Harry Burn Was A Good Boy

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by Mike Keeler

He was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1918 at the age of 22, making him its youngest member.  But in his first term he was put into the crosshairs of history, when the Congress of the United States proposed the 19th Amendment to give women the right to vote.

In order to become law, the Amendment needed to be approved by 36 of the 48 states.  35 states had done so, and 4 more were yet to vote on the issue, when summer came.  In order to vote on the matter, special summertime sessions would have to be called, and of the 4 remaining states, only Tennessee agreed to do so.

 The session took place on August 18, 1920.  Harry Burn arrived in the chamber wearing a red rose in his lapel, signifying his long-standing opposition to the Amendment.  Proponents of the Amendment wore yellow roses.  By looking around the room, it was easy to see the legislature was pretty evenly split between red and yellow.  Indeed, when the votes were counted, it was deadlocked, 48/48.  With only the vote of Harry Burn left to be counted.

He reached into his pocket.  He pulled out a letter which his mother had written him and read aloud, “Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and (vote for) ratification. Your mother.”  Harry Burn raised his head, voted “aye,” gave the Tennessee proponents their 49/48 victory, gave the Amendment its 36-state approval requirement, and gave women the right to vote.

Legend has it that, when the news was announced, anti-suffragists stormed the hall and Harry Burn had to hide for his safety.  The next day, he addressed the legislature and explained “a good boy always does what his mother asks him to do.”