A Westtown School Alum’s Radical Curse
Until her fame faded, Anna Dickinson was celebrated for extremist views.
Political activism can bring attention, but it’s no life plan. Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on the bus, then lost her job and had to leave town to find work. Abbie Hoffman may have been a star at Vietnam War protest rallies, but he spent the end of his life protesting a water-pumping station.
Along those lines, former Westtown School student Anna Dickinson rose to prominence in 1860 after speaking to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Her remarks launched a 60-year career that was brightest in its first decade, then faded away. “The last 40 years of Anna Dickinson’s life were spent in quiet obscurity,” observed historian James Harvey Young. “Old age brought some tranquility as she pored over her clippings, letters and memorabilia and wrote plays which remained unpublished and unread.”
Born to Quaker parents in Philadelphia, Dickinson was the daughter of an abolitionist dry-goods merchant who died of a heart attack while delivering an antislavery speech when his daughter was 2.
The death of its male breadwinner left the Dickinsons in lean circumstances. Mary Edmundson Dickinson took in boarders, ran a small school in her home and, according to biographer J. Matthew Gallman, occasionally received charity from fellow Quakers. Still, the house was filled with books and newspapers, as well as Quakers and radicals with whom the Dickinsons discussed and debated issues of the day.
The precocious Dickinson was taught at home, until a Quaker trust made it possible for her to attend Friends Select School and Westtown. When she was 15, the money dried up, and she went to work—first as a lawyer’s copyist, next as a school teacher in Beaver County, and then as a salesgirl.
In 1861, Dickinson joined the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia as an adjuster. Her task was to check that coin blanks were neither too light nor too heavy. The tedious work had originally been performed by men, until officials learned that men made more errors, and women would work for half as much.
Dickinson made her first step into the public arena at age 13. After reading a newspaper story about a Kentucky schoolteacher who had been tarred and feathered for publishing an antislavery letter, she wrote her own to The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, published in Boston. “It is an established truth,” she declared, “that where the press is free, the people are free, and that, where freedom of the press is not known, the people are the slaves of despotism.”
It was, wrote Gallman, “not the sort of moral suasion that characterized much abolitionist rhetoric”—especially from women, who tended to focus on slavery’s threat to black women’s purity and ability to care for their families. Dickinson’s constitutional argument centering on freedom of the press was unusual, particularly from someone so young.
Her first taste of public speaking came in 1860. One Saturday, she came across a newspaper ad for a public debate on “Woman’s Rights and Wrongs” at Clarkson Hall, a school for black children. There she was, expecting only to listen when a man she described as “bristling (and) dictatorial” denounced the notion that women could be anything but wives and mothers. Dickinson recalled leaping to her feet, furious, and shaking her “slim finger in his face” while declaring, “In Heaven’s name, sir, what else is to be expected from such a father?”
She continued until the man fled the building. “The audience’s response must have been electric or, at the very least, startled,” wrote Gallman. “No one expected such strong remarks from a diminutive young woman.” She was only 17.
Dickinson liked the adrenaline rush—and the praise that came with it from local activists like Hannah Longshore and Lucretia Mott. She began attending other events, dropping brief remarks and developing a reputation. In October 1860, Dickinson accepted an invitation to the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where she was seated on the platform among the likes of Mott and Robert Purvis, a prominent black Philadelphia abolitionist.
Among activists, attention often goes to the most radical, and Dickinson fit the bill. While others adopted a moderate position, arguing that the Constitution did not sanction slavery, Dickinson responded that it almost did. “Even if the word slave is not in the Constitution,” she said, “the idea is,” in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act.
“However erratic, enthusiastic or impractical her sentiments, they were remarked with the closest attention,” wrote a reporter.
These appearances occurred in the heyday of America’s “lyceum” movement, when traveling lecturers, entertainers and others appeared at local venues with the ostensible purpose of improving the country’s social, intellectual and moral fabric, creating a ready market for interesting speakers.
In 1861, Dickinson spoke to a packed house at Philadelphia’s Concert Hall, where she was introduced by Mott. The following year, she lectured at Boston’s Music Hall during an event arranged by Garrison, then elsewhere in New England. Crowds turned out both for the novelty of hearing a girl orator and, in that cradle of abolitionism, to applaud her emotional appeal that the Civil War be turned into an emancipationist crusade.
Sex appeal was also a component of her success. Fellow activist Frances Willard remarked on Dickinson’s beauty: “Her gray eyes … dark, curly hair flung back from her handsome brow.” Dickinson herself pushed back at this, declaring that admirers did women “no favor” by praising their appearance while limiting their rights. Still, as men were marching off to battle, Dickinson helped rouse the passion that girded them.
In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Dickinson shared a platform with Frederick Douglass to encourage African-American men to enlist in Union regiments. “You hold the hammer which, upheld or falling, decides your destiny,” she declared. “You have not homes! Gain them. You have not liberty! Gain it. You have not a flag! Gain it. You have not a country! Be written down in history as the race who made one for themselves, and saved one for another.”
The 8th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, fought in the Appomattox Campaign and was present at Gen. Lee’s surrender. “Not for her was the gentle remonstrance or ladylike demeanor,” wrote historian Janet Coryell. “She opened with both barrels and spoke so quickly that if her logic did not convince listeners, her ferocity might.”
According to Gallman, Dickinson regularly talked for two hours, without notes and while pacing the platform. She was also a fierce critic of Abraham Lincoln, finding his policies regarding slavery too moderate. In a personal interview with the president in 1864, she brushed aside one of Lincoln’s famous stories: “I didn’t come to hear stories. I can read better ones in the papers any day than you can tell me.”
J. Miller McKim, another abolitionist who was also present, called her behavior “inexcusable.”
On the stump, Dickinson “was at her best when on the attack, exchanging barbs with hecklers, belittling Copperhead editors or charging adversaries with treason,” wrote Gallman.
Early in the war, Union Gen. George McClellan (a Democrat) earned Dickinson’s wrath after losing the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, mostly due to poor planning. A sitting U.S. senator (a Republican) and more than 200 U.S. troops died, and a suspicious Congress reacted by establishing a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. “Future history will show that this battle was not lost through ignorance or incompetence, but through the treason of the commanding general,” declared Dickinson.
That outburst cost Dickinson her job at the Mint. By then, the small speaking fees had grown, and Dickinson found that she could earn enough on the stump to support not only herself but also her widowed mother and siblings. At one point, Dickinson was reported to earn as much as $20,000 a year. In her obituary, the Philadelphia Bulletin wrote that she had made more than $250,000 in her public-speaking career.
Then, it slowly ended. Determined to remain in the public eye, Dickinson continued on the speaking circuit throughout the Reconstruction years. Like Radical Republicans in Congress, she assailed democratic President Andrew Johnson over his leniency toward defeated Confederates. Rebels like Robert E. Lee—“the leading spirit of the rebellion,” she said—should be severely punished.
It was music to the ears of radicals, who had hoped that victory would yield more substantial progress on the issues that had led to war. But most Americans grew tired of this conversation.
Dickinson published a novel about interracial marriage and a book about her experiences on the lecture circuit. She wrote four plays and, in the 1880s, attempted the title role in a cross-dressing production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After brutal reviews, the play closed in a week.
In the 1890s, when her income drastically reduced, Dickinson became erratic. She stayed in her room, drank and, according to acquaintances, spoke wildly of Republican conspiracies against her. In 1891, her older sister had her committed.
Dickinson eventually won her freedom. But the “Anna Dickinson Insane” headlines made her an object of pity, then obscurity, joining some of the radicals before and after her.