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Relying on Truth for Authority

On July 19–20, 1848, Lucretia Mott along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention, crafting the Declaration of Sentiments which rewrites the Declaration of Independence to explicitly incorporate women. She was fifty-five years old as a convention attendee and she would not live to see the passage of the 19th amendment which granted women the right to vote in 1920.

 

My conviction led me to adhere to the sufficiency of the light within us, resting on truth for authority, not on authority for truth.

– Lucretia Mott

 

Mott also was an abolitionist who did experience the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments; though she did not get to see the full enfranchisement of African Americans. This historical background gives her statement more poignancy. It underscores the particular nature of her activism. Mott was motivated to fight for change regardless of quick, tangible results because her activism was fueled by deeply held inner convictions. Though she worked for suffrage, she did not see the fruit of her efforts in her lifetime.

Votes for Women poster art

“Resting on truth for authority and not authority for truth” is a posture that requires a tremendous amount of moral courage. It also demands attuning oneself to vigilant inquiry towards “authority” as well as to truth as expressed by “the light within.” Her words when fully pondered call for a kind of citizenship that is engaged in understanding the intersection of power and the law and weighing it against one’s conscience. Martin Luther King, in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” argues powerfully in this vein. Saying “an unjust law is no law at all,” King goes further saying that “individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust postures but…groups are more immoral than individuals.” Though evidencing respect for laws that are just, King recognizes that immoral features can get built into structures that govern groups, making some laws contrary to conscience.

Mott and King were citizens unafraid to call out specific injustices. They were not content to succumb to unjust laws pushing instead for greater alignment between U.S. ideals and U.S. institutions.

I am a rule follower, often more inclined to follow along with authority specifically if I am unaware of how others are suffering. I am deeply grateful to the people in my life who have patiently explained to me specific areas where they rely on truth for authority, rather than authority for truth akin Lucretia Mott.  Their activism and their fight for the U.S. ideal of equality is one that I can happily embrace. It has made me a profoundly better citizen. This November, I will vote 100 years after the 19th amendment was passed, deeply thankful for Lucretia Mott’s truth.

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