1866: Mary Wilson Thompson, A Life in Post-Civil War Delaware

Mary Wilson was born in 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. The daughter of U.S. Civil War cavalry officer James Harrison Wilson, she grew up at Brookwood Farm, the family estate, near Greenville, Del. She later married manufacturer Henry B. Thompson, and during her adult life became involved in many political and charitable causes within Wilmington society. Thompson maintained friendships with many influential people including Presidents Grant, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.

Her 1937 memoir, part of our Research Library collections, begins with accounts of her childhood. One point of particular interest during these early years is her father’s commitment to her education. She writes, “My father had very advanced ideas of my education. When I was eight years old…my father found out I did not know my multiplication tables and he decided I must learn them at once. He started by taking several ears of corn, putting them in piles and then demonstrating to me how many piles were in each number. By supper time I knew the multiplication tables up to twelve and have never forgotten them.”

Later chapters include detailed accounts of the World War I period. She recalls hearing President Woodrow Wilson, a close friend, say that the United States was “too proud to fight.” She writes, “I began to wonder what had happened to the man I had always looked up to as an idol.”

Mary Wilson Thompson
Mary Wilson Thompson

Mary Wilson Thompson was perhaps best known for her leadership in Delaware’s Anti-Women’s Suffrage Campaign. One may wonder why a woman of the era would stand against the right to vote. She explains, “I always opposed votes for women as the cheapening of womanhood—giving her a sort of independence by which she makes it a favor to her husband to take care of her house-keeping and attend to the children…I say to the women in this country that their first duty is to keep up her man power. If a woman constantly jeers and refuses openly to consider her husband’s opinions what is to become of the family?” Due in part to her efforts, Delaware was the only Republican state to refuse to ratify the Women’s Suffrage amendment to the Constitution.

Mary Wilson Thompson’s memoir represents a unique account of a woman born in the days after the Civil War and provides us a glimpse into the world of late 19th century and early 20th century Wilmington.

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