Smith, Abby and Julia

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Smith, Abby and Julia

Sisters and lifelong social and political reformers who refused to pay taxes unless they could vote and in consequence had their livestock seized.

Smith, Abby (1797–1878). Name variations: Abba. Born Abby Hadassah Smith on June 1, 1797, in Glastonbury, Connecticut; died in the same house in which she had been born on July 23, 1878; fifth daughter of Zephaniah Hollister Smith (a cleric turned lawyer) and Hannah Hadassah Hickok Smith (an astronomer, mathematician, translator and linguist); primarily educated at home by parents, supplemented by short stays at various schools and private tutoring; never married; no children.

Smith, Julia (1792–1886). Born Julia Evelina Smith on May 27, 1792, in Glastonbury, Connecticut; died in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 6, 1886; fourth daughter of Zephaniah Hollister Smith (a cleric turned lawyer) and Hannah Hadassah Hickok Smith (an astronomer, mathematician, translator and linguist); primarily educated at home by parents, supplemented by short stays at various schools and private tutoring; married Amos Parker, on April 9, 1879; no children.

Family moved back to Glastonbury (1795); both sisters lived at home with parents and three other sisters,learning and teaching; first mention of charitable work among free blacks (1819); Julia taught at Troy Female Seminary (1823) and returned home (1824); family joined Hartford Anti-Slavery Society, hosted abolitionists, distributed literature, initiated petitions (1830s–1860s); father died (1836); both became interested in Millerism (early 1840s); mother died (1850); Julia, with Abby's aid, translated the Bible five times (1847–1855); third sister, Laurilla, died (1857); second sister, Cyrinthia, died (1864); unfairly taxed by town of Glastonbury (1869); traveled together to the Connecticut Woman's Suffrage Association in Hartford (1869); first sister, Hancy Zephina, died (1871); Julia tried to register to vote and was refused (1873); both refused to pay taxes (1873); Abby spoke before town meeting (1873); both began to speak in public on suffrage (1873–78); both bought back seven Alderney cows seized for auction, garnered national attention (1874); Julia spoke at Worcester Convention for Woman's Suffrage (1874); Abby addressed a crowd outside town meeting from a wagon after having been refused a voice inside the building (1874), and spoke before the Woman Suffrage Committee of the Connecticut State Legislature (1874); both fought town's attempt to auction off Smith land (1874); Julia spoke at the National Woman Suffrage Association (1876); both bought back cows seized for auction twice more (1876); both won court appeal and regained land (1876); Bible translation published (1876); Julia addressed the Congressional Committee on Privileges and Elections (1878); auction of the contents of the Smith house by Julia's husband (1884). Publications by Julia: The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments; Translated Literally From the Original Tongues (Hartford, 1876); Abby Smith and Her Cows, With A Report of the Law Case Decided Contrary to Law (Hartford, 1877).

Abby and Julia Smith were the two youngest children of a remarkable family who lived in a small Connecticut farm town in the 19th century. The five daughters, along with their accomplished mother and father, formed what an observer called "a constellation of superior stars in an atmosphere of purity and intelligence," a household comprised largely of women whose words and deeds defy historical generalizations about male and female relationships, female education and capacity, and even the nature of reform movements such as abolition and woman suffrage.

The life histories of the Smith parents go a long way toward explaining how Julia, Abby, and their sisters made names for themselves and their family, first in their small town and later in the entire nation. The father of this clan, Zephaniah Hollister Smith (1759–1836), was born on a farm in the Eastbury section of Glastonbury, Connecticut. In 1778, at age 20, he entered Yale College to study for the ministry and graduated four years later in spite of the hardships of the American Revolution, including food shortages and direct attack by the British. Zephaniah began his career as minister at the Congregational Church of Newtown, Connecticut, and at age 27 allied himself with a woman as spiritually and intellectually questing as himself.

Hannah Hadassah Hickok (1767–1850) was only 18 when she married, but she was already more educated and accomplished than most people twice her age. The only child of parents who believed in education for girls, Hannah grew up in South Britain, Connecticut. Her father David Hickok had been educated at Yale College and her mother Abigail Johnson Hickok was a prosperous and talented weaver. David Hickok farmed and taught local children, and his own daughter was his star pupil. A venturesome spirit with a fine mind, young Hannah learned astronomy and mathematics, creating her own almanac when such books were rare. She also built her own clock, developing a facility for mechanics that would stay with her throughout her life. An expert equestrian, Hannah, alone or with a female cousin, would ride to towns 80 or even 100 miles away to visit relatives. Perhaps Hannah's greatest gift was for languages, and she remained a poet and translator (from Italian and French) all of her life. Her diary does not tell us how she came to meet the young minister from Newtown, but they married on May 31, 1786, and almost immediately began a family.

In 1795, the young couple and their three little girls moved back to Zephaniah's home-town of Glastonbury five years after he gave up the ministry. After a brief period as a merchant, he became a lawyer, and Hannah gave birth to the last two of her brood. The Smith parents endowed each girl with an impressively elaborate appellation. Hancy Zephina Smith (1787–1871) combined both parents' first names, Cyrinthia Sacretia Smith (1788–1864) reflected the couple's knowledge of Latin and Greek, and Laurilla Aleroyla Smith (1789–1857) fulfilled her designation by becoming the "artistic one." Julia Evelina Smith (1792–1886) was named after Fanny Burney 's eponymous heroine, described as "well educated and accustomed to good company; she has a natural love of virtue and a mind that might adorn any station however exalted."

Abby Hadassah Smith (1797–1878), the youngest, was the only sister with an "ordinary" Biblical name. The five girls and their parents lived together in the same house all of their lives—none of the sisters married except Julia, who wed after the last of her siblings died. Though a distant relative maintained that as young women the Smith sisters made a pact not to marry, no evidence of this exists. In a newspaper interview given by Julia and Abby late in their lives, the sisters recalled that "their father had imbibed a prejudice against marriage laws, and a distrust of man's chivalry, while discharging his duties as a lawyer."

The family lived a quiet life, farming and learning. Their proximity to Hartford allowed a cosmopolitan escape from their rural simplicity. Zephaniah practiced law and served in the State Legislature and as justice of the peace. The five girls were extremely well educated, mostly at home by both their parents, where they pursued the same course of study mastered by young men preparing for Harvard or Yale. During short stints at schools including the Litchfield Academy, the Smith girls studied geography, grammar, composition, English literature, arithmetic, moral and natural philosophy, Biblical history, science, music and drawing. Tutors who visited the family to teach Latin and other subjects were soon succeeded by the older girls, who took on the task of instructing the younger ones. In order to improve their daughters' French, the Smith parents boarded out Julia and Abby with a refugee family from Haiti who had settled in New Haven. The plan worked. Both sisters gained in proficiency, which Julia maintained by keeping her diary in French for 32 years.

Abby Smith and her cows are marching on like John Brown's soul.

—Isabella Beecher Hooker

But even in this unusual company of intellectual achievers, Julia's commitment to the life of the mind stands out. Family stories relate how she persisted in studying Latin, though plagued by boys, and how, when her father failed to bring her a coveted Latin grammar, the 14-year-old rode to Hartford on horseback to fetch it herself. Whether or not these stories are apocryphal, they present a consistent view of Julia's character and her role in the family as "the scholar." As is often true in large families, each child marked out a position for herself: The oldest sister, Zephina, was musical, Laurilla painted, Cyrinthia proved an outstanding needle-woman, and Abby was the quiet, domestic one.

Even more than education, religion deeply influenced the personalities and lives of the Smith family. Many 19th-century Americans made the worship of a Christian God a central part of their lives, but, as might be expected, the Smiths' religious allegiance was even more intense and particular. Almost immediately upon his graduation from Yale, Zephaniah discovered the ideas of Scottish theologian Robert Sandeman, who claimed that knowledge of God, and hence salvation, could be achieved only by an intellectual apprehension of the Bible. Remarkably intolerant even for the time, the Sandemanians (or "Glasites") did not last long, perhaps because of their insistence on complete discipline and a return to early Church practices, such as "love feasts" and foot-washing. Perhaps they most horrified mercantile New England by their insistence on the literal interpretation of the Biblical injunction not "to lay up treasures upon earth," but rather to give all possessions to the poor and live by faith alone.

To Sandemanians, with their emphasis on individual experience, ministers were superfluous or dangerous. This attitude keenly affected Zephaniah and motivated him to abandon the ministry, the "preaching for pay," which decision triggered the family's move back to Glastonbury. Though none of the Smiths ever became an "official" disciple, the Sandemanian philosophy exerted a significant influence on the family's religious life, most obviously in their gradual spurning of the church and clergy and their conviction that faith led to action.

In 1823, at age 30, Julia Smith left home to join her sister Laurilla as a teacher at the Troy Female Seminary, run by Emma Willard , in upstate New York. Julia instructed girls in French, Latin and arithmetic, while studying Euclidean geometry, which she speedily discovered she despised. She stayed only ten months, the presence of her beloved sister not sufficient to compensate for homesickness. Plagued by frequent headaches and sore throats, Julia returned to Glastonbury to resume her studious family life. In 1836, the domestic tranquillity was shattered by Zephaniah's death from a fall. The Smith women felt keenly the loss of their male protector and "public voice."

As young girls, and then as young women, the Smith sisters enjoyed active social lives, both within their home circle and with the local young people. But their lives were more profoundly shaped by work that came increasingly to occupy their time—charitable work, especially projects that brought them in contact with the small free black population of Glastonbury. Beginning in 1819, mentions of teaching and visiting these families appear in Julia's diary. Philanthropic efforts were part of many Northern middle-class women's lives; benevolent societies abounded in 19th-century America, driven usually by conservative impulses to safeguard the social order. But, as many scholars point out, such "traditional" activities often had radical implications, taking middle-class women out of their homes and exposing them to society's inequities. That was the effect charity work had on the Smith household. Early in the 1830s, the Smith sisters, led by their mother, became abolitionists.

Many respectable people were abolitionists by the Civil War, but such folk were considered dangerous and radical in the 1830s. Driven by their own day-to-day experience of the lives led by free blacks and by a religious faith that demanded social action, the Smith family, never having seen a slave, joined the Hartford County Anti-Slavery Society. They hosted meetings at their house, and Julia distributed an anti-slavery newspaper, The Charter Oak. Hannah and her daughters faithfully attended state conventions and meetings and entertained abolitionists in their home. It does not seem that the Smith family suffered censure from the town for their renegade stand, perhaps because of the family's prominence, perhaps because of their reputation for eccentricity. Regardless, it was a courageous stand to take.

Historians of the abolitionist movement have assembled a collection of characteristics of the early abolitionists, and at first glance the Smith clan seems to possess all of them. They were rural New Englanders, born between 1790 and 1810, well educated and troubled by spiritual discontent. But the Smiths were different in at least one important aspect. In contrast to many Northern abolitionists whose social imaginations were limited, the Smiths did not work for abolition only within their own social stratum. They did not hold themselves aloof from personal contact with blacks, nor did they believe them inferior. In their work, they constantly crossed color and class lines, taking anti-slavery petitions and newspapers to the workers in the mill and welcoming black leaders. During the winter of 1842, Julia recorded that she attended "the fair of the people of color" in Hartford.

Unlike many more moderate anti-slavers of this period, the Smiths followed famed abolition leader William Lloyd Garrison, for whom they literally provided a platform when mainstream churches in Hartford rebuffed him, in calling for immediate emancipation rather than colonization or other "halfway measures." The Smith women worked not just for slaves' freedom; their concern extended to the plight of "oppressed people of color," free blacks who daily lived with the burden of prejudice.

One of the chief strategies in the war against slavery was to present petitions to Congress, the petition being a traditional venue for the politically voiceless, especially women. Hannah Smith authored some of the earliest of the petitions that flooded Congress, prompting Southern congressmen to institute the notorious "Gag Rule," which prevented them being read. Outraged by what he considered an unconstitutional abuse of free speech, Representative John Quincy Adams read them anyway, to the fury of his colleagues and the growing approval of Northern Americans. The congressional reaction to women's petitions played a large part in convincing Northerners that the "Slave Power" was a threat to liberty. The Smiths sent numerous petitions, protesting not only slavery itself, but also the expansion of slavery into Western lands, the slave trade and colonization. Belying the stereotype of naive, female "do-gooders," the Smith petitions display the women's sophisticated understanding of abolitionist movements in England, Bermuda, and the Caribbean, as well as their facility with legal language, the latter due to Julia's study of law, which she mastered to such an extent that after her father's death she performed legal services for her neighbors.

Though the Smith family had lived outside of conventional church affiliations for decades, Julia's and Abby's major break came in the early 1840s when the sisters became involved in Millerism, the millennialist movement that would grow into the Seventh Day Adventist Church. A Vermont farmer, William Miller, claimed that the world would end in 1844, based on calculations made with Biblical information. Though Julia never admitted her involvement with Millerism, evidence exists that the Smith sisters took this prophecy quite seriously. On the last day of 1842, Julia Smith ended her diary after 32 years, expecting 1843 (the year Miller originally set as the planet's last) to usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Memoirs written by friends after the sisters' deaths state that at this time the sisters renounced the world, as many did, letting their plants die and preparing accession robes. However, on the appointed day, thousands of people gathered in groups to await their Savior, only to suffer the "Great Disappointment" at the coming of a new dawn.

Whether or not the stories about the Smith sisters' accession robes are true, there is no doubt that the "Great Disappointment" inspired Julia Smith's greatest work. When the end of the world came and went, Miller blamed his miscalculations on his reliance on Bible interpreters and "authorities." Julia compared her King James version with the Hebrew Bible and "saw by the margin that the text had not been given literally, and it was the literal meaning we were seeking." Thus, Julia, aided by Abby and a pious friend, Emily Moseley , began her unprecedented accomplishment—a literal translation of the Holy Bible, from the "Original Tongues." For eight years (1847–1855) Julia worked, learning Hebrew to add to her knowledge of Latin and Greek, often so immersed in her effort she did not hear the dinner bell. Moseley and the other Smith sisters met with her weekly to discuss her findings and to read from the small, hand-bound folios that eventually contained 10,000 pages. Abby was particularly committed to the task, often referring to the work as "our" Bible.

By 1855, Julia had translated the work not only once (the only single person in the world to have done so, for Bible translations were and are generally done by committee) but five times, working from Latin, Greek and Hebrew, each time striving to approach the original meaning. Her insistence on translating not for style but as closely as possible to the original renders the wording of this singular document somewhat wooden and decidedly odd. Julia Smith's version of Genesis 1:3 reads: "And God will say there shall be light, and there shall be light. And God will see the light that it is good, and God will separate between the light and between the darkness. And God will call to the light day, and to the darkness he called night: and the evening shall be, and the morning shall be one day."

Julia's mixing of the future with the past tense in the Old Testament, while peculiar to the ear, gives a surprising immediacy to the text. As she explains, "It seems that the original Hebrew had no regard to time and that the Bible speaks for all ages." For Julia, regularizing the tenses risked meddling with the sacred word. The awkwardness of her prose stems from her reluctance to sacrifice grammatical precision for the niceties of correspondence and translation. She thought that "the promiscuous use of the tense" signaled the reader not to depend on the word itself but to discover the hidden meaning, quoting St. Paul's contention that the "letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Reflecting the Sandemanian emphasis on Bible reading, Julia believed that words were not an end in themselves but rather a channel through which God could communicate beyond language. Julia's Bible has also been called the "Feminist Bible," but it is important to note that it is not feminist in language or intent. Though she did prefer "Jehovah" to "Lord" or "God," and translated "Eve " to mean "life," she made none of the inclusive modifications advocated by modern feminist Bible scholars.

In the midst of this activity, death began to affect the busy household of women. Hannah died at age 83 on December 27, 1850. Seven years later, Laurilla died, and every seven years after that another Smith sister would be "freed by the Redeemer." By 1869, the remaining Smiths were old women. Cyrinthia had died in 1864, leaving 82-year-old Zephina, 78-year-old Julia and 72-year-old Abby. But the Smith women were not destined to pass out of life peacefully; on the contrary, in the years between 1869 and 1878, Julia and Abby achieved national fame.

The catalyst to this remarkable occurrence was their discovery that they, and two other single women, were being taxed at a higher rate than the men of their town. Julia protested to the tax collector, but to no avail. Spurred by their sense of injustice, Julia and Abby attended the first convention of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association in Hartford. The two elderly ladies listened to speeches by Isabella Beecher Hooker , Elizabeth Cady Stanton , Susan B. Anthony , their old colleague William Lloyd Garrison, and Julia Ward Howe . The Smith sisters returned home resolved to work for woman suffrage, and henceforth presented their dispute as one of suffrage rather than mere unfairness. Their cry became: "Taxation Without Representation!"

Over the next nine years, the Smith sisters engaged in legal skirmishes with the town fathers of Glastonbury, conflicts detailed in Abby Smith and Her Cows, a small chapbook compiled by Julia in 1877. Their public activity was only temporarily stayed by Zephina's death in 1871. The local press embraced the story of the two old ladies and their fight for justice, and Julia and Abby kept the story and the flames alive by frequent letters and interviews. The town selectmen reacted to the negative press by trying to ignore the women, to the extent of not recording their words or their presence in town-meeting minutes. But the sisters were not deterred. When refused a voice in the meeting hall, they mounted a wagon outside the building and spoke. At the beginning of their struggle, though angry, they paid their taxes. Only after the town refused to allow them to register to vote in 1873 did Julia and Abby escalate their resistance and decide not to pay the annual tax.

On New Year's Day, 1874, the town took action against them, and this time the story made the front page of newspapers all across New England. The tax collector confiscated seven Alderney cows, beloved by the sisters as pets, and held them for auction. Sympathy for the sisters exploded across the region and then the nation. The names of the seven cows—Jessie, Daisy, Proxy, Minnie, Bessie, Whitey, and Lily—became household words; prominent suffragists, like Stanton, Garrison and Lucy Stone , publicly and privately supported the sisters; newspapers published poetic tributes and compared the incident to the Boston Tea Party, dubbing Abby "Sam Adams redivivus." At the auction, the sisters were able to buy back their property, in effect paying their taxes.

Over the next five years, the cows would see the auction block twice more, and the town, desperate and abashed, would resort to more and more devious methods to quell the rebellious sisters. They seized and auctioned off a valuable piece of land, an action which Julia and Abby fought in court, eventually proving it illegal in the State Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the sisters became increasingly active in the cause of suffrage, precipitating a shift in the family dynamics. Though both sisters were in demand at conventions and meetings, Abby, "the quiet, domestic one," became the public speaker of the family. A "Defense Fund" was established, and hair from the cows' tails was made into bouquets and sold to help defray legal costs.

The Smith sisters' suffrage message was as simple and as radical as their abolitionist credo—legal rights belonged to all, regardless of race or sex, and women were as fit as men (or fitter) to be citizens. Their suffrage speeches belie historical generalizations that suffragism was entirely a white, middle-class movement. At the Worcester Convention for Woman's Suffrage, Julia related that one of the town's arguments against giving women the vote was that it would "let in all the Catholic women and other good for nothing working women. We say 'do right and let the heavens fall,' leave the consequences to God." Indeed, Abby and Julia believed poor women needed the vote all the more to combat male physical cruelty and drunkenness.

Before they were done, both sisters would address the Connecticut State Legislature and the Congressional Committee on Privileges and Elections. They became elder stateswomen to a new generation of suffragists, symbols of the Revolution to the nation, and their battles served as potent reminders to a public celebrating a century of freedom. Julia and Abby undoubtedly knew they made good copy and responded with their characteristic intelligence and good humor, naming their new calves Martha Washington and Abigail Adams and two cows Taxey and Votey. Julia spoke of them during a speech at the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C.: "It is something a little peculiar that Taxey is very obtrusive; why, I can scarcely step out of doors without being confronted by her, while Votey is quiet and shy, but she is growing more docile and domesticated every day, and it is my opinion that in a very short time, wherever you find Taxey there Votey will be also."

In 1855, Julia had been motivated to translate the Bible by religious rather than social concerns, but in 1875 her decision to publish her work resulted directly from suffragism and the battle with Glastonbury—"We thought it might help our cause to have it known that a woman could do more than any man has ever done." In a revelatory aside, she also disclosed that she wanted to be known as something more than Abby Smith's sister. A thousand copies, published with the sisters' own money, rolled off the presses in 1876. It was a women's project throughout—typeset by women (perhaps the first book thus set), proofread by a woman, and sold by female canvassers. It was quickly dubbed the "Alderney Edition," after the livestock that inspired its public appearance. In 1898, leading suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Frances Ellen Burr , and Matilda Joslyn Gage published a commentary called The Woman's Bible, using Julia's translations as their ultimate Scriptural authority.

The Smith sisters traveled and spoke frequently until Abby's death on July 23, 1878, at age 81. The battle with Glastonbury ceased, and though the Smiths had won some legal points, no women could vote, and Julia was still liable for tax. Though Julia continued to speak on behalf of suffrage, she was slowed not only by age but her own personal circumstances. In 1879, at age 86, she married Amos Parker, an elderly lawyer from New Hampshire. Sadly, the marriage did not go well, and the last years of Julia's life were taken up by lawsuits brought by relatives who felt robbed of their expectations upon her marriage. Many of Julia's friends and neighbors sided with the relatives, suspecting that Julia had fallen under the influence of Parker, who, they surmised, had only married her to pass on her estate to his children. Their fears must have seemed realized when, under his orders in 1884, the contents of the Smith family's Glastonbury home were auctioned off.

In 1884, age 92, Julia gave a talk at the Connecticut State Suffrage Association to a delighted audience. In November 1885, she broke her hip, and she died on March 6, 1886. But trouble did not end with her death. Her will, which left everything to Parker, was contested by a neighbor who bore witness to another will that cut off Parker. In the end, Amos Parker prevailed and received Julia's estate, perhaps against her wishes. But Julia Smith, true to form, had the last word—she is buried under her father's name, in the Glastonbury cemetery, in proper family order, between Laurilla and Abby.

At the end of their lives, so many of the goals for which Julia and Abby fought remained unfulfilled—women still did not have the vote in America; as they feared, abolition of slavery did not uproot racial prejudice; and Julia's Bible remained a freak curiosity. But if the "Spirit gives life," these two women stand as exemplars of faith in action, and it is unlikely that they mourned lives devoted to spiritual enlightenment and social justice. Surely, even by their own stringent standards, they had, as Julia Smith translated: "contested earnestly the good contest … completed the course … and kept the faith."


Housley, Kathleen L. The Letter Kills But the Spirit Gives Life: The Smiths—Abolitionists, Suffragists, Bible Translators. Glastonbury, CT: Historical Society of Glastonbury, 1993 (provides the most lively, readable and complete account of the Smith family to date; contact the Glastonbury Historical Society to obtain a copy).

Shaw, Susan J. A Religious History of Julia Evelina Smith's Translation of the Holy Bible: Doing More Than Any Man Has Ever Done. San Francisco, CA: Mellen Research Press, 1993.

Smith, Julia Evelina. Abby Smith and Her Cows, With A Report of the Law Case Decided Contrary to Law. NY: Arno Press, 1972 (contains a collection of newspaper clippings and a trial transcript).

Speare, Elizabeth G. "Abby, Julia, and the Cows," in American Heritage. June 1957, Vol. VIII, no. 4, pp. 54–57, 96.

Stern, Madeline B. "The First Feminist Bible: The 'Alderney' Edition, 1876," in Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. Vol. XXXIV, no. 1, 1977, pp. 23–31.


Historical Society of Glastonbury owns most of their papers.

related media:

"Abby, Julia and the Seven Pet Cows," teleplay broadcast on "Telephone Time," CBS, January 7, 1958, starring Judith Anderson .

Catherine A. Allgor , Assistant Professor of History, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts