Lincoln Did Not “Free the Slaves” – The Little-known Story of How Feminists Ended Slavery


By Dr. Robert Brannon

It is widely believed that human slavery was ended in the United States by Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’. This is not true. Human slavery was ended in America primarily by a grass-roots petition campaign led by radical feminists – in particular, by Susan Anthony and her close friend Elizabeth Stanton.

Both women had been ardent and life-long Abolitionists. Susan B. Anthony had worked, since the age of 36, for the radical American Anti-Slavery Society, whose abiding principle was, “No Compromise With Slavery.” Its fiery leader William Garrison had even publicly burned a copy of the US Constitution, which accepted and endorsed slavery. They were seen as far too extreme and radical in opposing slavery by most of the white Northern public.

In the first months after Abraham Lincoln’s election as President, before the Southern states had seceded, the government appeared to be taking no steps to end slavery. On the contrary, there was much talk of possible compromise, to maintain peace with the South. A group of Abolitionists, including Susan Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, went on a tour of New York State, speaking on “No Compromise with Slave holders,” and, “Immediate and Unconditional Emancipation.” They got what they later called the roughest treatment of their lives from white racist mobs, which assailed them in every city in New York between Buffalo and Albany. In Syracuse, their speech was invaded by a crowd of pro-slavery men, waving guns and knives. The Syracuse police refused to restrain the rowdy invaders, but instead escorted the Abolitionists from the stage. Susan Anthony alone refused to leave the stage; she stood dignified and defiant, as the jeering racist mob surrounded her.

Two years later, In January of 1863, Lincoln finally made his long-awaited ‘Emancipation Proclamation.’ It was quickly perceived by the Abolitionists as… a sell-out. The document was a bitter disappointment to those who had fought for so long to end human slavery. It did ostensibly abolish slavery, but only in the rebellious Confederate states, which would, of course, ignore it. But at the same time, it allowed slavery to remain, now legally affirmed and protected, in the four loyal states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Thousands of African-Americans in those states would remain in bondage, in a slavery now newly endorsed and backed by the U.S. government.

In addition, the war against the South was going very badly. There had been a string of Confederate victories on the battlefield, and it seemed to most of the public that the slave-holding South was about to win its battle to secede. In that event, no slaves at all would be freed. The losing war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the North, and resentment was directed against the abolitionists, and even against blacks. In the horrific anti-draft riots in New York City, in early 1863, anti-war sentiment turned into mob violence against blacks. Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, had introduced a Amendment to the Constitution that would ban slavery everywhere in the United States forever. However, in the gloomy, war-divided climate in Washington, it had little public support, and seemed unlikely to get the two thirds majorities needed in each house.

At this bleak moment in the struggle for freedom, Susan B. Anthony traveled to New York City, to talk with her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There had been no Women’s Suffrage Conventions for the past two years, because of the War. The Women’s Rights and Suffrage movement was in recess, in total suspension. Now the two old friends and allies decided that what was needed was a new women’s organization, which would rally public support for the war, and turn the war into a moral crusade against slavery. The organization’s central project would be to collect signatures throughout the country, on petitions demanding a Constitutional Amendment to end slavery forever.

Stanton and Anthony consulted with other Abolition leaders, and then sent out a call to women across the U.S. whom they had met as workers for abolition, women’s suffrage, or both. The letter invited them to a meeting of “The Loyal Women of the Nation,” – a carefully-chosen title – in New York City, on May 14, 1863. Ten days before the meeting the gloom thickened, as the Confederate army won another huge victory on the battlefield, at Chancellorsville. On May 14, hundreds of women poured into the meeting, at a church in Union Square. They came from a broad political spectrum, and there were many traditional women who came only to support the government, or their relatives in the Army, and wanted no part of abolition, or of suffrage.

But the national leaders of the First Wave feminist movement were present in numbers, and were working smoothly in unison. Chairing the meeting was the poised and eloquent Lucy Stone. Speaking from the floor was the impassioned Ernestine Rose, born an orthodox Rabbi’s daughter in Poland, who had refused an arranged marriage at 16 and won her freedom in court, and had been working for women’s rights in America for the past 28 years. And also on hand was Angelina Grimke Weld, now an elderly woman, still dazzlingly eloquent, who with her sister Sarah Grimke had worked against slavery since 1836, and had published the first written feminist analysis in America 26 years earlier, in 1837.

Swayed by the passionate words of the feminist leaders, the meeting voted to form a “National Woman’s Loyal League,” to support the war as long – as its main purpose was to free the slaves – and to collect signatures nation wide in support of the Constitutional Amendment ending slavery. A motion by Susan Anthony, that “the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent, and all women” be protected, was adopted after much discussion. Elizabeth Stanton was elected President of the new group, and Susan B. Anthony the Secretary, with a salary of $12 a week, and a tiny office in Coopers Union in New York.

For the next fifteen months, Susan Anthony boarded with Elizabeth Stanton in New York, and the two women and dozens of others worked tirelessly for the anti-slavery amendment. Miss Anthony spent 10 cents a day on her lunch, and frequently walked long distances on foot. Mrs. Stanton enlisted local children, including her sons, to collect signatures. Streams of letters went across the country; more than 2,000 women, men, and children helped to gather signatures. Everyone who signed was asked to contribute one penny to help pay expenses; this appeal raised some $3000, and Susan Anthony raised the rest that was needed herself from lectures and contributions.

By August of 1864, the Women’s Loyal League had over 5000 members nationwide, and had collected 400,000 signatures on the petition for banning slavery. The petitions were delivered to Senator Sumner, who presented them to the U.S. Congress, in a huge stack of scrolls carried by two African-American men, with a long speech and much fanfare. Sumner read out the huge numbers of names the women had collected from New York, from Illinois, from Massachusetts, from across the land… “a mighty army, the advance guard of a yet larger army.” With this impressive expression of public support for the Amendment, it was passed by both houses, and became the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, in December, 1865. Human slavery had finally ended in the United States.

It is ironic that Abraham Lincoln, who could have ended all slavery in America, but chose not to, has been recorded by history as “The Great Emancipator,” while the heroic contributions of Susan Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, and the many women who worked with them from 1863 to 1864 to finally end slavery, have been largely lost from our collective memory. But the historical record shows that it was the ephemeral “National Woman’s Loyal League” – (a feminist front-group, if there ever was one) – that provided the leadership and the leg-work that passed the thirteenth Amendment, and ended slavery in the United States.


Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. (1968) Atheneum: New York. Pp. 108-111.

Miriam Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls: The birth of the Women’s Rights Movement. (1974). Schocken Books: New York. Pp. 197; 210-212.

– Dr. Robert Brannon is a Social Psychologist and Gender Studies professor at Brooklyn College, and founding member of NOMAS and the Men’s Studies Association.