Thursday, August 1, 2013

Little lady, big voice

The other day I found a photograph of Anna E. Dickinson taken closer to the time she helped Republicans win perhaps the most important gubernatorial election in New Hampshire’s history. I have posted the photograph here, along with the backmark identifying the photo studio, or salon, as it was then known, where the picture was taken.

Anna E. Dickinson, circa 1863.
After the March 1863 gubernatorial election in New Hampshire, Dickinson traveled to Connecticut, where her speeches helped Republicans win another election. My guess is she had the photograph made during that campaign. As you can see, it was taken in Hartford.

Dickinson was a phenomenon. Born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia, she was just 20 years old when she arrived in New Hampshire. Already she had a reputation as an eloquent, confident and persuasive abolitionist before large audiences. She spoke extemporaneously and mesmerized her listeners.

Yet the New England lecture tour she began in late 1862 had drawn small crowds and small fees. It was the New Hampshire campaign of early 1863 that made her. In one month she gave 20 speeches to large audiences in towns and cities around the state. The reviews were glowing, and the talks gave heart to Republicans in their uphill battle to hang on to the governor’s office.

Benjamin Prescott, secretary of the state party, had seen Dickinson speak before the campaign. It was he who invited her to the state, arranged her speeches and saw that she was paid and cared for in her travels. Prescott’s warm letters to her, now at the Library of Congress, form the heart of the Our War chapter on the 1863 election.

Less than a year after her successes in New England, Dickinson reached the peak of her fame. On Jan. 16, 1864, she visited President Lincoln at the White House. Later that day she spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives. According to many sources, she was the first woman to do so, although the English missionary Dorothy Ripley preached a sermon there in 1806.

The backmark of the Dickinson carte-de-visite.
The heads of both chambers of Congress, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, escorted Dickinson into the hall. With Abraham and Mary Lincoln in the audience, Dickinson criticized the president’s want of boldness on slavery and delivered a strong abolitionist message. She called for equal pay for African-American soldiers and equal rights for all freedmen and freedwomen.

The Washington Chronicle summarized one of her arguments the next day: “Let no man prate of compromise. Defeated by ballots, the South had appealed to bullets. Let it stand by the appeal. There was no arm of compromise long enough to stretch over the sea of blood, and the mound of fallen heroes, to shake hands with their murderers.”

Then she took a strange detour. “This war was preeminently a people’s war,” the Daily National Republican quoted her as saying. “It was guided by the man of the people, who had never been behind the great heart of the people. He had done much, and all was hopeful for us. Granted that we had much yet to do, we had the man to complete the grand and glorious work, and that work was left for his second term of office.”

Her support of Lincoln’s re-election contradicted her message and shocked the Radicals who had invited her to speak.

A Radical friend, the journalist the journalist Whitelaw Reid, told her the endorsement was a mistake, and she took his point. When she repeated the speech elsewhere across the country in that election year, she omitted the call for a second term for Lincoln.  

Dickinson received $130 for her speech to Congress but declined the money. Instead she asked Vice President Hamlin and Speaker Colfax to give it to the D.C. chapter of the National Freedmen’s Relief Society.

(For many of the details in this post I used the historian James Harvey Young’s excellent account of Dickinson’s career.) 

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