Masthead: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project

The Elusive Speech

Project Newsletter Spring 2000.

"I send you the best report I have of my speech delivered in Apollo Hall & again in Brooklyn to women alone. It is full of blunders, with many of the best elaborations left out but after reading it you will feel that I consider marriage far more sacred than the mass of people do."

Thus, on 29 May 1870, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reassured Isabella Beecher Hooker about what she really said at a mass meeting of women called to protest a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a man who murdered his ex-wife's fiancé. Tantalizing as the occasion and Stanton's views of marriage might be, here the quotation well defines why it is difficult to edit speeches.

Facing an immediate need to correct an erroneous report in Hooker's local newspaper, Stanton turns not to a manuscript, which we might presume could best document her speech, but to a newspaper report she selected as the best one. That "best report," she cautions, contained mistakes and oversimplified her speech.

Undoubtedly Stanton enclosed the report in the New York World; no other paper in the city gave her a comparable amount of coverage. But how did the World create its report? Such a major newspaper in the nation's largest city in 1870 might be assumed to employ a stenographic reporter, who could record the oral event in shorthand and provide readers with an accurate transcription of Stanton's words. But in fact, a source text exists for most of the World's report—an incomplete manuscript in Stanton's hand, headed "An abstract of the speech of Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the McFarland trial in Apollo Hall May 17th" and marked in another hand for typesetting. Whatever blunders Stanton detected in the newspaper resulted from its typesetters' inability to read her handwriting. Stanton herself had omitted the "elaborations" she found lacking in the report.

That speakers provided their texts to newspapers is elsewhere evident in the Stanton and Anthony papers. In the fall of 1870, Stanton revised the speech of 17 May, entitled it "Marriage and Divorce," and added it to her repertoire of lectures for the 1870 to 1871 season. She delivered it to a packed house of twelve hundred people in San Francisco on Friday, 18 August 1871. Susan B. Anthony noted in her diary on that date that "the people seemed to accept every word—" and observed that reports in the newspapers "added no adjectives but copied from published speech I carried them during Friday P.M.—" From that entry we learn that what appears in the newspapers of San Francisco to be a very thorough report of the occasion is nothing more than a reprint of an unidentifed report of an undated previous occasion, itself derived from sources unknown.

Because an oral "text" doesn't exist on paper, the best that editors can accomplish is to understand and reconcile the differences between a lost series of sounds and an inadequate record of them. Our ideal is to publish the text of a speech that represents as closely as possible the version delivered at a particular date, but that always remains an ideal.

Anthony retained in her scrapbooks a few pages of what was once a full stenographic report of a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, bearing the stamp of Henry M. Parkhurst, Law Reporter, 121 Nassau St. N.Y., dated 21 June 1869. Parkhurst's transcription of his shorthand notes seems to provide an unedited text of Anthony's remarks on 12 May 1869. Indisputably it reads more like spontaneous speech than the various newspapers reports that survive.

As if to remind us of the uncertainty in any report, Anthony emended Parkhurst's text. "I remember having a long discussion with Tilton, Fowler, & Phillips," Parkhurst reported her to say. Anthony struck out Fowler's name and wrote "Powell" above. Did Parkhurst hear her make a mistake in naming the friends with whom she discussed the need for an equal rights association? Or did Parkhurst, unfamiliar with the cast of characters, misunderstand what Anthony said? We printed Powell in the text but noted that Anthony had changed the original report. The difference in results is slight in this example. But rarely are the source texts so clearly attributed and their nineteenth-century emendation so obvious.