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Posts Tagged ‘American Anti-Slavery Society’

August First – the original “Juneteenth”

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher, and trustee
July 23, 2015

In my last blog, I wrote about how Juneteenth became a national celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.  But before there was a Juneteenth, there was the First of August, to celebrate the end of slavery in the British West Indies.  While it may not sound like a big deal to us today, West Indian Emancipation Day, as it was called, was a big deal in early Oberlin and other abolitionist and African American communities.  In an era when American slaveholders were tightening the chains ever tighter on their bondsmen, West Indian Emancipation (which would soon lead to the extinction of legalized slavery throughout the British Empire) was a glimmer of hope just 600 miles from the American mainland.

West Indian Emancipation was the result of the labors of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and other British abolitionists who had devoted decades of their lives to the anti-slavery cause.  A short but bloody slave uprising on the West Indian island of Jamaica during Christmas 1831 gave traction to the movement, and finally Parliament decreed that slavery in the British West Indies would be abolished beginning August 1, 1834.   Three of the West Indian islands – Antigua, Montserrat, and Bermuda – would set their slaves free unconditionally on that date, while the other islands would begin a gradual emancipation plan, called “apprenticeship”, that would take several years. [1]

ClarksonWilberforce

But whereas a bloody slave rebellion had helped lead to the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, a similar rebellion in the United States at about the same time had exactly the opposite effect.   Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in August, 1831 caused slaveholders to tighten the chains (figuratively speaking) on their slaves all the more.  Discouraged by the turn of events at home, American abolitionists and blacks looked to Britain as a sign of hope.

And so it was that the first August 1st celebration in the United States took place in New York City on August 1, 1834, and abolitionist missionaries, teachers, and reporters flocked to the British West Indies to observe and assist in the emancipation process.   Among the early Americans to arrive there was Oberlin’s own Lane Rebel and future college professor, James Thome, who was commissioned by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837 to report on the progress of West Indian Emancipation.  Not surprisingly, Thome reported that Antigua, which had experienced immediate, unconditional emancipation, “is the morning star of our nation, and though it glimmers faintly through a lurid sky, yet we hail it, and catch at every ray as the token of a bright sun which may yet burst gloriously upon us.”   He was less sanguine about the gradual emancipation in the other islands, yet he still insisted “that we are much better off now than we have been for a long time.”   Reports like these caused Arthur Tappan’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Emancipator, upon the completion of the British emancipation process in 1838, to declare that August 1st should be celebrated as a recurring holiday by abolitionists everywhere. [2]

So it was written, and so it was done, with annual celebrations spreading outward from New York and New England over the next several years.  Oberlin’s first August First celebration occurred in 1842 under the leadership of Sabram Cox, an escaped slave who came to Oberlin to obtain an education a few years earlier and would remain the rest of his life as a key community leader.  Assisting Cox was George B. Vashon, a free-born black who two years later would become the first African American to earn a Bachelor’s Degree at Oberlin College and then go on to become a teacher in Haiti (another Carribbean island that achieved emancipation, but in this case by a massive slave uprising in the 1790s).  Also assisting was William P. Newman, another escaped slave and Oberlin College student who would go on to become an educator and minister to the fugitive slave colonies in Canada.  The Oberlin Evangelist described the results of their efforts as follows:

Perhaps there has never been more interest felt, on any public occasion in this place, than at the celebration by the colored people, on the first [of this month].  The anniversary of the emancipation of 800,000 persons held in slavery in the British West Indies, must be a more interesting time to the friends of human rights, than the anniversary of American Independence, so long as the principles of the declaration of that independence are so utterly disregarded by our slave-holding and pro-slavery citizens.  And then this was probably the first effort made by any portion of the colored people of Ohio to show their improvement and the effect of giving them equal rights.  The idea of the celebration originated with, and all the arrangements were made and executed by the colored people, with scarcely a suggestion from others.  And, no doubt, we speak the feelings of the very large audience in attendance, when we say that the whole was conceived and executed with excellent judgment, and good taste.  We heard no expression but that of satisfaction and gratification.

The celebration lasted from morning to evening, with speeches by the organizers as well as Oberlin College President Asa Mahan, Professor John Morgan, and Professor Thome, who told of his personal experiences in the West Indies.  As reported by the Evangelist,  “The large chapel was crowded to excess, and the interest continued to the close, as was manifested by the earnest attention and moistened eye of many in the congregation…  After the meeting, two hundred and fifty persons sat down to a plain free dinner, provided by the colored people, eighty of whom were at the table.  Of these nearly one half had felt the galling chain of slavery.” [3]

The following year would see the celebration return, and the Oberlin Evangelist would once again report that “Throughout the whole, the true principle of equality, the essential brotherhood of man, prevailed, and the effect was most happy on all concerned.”   In 1844, a new leader of the Oberlin African American community and the First of August celebrations would emerge in the person of Oberlin College student William Howard Day.  Although only 18 years old at the time, Day would deliver a stirring address and become the chief organizer of the annual event for the next two years. Invoking the legacy of the African liberator Cinque, whose 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad ultimately led to the liberty of its enslaved passengers, Day proclaimed: [4]

I love my country, but never can I sacrifice the rights of man for a love of country.  The truth must be told: our country is guilty – we are guilty, and slavery must be abolished soon, or we may prepare to suffer the consequences.  We have long enough clung to the faint hope of a change; we have long enough listened to the frequest whisper, “Peace, be still”, and now the call is for action.  From the memorable rock of Plymouth, a beacon has been lighted by the fires of liberty.  The irrevocable decree has gone forth from the Supreme Court of the universe – “Proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants thereof.”  If such were the sentiments of the pilgrim fathers, if such be the command of God, liberty we can, and liberty we must have.  If “coming events cast their shadows before”, who can prophesy that the decks of the Amistad and Creole are not the faint sketches of our future history.  If a Cinque or a Washington shall hereafter rise, (which may God forbid) – if our land shall be deluged in blood – if your attention shall be directed to the Southern quarter by the roar of the booming cannon, and the shrieks of the wounded and dying – if devastation and ruin take the place of supposed peace – or if with the burning of villages they shall be enveloped in one common grave – you will be responsible.  You have it in your power to avert it.  The same means used for the abolition of Slavery in the West Indies, will avail now.  Their efforts were few and feeble, but at last they conquered; and with the same well-directed efforts, with the same spirit, and with the dependence on the same God, we shall conquer.

WilliamHowardDay

Day would go on to have a long career of anti-slavery and equal rights advocacy, locally, nationally and internationally.  (See my William Howard Day blog.)  Among those listening to Day’s speech that August 1st was a frequent visitor to Oberlin, Mrs. Almira Porter Barnes, from Troy, New York.  Mrs. Barnes was an abolitionist and moral reform activist who was on close terms with the Oberlin College establishment.  She described the day’s events as follows:

… at eight oclock in the morning there was a prayer meeting [and] a number of prayers and addresses were made by both coulored [sic] and white[;] a white gentleman from Jamaca [sic] was present who was a slaveholder untill [sic] a short time previous to Emancipation and gave us some account of the manner in which the day was kept there and the effect it had had upon the slaveholder and the slave.  At three o’clock in the after noon a large assembly met in the church and listened to several addresses from coulored young men that would have done honor to students from any institution in the country.  A dinner was provided by the coulored people and between two and three hundred invitations given including of course the professors families and distinguished strangers like myself.  After partaking of an excellent repast consisting of pyes [sic] cake fruit &c we had some excellent singing and some appropriate remarks by a Mr Hall a Baptist Minister who formerly preached in Rochester and then the invited company dispersed and the tables were filled again with any who were disposed to partake… [5]

The African American organizers of the Oberlin August First celebrations also welcomed participation by women.  Many of the female participants prepared essays that were read to the audience by male proxies, in deference to the contemporary tabboo against women orators sharing the stage with men and speaking before a mixed audience.  In 1846, Oberlin resident Mary Hester Crabb, an emancipated slave, and Oberlin College student Emeline Crooker had their essays read, and the following year, Oberlin College student Antoinette Brown (who would become the first female ordained minister in the United States in 1853) also wrote an essay.  But the event organizers were also amenable to women who would dare to defy the public speaking tabboo.  On August 1, 1846, Oberlin College student Lucy Stone did just that, and in the words of one reporter, “in a clear, full tone, read her own article”. The speech, entitled “Why Do We Rejoice Today?”, was the first in an illustrious speaking career that spanned several decades.  (See my Lucy Stone blog).  The following is an excerpt: [6]

We rejoice to-day, not simply because the genius of freedom is now presiding and scattering blessings, where eight years ago the Demon of slavery brooded; – nor merely that where ignorance and heathenism then prevailed, the light of science and christianity is now dawning; – nor yet because to-day is the anniversary of the moral and political birth-day of eight hundred thousand human beings, – but we rejoice in the grander fact, that in one of the largest and most influential kingdoms of the world, a public sentiment exists which shivers the chains of the slave and lets “the oppressed go free” – which practically recognizes the equal brotherhood and inalienable rights of man…

 

The doom of slavery everywhere is sealed in the public sentiment which caused England to reach out her hand over the broad Atlantic, to lift up from his deep degradation, and make conscious of his manhood, the bondman pining there.  The influence of that event will be wide as the world, and longer than the stream of time.

Stone-August1st

But as Oberlinites and abolitionists found hope and cheer in the example set by the British, the political leaders of the American slaveholding states had a vastly different view of the situation.  To them West Indian emancipation was a catastrophe like none other, to be avoided at all costs.  Just months before William Howard Day delivered his first August 1st address, and as Thomas Clarkson and other British abolitionists were turning their attention towards worldwide abolition, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun, one of the South’s most powerful slaveholders, wrote to the British Foreign Minister and warned him that if Britain were to “succeed in accomplishing in the United States, what she avows to be her desire and the object of her constant exertions to effect throughout the world, so far from being wise or humane, she would involve in the greatest calamity the whole country.”  The following year, South Carolina Governor James Hammond went a step further in a scathing letter to Clarkson himself, declaring that the anti-slavery agitation of recent years had served only to drive American slaveholders into “a close examination of the subject in all its bearings, and the  result had been an universal conviction that in holding Slaves we violate no law of God – inflict no injustice on any of his creatures – while the terrible consequences of emancipation to all parties and the world at large, clearly revealed to us, make us shudder at the bare thought of it.”  Even fifteen years later, as Alabama prepared to secede from the Union on the eve of the Civil War, Alabama secession commissioner Stephen Hale warned the Governor of Kentucky that if secession failed, “the dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.” [7]

Clearly the road to Juneteenth in the United States would be a vastly more difficult path than the road to August 1st had been in the British Empire.  But with the British example before it,  Oberlin would stay the course through many more August 1st commemorations.  Even as late as August 1, 1862, in the midst of bloody civil war, at a meeting chaired by Oberlin College graduate Elias Toussaint Jones, its “citizens irrespective of color” would resolve:

That this day – the memorial day of Freedom to 800,000 slaves in the West Indies – was the first instalment [sic] in modern times of the redeeming power of true Christian civilization upon the destinies of the oppressed; that the work begun then and there still progresses and cannot cease till the same power shall have pervaded every Christian nation, not excepting our own; that we have unmistakeable indications that God is moving his almighty agencies towards this result; that the insane rebellion of the South was permitted and will be over-ruled of God to this end, and that a thousand lesser subordinate events conspire to assure us that the day of universal emancipation in this country is at hand. [8]

Eight weeks later President Lincoln would unveil to the nation his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“First of August – Colored People”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842, p. 5

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843, p. 7

“The First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1844, p. 7

“Emancipation in the West Indies. Slavery in America”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844, p. 3

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 14, 1845, p. 6

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 19, 1846, p. 6

“Jamaica”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1847, p. 6

“First of August”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 18,1852, pp. 6-7

“Annual Report of the Female A. S. Soc”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 15,1855, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin”, The Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862, p. 7

“First of August in Oberlin (Concluded from our last)”, The Oberlin Evangelist, August 13, 1862, pp. 5-6

“Why do we rejoice to-day?”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, November 27, 1846, p. 3

Almira Porter Barnes to Mrs. Laura Willard, August 12, 1844, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 3, Folder: “Correspondence – Misc pre-1865”

Dr. John Oldfield, “British Anti-Slavery“, February 17, 2011, BBC

James A. Thome, Joseph Horace Kimball, Emancipation in the West Indies

Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists

Todd Mealy, Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, 1825-1865, Volume 1

“Celebration of the Disenfranchised Americans of Oberlin, Ohio, First of August, 1846”, Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin File, RG21, Series XI, Box 2

John C. Calhoun, letter to Mr. Pakenham, April 18, 1844, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed, p. 53

James Henry Hammond to Thomas Clarkson, March 24, 1845, The Pro-Slavery Argument: as Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers of the Southern States, pp. 169-170

Stephen F. Hale, letter to Gov. B. McGoffin of Kentucky, December 27, 1860, Official Records of the Rebellion, Series 4, Volume 1, p. 9

Gale L. Kenny, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica

John Stauffer, “American Responses to British Emancipation: The Problem of Progress“, Third Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, October 25-28, 2001

Kevin O’Brien Chang, “Sam Sharpe – Emancipation Hero“, July 27, 2012, The Gleaner

Lucy Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”, August 16, 1846, Oberlin College Archives, Robert S. Fletcher collection, RG30/24, Box 10, Folder 2

Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, ed., Friends & Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93

Roland M. Baumann, “A Voice Beneath History: the Story of Mary Hester Crabb”, presentation at Oberlin Public Library, February 1, 2014

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 1

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

Minority Student Records“, Oberlin College Archives, RG 5/4/3

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kenny, pp. 55-56

[2] Quarles, pp. 123, 124; Thome, pp. 209, 478

[3] Oberlin Evangelist, August 17, 1842

[4] Oberlin Evangelist, August 16, 1843; Mealy, pp. 123-124; “Celebration”; Oberlin Evangelist, Nov 6, 1844

[5] Barnes

[6] Baumann; “Celebration”; Lasser, p. 24; Stone to “Dear Father and Mother”; “Why do we rejoice to-day?

[7] Calhoun; Hammond; Hale

[8] Oberlin Evangelist, July 30, 1862

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

Last week the New York Times published a blog posted by Jon Grinspan that asked the question, “was abolitionism a failure?”  The author answered the question with the assertion that “as a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop.”  It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anybody that the Oberlin Heritage Center doesn’t necessarily share that view, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to reply to some of the specific issues raised in that blog, and to let one of Oberlin’s most esteemed historical figures reply to the question in general.

The basic premise of Mr. Grinspan’s blog is that abolitionism was unpopular before the Civil War, and it was only the war itself that turned Northern public opinion decidedly against slavery.  To demonstrate the unpopularity of abolitionism, the blog points to the scant support for the country’s first national abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party, and to the meager 3,000 subscribers to The Liberator, which the blog refers to as “the premier antislavery newspaper.”

Mr. Grinspan is indeed correct that the abolitionist Liberty Party, which existed in the 1840s, only garnered a paltry number of votes (6,797 in the 1840 Presidential election).   But  it should be remembered that prior to the Civil War many abolitionists were opposed to political action altogether, and very few advocated nationwide abolition by the federal government.  Instead, the majority of abolitionists looked to “moral suasion” to convince the public that slavery was wrong, believing that government action, to the extent it was necessary, would naturally follow the shift in public opinion.   This position was explained in 1835 in the Anti-Slavery Record, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (which by 1840 would have almost 200,000 members): [1]

The reformation has commenced, both at the North and at the South.  The more the subject is discussed, by the pulpit, by the press, at the bar, in the legislative hall and in private conversation, the faster will the change proceed.  When any individual slave holder is brought to believe that slavery is sinful, he will immediately emancipate his own slaves.  When a majority of the nation are brought to believe in immediate emancipation, Congress will, of course, pass a law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.  When the people of the several slave states are brought upon the same ground, they will severally abolish slavery within their respective limits. [2]

However, in the closing years of the 1840s the threat of slavery’s expansion caused many abolitionists to take a more active role in politics.  The old Liberty Party was dissolved and was supplanted by the Free Soil Party, which received exponentially more votes, and which in turn was supplanted by the Republican Party, which took control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and most Northern governorships by 1860.  And while the Free Soil and Republican parties were pragmatic political coalitions in contrast with the purely abolitionist Liberty Party,  they both espoused opposition to slavery as their core issue.  The 1860 Republican Party platform contained 7 (out of 17) planks that directly advocated anti-slavery principles and policies.  To be sure, it also included a states’ right plank leaving the legality of slavery to the individual states to determine for themselves, but the 1844 Liberty Party platform left slavery to be “wholly abolished by State authority” as well.  Pledging federal non-interference with slavery in the states where it already existed was a sentiment shared by the vast majority of abolitionists throughout the antebellum period, and was in no way an attempt to “abolish abolitionism”, as the blog describes it. [3]

As for the characterization of The Liberator as “the premier antislavery newspaper”, this is also taking a partial snapshot of the early abolitionist movement and applying it to the entire antebellum period.  The Liberator, published in Boston and edited by William Lloyd Garrison, was arguably the premier antislavery newspaper in 1831 when it was first published.  (See my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog.)  But its strident disunionist, “no government” message, despite grabbing national attention, was too radical to ever develop a large subscribership, even as scores of anti-slavery newspapers proliferated throughout the Northern states over the next 3 decades, including The National Era (with a peak subscription base of 28,000),  Frederick Douglass’ Paper,  the Tappan brothers’ American Missionary (which was “read by twenty thousand church members”), and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (with a peak weekly circulation of 200,000).  Ohio had numerous anti-slavery newspapers of its own, including the radical Garrisonite  Anti-Slavery Bugle (with Oberlin College student Lucy Stone as a correspondent), the Cleveland Morning Leader, and the Oberlin Evangelist (which itself  had a peak subscribership of over 4,300).  Thus by the start of the Civil War hundreds of thousands of Northerners were subscribing to unabashedly anti-slavery newspapers.  So it’s no wonder that William Lloyd Garrison, despite his own newspaper’s scant subscription base, could declare in 1860 that “a general enlightenment has taken place upon the subject of slavery. The opinions of a vast multitude have been essentially changed, and secured to the side of freedom.” [4]

 

Garrison & Stone

But even in the lean years of the 1830s and early 1840s, abolitionists had enough clout to make a significant impact.  In 1835 they launched a mass mailing campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery publications to clergymen and prominent leaders nationwide.  Southern slaveholders felt so threatened by this campaign that they began a program of postal censorship, with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun advising them to “prohibit the introduction or circulation of any paper or publication which may, in their opinion, disturb or endanger the institution” of slavery.  Even President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder, asked Congress in his Annual Message to censor the mail “in the Southern states”.  Some of the less politically inhibited early abolitionists also  flooded Congress with tens of thousands of anti-slavery petitions – so many that slaveholders tried unsuccessfully to prohibit (“gag”) anti-slavery petitions in the Senate and did succeed in gagging them in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844. [5]

Although the leaders of the South did indeed manage to squelch the abolitionists in the southern states, their assault on free speech and constitutional rights only served to strengthen the abolitionist message in the North, where many Southern-born abolitionists emigrated and added their voices to the chorus.  (See my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog.)  One of these was Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston, born in Virginia to an emancipated slave, sent to Ohio in his youth to escape the growing racial repression in the South, and educated at Oberlin College.  On August 2, 1858, now a successful attorney and political leader, Langston delivered a “very stirring and excellent” speech to a Cleveland audience describing his impressions of the American abolitionist movement.  Here are some excerpts: [6]

The achievements of the American anti -slavery movement since that time have been such as to impart hope and courage to every heart. Of course, I do not refer to the achievements of any separate and distinct organization. I refer to the achievements of that complicated and stupendous organization composed of persons from all parts of this country, whose aim is the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of the colored American. What, then, are some of its accomplishments? In the first place, it has brought the subject of slavery itself distinctly and prominently before the public mind. Indeed, in every nook and corner of American society this matter now presents itself, demanding, and in many instances receiving, respectful consideration. There is no gathering of the people, whether political or religious, which is not now forced to give a place in its deliberations to this subject. Like the air we breathe, it is all-pervasive. Through this widespread consideration the effects of slavery upon the slave, the slaveholder, and society generally, have been very thoroughly demonstrated ; and as the people have understood these effects they have loathed and hated their foul cause. Thus the public conscience has been aroused, and a broad and deep and growing interest has been created in behalf of the slave.

In the next place, it has vindicated, beyond decent cavil even, the claim of the slave to manhood and its dignities. No one of sense and decency now thinks that the African slave of this country is not a man…

More than this, the anti-slavery movement has brought to the colored people of the North the opportunities of developing themselves intellectually and morally. It has unbarred and thrown open to them the doors of colleges, academies, law schools, theological seminaries and commercial institutions, to say nothing of the incomparable district school. Of these opportunities they have very generally availed themselves; and now, wherever you go, whether to the East or the West, you will find the colored people comparatively intelligent, industrious, energetic and thrifty, as well as earnest and determined in their opposition to slavery… In the State of Ohio alone thirty thousand colored persons are the owners of six millions of dollars’ worth of property, every cent of which stands pledged to the support of the cause of the slave. Animated by the same spirit of liberty that nerved their fathers, who fought in the Revolutionary war and war of 1812, to free this land from British tyranny, they are the inveterate and uncompromising enemies of oppression, and are willing to sacrifice all that they have, both life and property, to secure its overthrow. But they have more than moral and pecuniary strength. In some of the States of this Union all of their colored inhabitants, and in others a very large class of them, enjoy the privileges and benefits of citizens. This is a source of very great power…

Another achievement of the American anti-slavery movement is the emancipation of forty or fifty thousand fugitive slaves, who stand to-day as so many living, glowing refutations of the brainless charge that nothing has, as yet, been accomplished…

But the crowning achievement of the anti-slavery movement of this country is the establishment, full and complete, of the fact that its great aim and mission is not merely the liberation of four millions of American slaves, and the enfranchisement of six hundred thousand half freemen, but the preservation of the American Government, the preservation of American liberty itself. It has been discovered, at last, that slavery is no respecter of persons, that in its far reaching and broad sweep it strikes down alike the freedom of the black man and the freedom of the white one. This movement can no longer be regarded as a sectional one. It is a great national one. It is not confined in its benevolent, its charitable offices, to any particular class; its broad philanthropy knows no complexional bounds. It cares for the freedom, the rights of us all… [7]

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston

Of course Langston would be among the first to tell you that race relations in the North were far from perfect in 1858, but they had clearly come a long way since the advent of The Liberator and the Liberty Party.  As a gauge of just how far they had come, consider this:  in 1837, an abolitionist journalist named Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, for expressing anti-slavery sentiments.  Two decades later, in October 1858, an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took the podium in that same town and said this:

I have said, and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us…

Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity, save and except this institution of slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging slavery,-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person, and not be able to cut it out, lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing with it as a wrong,-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new countries where it has not already existed…

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. [8]

But far from being lynched, Lincoln was applauded for these words in 1858, and this and similar speeches gained for him the national recognition that would help elect him to the Presidency two years later.  It was the heroic efforts of people like Elijah Lovejoy, John Mercer Langston, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and thousands of other abolitionist teachers, preachers, lecturers, authors, journalists, politicians, Underground Railroad agents, and parents (many of them educated at Oberlin College) that made that possible.

LovejoyMonument

Elijah Lovejoy monument – Alton, Illinois

Just six weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina would secede from the Union, stating as the cause that the Northern states had “united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” and who believed that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” [9]

As it turns out, it was.  The attempt to avoid that reality via secession only served to hasten its demise.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Jon Grinspan, “Was Abolitionism a Failure?“, New York Times, January 30, 2015

John Mercer Langston, “The World’s Anti-Slavery Movement; Its Heroes and its Triumphs

Abraham Lincoln, “Last Joint Debate at Alton; Mr. Lincoln’s Reply

The Anti-Slavery Record, Vol 1, No. 1, January 1835

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

Free Soil Party Platform (1848)“, Teacher’s Guide Primary Source Document Collection

1844 Liberty Party Platform“, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, Civil War Trust

William Lloyd Garrison, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From disunionism to the brink of war, 1850-1860

John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time

James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1907, Volume 3

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

1840 Presidential Election Results“, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Robert S. Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War

Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & the South

About New-York Tribune“, Library of Congress

Blacks and the American Missionary Association“, The United Church of Christ

American Anti-Slavery Society“, Encyclopaedia Britannica

 All photos public domain.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “1840 Presidential Election”; “American Anti-Slavery Society”

[2] Anti-Slavery Record

[3] “Republican Party”; “Free Soil Party”; “1844 Liberty Party”

[4] Harrold, p. 142; “Blacks”; “About New-York”; Fletcher, Chapter XXVII; Garrison, p. 698

[5] Calhoun; Richardson, p. 176

[6] Cheek, pp. 325-326

[7] Langston

[8] Lincoln

[9] “The Declaration of Causes

William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South

Monday, August 12th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

I’ve decided for my next two blog entries to tell the stories of two Southern rebels who had a tremendous  impact on pre-Civil War Oberlin.  But these weren’t Confederate rebels, they were Southern abolitionists, at a time when “abolitionist” was a dirty word even in the North.  They were also students of a theological seminary in Cincinnati – a college that tried to stop them from spreading their anti-slavery message and from doing good deeds among the African-American population of that city.  But these students wouldn’t be shut down.  Instead they  left that school in protest.  And they came to Oberlin, along with about two dozen of their anti-slavery brothers, in just the second year of the Oberlin colony, and put this town and college on an entirely new course that its founders couldn’t have envisioned just two years earlier.  One of these Southern rebels was the son of a respected Southern slaveholder.  The other was a native African who himself had been enslaved.

The slaveholder’s son was William T. Allan.  He was born in Tennessee in 1810, and moved with his family to Huntsville, Alabama about a decade later.  His father, John Allan, was pastor of Huntsville’s First Presbyterian Church.  John Allan owned two families of 15 slaves, who William would later say were “almost as kindly treated as slaves can be, yet they pant for liberty”. [1]  But even though he owned slaves, John Allan was opposed to slavery.  He was not an abolitionist, but a “colonizationist”, believing in the gradual emancipation of the slaves and their colonization back to Africa.  He was a co-founder of Alabama’s Society for the Emancipation of Slavery and the Madison County Colonization Society.

For a month in 1832, the Allan family had a houseguest – a young reformer from Connecticut named Theodore Weld.  Weld was on a mission from Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New York philanthropist, to travel the country and determine what kind of interest there might be for a new type of college that Lewis and his brother were interested in supporting, called a “manual labor institution”.  The idea was that students would engage in manual labor to help pay their way through college, both as a benefit to the college and as moral discipline for themselves.  To enhance the moral discipline,  the school would teach and emphasize moral values and religious purity.  As a secondary goal, Weld was to evaluate existing manual labor institutes that might be worthy of support from the Tappan brothers.

Theodore Dwight Weld

Theodore Dwight Weld

Weld did find such an institute, the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and he spoke about it to interested young men who he met in his travels, like William T. Allan (who would become a lifelong friend) and his brother James.  Weld, the Allans, and several more of these young men enrolled in the Lane Seminary and arrived there in 1833 to begin their studies.

During the course of his nationwide tour, Weld became zealously committed to the abolitionist cause – believing that slavery was a sin and should be abolished immediately, without colonization. [2]  Once his original mission was complete, he embarked on a new, personal mission  to abolitionize the students of the Lane Seminary.  His first target was William Allan.  William was a colonizationist, like his father and like most of the Lane recruits.    But it didn’t take much effort for Weld to convert him into a full-fledged abolitionist.

With that, Allan became an ally of Weld, spreading the abolition message through the Lane student body.  Soon they had enough converts that they felt comfortable challenging the colonizationists to a series of debates.  The debates would cover 18 evenings, at two and a half hours each.  Seventeen students eagerly participated in the debates, many of them recruits who Weld had met during his travels, and most of whom had first-hand experience with slavery in the South, like James A. Thome, the son of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholder, and Huntington Lyman, a Connecticut native who had spent several years in Louisiana.

The debates were held in February, 1834.  Weld, a very powerful and persuasive orator, was the keynote speaker.  He spoke for two nights, followed by two nights of group discussion and debate.  This was followed by four nights of first-hand testimony about slavery.  This was probably the most powerful part of the debates, and William Allan led it off.  Here’s part of what he had to say:

What is slavery?  Before we can prescribe a remedy, we must understand the disease. We must know what we are attempting to cure, before we give the medicine…

At our house it is so common to hear their screams from a neighbouring plantation, that we think nothing of it. The overseer of this plantation told me one day, he laid a young woman over a log, and beat her so severely that she was soon after delivered of a dead child. A bricklayer, a neighbor of ours, owned a very smart young negro man, who ran away, but was caught. When his master got him home, he stripped him naked, tied him up by his hands, in plain sight and hearing of the academy and the public green, so high that his feet could not touch the ground ; then tied them together, and put a long board between his legs, to keep him steady. After preparing him in this way, he took a paddle, bored it full of holes, and commenced beating him with it. He continued it leisurely all day. At night his flesh was literally pounded to a jelly. It was two weeks before he was able to walk. No one took any notice of it; no one thought any wrong was done…

And lest any one should think that in general the slaves are well treated, and these are the exceptions, let me be distinctly understood — Cruelty is the rule, and kindness the exception.[3]

One audience member remarked later, “I was rejoiced to hear such a beginning from the son of a slave-holder; for I had longed to learn the true condition of the slave.”  Several other students also gave first-hand accounts of slavery, including James Thome and Huntington Lyman.  The abolitionism portion of the debates ended on the ninth evening with a vote being taken on the following question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states to abolish slavery immediately?”  The answer was a unanimous Yes (although a few students who hadn’t made up their minds abstained from voting).

The students then entered into nine evenings of debate about the colonization issue, which included readings from extensive reports, addresses and repositories of the American Colonization Society.  According to student Henry B. Stanton, just reading the colonization society’s own promotional material was enough to change many attitudes:

Most of the Colonizationists who expressed any opinion on the subject, declared their ignorance of the doctrines and measures of the Society until this debate.  They cannot find words to express their astonishment that they should have been so duped into the support of this Society, as a scheme of benevolence towards the free blacks, and a remedy for slavery.  They now repudiate it with all their hearts.[4]

And thus when a vote was taken on the final night of the debates concerning the colonization issue, only one student voted in favor of colonization, with all the others opposed (except a handful of abstainers, as before).  The debates inspired the students to start their own anti-slavery society, with William Allan as President.  Many of the students also started distributing abolitionist literature and  going out into the Cincinnati African American community to teach and minister to the large population of ex-slaves there.  Said Henry Stanton, “Almost all of our southern brethren are engaged in colored Sabbath schools and Bible classes.  Some of them have devoted their lives in doing good to that oppressed race.”

But racism, which was prevalent in Ohio at that time (especially in Cincinnati, situated right across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky), reared its ugly head.  The students met with much abuse and condemnation from white residents, and the Lane Seminary itself came under fire from the local community and its supporters, many of whom were slaveholders or conducted business with slaveholders.  The school was even threatened with mob violence.  The trustees of Lane Seminary asked the students to desist from their activities, but a committee of students, chaired by William Allan, stood firm. Finally the trustees came down hard on the students, banning any further anti-slavery discussion or activities, firing a professor, and recommending expulsion procedures against Weld and William Allan.  As a result, several dozen students quit the school in protest, becoming known as the “Lane Rebels”.

When news reached Huntsville, Alabama that the Allan boys had left Lane, their father was not happy, and their neighbors were incensed when they learned of their abolitionist activities.  Said William, “They blow away against abolitionists down there at a terrible rate – say they’ll cut my throat, that I’m afraid to come home, etc.”[5] However, one of Allan’s Huntsville neighbors, James Birney, a wealthy slaveholder who had co-founded the local emancipation and colonization societies with John Allan, was so moved by the Lane debates that he emancipated all of his slaves and became an outspoken abolitionist.

The news of what happened at Lane also sent shockwaves through colleges throughout the North.  Many institutions suddenly became aware of student anti-slavery societies on their own campuses and shut them down, in hopes of staving off a similar disaster.  One college, however, had the opposite reaction.  John J. Shipherd, a member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and the co-founder of a newly formed manual labor institution called the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College), went down to Cincinnati to visit the Lane Rebels and invite them to Oberlin, promising that their philanthropic and anti-slavery activities wouldn’t be squelched there.  After a complex set of negotiations (which I’ll describe in more detail in my next blog post), about two dozen of the Rebels agreed to come to Oberlin and enroll in the newly formed Theological Department, headed by the renowned revivalist minister, Charles G. Finney, with generous financial support from the Tappan brothers.  William Allan said of the plan, “This Oberlin plan, however, has opened up a new train… That, with me, will be putting on the capstone–I shall have passed the rubicon if I should go to an institution where abolition is concentrated–at the head of which is that arch-heretic Finney.”[6] James Thome and Huntington Lyman joined Allan in heading to Oberlin.  Theodore Weld enthusiastically supported the move, but did not join in himself.  Flushed with his success at abolitionizing first William Allan and then the Lane Seminary, he instead took off on a remarkable speaking campaign across the state that would “fast abolitionize Ohio” and create dozens of new local anti-slavery societies.

When the Lane Rebels came to Oberlin in early 1835, abolitionist students who had been silenced by other colleges in the North followed suit.  Thus the fledgling colony of Oberlin became a major national center of abolitionism virtually overnight.  This was encouraged by Weld, who arrived in Oberlin in late 1835 and gave rousing anti-slavery lectures for 21 nights.   According to student James Fairchild (future Professor and College President), Weld spoke with such “fervid eloquence” that “Oberlin was abolitionized in every thought and feeling and purpose.”  The college leadership remained true to their word of allowing unrestricted free speech, although Reverend Finney did attempt to temper the enthusiasm, believing the students should devote their time to general moral reform and revivalism, which he felt would ultimately lead not only to the abolition of slavery, but of all earthly sin.  In 1836 Allan wrote to Weld, “Bro. Finney has used his heart & head & influence to convince us that it is our duty to preach. He groans over the subject & speaks of himself as being agonized about it. Thus we are situated–you and Stanton groaning on one side & Finney on the other.”[7]

But it was the groans of Weld and Stanton that persuaded Allan.  He and fellow rebels James Thome, Huntington Lyman, John Alvord, and Sereno Streeter became lecturing “agents” of the American Anti-Slavery Society, numbering among “The Seventy” apostles of aboltionism who were selected to be trained by Weld to travel all over the North, endure peltings with rotten eggs, stones and bricks, and convert thousands to the cause.  (Allan and Thome had already become members of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society at its charter meeting in Zanesville in April, 1835.)

William Allan graduated from Oberlin college in 1836 and began a long and active anti-slavery career.    He preached and lectured against slavery in Ohio, New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, finally settling in the latter and becoming an agent of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society.  In 1839 Theodore Weld published a testimonial from William Allan in his book about the horrors of slavery.  In the 1840s Allan became an organizer of the Illinois and Iowa chapters of the first national anti-slavery political party, the Liberty Party, which nominated his ex-Huntsville neighbor, James Birney, for President of the United States.  When William’s mother became mortally ill in 1841, his father advised him not to return home, as local sentiment was so strong against him that he feared for his safety.  John Allan himself died in 1843, freeing his slaves in his will.  William remained in Illinois and helped free slaves himself, his home becoming a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad.  He died in Illinois in 1882 after a long, distinguished and honorable public career.

Allan Grave

Allan family tomb in Illinois. (Unfortunately this is the closest we have to a picture of William T. Allan)

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t made any mention since the first paragraph of the ex-slave rebel who came to Oberlin, it’s because I’ll be telling his story in detail in my next blog post.  Stay tuned!)

Sources consulted:

Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom

Elizur Wright, The Quarterly Anti-slavery Magazine, Volume 1

Henry B. Stanton, “Great Debate at Lane Seminary”, letter to Joshua Leavitt, March 10, 1834

“William T. Allan and Lane Seminary”, The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Theodore Dwight Weld, Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844, Volume 1

“Rev William T Allan”, Find a Grave

James Harris Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery as it is

Reinhard O. Johnson, The Liberty Party, 1840-1848

William Birney,  James G. Birney and his times

“James Gillespie Birney”, Huntsville History Collection

John Allan Wyeth, With Sabre and Scalpel. The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon

“Rev. John Allan”, Huntsville History Collection

“General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908”, Oberlin College Archives

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Birney, p. 106; Weld, American Slavery, p. 47

[2] Thomas, Chapter 2

[3] Wright, p. 64

[4] Stanton, March 10, 1834

[5] Thomas, Chapter 6

[6] Weld, Letters, p. 190

[7] Fairchild, p. 68, 75; Weld, Letters,  p. 324

William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Did you know that Oberlin was the scene of a series of heated public debates featuring renowned abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and their colleagues in the 1840s?  Well, it was, and if you didn’t know that, you’re not alone!  Even though the debates were attended by up to 3,000 people, the leaders in Oberlin at that time really weren’t all that keen about publicizing them.  But I am, so here’s my blog about them.

William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass

First some background.  By the time William Lloyd Garrison came on the abolition scene in New England in the early 1830s, the abolitionist movement had already been thriving for decades in many states, including Ohio.  But Garrison quickly realized the need to nationalize the movement, and together with the Tappan brothers of New York  (Arthur and Lewis, benefactors of Oberlin College), he co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS).   This was an era of good feeling between abolitionists (Lewis Tappan praised Garrison as a “discreet, humble and faithful Christian”), and the national movement took off like wildfire, quickly engulfing Ohio and the newly formed colony of Oberlin.  In its first seven years of operation, the AAS boasted almost 2,000 charter societies and 200,000 members nationwide.

Yet in spite of all its initial success, cracks were developing in the organization right from the very beginning.  Garrison was the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper in Boston called The Liberator.  Although its circulation was small, Garrison wrote with a style that journalist Horace Greeley described as “bold, radical, earnest, eloquent, extravagant, denunciatory, egotistic.”[1]  This style got him national attention, but was always an irritant to some of his fellow abolitionists.  But Garrison quickly became more and more radical and the list of people, groups and institutions he denounced grew ever longer.  He denounced organized religion for maintaining relationships with slaveholders.  He denounced the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document, and encouraged abolitionists to withdraw from government altogether by refusing to vote or serve in public office.  He would eventually even advocate dismemberment of the United States, under the slogan “No Union with Slaveholders.” But he also became an ardent pacifist, advocating “non-resistance” in all circumstances.  And he brought abolitionist women into the cause, insisting that they be able to speak publicly in front of audiences comprised of both genders, which was considered taboo in that era.  He insisted on equal rights for women as well as African Americans.

Finally, by 1840, the Tappan brothers and many other abolitionists (including the Oberlin College faculty) came to believe that Garrison was “using the Society as an instrument” to promote ideas that he deemed “paramount to the Anti S[lavery] cause” with the result that “the slave has been lost sight of mainly.”[2]  So they withdrew from the AAS and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and a political party of their own called the Liberty Party, which focused exclusively on abolishing slavery through the church and government, within the constitutional framework of the United States.

But Garrison was undeterred, and by the mid-1840s he launched a program to urge Ohio abolitionists to “come out” of the church, the government, and the federal union – a movement dubbed “come-outerism”.  In the first wave of his effort, he sent Stephen Foster and Abby Kelley to Ohio as his ambassadors.  Stephen Foster was a radical New England abolitionist who had been physically ejected from 24 New England churches and arrested 4 times for disrupting sermons with loud oratories of his own, frequently referring to the clergy as a “brotherhood of thieves”.[3]  Abby Kelley was a New England Quaker feminist and abolitionist who “came out” of the Quakers in 1841 over a dispute about allowing abolitionist speakers in meeting houses.  In 1845 she married Stephen Foster and became Mrs. Abby Kelley Foster.  Together they founded a western Garrisonian headquarters and newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, at Salem, Ohio.

The Fosters

During the first half of 1846, the Fosters tried unsuccessfully to bring their message to Oberlin, but were blocked by the college faculty, who considered them “infidels” for their anti-church stance, and  “unsafe advocates of the slave.”  But finally, after insistence of  the Oberlin black community and some Oberlin College students (most notably Lucy Stone, Betsey Cowles and Sallie Holley), Oberlin College President Asa Mahan agreed to let them speak, as long as he was given equal time to rebut their arguments.[4]  The result was a five-day series of debates, two to three hours each, held at the chapel of Colonial Hall in September, 1846.  There were two main topics of discussion: is the Constitution a pro-slavery document, and “can Christian abolitionists consistently remain in a church sustaining the same relation to slavery that the church in Oberlin does?”[5]

Regarding the church question, the Oberlin church had long since resolved to sever all direct relationships with slaveholders and other supporters of slavery.  The Garrisonians approved of this, but they objected to the church’s position that they would not withhold fellowship from other anti-slavery ministers or churches who themselves maintained relationships with churches that didn’t denounce slavery.   Although we don’t have a record as to exactly what the debaters said on this topic, Lucy Stone, who was a correspondent to the pro-Garrison Anti-Slavery Bugle, probably spoke for the Fosters when she wrote that the Oberlin church “continues to give to, and receive letters from churches which are not only in full fellowship with, but made up in part of slaveholders”, thus forming “a link in the chain” of bondage.  And Asa Mahan likely took the position of the church itself, that maintaining these relationships could be “the best means of exerting an anti-slavery influence.”[6]

The bulk of the debate however (totaling about 12 hours of discussion), focused on the relationship of slavery to the U.S. Constitution.  Although the Constitution never mentions slavery or any derivative of the word “slave” by name, it did include three clauses that were widely recognized to relate to slavery.  For example, one of these reads:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. (Article IV, Section 2)

It was widely accepted that the term “person held to service or labour” referred to both slaves and indentured servants, and this clause was the justification for the Fugitive Slave Law.  Therefore, the Fosters argued, the Constitution supported and encouraged slavery.  But Asa Mahan, borrowing an argument from philosopher Lysander Spooner, quoted an 1805 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (on an entirely different subject matter)[7]:

Where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, where the general system of the law[s] is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects. (United States v. Fisher – 6 US 358)

Mahan argued that the vague references to slavery in the Constitution didn’t constitute the “irresistible clearness” that would be required for “infringing rights and trampling down justice.”  He argued further that even when the American colonies were under British rule, no slavery laws had ever been passed with sufficiently  “irresistible clearness”.  Thus slavery was, and always had been, an “illegal usurpation” in the United States and the American colonies.[8]

As the debates continued, both sides began to engage in personal attacks, each accusing the other of not being “sincere” in their anti-slavery advocacy.  Mrs. Foster also spoke out, prompting one audience member to remark afterwards that she should be “tarred and feathered”.  Mahan concluded his arguments by comparing come-outerism to a “hideous monster… armed with hellish daggers” that could only “tear down and never build up.”  Stephen Foster responded by quoting a verse from the New Testament that said, “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4)[9]

Asa Mahan
Asa Mahan (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

As for the outcome of the 1846 debates, the Oberlin Evangelist reported: “We are not aware that disunion and come-out-ism have made one new convert… the Fosters were deemed weak in argument – strong only in vituperation.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle reported from Oberlin that “the great mass of the people here, especially the students, believe that President Mahan achieved a complete victory”, but attributed this in large part to the faculty prejudicing the community in the weeks leading up to the debates.  The Fosters declared that Mahan “was very gentlemanly in deportment, but exhibited a recklessness of principle.”  Oberlin Professor James Fairchild said “the atmosphere waxed hot and lurid with the fire and smoke of the conflict.”  A group of black Oberlin residents passed resolutions claiming that both Mahan and the Fosters were “true and honest friends of the oppressed”, and that Garrison “has wreathed for himself a crown of unfading laurels.”[10]

But the Fosters clearly failed to break the ice in Oberlin, so Garrison now decided to send in the ‘first string’.  He would visit Ohio and Oberlin himself the next year, with his protégé Frederick Douglass, a compelling abolitionist speaker who had escaped from slavery and joined the Garrison movement in New England.  Garrison and Douglass received a much friendlier reception in Oberlin than the Fosters had, and were even allowed to present their arguments at First Church (the Meeting House) during commencement weekend in August, 1847.  Asa Mahan, who had a historically stormy relationship with Garrison, insisted once again on the right of rebuttal, setting up another series of debates.  This time Garrison would handle the Constitutional and disunion arguments, while Douglass handled the anti-church arguments.  Garrison described the debates and his Oberlin visit in a letter to his wife:

You know that from the commencement of the Institution in Oberlin, I took a lively interest in its welfare…  Oberlin has done much for the relief of the flying fugitives from the Southern prison house, multitudes of whom have found it a refuge from their pursuers and been fed, clad, sheltered, comforted, and kindly assisted on their way out of this horrible land to Canada. It has also promoted the cause of emancipation in various ways and its church refuses to be connected with any slaveholding or pro-slavery church by religious fellowship; though it is said to be involved in ecclesiastical and political relations which impair the strength of its testimony and diminish the power of its example. From these, if they exist, it is to be hoped it will be wholly extricated ere long, as light increases and duty is made manifest…

The meeting house is as spacious as the Broadway Tabernacle in New York, but much better arranged. Two of the graduates took occasion in their addresses to denounce the “fanaticism of Come-outerism and Disunionism” and to make a thrust at those who, in the guise of anti-slavery, temperance, etc., are endeavoring to promote “infidelity”…

Yesterday at 10 o’clock we began our meetings in the church – nearly three thousand persons in attendance. Another was held in the afternoon, another in the evening, and this forenoon we have had another long session. Douglass and myself have done nearly all the talking on our side, friend Foster saying but little. The principal topics of discussion have been Come-outerism from the Church and the State. Pres. Mahan entered into the debate in favor of the US Constitution as an anti-slavery instrument and consequently of the Liberty Party. He was perfectly respectful and submitted to our interrogations with good temper and courtesy. As a disputant he is adroit and plausible, but neither vigorous nor profound. I shall say nothing about my visit here for the public eye until my return. What impression we made at Oberlin I cannot say, but I was abundantly satisfied as to the apparent effect. I think our visit was an important one and very timely withal.[11]

Unfortunately, that’s about all the information we have about the 1847 debates.  The Oberlin Evangelist, which had summarized  its long article about the 1846 debates by saying “the discussion is now over”, apparently meant it; they said not one word about the 1847 visit or debates.  Garrison never wrote anything “for the public eye” after his return either, as he became deathly ill while in Cleveland, was incapacitated for weeks, and didn’t resume editing his newspaper until the following year.  The Anti-Slavery Bugle may have summed it up best when it said, “The people, in short, had become so accustomed to hearing Disunion and Come-outer doctrines uttered with all the harshness and sternness of Luther’s reformatory spirit, that when Garrison and Douglass came, they appeared, by comparison, the Melanchthons of the cause.”[12]  We do know that a member of the audience wrote that “Prest. Mahan was masterly and dignified, overturning and scattering to the winds every position of his opponent.”  And Mahan was highly impressed with Douglass, who he called “one of the greatest phenomena of the age… full of wit, human[ity], and pathos and sometimes mighty in invective.”[13]  Garrison and Douglass left town on good terms, with Professor Finney even loaning them his enormous revival tent to use in meetings around Ohio.

But interestingly enough, within two months of these debates, Frederick Douglass would begin to distance himself from the Garrisonians.  He started his own newspaper, against Garrison’s advice, in upstate New York, the “heartland” of the Liberty Party.   By 1851, Douglass would complete the schism with Garrison, declaring the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document and becoming an advocate of political activism.  He would now advance some of the very same reasoning that Asa Mahan used when speaking about the Constitution, and would denounce the idea of disunion as placing “the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding States.”[14]

So was the Constitution really pro-slavery, or was it anti-slavery?  Well, perhaps it was both.  In 1854, a new political party was founded on the premise that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed, but it provided no guarantees to expand it into the national territories, and that the Founding Fathers in fact opposed the expansion of slavery and hoped for its “ultimate extinction”.  That party was the Republican Party.  Ironically, the Republicans rose to power in the elections of 1860 with the help of votes and political action from many abolitionists.  (Garrison himself refused to vote, although he also refused to denounce the Republicans, which led to a schism between him and the Fosters).  Even more ironically, the victory of the Republican Party led to the attempted dismemberment of the Union by the slaveholders.  And in the crowning irony, the slaveholders’ attempt at disunion ultimately led to the abolition of slavery nationwide, although in a manner few intended, expected, or desired.

Sources consulted:

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison 1805-1879, Vol 3, 1841-1860

“The Disunionist Discussion”, Oberlin Evangelist, September 30, 1846, p. 158

“Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

“Church action on the subject of slavery”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, October 9, 1846

Lindsay Swift, William Lloyd Garrison

Lysander Spooner, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery

Wendell Phillips, Review of Lysander Spooner’s Essay On the Unconstitutionality of Slavery

“The Cause in Ohio”, The Liberator, October 23, 1846, p. 171

“Garrison and Douglass”, Anti-Slavery Bugle, September 17, 1847

Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: the colony and the college, 1833-1883

Edward H. Madden and James E. Hamilton, Freedom and Grace: The Life of Asa Mahan

John L. Thomas, The Liberator William Lloyd Garrison

Encylopaedia Britannica, “American Anti-Slavery Society”

Stephen Symonds Foster“, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo. Coll. 81, Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives.

Footnotes:

[1] Mayer, p. 427
[2] Thomas, p. 292
[3] Mayer,  p. 304; Madden, p. 86
[4] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[5] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[6] “Church action on the subject of slavery”; Madden, p.86
[7] “The Disunionist Discussion”; Spooner; Phillips
[8] “The Disunionist Discussion”
[9] “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”
[10] “The Disunionist Discussion”; “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”; “The Cause in Ohio”; Fairchild, p.86
[11] Garrison, pp. 202-203
[12] “Garrison and Douglass”
[13] Fletcher, Chapter XIX
[14] Douglass, “Constitution”