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.
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.” 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.” 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”. 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.
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. 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?”
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.”
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):
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.
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
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
“Stephen Symonds Foster“, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo. Coll. 81, Massachusetts Historical Society Photo Archives.
 Mayer, p. 427
 Thomas, p. 292
 Mayer, p. 304; Madden, p. 86
 Fletcher, Chapter XIX
 “The Disunionist Discussion”
 “Church action on the subject of slavery”; Madden, p.86
 “The Disunionist Discussion”; Spooner; Phillips
 “The Disunionist Discussion”
 “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”
 “The Disunionist Discussion”; “Mr. and Mrs. Foster at Oberlin”; “The Cause in Ohio”; Fairchild, p.86
 Garrison, pp. 202-203
 “Garrison and Douglass”
 Fletcher, Chapter XIX
 Douglass, “Constitution”