A project that started as a way to better understand the influence of Lincoln’s connections with Washington, D.C., led to a real curiosity about the impact of Ann G. Sprigg on his political life. Most Lincoln readers will recall that Congressman Lincoln lived in Mrs. Sprigg’s boardinghouse on Capitol Hill. But I found evidence to suggest that this woman’s sympathy for the abolitionist movement could have shaped the future president’s views on how he could work with the antislavery activists to accomplish his political goals.
I delivered a paper last week at the 39th Annual Conference of the D.C. Historical Society. The topic was how Lincoln’s connections with the National Capital shaped his ideas, strategies, and motivations for emancipation in 1862. You can review it in the conference archives at www.historydc.org. The thesis is that people and events in the capital helped to drive Lincoln’s emancipation strategy at a faster pace than he would have preferred.
Ann G. Thornton married Benjamin Sprigg in 1818. Benjamin had worked for the House of Representatives until he died in 1833. Mrs. Sprigg opened her first boardinghouse in 1834 and moved to Duff Green’s Row in 1839. The 1820 census had listed Benjamin Sprigg as owning eight slaves. The 1840 census shows that the only black’s living in Ann’s home were free. Once on her own, Ann Sprigg had created an environment that was very comfortable for leaders of the antislavery movement.
Theodore Weld was a founder of the American Antislavery Society who roomed at Sprigg’s in 1842. He wrote to his wife that “we speak on the subject of slavery with entire freedom,” a remarkable fact in a southern town with broad and strong support for slavery. Later, he wrote that the place was known as ‘Abolition House.” He admired that she hired only free blacks or those who were working to buy their freedom. He had come to Washington as the lobbyist for the movement. He had advised antislavery Whigs Ben Wade and Thad Stevens. Weld also counseled Congressman John Quincy Adams during his “gag rule” trial when he disregarded the southern-imposed prohibition against discussing antislavery petitions in Congress.
Eight of Lincoln’s fellow congressman who lived in the Sprigg House were vocal antislavery men. Joshua Giddings was the most radical antislavery member of the House. He represented his Ohio district from 1838 until 1842, when he resigned his seat after the House of Representatives censured him for supporting the slaves who rebelled on the ship Creole. His constituents returned him to the House that same year and he continued to serve until 1859. His Ashtabula County home reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad. During his later years in Congress, Giddings became one of the founders of the Republican Party. When John Quincy Adams died in February 1848, Giddings assumed leadership of the antislavery forces in the House.8
Another boarder at Sprigg’s was John Dickey of PA, who was “a very offensive man in manner and conversation,” who “seemed to take special pleasure in ventilating his opinions and provoking unpleasant discussions.” Rep. James Pollock of PA, wrote that fellow-boarder Lincoln helped to calm such outbursts, that he “never failed to restore harmony & smiles, when the peace of our little community was threatened by a too earnest or heated controversy…” Pollock was elected governor of PA in 1854, as a Know-Nothing. Samuel Busey, a new physician who took his meals at Mrs. Sprigg’s, recalled that Lincoln “would interrupt it (a heated discussion) by interposing some anecdote, thus diverting it into a hearty and general laugh…” Busey wrote that, “Lincoln was so discreet in giving expression to his conviction on slavery as to avoid giving offense to anybody, and was so conciliatory as to create the impression, even among the pro-slavery advocates, that he did not wish to introduce or discuss subjects that would provoke controversy.”9
But Sprigg associated with others who were more active in their reaction to slavery. Former slave, Thomas Smallwood, worked for Mrs. Sprigg while he was active in the Underground Railroad movement from 1842 to 1844. With his wife, Elizabeth, Smallwood helped New Englander Charles T. Torrey to establish that famous escape system in the District that moved an estimated 400 escaped slaves to the north before they themselves were forced to flee to Canada.3 It seemed curious to some that Sprigg was more prone than most employers to have her staff run off. Giddings wrote to his son that “poor Robert, who I believe was here when you visited us has left…and when next heard from was full tilt for Canada.” Another instance was with John Douglas, a slave whom Sprigg had hired as a waiter. He cared for Rep. Gates of New York during an illness. When he revealed his master’s intention to sell him south, Gates referred him to Smallwood and Torrey “who told him how to get off.”
Lincoln was not just consorting with extremists while at Sprigg’s house, he was frequently exposed to the central actors in some of the most sensational slavery disputes in Washington during his term. In January 1848, slave hunters seized a black waiter at Lincoln’s boarding house and, “in the presence of his wife, gagged him, placed him in irons and, with loaded pistols, forced him into one of the slave prisons of Washington. Giddings called for an investigation of the matter and for the repeal of slave trading in the District, a resolution that Lincoln supported.”10
Lincoln was at the Sprigg boardinghouse on April 15, 1848, the night of the “Pearl Incident.” William L. Chaplin, the organizer of the largest slave escape attempt in Washington, was then the leader of the capital’s Underground Railroad. The night before the Pearl sailed with its cargo of 77 lives, Chaplin described the plan to Rep. Giddings. Chaplin would probably have visited Giddings at Mrs. Sprigg’s house and may have even been introduced to Lincoln. When the rescue attempt failed, the Pearl’s owner, Daniel Drayton, and Captain Edward Sayres, were jailed. In the midst of the mob violence that threatened them, and at the risk of his own life, Giddings went to the prison to assure the two that they would have legal counsel. The office of the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, was stoned and the crowd demanded that its editor, Gamaliel Bailey, leave the District. Lincoln’s thoughts are unrecorded, but the incident must certainly have reminded him of the fatal attack in Alton, Illinois, on newspaper man Elijah Lovejoy ten years earlier. In fact, Bailey and his wife Margaret were already friends with Elijah’s brother, a man who Lincoln would one-day call his “closest friend in Congress,” Owen Lovejoy. William Chaplin was never implicated in the “Pearl Incident” and continued his work in Washington of conveying escaped slaves north, until 1850.11
Two of the initiatives that are frequently discussed about Lincoln’s single term in Congress are his abortive effort to introduce legislation to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia, and his position against President Polk’s decision to declare war with Mexico. Both of these initiatives were attempts to “strike a blow” against slavery. Lincoln viewed the war with Mexico as a southern-provoked effort to extend slavery into new territories. Lincoln argued both of these positions in the style consistent with his boarding house dinner conversations, in a mild, discreet manner “to avoid giving offense to anybody,” and not” provoke controversy.” 12 During his time in Washington, Lincoln cultivated friendships on all sides in preparation for a larger role, while declaring his “leaning’ to be the ultimate extinction of slavery by containing it within its current borders. Though devoid of philosophical or oratorical passion, his well-reasoned position would always stay firmly rooted in his interpretation of the Constitution, and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
It could be no coincidence that Mr. Lincoln chose to live under the same roof with known abolitionists. His experience over meals there helped him to learn to work with the passions of the abolitionists without allowing himself to be consumed. It might also suggest that Lincoln had a stronger passion to encourage active steps to undercut the institution of slavery in spite of his intellectual self-control on the issue. Twelve years later Joshua Giddings was quick to acknowledge the genius of Lincoln’s approach. After Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency in Chicago, Giddings wrote that “Lincoln was selected…because his antislavery sentiments had been less prominent (than Seward or Chase),” and therefore more electable.13 Giddings wrote his congratulations to Lincoln and expressed his confidence that “you are the best choice” to lead us to an end of slavery.
In 1860, Wendell Phillips triggered a lively debate by denouncing Lincoln as “the slavehound of Illinois” because his 1849 District emancipation bill included a fugitive slave clause. In a public letter to Phillips, Joshua Giddings defended Lincoln: “his conversing with the people of the District, the preparation of the bill, the avowal of his intention to present it, were important.” Such actions placed him among “those who were laboring in the cause of humanity. He avowed his intention to strike down slavery and the slave trade in the District; to strike from our statute book the act by which freemen were transformed into slaves; to speak, and act, and vote for the right,” and “cast aside the shackles of party, and took his stand upon principle.” Chiding Phillips, Giddings added: “you speak of that act with great severity of condemnation. I view it as one of high moral excellence, marking the heroism of the man. He was the only member among the Whigs (identifying him apart from the few ‘antislavery Whigs’ in Congress) of that session, who broke the silence on the subject of those crimes.” 14
In a letter to Treasury Secretary William P. Fessenden, dated July 21, 1864, President Lincoln recommended Ann Sprigg for a position of clerk of the loan branch. He wrote, “The bearer of this is a most estimable widow lady, at whose house I boarded many years ago when a member of Congress. She now is very needy; & any employment suitable to a lady could not be bestowed on a more worthy person.” 15 Lincoln said no more about his relationship with his landlady or about what influence the abolitionist community she nurtured could have had on his political development. The mutual understanding formed there with Joshua Giddings seems to have been of considerable help to Lincoln’s future success.