Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
by Sara E. Polsky
“I regret that Providence has furnished only one woman for such a crisis as this. I wish we had fifty Anna E. Dickinson’s scattered all over the country telling people the truth.” Thus wrote the chairman of the New Hampshire State Republican Committee in June 1863. The woman he referred to, Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, had emerged from obscurity two years previously to become a leading abolitionist and celebrity.
Anna was born in 1842 to Quaker parents John and Mary Dickinson. Her father was dedicated to the abolition movement, and died of a heart attack shortly after giving a rousing antislavery speech in 1844. Since Anna was just two years old at this point, she did not remember John Dickinson well. The fact that he died fighting slavery, however, probably inspired her to work for the same cause from an early age.
But the success of her career owed mostly to her association with noted editor William Lloyd Garrison, a radical reformer who favored immediate abolition of slavery. At age thirteen, Dickinson contributed an essay to Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, and in October 1861, she shared the platform with him at a meeting of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. He was so impressed by her enthusiasm and intelligence that he offered to help her find speaking engagements if she were ever to come to Boston. This offer was to prove a great boost to Dickinson’s oratorical career when, shortly thereafter, she wrote to Garrison asking him to secure lecture engagements for her in the Boston area. At her request, Garrison arranged a number of lectures throughout Massachusetts. As Dickinson toured the New England states, she quickly gained popularity.
Anna Dickinson’s rising celebrity status led her to closer ties with Republican leaders. By 1863, although Dickinson had become immensely popular as an abolitionist and an orator, she was finding it difficult to make her lecturing into a paying career to support her mother and sister as well as herself. But her problem was solved when Benjamin Prescott, chairman of the New Hampshire State Republican Committee, invited her to speak in favor of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the spring of 1863. Morale in the North at this time was at a low ebb, following the humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg and the stalled siege of Vicksburg. President Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were determined to continue the war, but the national government could not do this without the help of the states — and that help would not be forthcoming without Republicans in positions of power. New Hampshire Republicans realized that a Republican victory in the state election was essential. For this reason, Dickinson was called upon to give twenty lectures throughout the state, and was given a fair share of the credit when the Republicans pulled through to victory.
After Republican campaign organizers in other states heard of Dickinson’s success in New Hampshire, they called on her to join their own campaigns. Accordingly, in March 1863, she began her campaign tour in Connecticut, hoping to secure another state victory for the Republican party. Despite the fact that many had predicted the defeat of Connecticut’s Republican governor by at least ten thousand votes, he was re-elected. Dickinson’s oratorical skill had helped the Republicans to avoid a major anti-war victory, and republicans everywhere assigned to Anna Dickinson the major responsibility for influencing the final outcome of the Connecticut election and the distribution of political power in the Union. For a young woman of her years, this was a monumental achievement. By the end of 1863, Dickinson had helped the Republicans eliminate the problems posed by the Democrats in the New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York elections. She was nationally acclaimed as the Joan of Arc of the Union cause.
Due to her successes in the 1863 elections, Anna Dickinson was invited to speak before Congress, perhaps the first woman ever to do so. President Lincoln and his wife attended part of her speech, and even though most of what they heard was critical of Lincoln, they retained a great respect for Dickinson.
But respect was not enough to keep Dickinson in the public eye or put food on her table, and after the Civil War she was forced to find other means of making money. She was nearly successful as an actress, but was so hated by the press for her oratorical success that her plays were given bad reviews and she was unable to launch her career. In 1910, still twenty-two years before her death, someone wrote to a New York newspaper asking whether the great Anna Dickinson, women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, and orator, was still alive. The newspaper’s editor replied that she had been dead for ten years. The living Anna Dickinson filed this clipping away with her other mementos. She so longed to be back in the spotlight that even this brief mention was something to treasure.
Anna Dickinson’s impact on abolition, the women’s rights movement, and the North’s success in the Civil War was forgotten long before her death in 1932. But now is as good a time as any to remember her contributions as an orator, a radical Republican reformer, and the Civil War era’s Joan of Arc.
About the Author: Sara Polsky loves reading and writing and is a self-declared history nut.