New York Avenue Church and Lincoln’s Emancipation Year

July 14, 1862 is a significant date for New York Avenue Presbyterian, the Lincoln family’s church in Washington. One of the Lincoln artifacts that remains on permanent display at the church is a draft of an emancipation bill written by the president himself on that date. The church history committee and the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia commemorated the day this year by sponsoring a conference on President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Decisions. I was on a panel of presenters along with Burrus Carnahan, JD, immediate past-president of the Lincoln Group, and John T. Elliff, Ph.D, a noted Lincoln scholar and lecturer. Over 40 attended and most were eager to participate. Also there in support was Dr. Edna Greene Medford, this year’s recipient of the Lincoln Award and co-author of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views (2006).

The 13 months leading up to January 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, were days of surprise and wonder for both friends and foes of abolition. Lincoln’s decisions and behaviors seemed often to be contradictory to his privately announced intentions. Lincoln had confided in Senator Charles Sumner (MA) in December 1861 and again just before July 4, 1862, that he was going to take a dramatic step against slavery. But after continuing to propose compensated emancipation to the Border States, and over-ruling emancipation declarations by military commanders in the field, the president truly shocked his cabinet members, Welles and Seward, with what he told them while riding to the funeral of Edwin M.Stanton’s infant son on July 13, 1862. That was when Lincoln first said that he was preparing “a military proclamation freeing Rebel-owned slaves.” Nine days later he read to his cabinet the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That brings us to the July 14, 1862 document. The church that the Lincolns had attended was rebuilt in 1950. At the dedication, Paramount Pictures president, Barney Balaban, gave the church a Lincoln document that he had recently acquired from a private collector. Though he was Jewish, Balaban felt that Lincoln’s church was the most fitting place to house this treasure. He gave it as a tribute to his immigrant parents for their sacrifice that made his success possible. The document is a draft of a compensated emancipation bill that was read in the House two days later, but wasn’t passed. This could certainly have reinforced his intent to press for the Emancipation Proclamation. The document had for 60 years been in the possession of the family of a War Department custodian who had saved it from the incinerator. It is now on permanent display in the Lincoln Parlor at the church.

This is the neighborhood of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York Ave. at H Street. The Treasury Department and the White House are at lower left. Church is indicated by center right arrow. Pastor Gurley’s House, 390 I Street, near 12th, is shown by upper right arrow. Other churches visited by Lincoln are: St. John’s Episcopal, at left above Lafayette Square; Foundry Methodist, lower center; and Church of the Epiphany, lower right.

According to Mary Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley (Six Months in the White House; J Ill State Hist. Soc., 1927), “Our first Sunday in the White House (March 10, 1861), we all went to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Phineas D. Gurley’s, which had been decided upon as the church home ever after…” The “family” then included not only the president, his wife and three sons, and Mrs. Grimsley, but also Mrs. Elizabeth (Todd) Edwards, Mrs. Margaret (Todd) Kellogg, niece Elizabeth Edwards, Capt. Lockwood Todd, Nicolay and Hay, and Col. Ward Hill Lamon.