On June 27, 1923, Jane Addams had a mastectomy, and the world held its breath. She was the most beloved woman in the United States and was respected worldwide for her reform work and efforts for international peace. News about this serious threat to her health spread rapidly in newspapers across the globe, and telegrams and letters filled with get-well wishes poured into Tokyo, where she and her partner Mary Smith had been traveling when the tumor in her right breast was discovered.
Newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane published a syndicated article on the day of her surgery, closing with: “If pure goodness, unselfishness and devotion count in Heaven as we believe they will do, Jane Addams will have a seat in front of Washington, Jefferson and many others, and very likely next to Lincoln.”
Addams’s recovery was painful and long, but the tumor was benign and she would live another twelve years, publish three more books, preside over two more international women’s congresses, and win the Nobel Peace Prize. However, already in 1923 the historical significance of Jane Addams was under consideration. Her name could sit comfortably in a sentence with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And she was on the level with Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln and Jane Addams were worlds apart. He a man of the nineteenth century. She a woman of the twentieth. Yet their stories are connected. Their lives overlapping, their experiences across 126 years of American history were lived in the midst of revolutionary political, social, and economic change, his old-world nineteenth-century contexts evolving into her modern twentieth-century contexts. Both Lincoln and Addams were inspired by books and craved knowledge. Each of them had compassionate hearts and carried the weight of their country’s problems upon their shoulders. Both were shaped by historical events while at the same time making history by their own determined actions.
In accepting an invitation to speak on the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909, Addams wrote: “I have always been a Lincoln enthusiast.” Classic Jane Addams understatement. Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, a figure who rooted her, who guided her work to define her place and her purpose. She drew inspiration from Lincoln’s life for the entirety of her own. She was born in Illinois exactly one month before Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Her father John Addams knew Lincoln well and supported his candidacy. One of Jane Addams’s earliest childhood memories was of the gate in front of her home in Cedarville draped in black crepe and her father weeping over President Lincoln’s death. So important the spirit of Lincoln in her life and her chosen path of social settlement work that in her autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House she included a entire chapter entitled “The Influence of Lincoln,” in which she wrote:
Is it not Abraham Lincoln who has cleared the title to our democracy? He made plain, once for all, that democratic government, associated as it is with all the mistakes and shortcomings of the common people, still remains the most valuable contribution America has made to the moral life of the world.
In her reform work, Jane Addams connected democracy to human progress. Like Lincoln, she understood that the betterment of society meant the expansion of democratic institutions and the full inclusion of a growing number of the nation’s citizenry. She believed that equality was the answer to modern society’s most pressing problems. She saw her settlement work and efforts for social justice as an extension of the ideals Abraham Lincoln articulated.
Let [the law] become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.—Abraham Lincoln, Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum Address, Jan. 27, 1838.
That the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom.—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863.
With malice toward none and charity for all.—Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1865.
Addams studied Lincoln, drew inspiration from his words, expanding their purpose to meet the challenges of her rapidly changing world. She applied the underlying ideals of democracy Lincoln articulated into her philosophy of social ethics to include women and immigrants. She developed those ideals into her own creative and ambitious brand of humanitarianism.
Perhaps it is woman who can best testify that the honor of women is only secure in those nations and those localities where law and order and justice prevail.—Jane Addams, “Respect for Law,” The Independent, Jan. 3, 1901.
Most immigrants have come to America because they wanted more opportunity for themselves and their children; because they believed that this was a land of freedom and equality. It is a grave matter to [willfully] destroy the ideal with which they came to us…—Jane Addams, “The Immigrant and Social Unrest,” speech in New Orleans, Apr. 19, 1920.
Our various charitable and benevolent societies and institutions, our laws for the preservation of life and health, all work to teach us the value of human life, and when this new, this broader humanitarianism, is spread worldwide, war will be a moral impossibility.—Jane Addams, “Newer Ideals of Peace,” syndicated newspaper article, Spring 1904.
Some of the activities in which Jane Addams participated were directly related to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. After the devastating race riot in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Addams was the following year one of the signers of the Lincoln Birthday Call for racial equality that established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At Hull-House, there was an Abraham Lincoln Club and a large mural of Lincoln painted on the wall of the settlement’s theater. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Addams published a scathing critique of America’s failure to live up to the promise of racial equality. And in 1920, Lincoln Memorial University, charted as a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, conferred on Addams an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Over the years, Addams quoted Lincoln and connected his political positions to her reform ideas. She spoke at numerous Lincoln birthday events and put on some of her own, inviting W. E. B. Du Bois to deliver a lecture about Lincoln at Hull-House in Feb. 1907. She frequently evoked Lincoln’s legacy, like she did in 1921 in her remarks at the dedication of the woman suffrage statue of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. The suffrage statue had been placed in the U.S. Capitol next to the one of Abraham Lincoln, which had been sculpted by a woman, the artist Vinnie Ream. Addams could not resist drawing a direct line to history: “It is fitting that they should stand next to the great emancipator of another group, who has also long since transcended national boundaries,” she said.
Most of the time, however, I think that Abraham Lincoln was in the background, quietly reinforcing all that Jane Addams knew was honest and right. Her interpretation of the past, her work for a better present, and her aspirations for a brighter future world were all her own. Knowing history gave Addams confidence in her own convictions. Whether she was arguing for child labor laws, better working conditions for women, justice for immigrants or Black Americans, freedom of speech, world peace, or woman suffrage, her perspective and her ideas for improving the lives of America’s most vulnerable citizens were always rooted in a long view of history. Jane Addams was a woman who understood the past, but she was a woman who faced forward, pressing toward the future.
Yet during times when the weight of the world was too heavy, she was not afraid to draw inspiration from her idols. When she doubted herself and felt helpless to answer the big human troubles right in front of her, she glanced back over her shoulder, to Abraham Lincoln. She did just that in the violent summer of 1894, when the Pullman Strike was tearing Chicago apart. In her autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House she wrote:
I recall during a time of great perplexity in the summer of 1894, when Chicago was filled with Federal troops sent there by the President of the United States, and their presence was resented by the governor of the state, that I walked the wearisome way from Hull-House to Lincoln Park—for no cars were running regularly at that moment of sympathetic strikes—in order to look at and gain magnanimous counsel, if I might, from the marvelous St. Gaudens statue which had been but recently placed at the entrance of the park. Some of Lincoln’s immortal words were cut into the stone at his feet, and never did a distracted town more sorely need the healing of “with charity [for] all” than did Chicago at that moment, and the tolerance of the man who had won charity for those on both sides of “an irrepressible conflict.”
It is a romantic reflection, I know. But there is profound truth in it, too. I often visit the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to find my own magnanimous council in an effort to soothe my sorrows or to silence my doubts. Like Addams, I have also experienced the solace of a quiet visit with Mr. Lincoln in the form of that magnificent statute in Lincoln Park to which Jane Addams was drawn 129 years ago. There is a magic in communing with our admired spirits of the dead. Thinking about Jane Addams making that four-mile, sultry-summer walk from Hull-House connects me to her and to Lincoln in a very human way that anchors my own study of the past. I can imagine Addams making that journey, walking at an ambling pace, her mind thinking about and her heart breaking over the striking workers and their families, the people feeling most keenly the unrest and uncertainty in Chicago. Perhaps she walked north most of the way up Halsted Street, through immigrant neighborhoods and by tenements and storefronts and quiet streetcar platforms, all the way to North Avenue, before turning right, eastward toward Lake Michigan. Arriving then at the extreme southwest corner of Lincoln Park, she made her way into the urban oasis of green space and to the twelve-foot bronze statute. It was a purposeful, meditative walk back to the past to clear the cobwebs of the present.
The threads of history are ties that bind us across the generations, and the best leaders view history as a teacher, making meaning from the past and drawing inspiration from the human beings who went before us. It is a pleasing harmony to me the spirit songs of Abraham Lincoln and Jane Addams, linked to each other, and it is my honor and privilege as a historian to have studied them both.
By Stacy Lynn
Other Sources: Louise Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 357-58; Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 52-56; Allen F. Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 162-65 The Selected Papers of Jane Addams, 1:3-4; Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:112, 7:18, 8:333; Lincoln Memorial University, Honorary Doctor of Laws, May 1920, Jane Addams Papers Microfilm, 45:863; Documents in Jane Addams Digital Edition: Respect for Law, Jan. 3, 1901; Newer Ideals of Peace, Feb. 19, 1904; Jane Addams to W. E. B. Du Bois, Jan. 26, 1907; Hull-House Year Book 1906-1907; Jane Addams to Joseph A. Bache, January 9, 1909; Address at Abraham Lincoln Center, Feb. 9, 1909; Call for a Lincoln Conference on the Negro Question, Feb. 13, 1909; Autobiographical Notes upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: A War Time Childhood, Apr. 1910; Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference, Feb. 1, 1913; The Immigrant and Social Unrest, Apr. 19, 1920; Jane Addams to William Edward Dodd, May 12, 1920; Address at the Presentation Ceremony of the Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, Feb. 15, 1921; Mary Rozet Smith to Esther Linn Hulbert, June 2-27, 1923; Heaven Wide Open, June 27, 1923. Image of the Lincoln statue in Lincoln Park, courtesy of Ron Schramm, Lincoln in Illinois (Springfield, IL: Abraham Lincoln Assoc., 2009), 3.
Speakers at the dedication of the suffrage statue in the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 15, 1920: Speaker of the House Frederick H. Gillett, Jane Addams, and poet Sarah Bard Field. I love it that the statue of Abraham Lincoln is looking on. He was in favor of woman suffrage, you know, advocating for it in an 1836 speech when he was campaigning for reelection in the Illinois House of Representatives (Collected Works, 1:49). Image courtesy of the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.