By Joseph Duffy
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Aug/Sep/Oct 2004
At 7:30 p.m. on March 24, 1863 a young diminutive woman from Pennsylvania, wearing a plain black silk dress, mounted the platform at Hartford’s stately Touro Hall and took righteous aim at the Democrats with her rich mezzo-soprano voice. She cut a striking figure with her short dark curls, her animated face, and a finely chiseled jaw. Minutes into the address, her crafted sentences grabbed listeners’ imaginations as she described the plight of the nation and the valor of Union soldiers. By the end of the evening she was the toast of the town.
Anna Elizabeth Dickinson visited Connecticut for 12 blustery days in March and April 1863. Barely 20, she had been invited to the state by the Republicans to participate in a hotly contested election for governor. It had never been done in the Yankee “Land of Steady Habits” – a woman summoned to the stump! Dickinson was well-suited for the task. She had always broken rules she thought shackled the human spirit. Here was a chance to strike a blow against slavery, the evil she’d long despised, and quite possibly influence the gubernatorial race.
The ballot-box battle into which Dickinson was drawn pitted incumbent Republican William Buckingham against Mexican War hero and Democrat Thomas H. Seymour. Buckingham was steadfast in his support of Lincoln and the war to end slavery at any cost. But Republicans’ fears that war weariness might aid the Democrats at the polls prompted their hiring of Dickinson to invigorate the campaign.
From early childhood in her native Philadelphia, Dickinson ached to do great deeds like her father, John Dickinson. The Dickinson home was a station on the underground railroad. In a sense John was, himself, a martyr to the cause of abolition: he died of a heart attack after delivering an antislavery speech when Anna was two years old. In her youth Anna scrubbed coal grime from sidewalks for dimes to attend lectures or buy books, which she read past midnight by a coal oil lamp. A steady diet of the Bible, the classics, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History bred in her a sense of destiny. Thus, a father’s mission was reignited in a daughter who never knew him. In discussing her career Anna later declared, “I took the platform because I had something to say… My head and heart, soul and brain, were all on fire with the words I must speak!” To gird her ambition, she embraced the motto, “The world belongs to those who take it!”
Still, Dickinson rode into Hartford’s railroad station on March 24, 1863 with a self-doubt that, despite her many recent speeches that had roused New England audiences, robbed her of both appetite and sleep. New Hampshire crowds had even braved snows and gales to hear her at whistle-stops and halls bedecked with evergreen boughs. Yet, she was always broke, without prospects, and ever anguished about supporting her mother and four hapless siblings. Now she was alone in Hartford, a city convulsed by wartime politics, where, as recounted in the Springfield Republican, “Rally meetings are all the rage… and large gatherings are held every night.”
Her first Hartford day was tiring. Impatiently, she sat for photographs at the Main Street studio of the Wilson brothers. Then her host, Republican state chairman and Travelers Insurance mogul James G. Batterson, accorded her a brusque interview. Filled with misgiving, Batterson was swayed to hire Dickinson by New Hampshire political sage Ben Prescott and a prominent Hartfordite, Mrs. John Olmstead. Dickinson was piqued by the scant amount of newsprint that heralded her arrival. Her name was slotted small, last, and off to the side in the published roster of Republican speakers.
Hartford was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe and kindred women of vision. They did not share the view of men like Rev. Horace Bushnell that feminism was “the reform against nature.” But even Stowe’s spirited half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker harbored doubts about Dickinson. “I shall never forget the dismay at the announcement of her first speech… lest harm should come to the political cause from so much adverse criticism in our conservative and prejudiced city,” she recalled.
Republican alarmists speculated that Buckingham could lose by 10,000 votes. War casualties continued to burn up telegraph lines and even cooler heads like Charles Dudley Warner, editor of the Hartford Evening Press, confided to his friend Joseph Hawley, organizer of a Hartford volunteer regiment and future Connecticut governor and U.S. senator, that the recent pro-Buckingham surge might have come too late to matter. That was before he, Isabella Beecher Hooker, and others heard Dickinson speak.
Dickinson often spoke extemporaneously; she could pace a platform for two hours and use her wide gray eyes to flash out the severity of the national crisis. She admonished her Hartford audience that the war was an Armageddon to decide the fate of civilization, self-government, and human progress itself. As she thundered on for Buckingham’s reelection, news of the dynamic speaker at Touro Hall spread, and people raced over to get a look at her. “Packed as we never saw,” reported Warner, as 1,500 piled into the hall, drawn by what he deemed Dickinson’s “irresistible appeal.” Stowe dubbed her “a natural orator” and Warner had trouble taking notes because Dickinson spoke at such a typhoon speed. “Hartford for once has been astonished,” read Warner’s March 25 editorial in the Press. “If every voter could hear her, there would be no doubt that this woman is sent as from on high to save the state.”
With a single speech, Dickinson won over a Hartford following. Batterson dashed off a telegram to New Hampshire’s Prescott: “She has no equal in Connecticut. People wild with enthusiasm.” Even Rev. Horace Bushnell agreed.
After hearing Dickinson, Isabella Hooker felt instantly born to female activism. Dickinson lodged for the night at Hooker’s Nook Farm home on Forest Street. The two women stayed up until dawn talking “as mother and daughter” about equal rights for women, especially the vote. Though 20 years older than her guest, Hooker gave lasting credit to Dickinson for her awakening: “from this grand soul born to freedom denied all women, I learned to trust.” Calling Dickinson “a new Joan of Arc,” Hooker celebrated the Touro Hall conquest as “a stride, not a mere step to the final victory for the suppressed rights of women.”
The next day at 3 p.m. at Hartford’s Center Church, Dickinson and Hooker got busy organizing the Women’s Loyal League. A monumental coming out for Hooker, she was to found the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Dickinson’s speech startled the Connecticut Democrats into acknowledging her presence. The Hartford Times denounced the fallen fortunes of the Republicans “who actually procure a ‘woman’ for aid.” The New Haven Register exulted, “nothing so popularizes any cause as a petticoat.” Burlesquing Dickinson as “a spirit medium,” The Times attacked her other heresies: “She lectures in favor of women’s rights… She is getting up ‘women’s leagues,’ the principles of which would destroy… society.” Perhaps delighted to be suddenly noticed, Dickinson sassed back, “I wish for once the women of Hartford could vote. The editor of the Times would be nowhere!”
At $100 per speech, Republicans hastily deployed their militant Quaker to key towns. Isabella Hooker now sounded a trumpet for Dickinson that resonated all the way to Washington D.C. To Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, she wrote, “We have been electrified by speeches from Miss Anna Dickinson – the same young lady instrumental in securing the New Hampshire victory.” Hartford’s Joseph Allyn told Glastonbury native and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles how “the little Quakeress is stirring up the popular heart!”
Everywhere Dickinson spoke was a reprise of her Touro Hall triumph. She saved all the news clippings in a scrapbook: “Never was such a large audience seen in New Britain at Center Church”; at Meriden’s town hall “Hundreds unable to get in at all”; “People assembled by the hundreds far and near” at Manchester’s Center Congregational Church; “A solid mass of humanity 1,500 strong” shoved their way into Waterbury’s Hotchkiss Hall. Thus it went in Bristol and Norwalk, too.
Hecklers could not unnerve Dickinson. “You worked for ten cents a day in Europe,” she told Waterbury immigrants. “That’s all we get now!” yelled two Irish laborers. “Then you must work for a Democrat!” she retorted. They did! The crowd burst into laughter. At Middletown’s MacDonough Hall, she faced 2,000 people when pranksters rang fire bells and turned down gas lights. Standing fast in eerie dimness, she warned, “Yes there is a fire! … We have kindled a fire that will never go out till naught is left of their party save ashes!”
Dickinson’s feats earned her the honor of delivering the keynote address at a Republican rally on election eve. Though a heavy cold kept her bedridden all day Saturday April 4, she exercised iron will even before the big speech. Seats were in short supply at Hartford’s Allyn Hall. Three hundred women from outlying towns showed up by special train, despite a party plea for ladies to “cheerfully” stay home and save seats for voters. Dickinson demanded that the women be seated down front and the rally’s organizers quickly bowed to her fiat.
From the Allyn Hall podium, she gazed out at a sea of faces framed by the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the hall. “Whatever the west might do, however much the middle states disgrace themselves,” she intoned, “you will still find New England true to herself. This same New England will grind you to powder!” She berated South Carolina’s “degradation” while extolling “the brain of New England.” Then came the fireball: “The head of the people…requires the reason for war…. The heart of the people questions for the cause of civil war….. The people… with their Constitution – safeguard of liberty – they demand answer! And what answer shall be given? Slavery! Slavery! Proven, we think to be so…. If then slavery is the cause, the originator, the upholder of the rebellion, sweep aside the cause. Strike down the originator. Crush the upholder. Kill slavery!”
Clapping and hurrahs shook the air, and the audience begged Anna for more. From memory, she rendered Longfellow’s 1849 verse, “Sail on, sail on, Oh Ship of State… Sail on, Oh Union strong and great!” Applause was always a tonic for her.
The next day Governor William Buckingham was reelected by a margin of 2,633 votes. It is true that a surge of rising support for Buckingham predated Dickinson’s heroics. Furloughed soldiers and pro-war Democrats were also major factors in the Republican win. But to thoughtful figures like Warner, Hooker, Batterson, Dickinson’s energy had converted their electoral ripple into the final wave of victory. In giddy jubilation, Batterson dashed off a telegram to New York Republicans. “(E)nlist the most eloquent woman of the century in the largest hall you can command.” To a crowd of 5,000 at Manhattan’s Cooper Union Hall, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher would shortly introduce her as “the redeemer of New England.”
Now launched as a luminous political “star” by her Connecticut admirers, Dickinson delivered hundreds of speeches. Before departing Hartford, she was saluted with a band concert, paid $400, and given both a Colt revolver and a gold watch. With Stowe and Hooker, she shared the noble dream that the Civil War would banish the evil trinity of slavery, racism, and anti-feminism.
In 1868, Dickinson wrote What Answer, a compassionate novel on interracial marriage. Hailed by Stowe, the book drew vile criticism, made little money, and vanished from print. The pioneer work was recently republished through the efforts of scholars at Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg College. Dickinson’s career as reformer and agitator also faded after the war. She died on October 22, 1932 in Goshen, New York, where she had been living on charity. She was 6 days shy of turning 90. Once lauded as wielding “the tongue of a dozen women, the boldness of forty men,” she had fallen into history’s dustbin. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Civil War enthusiasts placed a memorial plaque on her grave in Goshen.
What judgement, then, will the future hold for Anna E. Dickinson, who so early on craved “a great name and place in the world” and mobilized language to make a difference during a defining national passage? Revisiting her world is a good beginning. Harriet Beecher Stowe lauded her as “a noble woman pleading the cause of the poorest to the heart and conscience of the American nation on the sin of caste.” In 1895, her friend Susan B. Anthony called Dickinson “the pioneer female speaker who saved the nation in time of peril.” But perhaps Isabella Beecher Hooker knew best Dickinson’s mystic oratorial chemistry. “She like many of us has seen the evil and the remedy so long,” observed Hooker. “She considers her words to be that of the outliner who brings out the startling features… with a few bold touches that are never forgotten, or the poet who stirs your feelings and starts thoughtfulness in the right direction.”
Joseph Duffy of Wethersfield has taught and counseled at Manchester’s East Catholic High School for 37 years. He is the author of Hartford’s Catholic Legacy.