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'Debunking the errors' about Harry T. Burn

Robert Houk • Jun 4, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The great-grandnephew of the state lawmaker whose vote allowed Tennessee to ratify the 19th Amendment wants to set the record straight about his noted forebear.

Tyler Boyd, a social studies teacher in Lenior City Schools, said he has written a book to “debunk the errors and apocryphal stories that have persisted over the years” about Harry T. Burn and his deciding vote on suffrage.

Boyd told the Washington County Federated Republican Women on Monday that Burn did indeed love his widowed mother, affectionally known as Miss Febb in their native city of Niota, but she did not have to browbeat him into giving women the right to vote. He said it is important to separate the facts from fiction with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment coming up in 2020.

“His vote for suffrage began a lifetime of public service,” Boyd said during a presentation at the Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City.

Getting It Wrong

Most historical accounts give Burn, a 24-year-old Republican lawmaker at the time representing McMinn County, credit for casting the vote on Aug. 18, 1920, to make Tennessee the 36th state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

That part is true. Boyd said his great-granduncle was indeed the youngest member of the state House of Representatives, where most of the legislators were 60 or older.

As one popular version of the story goes, Burn surprised his colleagues by changing his mind and voting in favor of the Constitutional amendment. Eyewitnesses said several lawmakers (described in one account as “an angry mob”) forced Burn to climb out of a third-floor window onto a narrow ledge and escape to the attic of the state Capitol Building to hide.

Boyd said that’s not true. What really happened was much more nuanced and complicated. Legislative leaders had asked the sergeant at arms to keep an eye on Burn for his own safety, which annoyed the young lawmaker. Burn sneaked out of the state Capitol — just a few steps ahead of his would-be protectors — to get away from the fanfare following the suffrage vote. 

Some accounts say Burn had a change of heart on the 19th Amendment after receiving a letter from his mother, who urged her son to support suffrage. Boyd said Miss Febb did write her son a letter that reached him on the day of the historic vote, but it was “not a letter of admonishment, but of motherly advice.”

Boyd said Miss Febb was known to have a sense of humor, which she shared with her son.

In her letter, she wrote: “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!”

Defying Party Bosses

Burn was a supporter of the 19th Amendment, but was being told by party bosses that the voters of McMinn County were squarely against it. Boyd said Burn did vote “yes” earlier on a motion to table a vote on the matter for a year, but he never cast a vote outright against suffrage.

“He was being misled by party leaders in his district,” Boyd said.

When he cast the “yes” vote to end the stalemate, Boyd said Burn did so exercising his own conscience and knowing it was the right thing to do.

“He stood on the achievements of many others during the 70-year history of suffrage,” Boyd said. “He was the man on the other end of the court who caught the ball wide open for a layup.”

Burn, who died in 1977 at the age of 81, would later serve in the state Senate. He became a lawyer, and was a successful businessman and banker. He even made a failed bid for his party’s nomination for governor in the 1930s. Throughout his professional life, Boyd said his great-granduncle “never backed down from what he believed in.”

Boyd’s book, “Tennessee Statesman Harry T. Burn: Woman Suffrage, Free Elections and a Life of Service,” will be published on Aug. 5. To purchase a copy, email Boyd at [email protected]

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