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Norfolk name that touched Abraham Lincoln’s heart

PUBLISHED: 11:24 14 April 2018

President Abraham Lincoln.

President Abraham Lincoln.

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With the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, Trevor Heaton reflects on the poignant Norfolk connections that link his birth – and his death.

A facsimile of Abraham Lincoln's letter to his 'esteemed friend' on Septenber 4 1864. It was Eliza Gurney's reply which the president was carrying when he was assassinated six months later.A facsimile of Abraham Lincoln's letter to his 'esteemed friend' on Septenber 4 1864. It was Eliza Gurney's reply which the president was carrying when he was assassinated six months later.

The war, the long and bloody war, was almost over. And now all of President Abraham Lincoln’s waking hours in the spring of 1865 were filled with the need to win the peace, to reconcile two halves of the United States of America which had been left riven and bloodied by the world’s first industrial-scale conflict.

Five days after the surrender of Confederate general Robert E Lee, Lincoln was enjoying a rare evening away from the crushing burden of his public office. Together with his wife and two guests, they were at the Good Friday performance of the popular comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in the capital.

Eliza Gurney in later life.Eliza Gurney in later life.

Then around 10.15pm, as the play reached its final stages, on-stage comedy turned to real-life tragedy. John Wilkes Booth, a 26-year-old actor and Confederate sympathiser, took advantage of the temporary absence of Lincoln’s bodyguard to step inside his state box in the theatre’s balcony and fire his Derringer pistol, point-blank, into the back of the president’s head.

Lincoln, fatally wounded, died nine hours later. And in his breast pocket, neatly folded, was a treasured letter with a strikingly familiar Norfolk surname on it: Gurney.

John Joseph Gurney (1788-1847). Picture: EDP LibraryJohn Joseph Gurney (1788-1847). Picture: EDP Library

The story of how that letter came to be written makes for one of the most moving insights into the character of a man hailed as one of the greatest-ever presidents, the man who finally ended the shame of American slavery.

And how curious that Lincoln’s life should be book-ended by Norfolk connections. For his roots were set deep in the county, with family links to Hingham and Swanton Morley.

The elegant mansion of West Hill in New Jersey, where Eliza Gurney lived until her death in 1881.The elegant mansion of West Hill in New Jersey, where Eliza Gurney lived until her death in 1881.

It was back in 1637 that the young Samuel Lincoln (or ‘Lincorne’ as it was spelled then) left Great Yarmouth for a new life across the Atlantic.

Eleven Puritan ministers in Norwich had been suspended during a purge by Bishop of Norwich Matthew Wren, and for thousands of his parishioners, this was all too much. For many of those, the solution was obvious, and inevitable: to emigrate.

Among those struggling with the demands of conscience and family in the face of Wren’s demands was worsted weaver Francis Lawes, aged 57. His apprentice was a young man by the name of Samuel Lincoln, who has been identified with Samuel, son of Edward Lincoln, who was baptised at Hingham on August 24 1622.

Samuel’s brothers Thomas and Daniel had already crossed the Atlantic. Whatever the deciding factor – economic, family or religious, or possibly a combination of all three – Samuel had clearly decided that his future too lay overseas. He never came back to Norfolk.

Living until 1690, he married and he and his wife had 11 children, of whom eight survived to adulthood. His fourth son Mordecai, who became a blacksmith, was the direct ancestor of the president.

Religion had caused Samuel Lincoln to leave the county - and it was to be religion that lead to the renewal of that centuries-old link between Norfolk and the family.

Joseph John Gurney was born into the already well-known Norwich family in 1788. The family was famous for its banking expertise – and its Quakerism. Joseph John was one of ten children, including his famous sister Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer.

And it was with his sister that the 19-year-old Gurney campaigned for an improvement in jail conditions and for the abolition of capital punishment. By the following year Gurney was an evangelical minister.

He continued to campaign for better prison conditions, and from 1837 to 1840 he made trips to the West Indies and the United States to call for an end to slavery. It was on the 1837 visit to America that Joseph John, now 39, met Eliza Paul Kirkbride, who was to be his future (third) wife.

Eliza, who was three years his junior, came from Philadelphia and was able to brief the Norfolkman extensively on American life. During his visit Joseph John met with the president four times and addressed a joint session of Congress and corresponded with Lincoln, then a young and ambitious member of the Illinois House of Representatives. It can hardly be a coincidence that 1837 saw Lincoln make his first public declaration against slavery.

Eliza became a Quaker minister in England in July 1841 and married Joseph John three months later. They were a formidable pair: both were eloquent and passionate campaigners for a better and fairer world. Much-travelled and well-connected, they pushed for more prison reform and urged the French king Louis Philippe to abolish slavery in the country’s colonies.

They also founded Earlham College, in Indiana, its name a deliberate echo of Earlham Hall, the Norfolk home of the Gurneys. But then on a winter’s day in 1847 came tragedy, when Joseph John, then 58, died after being thrown by a horse. He is buried alongside many of his family in the historic Gildencroft Quaker Cemetery. On the day of his funeral all normal business in Norwich was suspended as a mark of respect to one of the city’s great philanthropists.

As for his widow, she returned to her home country three years later, settling in the elegant 18th-century mansion of West Hill in Burlington, New Jersey – although Eliza must have seen little of it over the next eight years as she continued to travel extensively.

The fiercely-ambitious Lincoln, meanwhile, continued his occasionally stop-start political rise, being chosen as the first-ever presidential candidate for the new Republican party in May 1860.

His election in November of that year hardened the sharp divisions between North and South over the issue of slavery. Seven slave states in the Deep South left the union and declared their own country, the Confederate States of America.

President Lincoln and the Northern states refused to recognise the new ‘country’, fearing it would lead to the US fatally splintering into a group of petty nations. Both sides were now on an inevitable collision course. The first shot in the civil war came on April 12 1861. By the end of the year almost a million men had taken up arms.

Like every one of her compatriots, Eliza had been forced to choose sides. Her Quakerism made her a passionate opponent of war – but also a passionate opponent of slavery. She eventually decided that the Union (Northern) cause was the more honourable one.

She was determined to let Lincoln know of her conviction that his actions were just and God’s will. Her efforts to meet him in late October 1862 came at a time of extreme peril for the Union cause – and the city of Washington. The Confederate army was poised only a few miles from the capital, emboldened by the lacklustre tactics of Union general McLennan. Lincoln had just issued a desperate plea for hundreds of thousands of more men to fight.

Eliza and three other senior Quakers tried and failed to meet the beleaguered president. But then, on the morning of Sunday October 26 came the moment – in Eliza’s words – when ‘the great iron door’ seemed to open.

The group was ushered into the president’s private apartments. A familiar tall and haggard figure rose to greet them. One of them wrote later that the president appeared ‘bowed down and heavy in heart’. Their conversation began with Lincoln at first thinking – clearly because of his old links with Joseph John Gurney - that Eliza came from England too. Eliza told him of her deep sympathy for the president’s burden of office and the deep responsibility he laboured under.

For 15 minutes, while the president listened with rapt attention, she outlined why Lincoln’s stance was the right one, deserving of the highest moral praise and God’s blessing. As she spoke, the president’s tears ran down his cheeks.

After Eliza had finished talking, the small group prayed together. Before she left him, Lincoln, still deeply moved, grasped her hand in silence for a few seconds, then said: “I am very glad of this interview…. If I had my way, this war would never had been; but nevertheless it came. If I had had my way, the war would have ended before this, but nevertheless it still continues.” The only conclusion he could draw, he told her, was that it was God’s purpose.

Lincoln never forgot Eliza – or her message. The two corresponded, and on September 4 1864, he wrote to his ‘esteemed friend’ to thank her again for her ‘very impressive’ visit two years earlier. “We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise,” he added. “For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself, your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven.”

It was Eliza’s reply to this letter that he carefully carried in his breast pocket.

Only a few months later prayers were being said for Lincoln not in support of the great burden of his office but for the comfort of his soul.

For Allen C Guelzo, one of his many biographers, Lincoln saved the United States from disintegration, put economic mobility and political equality at the heart of politics, defined liberal democracy; and, of course, he swept the stain of slavery from the United States. And these are only his main achievements.

When Lincoln made his declaration abolishing slavery in January 1863, he described it to a Government colleague as ‘my greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war’ and ‘the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century’.

And of all the fine things that Eliza Gurney did in her life, probably she rendered no nobler service to humanity than when she gave spiritual comfort to a great president in his hour of need.

No wonder, then, that as he lay dying, it was her treasured words that were – literally – the closest to his heart.

You can still visit Eliza Gurney’s elegant country home at West Hill where she lived until her death in 1881. The mansion is at 1114 Oxmead Road, Burlington, NJ 08016. Email: West-Hill@comcast.net. Find out more at www.westhillnj.org. My thanks for their help with photographs and other other archive material.

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