Harry T. Burn

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Harry Thomas Burn, Sr. (November 12, 1895 – February 19, 1977)[1] was a Republican member of the Tennessee General Assembly for McMinn County, Tennessee. Burn became the youngest member of the state legislature when he was elected at the age of twenty-two. He is best remembered for action taken to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment during his first term in the legislature.

Education[edit]

Born in Niota, Tennessee, Burn graduated from Niota High School in 1911. In 1923, he was admitted to the Tennessee Bar. In 1951, he became President of the First National Bank and Trust in Rockwood, Tennessee.[2]

Public career[edit]

Burn held public office for much of his adult life, including positions in the State House of Representatives, 1918–1922; State Senate, 1948–1952; state planning commission, 1952–1958; and as delegate for Roane County to the Constitutional Conventions of 1953, 1959, and 1965. Burn died in Niota.[2]

19th Amendment[edit]

The Nineteenth Amendment, regarding female suffrage, was proposed by Congress on June 14, 1919. The amendment could not become law without the ratificaton of a minimum thirty-six of the forty-eight states. By the summer of 1920, thirty-five of the forty-eight states had ratified the amendment, with a further four states called upon to hold legislative voting sessions on the issue. Three of the states refused to call special sessions, but Tennessee agreed to do so. This session was called to meet in August 1920.[3]

Burn had originally made clear his intention to vote "nay" in any session. However, a letter from his mother asking him to vote in favor of the amendment helped to change his mind. Mrs. J. L. Burn (Febb Ensminger) of Niota, Tennessee, had written a long letter to her son, a copy of which he held during the voting session on August 18, 1920. The letter contained the following:

Dear Son:

...

Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandlers’ speech, it was very bitter. I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet... Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from mama this time.

...

With lots of love, Mama.[4]

After much debating and argument, the result of the vote was 48-48. Burn's vote broke the tie in favor of ratifying the amendment. He responded to attacks on his integrity and honor by inserting a personal statement into the House Journal, explaining his decision to cast the vote in part because "I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification."[5]

As anti-suffragists had been fighting and preparing for this moment over the summer, they became very enraged when they discovered the news of Burn's decision. There is an apocryphal story that after the vote was ratified, angry anti-suffragists chased Burn through the Tennessee Legislature Hall, and Burn was forced to conceal himself for a short time until the tense situation had been defused.[6][7]

In popular culture[edit]

Burn is portrayed by Peter Berinato in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels.

Winter Wheat, a musical about the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Tennessee, premiered in 2016 after its original version had a limited run in 2014. Harry Burn, his mother Febb, and his younger brother Jack, are major characters.[8]

Sources[edit]

  • "Battle Began for Suffrage Many Years Ago." Nashville Tennessean. 19 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 100
  • "Suffrage Amendment Adopted by House." Nashville Tennessean. 19 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 100
  • "Tennessee Ratifies Amendment Giving Women of U.S. Vote." The Commercial Appeal. 19 August 1920. Vol. 104: No. 50.
  • Heirs, Cheryl. “The Nineteenth Amendment and the War of the Roses." BlueShoe Nashville Guide. [1] (8 August 2001).
  • "Decisive Action Taken Today in Suffrage Battle." The Nashville Tennessean. 21 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 102
  • "Battle Began For Suffrage Many Years Ago." The Nashville Tennessean. 19 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 100
  • "New Election Laws May Be Necessary." The Nashville Tennessean. 19 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 100
  • "The Case of Harry T. Burn.” The Nashville Tennessean. 21 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 102
  • "Word From Mother Won For Suffrage." The Nashville Tennessean. 20 August 1920. Vol. 14: No. 101
  • "Burn Changed vote on Advice of His Mother". The Commercial Appeal. 20 August 1920. pp. 

Notes[edit]

External links[edit]