Mott, Lucretia Coffin
- Nancy C. Unger
Mott, Lucretia Coffin (03 January 1793–11 November 1880), abolitionist and feminist, was born on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the daughter of Thomas Coffin, Jr., a ship captain, and Anna Folger, a shopkeeper. The second of five children, Lucretia was raised in a family strongly shaped by their membership in the Society of Friends (Quakers), which includes among its tenets the equality of women and men. This abstract notion of equal abilities and worth was made concrete by her mother’s success as a small shopkeeper during her father’s frequent and prolonged absences.
As a child Lucretia was shocked by the horrors of slavery recounted in English Quaker and prolific author Priscilla Wakefield’s Mental Improvement (1819). Other shaping forces included her regular attendance at Quaker Meetings, where worship consisted of sitting in silence until any member, male or female, felt moved by the Holy Spirit to speak. After the capture of his ship in 1802 by a Spanish man-of-war, her father retired from the sea in 1803 and the next year moved the family to Boston, where he became a merchant. Lucretia and a sister boarded at the Quaker school, Nine Partners, in Dutchess County, in New York. While a student there she became a “Hicksite,” an avid follower of Elias Hicks, a fiery Quaker abolitionist. After completing the course work at Nine Partners, Lucretia stayed on as a teacher’s assistant and was struck by the unfairness in salary differences between male and female instructors. It was also at Nine Partners that she met teacher James Mott, the grandson of Nine Partners’ superintendent.
The Coffin family moved in 1809 to Philadelphia, where Thomas Coffin entered into business, investing all his capital in a factory for the manufacture of cut nails, a new product of the Industrial Revolution. Lucretia soon followed, bringing with her James Mott, who boarded with the family and became her father’s partner. Lucretia and James were married in 1811; they had six children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1815 Lucretia’s father died, leaving her mother with heavy debts. The Motts, too, suffered financial hardship. Undaunted, Anna Coffin set about shopkeeping again, and Lucretia taught school while her husband reestablished a business career. James Mott worked in his uncle’s cotton mill, sold plows, and was a bank clerk before entering the wholesale business. His boycott of slave products led him to trade primarily in wool rather than cotton. In 1817 tragedy struck again with the death of the Motts’ three-year-old son. About a year later, Lucretia suddenly began speaking in Meeting, simply but powerfully, and in 1821 she was formally recognized as a minister with a genuine gift.
Lucretia Mott never shied from controversy and quickly became embroiled in the various squabbles among the Society of Friends, siding with the Hicksites against the Orthodox when a schism over authority and creed rocked the Quakers in 1827. Increasingly, however, her attention focused on the evils of slavery. She and her husband refused to sell or use any products created with slave labor. When she preached in Meeting for others to join their boycott, she gained prominence as an abolitionist. She was in great demand as a speaker and traveled extensively throughout the Northeast.
The Motts struck up a close friendship with renowned abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison in 1830. Faced with the exclusion of women from the formally organized abolitionist groups, in December 1833 Lucretia Mott was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Her dedication to equality at all levels included her social as well as her political life; the Motts were enormously popular hosts who seemed perpetually to have a houseful of guests of both races.
James and Lucretia Mott were equally devoted to the abolition of slavery, yet James frequently deferred to his wife’s more powerful oratory and firm leadership within the movement. The endless criticism her outspokenness inspired did not deter her from speaking, but as her fame spread she suffered increasingly from dyspepsia. Not all of her time was absorbed by the fight against slavery, however, as she dedicated enormous energies to her relationships with various members of her extended family and to housekeeping tasks, which she seemed genuinely to enjoy.
In 1837 Mott attended the First Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, an event she helped to organize, held in New York City. She devoted her speeches increasingly to the intertwined causes of feminism and antislavery, attracting large audiences. Like her colleagues Angelina Grimké and Sarah Grimké, Mott received harsh criticism, even from fellow antislavery advocates, for speaking to “promiscuous” audiences, that is, groups comprised of both women and men. Among proslavery forces Mott was denounced as a racial “amalgamator” and more than once was threatened by unruly, violent mobs. A pacifist, she believed that only moral weapons should be used to win the battle against slavery.
The “woman question” ultimately divided the American Anti-Slavery Society into two factions in 1840. That spring James and Lucretia Mott were named delegates from Pennsylvania to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, which was held in London in June. The first order of business of the all-male convention was to discuss the admission of women delegates. Ninety percent of the delegates were opposed, and Lucretia Mott thus officially attended only as a visitor, but her presence nevertheless established her as a leading figure in both the women’s rights and antislavery movements. Moreover, at the convention’s end, she and abolitionist turned leading women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton resolved to call a meeting in the United States to advocate the rights of women.
After she returned to Philadelphia, Mott launched an extensive speaking trip that included several appearances in slave-owning regions. She personally carried the antislavery cause to President John Tyler. Struck by her assertiveness and speaking skills, Tyler remarked at their parting, “I would like to hand Mr. Calhoun [John Calhoun, famous debater and leader of the slave-owning southerners in the House] over to you” (Valiant Friend, p. 105).
In her dedication to women’s issues, Mott advocated both short-term relief and long-term reform, including equal pay for equal work. Eight years after the idea was conceived at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, Mott and Stanton held, in Seneca Falls, New York, their first annual women’s rights convention. The cornerstone of the gathering was a revised U.S. Declaration of Independence, titled the Declaration of Sentiments, which borrowed heavily from the stirring language and demands for rightful equality of the original: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal.” The Seneca Falls convention and its declaration provoked a storm of controversy.
In 1851 James Mott retired from the wool business. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in the previous year intensified the Motts’ commitment to pacifism as well as to alleviating the plight of slaves, joint commitments that they insisted were not mutually exclusive. In 1855 they were involved in a slave rescue, and Lucretia was unrelenting in her devotion to feminism as well; she developed a friendship with women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony.
The Civil War horrified Mott, whose pacifism left her increasingly isolated during the war years. She rejoiced, however, when war ultimately brought slavery to an end but almost immediately found herself immersed in the conflict over the inclusion of the word “male” in the Fourteenth Amendment (to qualify voters). While some pled for women to be patient, arguing that it was “the Negroes’ hour,” others took the position that the votes of virtuous, wealthy, and educated white women were needed to offset those of the former slaves. Mott rejected both positions, insisting on the right of both sexes and all races to vote.
James Mott died in 1868. Despite her sorrow, the next year Lucretia chaired the annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association. Dismayed over the irreconcilable conflict concerning the Fourteenth Amendment, Mott joined with Anthony and Stanton to form the National Woman Suffrage Association, devoted to creating a federal amendment granting women the vote. Also in 1869 Mott was active in the plans for the opening of a Quaker institute of higher learning, Swarthmore College. When the college had been chartered in 1864, she and James had insisted it be coeducational.
Despite increasing frailty, Mott continued to travel, speak, and contribute her energies to a variety of causes. For years she was vice president of the Universal Peace Union. In 1870 she was elected president of the Pennsylvania Peace Society, an office she held until her death. In 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, she presided on the Fourth of July at the National Woman Suffrage Association convention in Philadelphia, where she, Stanton, and Anthony continued to demand women’s rights. Two years later, at the age of eighty-five, she attended the thirtieth anniversary of the first Seneca Falls convention. She died in Chelton Hills, outside Philadelphia, surrounded by her remaining children and grandchildren.
Lucretia Mott spoke frequently on the underlying unity of the various reforms she advocated. She urged the development of women’s mental powers and their admission into the professions and promoted reform of all laws that were detriments to women’s access to equal property rights, education, and the like. Women’s inability to vote, she maintained, was only one of many roadblocks. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Mott refused to claim the moral superiority of women but was instead dedicated to achieving equality for all of America’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised, including Indians, women, slaves, and free blacks. Increasingly libertarian in her religious interpretations, Mott grew to believe that a new spirit was at work in the world that demanded active involvement in reform. An enormously inspirational speaker and a tireless organizer, Lucretia Mott was one of her country’s earliest, and most radical, feminists and reformers.
Lucretia Mott’s papers, including two diaries and the bulk of her letters, are in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. A large collection of her letters is among the William Lloyd Garrison Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Mott nearly always spoke extemporaneously, so an unknown number of her speeches are unrecorded. Many, however, were recorded stenographically, to varying degrees of accuracy. Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons, ed. Dana Greene (1980), is well organized and includes an annotated index of the proper names that appear most frequently. More recent assessments of Mott’s contributions are in Cheree Carlson, “Defining Womanhood: Lucretia Coffin Mott and the Transformation of Femininity,” Western Journal of Communication 58 (Spring 1994), and Margaret Hope Bacon, “Lucretia Mott: Pioneer of Peace,” Quaker History 82 (Fall 1993). Also see Bacon’s scholarly full-length biography, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (1980), which includes a bibliography as well as a listing of the members of the Mott extended family and a list of Mott’s most significant sermons and speeches. For a brief account of Mott’s life, see Constance Buel Burnett, Five for Freedom (1953). The Mott marriage is discussed in James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters, edited by their granddaughter, Anna Davis Hallowell (1884).
- Hicks, Elias (1748-1830), Quaker minister
- Mott, James (1788-1868), merchant and reformer
- Garrison, William Lloyd (10 December 1805–24 May 1879), editor, abolitionist leader, and religious reformer
- Grimké, Angelina Emily (20 February 1805–26 October 1879), abolitionist and women's rights activist
- Grimké, Sarah Moore (26 November 1792–23 December 1873), abolitionist, writer-educator, and women's rights pioneer
- Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815-1902), woman suffragist and writer
- Tyler, John (1790-1862), tenth president of the United States
- Calhoun, John (1806-1859), politician and territorial officeholder
- Anthony, Susan B. (1820-1906), reformer and organizer for woman suffrage