People In Perspective

From the Stump and the Stage: The Idealism and Advocacy of Anna Dickinson

Anna Dickinson claims to have ridiculed Abraham Lincoln to his face. By her own account, she mocked his scruffy clothing and his folksy storytelling. More importantly, she told him his emerging plan for reconstruction was “wrong; as radically bad as can be.” Others recalled this April 1864 interview between the twenty-two-year-old Dickinson and the President differently, but one thing is certain: even in the presence of powerful politicians, Dickinson consistently demanded “no amnesty for the leaders of the rebellion—no weak pardon for robbers, cutthroats and murderers.”  

The war mobilized northern women in partisan politics in ways that it did not for Confederate women. In 1861 Anna Elizabeth Dickinson quickly rose from relative obscurity to become one of the most visible influencers in the wartime United States. Most Republicans and many Democrats certainly paid attention to the popular orator who crisscrossed the nation rallying loyal Americans to the cause of the Union and abolition. From the stump and the stage, Dickinson advocated for Republican candidates for office, promoted a radical abolitionist policy for emancipation, and urged the complete suppression of the Confederate States.

Raised by a devout Quaker mother in abolitionist and women’s activism circles in Philadelphia, Anna Dickinson had been on a path to be a teacher—a path she dreaded—before starting work as a clerk at the United States Mint in that city. She attended public meetings and lectures on abolition and women’s rights, and made a name for herself in early 1860 with an impromptu rebuke of one male speaker. Energized by her “appearance,” she began to make public speeches under the mentorship of Lucretia Mott and other Philadelphia abolitionists.

A portrait of Anna Dickinson, seated, looking to the right of the camera.
Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, orator, abolitionist, advocate for women’s rights, and the first woman to speak before Congress / From photographic negative in Brady’s National Portrait Gallery (Library of Congress)

Although some women, like Mott and Susan B. Anthony, did frequently speak to public audiences, the popular lecture circuit was a decidedly male environment. The outbreak of war did not change that fact, but it did make women’s voices far more acceptable. While 19th Century Americans considered politics too rough and tumble for women, the cause of the Union was a moral cause—and women could speak on moral causes. 

The twenty-year-old Dickinson eagerly took to the lecture circuit. She spoke on a variety of topics, but mostly harangued her audiences about women’s rights, abolition, and for a vigorous prosecution of the war. This wasn’t blind or high flown patriotism; but rather, an interest in partisan and ideological victories. To those ends, Dickinson had a keen interest in federal policy and rollicking politics, including repeated condemnation of Democrats—even Democrats in the Army. When she assailed General George B. McClellan in September of 1861, the U.S. Mint fired her and she went on the speaking circuit full time, supporting herself and her family on her often hefty speaking fees.

Dickinson was a magnetic presence on the stage and in person, and with her short cropped black hair and sharp tongue she left audiences electrified by her words. She collected scores of friends and correspondences while on tour and had the ability to make both men and women fall madly in love with her.

Anna Dickinson’s heaviest touring schedules came in 1863 and 1864 as the United States’ appetite for continued warfare faded. Across the northern states, and particularly in New England, Republican state committees invited her to deliver stump speeches on behalf of candidates for state and federal office. In her speeches, she rallied Republicans and lambasted Democrats while being among the first White Republicans to call for the deployment of Black men and soldiers in the army. Several candidates credited their victories to her appearances.

The high point of her wartime service came when she spoke to Congressmen at the U.S. Capitol in January 1864. “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 to stretch over the sea of blood, and the mound of fallen heroes, to shake hands with their murderers.” This resonated with the core issue of the 1864 presidential election—the question of how to finish the war. Democrats desired to defeat the Confederacy, but were open to negotiating a peace with them. The Republican Lincoln’s reelection would imply a national commitment to militarily crushing the rebellion.

A National Union campaign ticket, which says "For President, Abraham Lincoln. For Vice President, Andrew Johnson."
National Union ticket. For President Abraham Lincoln. For Vice President Andrew Johnson. [Campaign ticket] (Library of Congress)

Dickinson favored the latter strategy, but had little faith in Lincoln to carry it out. She was not alone in this view. Many abolitionists considered Lincoln a half-hearted emancipationist and looked about for other candidates who might commit to ending slavery once and for all.

But Dickinson grudgingly came out in support of the pragmatic way forward—a second term for Lincoln. She tempered her partisan barbs a little, but couldn’t hide her ambivalence about Lincoln. She rarely spoke his name in the hurricane of speeches she gave leading up to the November election.  

Dickinson drew cross-partisan crowds in places like New Hampshire and the coal regions of Pennsylvania, where she occasionally persuaded staunch Democrats by her appeals for an inter-party coalition. Her efforts to save the Union caused some Republican politicians to liken her to the French heroine Joan of Arc, who helped save her nation from invasion.

Once victorious in seeing Lincoln reelected and the United States committed to military victory, Dickinson returned to pressing for the complete eradication of slavery and the utter demolition of the Confederate States.

Dickinson had come out of a reformist community with an interests in abolition and women’s rights, and she chose a unique career path in order to pursue the victory of the former and the continued struggle of the latter after the war. 

The outcome of the Civil War—Confederate defeat and the full abolition of slavery—was never foreordained. It required constant bargaining and struggle. Dickinson found she often had to compromise on her idealism and advocate for candidates, like Lincoln, that she could hardly stomach.

Many women pursued similar political interests supported with just as much sacrifice, but in a more traditional fashion. These women, including one who we’re featuring next week, helped ensure the integrity of their nation and the end of slavery while gearing up for the continued fight for women’s rights after Appomattox.