When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he left abolitionists less than thrilled. The proclamation, after all, only freed slaves in the 10 Confederate states.
Mary Rice was a Concord, Mass., schoolteacher and a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. In early 1864, she wrote a letter to the president asking him to free all slave children. She gathered the signatures of 195 Concord schoolchildren in what Lincoln later called ‘The Little People’s Petition.
The petition read,
Petition of the children of the United States; (under 18 years) that the President will free all slave children.
Mary Rice gave the petition to another Concord schoolteacher, Mary Peabody Mann. Mann, a writer, was the widow of education reformer Horace Mann and one of the famed Peabody sisters of Salem, Mass. Her older sister — and often collaborator — Elizabeth Peabody worked as an educator, bookstore owner and business manager of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial. Her younger sister Sophia, an artist, had married author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Little People’s Petition
Mary Mann then gave the Little People’s Petition to Sen. Charles Sumner, the leader of Massachusetts’ antislavery forces. Sumner gave the petition to President Lincoln. Lincoln, touched by the petition, wrote to Mary Peabody Mann, assuming she was responsible for it.
A framed copy of Lincoln’s letter hangs in the Concord Main Library. Dated April 5, 1864, it reads,
EXECUTIVE MANSION, WASHINGTON, APRIL 5, 1864
MRS. HORACE MANN
The petition of persons under eighteen, praying that I would free all slave children, and the heading of which petition it appears you wrote, was handed me a few days since by Senator Sumner. Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.
Yours truly A. Lincoln
Slavery was abolished on Dec. 18.. 1865, when Secretary of State William Seward proclaimed the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 2008, the Sotheby’s auction house sold the letter for $3,401,000.
This story about the Little People’s Petition was updated in 2019.