While the mass of women never philosophize on the principles that underlie national existence, there were those in our late war who understood the political significance of the struggle: the “irrepressible conflict” between freedom and slavery; between national and State rights…. Accustomed as most women had been to works of charity, to the relief of outward suffering, it was difficult to rouse their enthusiasm for an idea, to persuade them to labor for a principle…. This Woman’s Loyal League voiced the solemn lessons of the war: liberty to all; national protection for every citizen under our flag; universal suffrage, and universal amnesty.
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, History of Woman Suffrage, 1881 (Stanton et al. 2:2-3)
Early in 1863, two New York abolitionists and women’s rights activists, SUSAN B. ANTHONY and ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, initiated plans for a new political organization, to be composed entirely of women, that would execute the most extensive petition campaign ever attempted in the hope of persuading Congress to approve a Thirteenth Amendment guaranteeing the freedom of African Americans. During 1863 and 1864, the Woman’s National Loyal League (WNLL) introduced thousands of women to political activism while making a critical contribution to the abolitionist movement’s quest for the “immediate emancipation” of the slaves.
Since petitioning the government was the only political means open to mid-nineteenth-century women, Anthony and Cady Stanton vowed that the WNLL would exploit it to the fullest. Anthony’s petition drive to expand the Married Women’s Property Law in New York State in the mid- to late 1850s was so successful that she and Cady Stanton felt confident in setting the WNLL’s goal at a million signatures. Throughout every Northern state, from Maine to California, women distributed petitions in their communities. They sent the signatures of men and women on reams of parchment to the WNLL’s office in New York City. Anthony and Cady Stanton then delivered the petitions to Massachusetts Republican Senator Charles Sumner, the congressional leader of the drive for the Thirteenth Amendment, who then exhibited them before both houses of Congress.
In April 1864, in response to the 250,000 signatures on WNLL petitions and a groundswell of popular support, the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment. Because the House of Representatives delayed its action, Anthony kept the pressure on WNLL members to circulate petitions all through the summer of 1864. By August, with 400,000 signatures