Samuel McPherson Janney

Samuel Janney
Portrait of Samuel McPherson Janney by Loudoun Co. artist Lucien Powell (1846-1930) Portrait in private collection

Samuel McPherson Janney (1801-1880), a member of a prominent local Quaker family, was a businessman, an academic writer, an educator and a strong anti-slavery activist. The effort to end the horror of slavery caught his heart and mind as a young man and then stayed with him, burning as a constant hot flame. He was the most prominent of Lincoln Quakers, an author of books, including biographies of George Fox – the founder of the Society of Friends – and William Penn. He wrote essays, poetry and newspaper articles. Educational reform and expansion to include all classes and races was a lifelong focus.

In 1826, in Alexandria, Virginia, Samuel married a cousin, Elizabeth Hopkins Janney. Her page can be found here.

Janney’s own Memoirs were published in 1881, a year after his death. Documenting the American South has a short biography of Samuel M. Janney, as does Swarthmore College which also has many of Janney’s papers and letters. A good understanding of Samuel M. Janney’s influence on Virginia’s anti-slavery movement during the mid-19th century can be found in Patricia Hickin’s Gentle Agitator: Samuel M. Janney and the Antislavery Movement in Virginia 1842-1851 published in The Journal of Southern History.

Samuel Janney devoted much public and private writing arguing against slavery. He put faith into the idea that education would bring enlightenment and naturally lead Americans away from the notion that human bondage was either morally or economically defensible. Unlike some abolitionists within the Quaker faith, Janney was not by nature a radical person. He relied on reason and logic when writing anti-slavery arguments. In 1845, a three part anti-slavery/agricultural reform essay by Janney called Yankees in Fairfax and linked to here, was published in both the Richmond Whig and the Alexandria Gazette.

The Richmond Whig editor with which Janney was corresponding in 1845 was John Hampton Pleasants. Pleasants published some of Janney’s anti-slavery writing, including the first section of the Yankees in Fairfax essay, but the editor was roundly criticized by an influential editor of the rival Richmond Enquirer. Pleasants was publicly called an “abolitionist” and a “coward.” The acrimony escalated to a duel, which not only killed Pleasants but ended Janney’s outlet for publishing anti-slavery essays in any southern based newspaper other than the Alexandria Gazette. More information on the duel can be found here.

However, in 1849 emminent and honorable Samuel M. Janney was caught up in a public controversy which led to his own arrest. In August of that year, a minister on a series of public lectures came through Loudoun county. Methodist Reverend William A. Smith, President of Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, made a Biblical defense of slavery and gave a five hour speech in Leesburg, in which he claimed that slavery was sanctioned by God.

Samuel Janney quickly wrote three essays in rebuttal to Smith’s pro-slavery speech. Janney’s essays refuted each of the arguments set forth by Rev. Smith. The three essays were published in the Alexandria Gazette, and subsequently picked up by a Leesburg, Loudoun County newspaper, the Washingtonian; the first essay was published in the Washingtonian on August 10, 1849, and the second essay published the following week.

After publication of the first essay a Loudoun County Grand Jury was convened, claiming Janney’s essay  “was calculated to incite persons of colour to make insurrection or rebellion.” After the second essay was published in the Washingtonian, but before the third essay could be published, Janney was charged with “inciting persons of colour within this Commonwealth to rebel and make insurrection.”

Here are transcriptions of the three Samuel M. Janney essays which led to his arrestThey may seem long to a modern reader, but each lays out many of the intellectual arguments used by anti-slavery and abolitionists in the mid-19th century:


On August 18, 1849 a grand jury charged Samuel M. Janney (see document below): “At a court held for the County of Loudoun on the 18th day of August 1849  The Grand Jury impannelled on the first day of this term for this court, having presented Samuel M. Janney of the County of Loudoun teacher with having written and caused to be published in the Washingtonian a paper printed in said County, a writing and address on the 10th day of August 1849 at the County of Loudoun calculated to incite persons of colour within this Commonwealth to rebel and make insureection contrary to the power of the Act of the General Assembly in that case made and provided upon the inforamtion of John Thomas and Wm Rogers of their own body. It is ordered on the motion of the Attorney for the Commonwealth that the said presenment to be certified to A.S  Braden, A. Clarke, Thomas Ellzy, John Simpson and Robert Wright Gentlemen Justices for the County of Loudoun, or any one or more of them as over that proper proceedings be instituted for the examination of this charge before them or any one or more of them. “

Samuel Janney court document 1849
Samuel Janney court summons

The  case against Samuel M. Janney went through the Loudoun Court for several months with a fairly lacklustre prosecution. Janney, in Chapter X of his own Memoirs, describes events: “In the Third month, 1850, the time set for trial came, when I went to Court prepared to plead my own cause, but on motion of the Attorney for the Commonwealth, the case was postponed three months longer.

Janney wrote in his Memoirs: “On the 11th of the Sixth month the case was taken up by the Court, and the Attorney for the Commonwealth made an argument to sustain the charge of the Grand Jury. I answered in a written argument, and the Attorney made another speech, to which I made an oral reply, winding up with the expression, “The longer you keep this subject before the people, the more they will come to my way of thinking.”  The Court was composed of the magistrates of the County; most of them were slave holders. They concluded to quash the proceedings, and their chairman gave me a lecture upon the necessity of great care and caution in meddling with the delicate question of slavery. I cared little for his lecture, and proceeded, without delay, to publish my answer to the presentment under the title of “The Freedom of the Press Vindicated.” 

Samuel Janney signed a written statement and presented it to court:

Samuel Janney signs he will not break the law

 “I hereby certify to the court, that in the publication in The Washingtonian for which I have been presented by the Grand Jury of Loudoun County I had no intention to – the laws of the state. – under my hand this 11 day of the Sixth month 1850. S M Janney”

In his Memoirs Janney includes his “The Freedom of the Press Vindicated” essay; it was printed in the Washingtonian and the Alexander Gazette. The introduction to that essay reads: “At the last quarterlyCourt in Loudoun County, Va., a presentment of the Grand Jury against Samuel M. Janney, for a publication in answer to W.A. Smith’s defence of slavery, wastaken up for consideration. After hearing the argument of the Attorney for the commonwealth and S.M. Janney’s answer, the Court determined to quash the proceedings.”

Samuel Janney was never again arrested for anti-slavery or abolitionist writings. He continued his anti-slavery efforts, some of which are discussed on the Nest of Aboltionists’ page devoted to Janney’s daughter-in-law, Eliza Janney Rawson.


Springdale built 1839
Springdale School, Goose Creek (Lincoln) Virginia, photo taken by author

Samuel and Elizabeth Janney as well as one of their daughters, Cornelia, taught students at the school they founded, ‘Springdale.’ Springdale (shown on this Lincoln area map) was opened in 1839 as the Janney home as well as a non-denominational boarding school for girls. The Janneys taught some of the classes, as did, over various years, Eliza Coffin (who married the Janney’s son, John), George Truman, and Francis Ray. A page of Nest of Abolitionists is devoted to both Eliza Janney and Francis Ray. Quaker and non-Quaker girls attended the Springdale Academy.

Rebecca Wright, of Winchester, Virginia, attended Springdale Academy and years later as a young woman she gained fame as a Union spy during the Civil War. According to the list of students given in an 1850 printed pamphlet of the school, some of the girls attending Springdale came from as far away as Texas! Janney advertised the school in various newspapers, including an African American newspaper, The National Era. Here is a typical ad, this one running in the National Era on December 6, 1849: 

THIS Institution is agreeably situated in a healthy part of Loudoun county, Virginia, eight miles west of Leesburg, and two miles south of the stage road leading from Washington to Winchester.
The summer term will commence on the 18th of Fifth month, (May.) The winter term will commence on the 15th of Eleventh month, (November.)
The branches taught are – Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Grammar, Composition, Book-keeping, Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, Chemistry, Botany, Algebra, Rhetoric, the French Language, Drawing, Painting, and Needlework.
Lectures are delivered on Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry, illustrated by pleasing experiments.
A library, a cabinet of minerals, and philosophical apparatus, are provided for the use of the school. The discipline is strictly parental; and every effort is made to induce in the minds of the pupils a love of knowledge and desire of excellence as the proper stimulants to exertion.
The terms, for tuition, board, and washing, are $100 per annum, or $50 per term or 26 weeks. The only extra charges are 50 cents per quarter for lights, pens, and pencils; $3 per quarter for French lessons; and the same for drawing and painting. Books and stationary furnished at the usual prices, when required.
Scholars sent to the Point of Rocks will be conveyed to the school free of charge, by giving timely notice, directed to Purcel’s Store.
Dec. 6. SAMUEL M. JANNEY , Principal.

old 19th century drawing of a house
“Springdale School” Illustration from an 1850 pamphlet of Springdale Boarding School, also the home of Samuel M. and Elizabeth Janney and their family. The Springdale pamphlet is located at the University of Virginia archives library, Charlottesville, VA

Perhaps Janney’s public abolitionist writings got him in trouble with local slave owning residents, for non-Quakers gradually withdrew their daughters from Springdale school. The school was closed for two years, then reopened in 1855 as a co-ed school for Quaker boys and girls. The Janneys moved to a different location in Lincoln, next door to Goose Creek Meetinghouse, and opened a village store.

According to the syllabus below, Samuel Janney continued to have a role teaching at the now co-educational Springdale School, teaching “Natural Philosphy, Astronomy and Chemistry, illustrated by pleasing experiments…”

1855 syllabus for Springdale School, Samuel M. Janney papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College

Samuel M. Janney wrote a letter to his brother Asa Moore Janney, living with his family in Richmond and running a mill, which explains some of the financial concerns

Near Purcellville
4 mo 26th 1854

A M Janney
Dear brother

Thy letter has been recd. & was read with much interest. I am now preparing to start to the North on a religious visit to the Yearly meetings of Phila[delphia] & N York & some of the meetings composing them. My friend John Smith goes as my companion. His daughter Susanna will go with us to Phila & my daughter Cornelia intends to follow us in time to attend the Yearly meeting of Phila. Our son John is to be married the 25th of next month at Chatham, New York. Cornelia expects to be there & I shall attend if my religious engagements will permit.

We have a prospect of disposing of the Springdale property to an association of Friends who propose reviving the Boarding School here next fall. Joel Lupton has been the prime mover in the concern, & it is thought about 4000$ will be subscribed within our Quarterly meeting. The property cost upwards of 5000$ but I am willing for them to have it valued & if only 4000$ can be raised I must take the remainder in stock. I am very desirous of seeing it started again, for it has been a blessing to this neighborhood. The friends here, however as not seem to feel the concern like those of Hopewell & the subscription drags heavily. The shares thus far are 100$ each, but there may be some of 50$.

If necessary, in order to start it again, I shall assent in teaching, but I wish my wife to be relieved from it’s care and we have just made a purchase at 7000$ of the House, lot & store house, owned by Jonathan Hirst near the meeting house. We had a lot adjoining it of 44 ½ acres, will made [sic] a little farm of 100 acres, which I expect to have cultivated, and John is to take the store. Possession to be given the 15th day of 10th month.

Thy purchase of land will, I suppose afford thee sound employment whenever thou canst get away from the Mill. I would rather thou hadst purchased somewhere else, but it was well to secure the debt, & perhaps thou canst sell the land again.

Joseph Jewit talked of writing to thee about a Mill property near Dice Creek which he thinks would suit thee & come within thy means & afford thee a good living. It is owned by David McCay a worthy Friend who will not sell it to any one but a Friend & he would like to have thee for a neighbor. Harmon Gregg has sold his mill for 5800$ (I think) & he talks of going to the West.

Land is rising in this neighbourhood; good farms will now bring from70, to 75$ per acre & will probably go higher.

The Loudoun Branch Railroad which goes within a mile of us is advertised for contract & will probably be set out in a month.

I suppose thou hast seen in Friends Intelligencer the Orthodox criticisms on my Life of Fox. My friends in Phila think the sale of the work will be promoted by the notice they have given it. The sales so far, have been as good as I expected, and are quite satisfactory.

Please remember me affectionately to every member of thy family –
Thy affect. brother
S.M. Janney
p.s. That receipt of ? & Eliza may be sent by mail to Joseph Easher Alen [?], to whom our acc[oun]ts and vouchers have been sent for settlement. He is Master Commissioner.

In 1864, Samuel Janney met with Union General Phillip Sheridan in an attempt to get Loudoun County men released from Union custody. He was able to get some of the men, both Quakers and non-Quakers, released. He also met with President Lincoln during the war, on similar matters. Lincoln’s government had respect for the Union supporting Quakers of Loudoun County, knowing the risks they suffered for their loyalty.

A remarkable exchange of military memos shows that even war commander Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant made military concessions to the Quakers of Loudoun.

U.S. Army commander Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

In 1869 Samuel Janney was appointed by then President U.S. Grant as a Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He went to Omaha, Nebraska and served there for two years. A page focusing on those extraordinary two years is found by clicking on a link here.

Asa M. Janney Indian agent Nebraska
Photographs of Santee Sioux Reservation, Nebraska, Courtesy of Duane Whipple, Santee Sioux historian.

In 1871 Samuel Janney and his brother Asa Moore Janney returned to Lincoln, Virginia. Back in his beloved northern Virginia, Samuel continued his teaching, writing, preaching and traveling:

Richmond Dispatch, May 28, 1872

The Richmond Dispatch seems to have taken a conciliatory attitude toward Quakers, after being so critical of their pre-war abolitionism. This short notice, above, published in the Dispatch, mentioned Samuel M. Janney and even paired him with nationally famous abolitionist Lucretia Mott.

Samuel McPherson Janney died in 1880 at his home in Lincoln. He was buried in the village’s Goose Creek Burial Ground, across from the Quaker meetinghouse.

For more information on Samuel M. Janney see this website’s Further Reading page, as well as these sites: