Jane Grey Swisshelm

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,635 words

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About this Person
Born: 1815 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: 1884
Nationality: American
Occupation: Voting rights activist
Other Names: Swisshelm, Jane Grey
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Letters to Country Girls (New York: J. C. Riker, 1853).
  • True Stories about Pets (Boston: Lothrop, 1879).
  • Half a Century (Chicago: J. G. Swisshelm, 1880).

LETTERS

  • Crusader and Feminist: Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm, edited by Arthur J. Larsen (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1934).

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

Jane Grey Swisshelm, who opened the Capitol Hill press gallery to women, crusaded for two major reforms in her long newspaper career--abolitionism and woman's rights. A radical on abolitionism but more conservative on woman's rights, Swisshelm argued her case in a series of newspapers that she started and edited. The papers never achieved large circulations, but her editorials were reprinted in some of the more influential journals of the day, including the New York Tribune and the National Era in Washington, D.C.

Jane Grey Cannon was born in Pittsburgh on 6 December 1815 to Thomas and Mary Scott Cannon, who belonged to the Covenanter branch of the Presbyterian Church. The family moved to the nearby village of Wilkinsburg shortly after Jane was born. Thomas Cannon, a merchant, lost most of his money in the panic of 1819 and died of tuberculosis in 1823. Jane had started school at age three and continued to attend while teaching lace making to help support the family, which included an older brother and a younger sister. Influenced by her religious, abolitionist mother, a teenaged Jane Cannon spent weeks in the 1830s collecting signatures for a petition requesting Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. At the age of fourteen, she became a teacher in the village school.

On 18 November 1836 she married a farmer, James Swisshelm (pronounced Swiz-em). Two years later, the couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where James Swisshelm went into business with his brother. Jane Swisshelm's abolitionist beliefs became even more fixed and passionatly held as a result of her direct experience of the slavery system in Kentucky.

Her husband's business venture was unsuccessful, and Jane was forced to take up corset making to augment the family income. In 1839 she returned to Pennsylvania to nurse her mother in her final illness: after the mother died early the next year. Swisshelm took charge of a seminary in Butler, Pennsylvania. After two years she went back to her husband, who had returned to his family's farm near Pittsburgh after his Louisville business failed. She named the farm "Swissvale."

In 1842 she started writing stories and rhymes under the pen name "Jennie Dean" for the Dollar Newspaper and Neal's Saturday Gazette of Philadelphia. Writing under her own name for the influential Pittsburgh Whig newspaper, the Commercial Journal, Swisshelm attacked public officials who favored slavery and argued for the right of married women to hold property. Soon such publications as the New York Tribune, Godey's, and the Home Journal began to notice her work. Tribune editor Horace Greeley affectionately called her "sister Jane."

Swisshelm also wrote for two Pittsburgh abolitionist newspapers, the Spirit of Liberty and the Albatross, but both had ceased publication by early 1847. Swisshelm then founded her own abolitionist paper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter (using the spelling preferred by Dr. Samuel Johnson). The newspaper resulted from a meeting Swisshelm had with Charles Summer, later a Republican senator from Massachusetts; George W. Julian, later a Republican senator from Indiana; and Charles Shiras, founder of the Albatross. Summer, Julian, and Shiras wanted to start a radical abolitionist newspaper. Since Swisshelm had already gained a reputation for abolitionist editorials, it was decided that she would become editor and handle the weekly writing. The three men became subscribers and continued to subscribe as long as Swisshelm retained control of the newspaper.

The Saturday Visiter was an immediate success; the number of subscribers quickly rose to 7,000. Her readers were nationwide, even though Swisshelm refused to affiliate with any abolitionist society, fearing that she might not be able to maintain complete editorial independence. Swisshelm took a typical Free Soil-moralistic approach to the abolition of slavery: slavery was an evil and, therefore, must be destroyed wherever it existed. Swisshelm seldom stressed the economic advantages of the free labor system, a popular argument among less extreme abolitionists.

In 1850 Swisshelm went to Washington, D.C., to see the congressional debates on Henry Clay's compromise bills on slavery following the Mexican-American War. Greeley paid her five dollars per column for her Washington letters to the Tribune. Swisshelm felt that any compromise on the slavery question was immoral. As she wrote for Greeley, "It is very easy for you, or any other Northern gentleman to make a bow to a Southern gentleman, and in the spirit of the 'most generous compromise,' agree that he may tear a mother from her babes and set her up on the auction block to get money to buy a race horse or gold chain, and banish her, forever, from all she has known or loved." Such emotional appeals were characteristic of Swisshelm's writing style.

While in Washington, she opened the press gallery to women, despite Vice President Millard Fillmore's argument that such an action would be unpleasant for a lady because it would attract too much attention. Despite Fillmore's misgivings, Swisshelm took her seat. She only occupied it for one day before leaving Washington, immediately after mailing an article to Greeley accusing Whig Senator Daniel Webster, a prominent figure in winning support for the Compromise of 1850, of fathering eight mulatto children. The article never appeared in the Tribune but it did appear in her Pittsburgh paper. The paragraph on Webster was reprinted as many as 100 times in anti-Whig and anti-Webster papers, according to Swisshelm's estimates. In 1853 she published Letters to Country Girls , a collection of articles from the Visiter.

In 1857 Swisshelm left Pittsburgh and her unhappy marriage. Taking her only child, Mary Henrietta, who had been born in 1851, she settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota, near her sister, Mrs. Henry Z. Mitchell. James Swisshelm later divorced her on grounds of desertion. In St. Cloud, she founded another newspaper, the Visiter, in 1858. But immediate success was not the fate of the new paper. The Democratic party leader of the county, Gen. Sylvanus Lowry, agreed to help the newcomer, provided that she editorially support President James Buchanan. Swisshelm agreed; but in her editorial of support, she argued that Buchanan promised "the entire subversion of Freedom and the planting of Slavery in every State and Territory." The editorial triggered a feud between the editor and Lowry which ended in vigilantes led by Lowry sacking her printing press and Lowry's lawyer, James C. Shepley, filing a libel suit against her for allegedly libeling Shepley's wife. Townspeople paid for the repair of the press. To resolve the libel suit, Swisshelm agreed to run a clarification of the offending article in the Visiter. She ran the article and discontinued the paper. The next day, she started the St. Cloud Democrat and reprinted the original article. Shepley soon gave up the suit.

By 1858 Swisshelm was generally aligned with the Republicans, although she attempted to disassociate herself from any political party: "I took great pains to make it understood that I belonged to no party.... I was like the Israelites in the days where there was no king and 'every man did that which was right in his own eyes.'" Despite her lofty comments, she did campaign for Republican candidates in Minnesota. On at least one occasion, she joined forces with Representative Galusha P. Grow of Pennsylvania on a speaking tour; after Swisshelm had addressed a packed house, a Democratic mob burned her in effigy as the mother of the Republican party. Representative Schuyler Colfax of Indiana later confided to her that she and Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire had "helped change the State from Democracy to the stalwart Republicanism for which it has been justly famed."

Taking a typically radical stance in 1860, Swisshelm favored the nomination of Senator William Seward of New York and Senator Salmon Chase of Ohio as the Republican candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. Swisshelm greeted Lincoln's nomination with only a lukewarm endorsement, and her opinion of him did not improve after his election. Her editorials branded him as everything from an "obstructionist" to a "pusillanimous and vacillating weakling."

With Lincoln's election, Southern states began to secede. Initially, Swisshelm recommended that the South be allowed to leave the union in peace. As she explained in her autobiography, Half a Century (1880), "I was in favor of not only permitting the Southern States to leave the Union, but of driving them out of it as one would drive tramps out of a drawing room. Put them out! and open every avenue for the escape of their slaves." But once Fort Sumter was attacked, her opinion changed. War became a necessity--a necessity to wipe slavery from the face of the earth. Such a crusade demanded that the president pursue a vigorous war policy carried out by Republican--not Democratic--generals. Lincoln's policy of appointing Democratic generals, such as George B. McClellan, to lead the Union army angered the editor, who accused the president of losing "sight of the fundamental principles of our Government, i.e. the right of the majority to rule."

In 1863 Swisshelm severed her formal management relationship with the Democrat, leaving the paper in the hands of her nephew. She left St. Cloud and settled in Washington, D.C. For the remainder of the war, she helped in Union hospitals, worked as a clerk in the quartermaster's office, and wrote letters on her activities and her views which were published in the Democrat and the New York Tribune.

After Lincoln's assassination, Swisshelm portrayed the slain president as a martyr. Like many other radicals of the period, she compared Lincoln to a slain Christ and blamed the South for his death. Swisshelm sided with radicals in their plans for a prolonged reconstruction of the South. When President Andrew Johnson started to follow a moderate plan, she--prompted by her radical friends, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton--began a newspaper in Washington called the Reconstructionist. After the first issue, Johnson personally fired her from her job in the quartermaster's office for speaking disrespectfully of the president. In the offending editorial, she had accused the president of being "prepared before hand to serve the purposes of treason ...; that his administration and its programme, were part and parcel of the assassination plot, we have no longer the shadow of a doubt." Soon after, the printers' union passed a resolution which forbade its members from working where the paper was printed. Her office-residence was set on fire twice. In March 1866, the Reconstructionist was suspended.

Although Swisshelm was always a radical in the abolitionist movement, the editor was surprisingly moderate in her demands for woman's rights. She was more concerned with the legal rights of women than with suffrage and always argued that publicity would accomplish more for women than voting would. Because of their moderation, Swisshelm's arguments had considerable appeal and were reprinted in other newspapers throughout the nation. The editor regretted this and once complained, "Everywhere I find people much more willing to hear me on the subjects connected with woman's rights than on the rights of the slave. I regret this for women, as such, have few wrongs compared to those of the slave...."

Swisshelm was most concerned with the rights of married women to control their own property. In the early 1840s, in Pennsylvania as in most other states, the husband controlled the wife's property, including her wages if she worked, and received custody of the children in the event of a divorce. In a series of letters published in the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial Journal in 1846 and 1847, Swisshelm argued that married women needed laws that would give them some control over their property. Her articles were brought to the attention of the Pennsylvania governor, who initiated reforms. The legislature in 1847 passed a bill giving wives the right to control their property without the approval of their husbands.

A popular speaker on the topic, Swisshelm petitioned the Minnesota state legislature in 1858 to include in a proposed homestead bill a protection of women's equity in homesteads. The legislature was so interested in what the editor had to say that it adjourned and reconvened so that it might hear her, because rules prohibited women from addressing the body. One minister commented on the incident, "The views of this woman are in contravention with the laws of God, and the position [sic], in which he in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to place woman."

Despite such criticism, Swisshelm was seen as one of the more articulate and more moderate spokeswomen of the cause. Organizations in various states invited her to address their legislatures. At the time the Civil War broke out, Swisshelm was addressing the Massachusetts legislature on the legal disabilities of women. On a national level, Swisshelm claimed that she was asked to draft a bill which would have given women the right to make contracts and the right of custody of children in divorces. The bill was supposedly introduced in Congress.

Although she was clearly an eloquent speaker and a powerful writer on the subject, Swisshelm intentionally avoided most woman's rights conventions of the period. She had been offered the chairmanship of the Salem, Ohio, woman's rights convention, the third such meeting held in the United States, but declined. She did attend the Akron convention but was dismayed by the extremism of the participants. Despite this, suffragist Susan B. Anthony wrote Swisshelm asking for her editorial support in the cause. Swisshelm often wrote on the cause but avoided ties with any woman's rights organization.

Swisshelm died in 1884 at Swissvale, part of which she had won in 1867 in a suit against her late former husband's estate. Her active newspaper career had ended fifteen years earlier. Editors who remembered her generously overlooked her shortcomings to praise her many contributions. Those contributions were clear: she opened the congressional press gallery to women; she was a champion of the abolitionist cause; she helped establish the Republican party in Minnesota; she was an important crusader in the small--and not well-accepted--woman's rights movement; she was responsible for some legislation which gave women fundamental property rights. Yet Swisshelm had serious shortcomings. She was not an accurate reporter, as the Daniel Webster story clearly illustrates. Nor was she an original thinker in either her abolitionist or woman's rights stances. Swisshelm's strength was in distilling reform arguments of the day and then clearly and forcefully presenting them in her editorials. Her importance in both reform movements perhaps would have been greater nationally if she had chosen to cooperate with other reformers. Cooperation, conciliation, and compromise, however, were not Swisshelm's characteristics. Like other reformers of the day, she tended to be dogmatic, totally unaware of her own mistakes.

The Nation, four years before her death, provided perhaps the closest thing to an objective appraisal of Swisshelm's career: "She was not the first woman editor in the country but in direct participation in politics she took precedence over all journalists of her sex. She had a plain and forcible style, sufficient positiveness and impulsiveness, and did her share in fostering the anti-slavery sentiment of the North." Fifty years after her death, the New York Times on 27 January 1935 summarized Swisshelm's importance to women in journalism: "She was a knight crusader to whom all newspaper women should doff their hats, for she fought their battles for them long before they were born and helped to open for them the doors of the future."

 
Papers:

Jane Swisshelm's papers are in the Mitchell Family Collection at the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

References:

  • "An American Woman's Memoirs." Nation (19 August 1880): 139-140.
  • Celia Burleigh, "People Worth Knowing: Jane Grey Swisshelm," Woman's Journal, 1 (20 August 1870); 257, (27 August 1870): 265, (3 September 1870): 274.
  • Kathleen Endres, "Jane Grey Swisshelm: Nineteenth Century Journalist and Feminist," Journalism History, 2 (Winter 1975-1976): 128-131.
  • S. J. Fisher, "Reminiscences of Jane Grey Swisshelm," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 4 (July 1921): 165-174.
  • Frank Klement, "Jane Grey Swisshelm and Lincoln: A Feminist Fusses and Frets," Abraham Lincoln Quarterly (December 1950): 227-238.
  • Lester Burrell Shippee, "Jane Grey Swisshelm: Agitator," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 7 (December 1920): 206-227.
  • Bertha-Monica Stearns, "Reform Periodicals and Female Reformers, 1830 to 1860," American Historical Review, 37 (July 1932): 678-699.

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200007155