When Sir Leslie Stephen Met Abraham Lincoln

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In 1863, Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, embarked on his first trip to America hoping to learn more about the ongoing Civil War.

It was on this trip, during a stay at Washington D.C., that Stephen met President Abraham Lincoln, as well as several prominent members of his staff.

Stephen’s motivation for the trip was due to the fact that although England refused to intervene in the war, many British citizens blindly supported the Confederate cause, which infuriated Stephen, according to the book In The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen:

“It must suffice that he [Stephen] became a vehement champion of the North at a time when among the richer classes in England there was, to say the least, much sympathy with the South. He afterwords explained in an American paper that there had been no love of slavery in England, but there had been an intense dread of democracy, and a strong wish to see the failure of the great democratic experiment.”

Leslie Stephen photographed by Camille Silvy circa 1860

Leslie Stephen photographed by Camille Silvy circa 1860

During his trip to the United States in the summer of 1863, Stephen first stopped at Boston where he met many abolitionists, writers and Union supporters such as Massachusetts writers James Russell Lowell (whom he developed a lifelong friendship with), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, as he wrote in a letter to his mother on July 21:

“As to the Cambridge people, including Lowell, Holmes, Dana and others, they are really very pleasant, well educated men, like the best class of our Cambridge men…Lowell, as you might expect from the ‘Bigelow papers,’ is something more. He really is one of the pleasantest men I ever met. He asked me to stay over Sunday with him, and we got so very thick together that I did not leave him until this morning after two most pleasant days…On another occasion I was introduced to the two abolitionist leaders, Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Garrison was dragged by a rope through the streets of Boston twenty years ago and was only saved by the police with great difficulty. It is impossible not to feel some respect for a man who has been dragged through the streets by a rope.”

After Stephen’s initial stay in Boston he traveled widely throughout America, stopping in Rhode Island, New York, Chicago, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania before arriving in Washington D.C. where, thanks to a letter of introduction from British Statesman John Bright to the U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, Stephen met Abraham Lincoln at the White House, as he later described in a letter to his mother:

“The letter which Fawcett got me from Bright to Seward proved very useful. It brought Seward down completely. Bright’s name is (as Fawcett may tell him) a complete tower of strength in these parts. They all talked of him with extraordinary admiration, and I was obliged to conceal the very distant nature of my relations to him by ingenious prevarication…Thanks to the information received from Fawcett, I managed to fence all inquires pretty well. Seward was civil and took me in the morning to the President’s house, where I sat with old Abe and others for half an hour or so till all the Cabinet were assembled and ready for business.
Seward did not, however, impress me favourably. He is a little, rather insignificant-looking man, with a tendency to tell rather long-winded and rather pointless stories and to make these would-be profoundly philosophical observations about the manifest destiny and characteristics of the American people, of which Americans have got a string ready for use on all occasions, and all of which I know by heart. He rather amused me by the coolness with which he talked about government affairs to me as a total stranger. Within five minutes after he saw me he said that if England permitted the rebel rams to start, they would declare war – a proposition which, as I told you before, I think not likely…
I had, as I say, the honour of shaking hands with old Abe. I did not talk to him much, because he was rather awkward, and I am, as you know, rather modest. In appearance he is much better than I expected. He is more like a gentleman to look at then I should give him credit for from his pictures, and, though tall and bony, has not that clumsy elephantine look the [characterisers?], such as E[dwards] D[icey] in this case, attribute to him. He has a particularly pleasant smile, a very jolly laugh, and altogether looks like a benevolent and hearty old gentleman. I felt quite kindly to him…”

After his stay in Washington D.C., Stephen later returned to Massachusetts to visit Lowell again and met Ralph Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

A few years after his return home, outraged over the London newspapers slanted coverage of the American Civil War, Stephen wrote a pamphlet, titled “The ‘Times’ on the American War,” which blasted the London Times and the British public’s support for the Confederacy:

“In our ignorance of the cause of some great foreign convulsion, we judge it partly by the way in which it affects our interest, and partly in accordance with certain traditional prejudices. There must be something radically wrong in a war which affects our supplies of cotton; and we cannot credit with any heroic virtues, a race which chews tobacco and wears bowie knives. Judgments really determined by shallow prejudices can only be supported by constant perversion of the facts. Ignorant people, even though they affect to be infallible, can prevent facts with genuine unconsciousness.”

Although Virginia Woolf was born almost 20 years after her father’s American adventure, and she does not mention it in any of her diaries or letters, there is no doubt that she was familiar with the story and her father’s writings on the subject.

Leslie Stephen photographed by Camille Silvy circa 1860

Leslie Stephen photographed by Camille Silvy circa 1860

Stephen’s trip to America, and the men he met there, clearly influenced Virginia later on in life since she inherited her father’s admiration of Lowell, who Stephen appointed as her godfather, as well as her father’s love of American writers.

“The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen”; Frederic William Maitland; 1906
“English Public Opinion and the American Civil War”; Duncan Andrew Campbell; 2003
The Dublin Review: Virginia Woolf’s America: http://thedublinreview.com/virginia-woolf%E2%80%99s-america/
“The ‘Times’ on the American War”; Leslie Stephen; 1865: http://www.scribd.com/doc/31236024/London-Times-on-the-US-Civil-War

When Sir Leslie Stephen Met Abraham Lincoln

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rebecca graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Journalism in 2001.