President Lincoln meets with Chester County Quakers to discuss Emancipation
On June 20, 1862, a contingent of Quakers from this region met with President Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Besides being Quakers, they had something else in common: they were troublemakers, and had been so for a long time. At least five of them had broken the law of the land--in fact, quite often. They were ardent supporters of the Underground Railroad. And they were in the White House to urge that President Lincoln use his then considerable powers to grant freedom to the millions of African Americans enslaved at that time. Just over a month later, on July 22, Lincoln shared with his cabinet the first draft of what was to become the Emancipation Proclamation. Who were these people, and did they have such an influence on one of the most important decisions in American history?
One of them, Eliza Agnew, is not known to have been either a conductor or a stationmaster of the UGRR; but her parents and her two brothers were quite active in such efforts in Pennsbury and Kennett Townships, and she herself was an ardent abolitionist. Another, Alice Eliza Hambleton, also had brothers--three of them--involved in UGRR activities, and she and her husband maintained a "station" of their own in Upper Oxford Township.
Another of the delegation, William Barnard, was a member of the Marlborough Meeting. At least Barnard attended that peaceful little meetinghouse until it became abundantly obvious that his abolitionist fervor and illegal activity were aggravating his fellow meeting members. He invited Oliver Johnson, an abolitionist Progressive Friend from Vermont, who had recently relocated to eastern Pennsylvania, to speak at Marlborough meeting, but other members objected when Johnson stood up to speak. Eventually Johnson was arrested and fined, though actually he did not have to pay the fine.
Bringing the law down on a Quaker for sharing his or her thoughts in Meeting was very unusual. This event, incidentally, is known in Quaker history as the "Marlborough Riot," though for most of us the word "riot" connotes something much more violent and noisy.
Nonetheless, for several abolitionist Friends of Marlborough Meeting, this was an affront too great to bear. They decided in 1853 to resign their membership to Marlborough and to help create a new "Meeting"--the Longwood Progressive Meeting for Friends. It was built on land donated by John and Hannah Cox--likewise very great troublemakers and very busy agents of the Underground Railroad. (The building now stands outside of Longwood Gardens--and is in fact owned by Longwood--but is leased to the Brandywine Valley Tourist Information Center.) LPMF soon became a forum for discussions of abolition, women's suffrage, and all manner of reform movements in the 19th Century. Oliver Johnson was also a founding member of this meeting, and Johnson was one of the delegates to the White House on June 20.
Another founding member of the LPMF and delegate to the White House on June 20 was Dinah Mendenhall. She and her husband, Isaac, were among the foremost agents of the UGRR in Chester County, often receiving, sheltering, and moving along freedom-seekers from Thomas Garrett, in Wilmington, Delaware, who was married to a cousin of Isaac, Rachel Mendenhall Garrett. Isaac, as well as the Coxes, were "read out" of Kennett Friends Meeting for the same kind of relentless advocacy of abolition and support of the Underground Railroad. (Incidentally, there is an unsubstantiated legend that Hannah Cox, finding herself locked out of Kennett Meeting, attempted to climb in through a window. The sight of a Quaker woman, or any mid-19th century lady, climbing in a window--well, I can imagine that many Friends found that as shocking as Hannah's Underground Railroad activity.)
Rounding out the delegation was Thomas Garrett, at 73 the oldest person among them and perhaps the oldest living agent of the Underground Railroad. Garrett is a fascinating individual. Over the course of a long career, he is thought to have assisted 2,700 fugitives to safety. He had decided early in his adulthood that to do so was his life's work. He was a merchant, yes, and a husband and a father--but from the 1820's he was aiding black Americans, either escaped slaves or wrongly accused free blacks, to secure their freedom. Once he was caught in the act and put on trial in New Castle. The judge was no less than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--Roger B. Taney. Not surprisingly, Garrett was found guilty and was fined $5,400--about his entire net worth. When asked if he had learned his lesson, Garrett responded, "Friend, I haven't a dollar in the world, but if thee knows a fugitive who needs a breakfast, send him to me." He was non-violent but very bold, and constantly active, resourceful, and determined.
Garrett's Wilmington Monthly Meeting was displeased with his activity and his trial, and there was a discussion, apparently, about reading him out of Meeting; but no such action was taken. Nonetheless, Garrett often chose to attend Meeting with the Longwood Progressive folks.
One might get the impression from my comments that the local Quakers were not really such strong abolitionists. To use the modern phrase, they seemed to have "talked the talk, but not walked the walk." However, Quakers were very uneasy about getting involved in politics--and had been so, for about a century. When the Quakers in charge of Pennsylvania in the early-mid 18th century ran into conflict with the non-Quakers (who outnumbered them, greatly) about using armed force to protect themselves from Indians or the French, they just decided to retreat from public involvement.
This view seems contrary to one's impression of Quakers today--that they are deeply immersed in social issues. Quakers oppose such things as U.S. military involvement, capital punishment, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Such was not the case in the early-mid 19th century Quakers not only dressed like the Amish, but they had the same sense that they should separate from society as a whole, concerned only with their own kind. By contrast, the Longwood Progressive Meeting of Friends welcomed all manner of social reformers, who were not Quaker, to speak at their meetings. Most Quakers, however much as they might admire William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and the like, did not want to open up their First Day worship to non-Quakers. Their primary concerns were spiritual and moral, not social.
Chester County had a great many active agents of the Underground Railroad, but they represented a distinct minority among Quakers, and a far smaller portion of the Chester County population as a whole.
The Longwood Progressive Meeting, however, consisted of many of those Quakers who differed from the majority and who were committed to social action, involvement, and change. And it was they who assembled this committee to visit the White House; Eliza Agnew being the only person not from LPMF. The delegation consisted of three men and three women, attesting to the Quaker belief in the equality of women. Three Congressman and one Senator, David Wilmot, all from Pennsylvania, led the delegation into the White House to introduce the six to the President. Oliver Johnson had been a journalist from New York City and was chosen to read what is called a "Memorial to the President." (Memorial seems not used in the contemporary sense, but rather to be something which they hoped he would keep in mind.)
The group was aware of the aggravation that Lincoln endured from officer-seekers, and their memorial assured him that they were not seeking favor:
"not...for ourselves or our friends...but in the interest of the country and of humanity. Our clients are 4,000,000 slaves, who cannot speak for themselves, but only lift up their chained hands in mute but agonizing supplication for the freedom which is in you power, in this solemn crisis in the nation's fate, to confer upon them."
The Memorial reminded the President of a passage from a speech he had delivered in Springfield, Illinois, in 1858: "A House divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free...It will become all one thing, or all another."
The delegation seemed politically savvy enough to realize the opportunity that the Civil War had presented to Lincoln: that he had emergency powers to do things that, in most circumstances, no President could do. They urged him to use those powers to issue orders of widespread emancipation.
Lincoln was gracious to these visitors but he did not quickly yield to their reasoning. He noted that the quote from his Springfield speech omitted another passage in which he stated that the American people would either agree to slavery's "extinction," or they would agree to its inclusion in all states. Lincoln didn't suggest that the decision would necessarily be the elimination of slavery.
Lincoln also knew that at issue was not only the effectiveness of issuing a decree about people living in states over which he had no control because they had seceded. He was acutely aware of the delicate balance of maintaining support for the Union from the border states that had not seceded: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware--all states that allowed slavery. Though Delaware, for example, had comparatively very few slaves by 1861--slightly more than a thousand--it was certainly not because most Delawareans favored abolition. They did not. Lincoln had disappointed many abolitionists already by placing the preservation of the Union higher than his moral objection to slavery. In response to an editorial to that effect by newspaper editor and magnate Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote the following (to rival newspaper, the Washington National Intelligencer):
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do that. What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. (Foner, p.228)
It is said that the delegation of six left the audience with Lincoln gratified at his graciousness but unsure that they had made an impact. Did they have any effect?
Pulitzer-Prize winning Columbia historian Eric Foner, in "The Fiery Trial", his exhaustive study of Lincoln's transition from caution to determination on the issue of emancipation, entitled one chapter by a quote from Lincoln: "I must have Kentucky." Clearly Lincoln worried about the secession rebellion growing larger. Foner cites a conversation Lincoln had with Charles Sumner that if he (Lincoln) acceded to Sumner's suggestion to announce emancipation on July 4, 1862, "half the army would lay down their arms and the other states would join this rebellion" (p. 211). Foner, incidentally, in his 345-page volume, makes but one reference to Lincoln's meeting with a "delegation of Quakers," and offers not one name of the six. In her much larger work on Lincoln, Teams of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin makes an even briefer reference to Lincoln's having "granted an audience to a group of Quakers, including Eliza Gurney"; but that interview occurred very early in 1862. In all 748 pages Goodwin makes no reference to the June 20 meeting between Lincoln and the Longwood Progressive friends. Perhaps the urgings of Garrett, Agnew, Mendenhall, Hambleton, Johnson and Barnard had little effect on this issue.
And yet thirty-two days later Lincoln shared the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation with his cabinet. Exactly two months after that draft, he issued the Proclamation, which was to take place on January 1, 1863. True, the Union forced had, only a week earlier, won an important battle at Antietam, and Lincoln had indicated to his cabinet that the Union army had to have a victory before he issued the Proclamation. After all, it would have seemed absurd to make the claim of freeing slaves in the seceding states when there was no prospect of the Union winning the war.
Stationmaster Thomas Garrett wrote in a letter that he had given up his lifelong enterprise of helping fugitives escape because,"... the government went into the business wholesale." Garrett, Johnson and the other delegates may have been more convincing than it seemed at the time of June 20, 1862 meeting.