Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center


On Friday, June 6, the Delaware Humanities Forum sponsored a performance by young playwright Colin Adams-Toomey, Better Angels: the Nation’s Wounds.  Staged at the Delaware Theater Company, this ambitious play celebrates the efforts and the achievements of  Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Garrett.  One of its many scenes portrays the meeting between Lincoln and Garrett that took place in June, 1862.  The meeting, which involved six Quakers from the Longwood Progressive Meeting, is simplified in the play; Lincoln meets only with Garrett and his wife Rachel (who was not actually there).

Adams-Toomey’s play deals with some of the same events and issues shown in the recent movie, Lincoln.  That movie, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, emphasizes Lincoln’s pragmatism, political skill, and ambiguous attitudes toward emancipation, attitudes that made abolitionists uneasy about him during his Presidency.  Lincoln, in a famous letter, declared, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”  Such willingness to compromise set him apart from most abolitionists, and many had genuine reservations about Lincoln.  Those misgivings largely disappeared after the Emancipation Proclamation, the passing of the Thirteen Amendment (banning slavery in America), the Confederacy’s defeat, and Lincoln’s assassination.  Lincoln was then seen as a martyr, like John Brown.  In reality, Lincoln and Brown could scarcely have been more different.  As shown in Goodwin’s biography, Lincoln was shrewdly practical in his idealism.

The attitude toward Lincoln of Harriet Tubman, the famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, was typical of those of many abolitionists.  In her biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land (Random House, 2004), author Kate Larson cites a meeting between Tubman and Sojourner Truth, the famous orator and advocate for freedom and equality of not only African-Americans but also women.  During that summer meeting in1864, Truth spoke positively of Lincoln.

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Tubman, a great admirer of John Brown, was unhappy with Lincoln. Tubman knew that “colored” Union soldiers were getting less than half the pay of white soldiers.  She herself did great service for the Union as a cook and nurse; she even lead military operations in South Carolina.  However, she was only meagerly rewarded.  Sojourner Truth later met with Lincoln at the White House, one of the first African-Americans ever invited there.  When Tubman heard that “Lincoln had been kind to Truth,” and that he “had done nothing for himself; he was only a servant of the country,” Tubman changed her mind.  “I’se sorry now I didn’t see Master Lincoln and thank him,” Tubman said later in life. (pp. 226-227).  

That seems right. Tubman, like Garrett and Lincoln, was practical in her idealism.  They didn’t just talk.  They freed slaves.

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