep. Burn followed his mother’s advice. When his name was called to vote for or against the amendment, he answered, “aye,” and took off his red rose.

“I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification,” Rep. Burn later said about his choice to change sides. “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.”

At 24, he was the youngest man in the legislature. While he might have worried that this vote would cost him his seat, he ended up being just fine. He won that re-election, and it was just the start of a long career in politics.

James is our wordsmith extraordinaire, a legislation hound and lover of all things self-reliant and free. An author of politics and fiction (often one and the same) at and, he homesteads in the Arkansas wilderness.

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