A Visit to President Lincoln

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Chris Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.10.56 PMWe would like to tell you about a little-known bit of history: how Longwood Meeting may have influenced Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Not many people know about the visit of some Longwood Progressive Friends to President Lincoln. In June 1862, when the country had been at war for a little over a year, Longwood sent six delegates to Washington to present what they called a Memorial–really a petition–to the president. The six were Thomas Garrett, Alice Eliza Hambleton, Dinah Mendenhall, Oliver Johnson, Eliza Agnew, and William Barnard.

The Longwood Friends said they saw the evils of the war as “vials of Divine retribution which are now poured out upon the whole land, for its grievous and unrelenting oppression of a guiltless and inoffensive race.”  They urged Lincoln to abolish slavery without delay.  Here is the substance of their Memorial.

The Religious Society of Progressive Friends beg leave, respectfully but earnestly, to set forth for the consideration of President Lincoln– That they fully share in the general grief felt at the course pursued in opposition to the General Government by the so-called “Confederate States.”

That this sanguinary rebellion finds its cause, purpose, and combustible materials in that most unchristian and barbarous system of slavery and in the guilt of which the whole land has long been deeply involved by general complicity.

That thus heavily visited for its grinding oppression of an unfortunate race, whose wrongs have so long cried unto Heaven for redress, and thus solemnly warned of the exceeding wickedness of endeavoring to secure peace, prosperity, and unity, while leaving millions to clank their chains in the house of bondage, the nation should lose no time in proclaiming immediate emancipation, so the present frightful effusion of blood may cease.

That in his speech delivered at Springfield, the President declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”

That this Society urgently unites with a constantly increasing sentiment in beseeching the President not to allow the present golden opportunity to pass without decreeing the entire abolition of slavery throughout the land, as a measure demanded by a due regard for the unity of the country and by every consideration of justice, mercy, and peace.


President Lincoln, ever the consummate politician, said he couldn’t comment because he hadn’t had a copy of the Memorial to read in advance.

He said, though, “It’s a relief that the deputation are not applicants for office, for my chief trouble comes from that class of persons. And the next most troublesome subject is slavery.” He wondered if a proclamation of freedom would be effective, since the Constitution couldn’t be enforced in the South while the war was going on.

Oliver Johnson (pictured below) answered, “We are solemnly convinced that the abolition of slavery is indispensable to your success.”

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Another delegate, William Barnard, was a third cousin once removed of the President, though probably neither of them was aware of this kinship. William Barnard brought up the story from the Bible, of Mordecai’s appeal to Queen Esther, and urged the President to use his power, as Esther had, to save the country.

The President said, “I’ve sometimes thought that perhaps I might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work, and I’m certainly not unwilling to be. Perhaps, however, God’s way of accomplishing the end you have in view may be different from yours. It is my earnest endeavor, seeking light from above, to do my duty in the place to which I have been called.”

The group left, gratified by the way the President had received them. Later a congressman said that, if many churches of the country would only follow the example of the Progressive Friends, the President and Congress would have to strike for the overthrow of slavery as the only way to put down the rebellion.

Just a month later President Lincoln presented a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the full cabinet. Some members objected, so he shelved it, but his mind was made up. In September 1862 he issued the Proclamation, which was to take effect January 1, 1863.

William Lloyd Garrison, who had been extremely critical of Lincoln, hailed the proclamation as “a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficent in its far-reaching consequences.”