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James Bradley – from hopeless bondage to Lane Rebel

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Seven years before the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass first stood before a sympathetic audience of white abolitionists and “trembling in every limb” told them the story of his life as a slave, another ex-slave, James Bradley, stood before an audience of white colonizationists (people who believed freed slaves should be returned to Africa), and skillfully debunked the rationale of colonization and slavery.  His presentation was part of a series of academic debates on abolitionism and colonization that would have an important impact on the American abolition movement and dramatically alter the course of Oberlin’s history.

James Bradley statue

James Bradley statue – Covington, KY

The debates were held at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February, 1834 (see my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog post for details).  Of the approximately 45 total hours of debate time, James Bradley occupied about two hours, but an argument can be made that they were the two most important hours of the debates.  Bradley started by telling his personal story, of being born in Africa, enslaved as a toddler, and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to South Carolina.  Although we don’t have a transcript of his exact words at the debates, we do have a published account of his life story, written by him shortly afterwards.  Here are some excerpts:

A slaveholder bought me and took me up into Pendleton County, Ky.  I suppose I stayed with him about six months.  He sold me to a Mr. Bradley, by whose name I have ever since been called.  This man was considered a wonderfully kind master and it is true I was treated better than most of the slaves I knew.  I never suffered for food and never was flogged with the whip but oh, my soul!  I was tormented with kicks and knocks more than I can tell…

I used to work very hard. I was always obliged to be in the field by sunrise and labored until dark, stopping only at noon long enough to eat dinner.  When I was about 15 years old, I took what was called the cold plague in consequence of being overworked and I was sick a long time.  My master came to see me one day, and hearing me groan with pain, he said, “This fellow will never be of any more use to me.  I would as soon knock him in the head, as if he were an opossum.”  His children sometimes came in and shook axes and knives at me, as if they were about to knock me on the head…

My master kept me ignorant of everything he could.  I was never told anything about God or my soul.  Yet from the time I was 14 years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom.  It was my heart’s desire. I could not keep it out of my mind.  Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave.  I looked back on all I had suffered and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage.  My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.

After the death of my master I began to contrive how I might buy myself.  After toiling all day for my mistress, I used to sleep three or four hours and then get up and work for myself the remainder of the night. I made collars for horses out of plaited husks.  I could weave one in about eight hours and I generally took time enough from my sleep to make two collars in the course of a week.  I sold them for 50 cents each.  One summer, I tried to take two or three hours from my sleep every night, but I found that I grew weak and I was obliged to sleep more.  With my first money, I bought a pig.  The next year I earned for myself about $13 and the next, about $30…

I used to go out with my hoe and dig up little patches which I planted with corn…got up at night to tend it.  My hogs were fattened with this corn and I used to sell a number every year.  Besides this, I used to raise small patches of tobacco and sell it to buy more corn for my pigs.  In this way I worked five years.  At the end of which time, after taking out my losses, I found that I had earned $160.  With this money I hired my own time for two years.  During this period, I worked almost all the time, night and day.  The hope of liberty stung my nerves and braced my soul so much that I could do with very little sleep or rest.  I could do a great deal more work than I was ever able to do before.  At the end of two years, I had earned $300 besides feeding and clothing myself.  I now bought my time for 18 months longer and went 250 miles west, nearly into Texas, where I could make more money.  Here I earned enough to buy myself, including what I gave for my time, about $700.

As soon as I was free, I started for a free state.  When I arrived in Cincinnati, I heard of Lane Seminary, about two miles out of the city.  I had for years been praying to God that my dark mind might see the light of knowledge.  I asked for admission to the seminary.  They pitied me and granted my request, though I knew nothing of the studies which were required for admission.  I am so ignorant that I suppose it will take me two years to get up with the lowest class in the institution.  But in all respects I am treated just as kindly and as much like a brother by the students, as if my skin were as white and my education as good as their own…[1]

Bradley also told how he secretly taught himself to read and write, against his masters’ wishes (and against the law in most Southern states).  After telling his life story, Bradley went on to attack the concepts of slavery and colonization.  This was a crucial time in the national abolition movement, when a large number of white Americans, even those who opposed slavery, believed that blacks couldn’t be integrated with whites in large numbers without a detrimental effect on  both.  This was one of the biggest arguments against abolition and in favor of colonization.  At this point in time free blacks comprised less than 3% of the American population.  Enslaved blacks, on the other hand, made up more than 34% of the population of the Southern states (and more than 50% of the population of South Carolina and Louisiana).  The only knowledge many white Americans had of blacks came through the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the racial stereotypes that were used to rationalize it.  In the words of South Carolina’s pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun:

“…two races differing so greatly, and in so many respects, cannot possibly exist together in the same country, where their numbers are nearly equal, without the one being subjected to the other.  Experience has proved that the existing relation, in which the one is subjected to the other in the slaveholding States, is consistent with the peace and safety of both, with great improvement to the inferior…”[2]

Bradley’s mere presence at Lane Seminary, and the energy, ambition and hard work that brought him there, seriously challenged this philosophy.  But Bradley had more to say, as described by Lane student Henry B. Stanton:

This shrewd and intelligent black, cut up these white objections by the roots, and withered and scorched them under the sun of sarcastic argumentation, for nearly an hour, to which the assembly responded in repeated and spontaneous roars of laughter, which were heartily joined in by both Colonizationists and Abolitionists. Do not understand me as saying, that his speech was devoid of argument. No. It contained sound logic, enforced by apt illustrations. I wish the slanderers of negro intellect could have witnessed this unpremeditated effort.

In response to the common argument that freed slaves would be unable to take care of themselves, Bradley said: “They have to take care of, and support themselves now, and their master, and his family into the bargain; and this being so, it would be strange if they could not provide for themselves, when disencumbered from this load.”[3]

In response to the common argument that the slaves were content with their position, we know him to have written: “How strange it is that anybody should believe any human being could be a slave and yet be contented.  I do not believe there ever was a slave who did not long for liberty.  I know very well that slave owners take a great deal of pains to make people in the free states believe that slaves are happy but I know likewise that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.”[4]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bradley’s contribution was critical to the debates.  Theodore Weld had the impassioned fervor and unassailable logic; William T. Allan and Huntington Lyman generated sympathy and outrage with their tales of victimization and abuse; but someone needed to attack the pervasive stereotypes and demonstrate that the John C. Calhouns were wrong.  Only James Bradley could do that, and by all accounts he did it masterfully.

After the debates, Bradley became a manager of the newly formed student anti-slavery society, and when the school tried to squelch the students’ anti-slavery activities, he became one of the “Lane Rebels” who withdrew from the school in protest.  When John J. Shipherd came down and invited the rebels  to attend Oberlin College instead, Bradley was interested.  But there was one hitch.  Oberlin College at that time didn’t have a policy to admit black students.  So the rebels demanded that such a policy be instated before they would come to Oberlin.

Shipherd, being a progressive member of the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society, was fine with this demand, but he needed the approval of the students, faculty and trustees of Oberlin College, and he expected he was in for some opposition.  He wrote back to Oberlin: “Indeed, if our Board would violate right so as to reject youth of talent and piety because they were black, I should have no heart to labor for the upbuilding of our Seminary, believing that the curse of God would come upon us, as it has upon Lane Seminary, for its unchristian abuse of the poor slave.”[5]

Opposition he expected, and opposition he got.  And then some.  It was led by none other than his colony co-founder, Philo P. Stewart, who “at once proclaimed Bro. Shipherd Mad!! crazy etc. etc. and that the School was changed into a Negro School.”  The Tappan brothers of New York offered generous financial support to the college, and the renowned revivalist minister Charles Finney offered to come to Oberlin and head a new Theological Department, if only the demands of the Lane Rebels were accepted.  But this had little or no impact on the opponents.  The college and the colony split on the issue and entered into several weeks of heated and sometimes acrimonious debate.   Finally, with Shipherd threatening to depart “for another field of labor”, the college trustees voted by a narrow 5-4 margin to accept the demands of the rebels, and Oberlin College became the first college in the country to have a formal policy of race-blind admissions.[6]

With that the Lane Rebels, James Bradley included, came to Oberlin, as did two other notable African Americans, Charles and Gideon Langston (older brothers of John Mercer Langston).  In fact so many students (the vast majority white), came to Oberlin over the next year that Oberlin College was forced to open four branch institutions in 1836 to handle the overflow.  One of these was the Sheffield Manual Labor Institute in nearby Sheffield, which stressed agricultural manual labor and preparatory coursework.  James Bradley transferred to this branch and attended along with about forty  students, including the Langston brothers, James Fitch, Mary Hosford, and Mary Kellogg (future wife of future Oberlin College President James Fairchild).

Burrell Homestead

Sheffield Manual Labor Institute at the Burrell Homestead

But things didn’t go well at Sheffield.  Its agricultural experiments failed, and the school and many of its students faced financial difficulties.  The crowning blow came when the school applied for a charter from the state of Ohio in 1837, and was told that it would only be granted if the school excluded black students.  By this time the presence of James Bradley and the Langston brothers at Oberlin and Sheffield had allayed the community’s fears, with even Philo Stewart taking “his position with the foremost of Abolitionists”, so excluding black students from any Oberlin-affiliated school was unthinkable.  (In fact, the Oberlin College campus was already openly harboring escaped slaves.)  Consequently the Sheffield institute closed, with a few of the students returning to Oberlin, but most scattering to the wind.  Unfortunately James Bradley was among the latter, and we have no record of him after leaving Sheffield.[7]

But even though we don’t know what happened to James Bradley, he clearly made his mark on Oberlin.  His sheer indomitable will propelled him out of “dark and hopeless bondage” and to the Lane Seminary debate platform 7 years before Frederick Douglass, 9 years before Sojourner Truth and William Wells Brown, and 11 years before Lewis Clarke took the national stage.  I can’t help but wonder what the results of the Lane debates might have been without him, and what the effect might have been on abolitionism and especially on the history of Oberlin.  But I’ll have to leave those questions as food for thought, along with these closing words that James Bradley wrote in his letter to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

“God preserve you, and strengthen you in this holy cause, until the walls of prejudice are broken down, the chains burst in pieces, and men of every color meet at the feet of Jesus, speaking kind words, and looking upon each other in love – willing to live together on earth, as they hope to live in Heaven!”  – James Bradley

Sources consulted:

Lydia Maria Child, The Oasis

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

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

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

“Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”, The Village Pioneer, March, 2008

“Marker #15-47 Burrell Homestead”, Ohio Historical Society

“Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”, Proceedings of the Senate and Documents Relative to Texas, from which the Injunction of Secrecy Has Been Removed

“Catalogue and Record of Colored Students,” 1835-62, RG 5/4/3 – Minority Student Records, Oberlin College Archives

Historical Census Browser, Census Data for Year 1830,  University of Virginia Library

“Statue story of freedom”, Cincinnati.com

“James Bradley – Covington, Kentucky”, Waymarking.com

Delazon Smith, A History of Oberlin

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Child, pp.  106-107
[2] “Mr. Calhoun to Mr. Pakenham”
[3] Stanton, March 10, 1834
[4] Child, pp. 110-111
[5] Fairchild, p. 55
[6] Fletcher, Chapter XIV; Fairchild, p. 61
[7] “Sheffield Manual Labor Institute”; Fairchild p. 63; “General catalogue”; Smith, pp. 63-64

Oberlin commenst this war!

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.”  Thus spoke the Reverend Petroleum V. Nasby, one of the most well-known American cartoon characters of the Civil War era.  Nasby’s uncouth, semi-illiterate letters enjoyed nationwide newspaper circulation (in the North, at least) and appeared in several books, and were read with great amusement by President Abraham Lincoln.  And since Nasby enjoyed ranting about Oberlin, I thought it would be fun to do a blog about him and his creator, the journalist and political satirist David R. Locke.

David Ross Locke

David Ross Locke

At the time Locke started writing the Nasby letters in 1862, he was 29 years old and the editor of the Jeffersonian, a Republican newspaper in Findlay, Ohio.  At that time, newspapers often had political affiliations, and Locke, a staunch anti-slavery Republican, had been editing Republican newspapers since the founding of the party several years earlier.  Locke was also an outspoken advocate of racial equality, which was extremely unusual at that time, even among opponents of slavery.  In 1854 he wrote an editorial lashing out at the Ohio Senate for refusing to allow an African American journalist, William Howard Day (an 1847 graduate of Oberlin College), to report on their proceedings.  He called Day “a young man of striking ability” and the action of the Ohio Senate “one of the most contemptible actions on record.”

Locke also had close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party.  In 1855 he entered a brief newspaper partnership with Roeliff Brinkerhoff, a major Ohio Republican Party operative and a future legal consultant to the Oberlin-Wellington rescuers.  Locke was an enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln, who he first met during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Locke volunteered for enlistment, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and raised a company of 100 men.  But when he got to Columbus, Ohio’s Republican Governor, William Dennison, convinced him that his unique journalistic skills would do more good for the Union cause than military service.  So Locke relinquished his command and took ownership of the Jeffersonian.

Ironically, the Jeffersonian was distributed in Hancock County, a strongly Democratic county in mostly Republican Ohio.  Locke was incensed at some of the extremely racist and pro-Confederate attitudes he encountered in Hancock County among a group of men known as “Copperheads” – anti-war, pro-slavery Democrats led by Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham.  One Hancock County man in particular had been circulating a petition throughout the county to expel African Americans from Ohio.  But Locke, who said “I can kill more error by exaggerating vice than by abusing it”, had a ready-made answer for this.  For years his journalistic writings had been dabbling in satire, letters from fictitious characters, and a form of writing that was popular in that era that included wild misspellings and malapropisms.  He would now combine the three to create a parody of the man distributing the petition, and use it to lampoon the Copperheads and the Democratic Party (often called “the Democracy” in that era).

Thus on April 25, 1862, Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was born – an unscrupulous, ignorant, uncouth, blatantly racist, Copperhead Democrat.  On that day a letter appeared in the Jeffersonian, signed by Nasby, under the heading “Letter from a Straight Democrat”.  (When Locke later published a book of his Nasby letters, this letter would appear as the third entry, under the title “Negro Emancipation”.)  In this letter he railed against the growing black population in the region: “I am bekomin alarmed, for, ef they inkreese at this rate, in suthin over sixty years they’ll hev a majority in the town, and may, ef they git mean enuff, tyrannize over us, even ez we air tyrannizin over them.  The danger is imminent!… Fellow-whites arouse!  The enemy is onto us!  Our harths is in danger!… Ameriky for white men!”

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast)

The letter got nationwide distribution through a journalistic process of the time called the “exchange”, and became an instant hit.   President Lincoln was so amused by it that he committed passages  to memory and would frequently recite them.  But Locke was only getting started.  Nasby would pump out letters for the next 20 years.

Two months after his first letter, Locke used Nasby to focus on the issue of abolitionism.  It was a common sentiment among the Copperhead Democrats that the abolitionists were the cause of the Civil War.   Lincoln’s predecessor in the Presidency, Democrat James Buchanan, voiced this sentiment in his last annual message to Congress, when he denounced abolitionist “agitation”:

…This agitation has ever since been continued by the public press, by the proceedings of State and county conventions and by abolition sermons and lectures. The time of Congress has been occupied in violent speeches on this never-ending subject, and appeals, in pamphlet and other forms, indorsed by distinguished names, have been sent forth from this central point and spread broadcast over the Union.

How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country! They, and they alone, can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way…

And so, in June, 1862, Locke lampooned the philosophy of former President Buchanan, who he had previously called “the most odious dough face in the north”.  He did this by having Nasby harangue the abolitionists, in a letter that would later be published in his book under the title  “Annihilates an Oberlinite”.  In this letter, Nasby writes about his encounter with a fellow traveler on a passenger train.  When he finds out the man is from Oberlin, Nasby erupts:

[Warning – the  following passages contain blatantly racist language and sentiments.  They are exaggerations of attitudes that were prevalent among a large portion of the population at the time, and are presented here uncensored for their historical value]

“Oberlin!” shreekt I.  “Oberlin! wher Ablishnism runs rampant – wher a nigger is 100 per cent better nor a white man – wher a mulatto is a objik uv pity on account uv hevin white blood!  Oberlin! that stonest the Dimekratik prophets, and woodent be gathered under Vallandygum’s wings as a hen-hawk gathereth chickens, at no price!  Oberlin, that gives all the profits uv her college to the support uv the underground railroad —“

“But—” sez he.

“Oberlin,” continyood I, “that reskoos niggers, and sets at defiance the benificent laws for takin on em back to their kind and hevenly-minded masters!  Oberlin! —“

“My jentle frend,” sez he, “Oberlin don’t do nuthin uv the kind.  Yoo’ve bin misinformd.  Oberlin respex the laws, and hez now a body uv her gallant sons in the feeld a fightin to maintane the Constooshn.”

“A fightin to maintane the Constooshn,” retortid I.  “My frend” (and I spoke impressivly), “no Oberlin man is a doin any such thing.  Oberlin commenst this war.  Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble.  What wuz the beginning uv it?  Our Suthrin brethrin wantid the territories – Oberlin objectid.  They wantid Kansas for ther blessid instooshn – Oberlin agin objecks.  They sent colonies with muskits and sich, to hold the territory – Oberlin sent two thousand armed with Bibles and Sharp’s rifles – two instooshns Dimokrasy cood never stand afore – and druv em out.  They wantid Breckenridge fer President.  Oberlin refused, and elektid Linkin.  Then they seceded; and why is it that they still hold out?”

He made no anser.

“Becoz,” continyood I, transfixin him with my penetratin gaze, “Oberlin won’t submit.  We might to-day hev peese ef Oberlin wood say to Linkin, ‘Resine!’ and to Geff Davis, ‘Come up higher!’  When I say Oberlin, understand it ez figgerative for the entire Ablishn party, wich Oberlin is the fountinhead.  There’s wher the trouble is.  Our Suthrin brethren wuz reasonable.  So long as the Dimokrasy controlled things, and they got all they wanted, they wuz peeceable.  Oberlin ariz – the Dimokrasy wuz beet down, and they riz up agin it.”

(This letter became the inspiration for the title of journalist Nat Brandt’s outstanding book about antebellum Oberlin, The Town that Started the Civil War, available at the Oberlin Heritage Center.)

In Washington, President Lincoln “read every letter as it appeared”, and enjoyed them so much that he kept a folder of them on his desk, and would frequently read passages from them to visitors “with infinite zest, while his melancholy features grew bright.”  He even read them at cabinet meetings, much to the exasperation of the ever serious-minded Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  On multiple occasions the President expressed the sentiment that “for the genius to write such things” he would gladly “swap places” with Locke.  At the end of the war, Lincoln sent Locke a letter thanking him for his services.

But the end of the war and the assassination of President Lincoln didn’t stop Locke – or Nasby.  The issue of Reconstruction became a new cause.  Locke was initially a solid supporter of President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor.  Although Locke was firmly in favor of equal rights for blacks, he appreciated President Johnson’s conservative and reconciliatory approach to Reconstruction, as opposed to the harsher policies of the Radical Republicans in Congress.  But as Johnson and the Radical Republicans battled it out and the rift between them grew wider, Locke began to feel that Johnson moved too far towards the Copperhead Democrats.  Then in April 1866, Johnson issued a proclamation declaring the insurrection “at an end” in ten of the seceded states, thereby effectively ending Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and returning control of their affairs entirely to their state governments.  Locke felt that this was a premature “breach of faith” and that “absolute equality in everything pertaining to person and property should be placed above the caprices of the State Legislatures.”   He now saw Johnson as a Copperhead himself and vented his full satirical fury against him (which is to say that Nasby now came out in favor of him).  In one letter, Nasby announces that President Johnson has personally assigned him the task of touring the country and removing all the Radical Republican postmasters (at that time, the Post Office was a major department of the federal government).  One of the towns he visited in the process was – you guessed it – Oberlin:

It wuz a crooel necessity, after all, wich druv me into the servis uv His Eggslency A. Johnson.  Crooel, I say; for whenever he hez a partikelerly mean piece uv work to perform, suthin so inexpressibly sneakin that Seward nor Randall won’t undertake it, they alluz send for me…

The biznis required uv me wuz statid by Seward in his usual loocid style.  It wuz merely to cirkelate incognito (wich is Latin for sneakin) among the recently appinted offis-holders, and assertain ther views upon general politikle topics, but more espeshally ther feelins toward the President and Sekretary uv State…

In Ohio, the first place I stopt at wuz Oberlin, the place where the nigger college is located at.  I regret to say that the Postmaster at that pint is a rantin Ablishnist; and in the two hours I wuz ther, I coodent find a Conservative Republikin who wood take it…  I don’t investigate ez fully ez I might, for ther ain’t a drop uv likker sold ther; and ez my flask give out, I felt that doo considerashen for my health woodent permit my stayin another hour.  I recommend the abolishen uv the office, or the establishment uv a grosery, with a bar in the back room, ez a nukleus around wich the Dimocrisy kin rally…

Locke would eventually advocate  the impeachment of President Johnson and would support the Radical Republicans in Congress when they overrode the President and implemented their own Reconstruction plan under new and harsher terms.  He even advocated the appointment of African American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston to cabinet level posts.  (Locke himself would decline the offer of an ambassadorship during U.S. Grant’s Presidency.)

Locke went on to enjoy great success in the years following the war.  His Nasby letters continued to bring him fame and fortune, but he also wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and hymns, and became a successful lecturer and entrepreneuer, and a real estate mogul in Toledo, Ohio.  He became a close friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).  He never lost his interest in politics or social activism, and became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance (the latter somewhat ironically, as Locke himself was a heavy drinker for most of his life).  But in the public mind he was always Nasby, which eventually led him to express regret that he had ever created the character.

Locke died in 1888 of tuberculosis, at the age of only 54 years.  One of his many Ohio Republican friends, ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes (a former Civil War general and Underground Railroad conductor), wrote in eulogy:

With his pen Mr. Locke gained for himself a conspicuous and honorable place among those who fought the good fight in the critical years of the anti-slavery conflict before the war.  During the war and after it, he was surpassed by no writer in the extent and value of his influence in the march of events until its great results were substantially secured.  He had the satisfaction of receiving from Mr. Lincoln himself the first meed of praise for his matchless service in the hour of this country’s trial.

Sources consulted:

David Ross Locke, The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of Petroleum V. Nasby

John M. Harrison, The Man Who Made Nasby, David Ross Locke

President James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message” (December 3, 1860)

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Carl Sandburg,   Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years & the War Years

Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century

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

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”

Lewis Clarke: Hero in his own right

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In my last blog entry, A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns, I mentioned an Oberlin resident named Lewis Clarke (sometimes spelled Clark), who was born into slavery but eventually escaped, made his way north, and became an outspoken abolitionist. When he died in 1897, the Governor of his native state, Kentucky, ordered that his body lay in state in the Lexington City Auditorium. His remains were then brought to Oberlin and interred at Westwood Cemetery, with a tombstone that reads: “Lewis Clarke – The original George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although there has been some controversy about whether Mr. Clarke was indeed the inspiration for this character in Mrs. Stowe’s epic novel, he nonetheless led a fascinating life in his own right. I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell his story, and at the same time examine the George Harris controversy.

Lewis Clarke

Lewis G. Clarke (courtesy Oberlin College archives)

Lewis Clarke was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, the son of a white father and an enslaved mulatto mother. He had 9 brothers and sisters, but was separated from his entire family at just 7 years of age when he was given away to another family. This family treated him very cruelly. Years later, Clarke would write a narrative describing his experiences as a slave and his escape to freedom. He would say of this time in his life:

“All my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this *** family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable… My thoughts continually by day and my dreams by night were of mother and home, and the horror experienced in the morning, when I awoke and beheld it was a dream, is beyond the power of language to describe.”

At the age of 16, Clarke was sold to another cruel master, who used severe beatings along with deprivation of food and water to enforce discipline. Finally, in his early 20s, Clarke decided he was ready to attempt an escape. He explained:

“I had long thought and dreamed of LIBERTY; I was now determined to make an effort to gain it. No tongue can tell the doubt, the perplexities, the anxiety which a slave feels, when making up his mind upon this subject. If he makes an effort and is not successful, he must be laughed at by his fellows; he will be beaten unmercifully by the master, and be watched and used the harder for it all his life. And then if he gets away, who, what will he find? He is ignorant of the world. All the white part of mankind, that he has ever seen, are enemies to him and all his kindred. How can he venture where none but white faces shall greet him?”

But he took the risk anyway and set out on horseback. At the end of the first day of travel he was near the Ohio River, but decided crossing at night would create too much suspicion. So instead he checked into a local tavern. Seeing familiar faces inside, he first bought a pair of eyeglasses to help disguise him. The next morning he made it across the river to Aberdeen, Ohio. From there he traveled to Cincinnati, then back to Portsmouth, from where he traveled the Ohio-Erie canal to Cleveland. At Cleveland he found passage across Lake Erie to Canada. As he would later say:

“When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough, I AM FREE. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man – one, born to bondage – one, who had been taught from early infancy, that this was his inevitable lot for life. Not till then did I dare to cherish for a moment the feeling that one of the limbs of my body was my own.”

He was in Canada about six weeks when he learned that his younger brother, Milton, had also escaped slavery and was now living in a place called Oberlin, Ohio. So after working a while and saving up some money, he recrossed Lake Erie and took the stagecoach to Oberlin. On the coach he met several abolitionists from Oberlin, of whom he said:

“To be thus surrounded at once with friends, in a land of strangers, was something quite new to me. The impression made by the kindness of these strangers upon my heart, will never be effaced. I thought there must be some new principle at work here, such as I had not seen much of in Kentucky. That evening I arrived at Oberlin, and found Milton boarding at a Mrs. Cole’s. Finding here so many friends, my first impression was that all the abolitionists in the country must live right there together.”

Lewis stayed and worked in Oberlin for a year, then decided on a bold and dangerous plan. He would return to Kentucky and help his youngest brother, Cyrus, escape from slavery. So in July, 1842, he made his way back into the “den of lions”. He found his brother near Lexington, then accompanied him on a harrowing journey by foot back towards the Ohio River. At one point he said:

“in traveling through the rain and mud this afternoon, we suffered beyond all power of description. Sometimes we found ourselves just ready to stand fast asleep in the middle of the road. Our feet were blistered all over. When Cyrus would get almost discouraged, I urged him on, saying we were walking for freedom now. Yes, he would say, ‘Freedom is good, Lewis, but this is a hard, h-a-r-d way to get it.’ This he would say half asleep. We were so weak before night, that several times fell upon our knees in the road. We had crackers with us, but we had no appetite to eat – fears were behind us, hope before – and we were driven and drawn as hard as ever men were.”

But when they finally reached Ohio, Cyrus was beside himself with joy. They made their way to Ripley, Ohio, where they “went Up to the house of a good friend of the slave.” The lady of the house was so kind that Cyrus became suspicious, but “when the young men came home, he soon got acquainted, and felt sure they were his friends.” (Anyone who read my previous blog will probably have a good guess of whose house he’s talking about here!) From there they were sent on “by the friends, from place to place”, until they finally reached Oberlin, five weeks after Lewis had left there.

However Cyrus didn’t feel safe in the United States, so after several days in Oberlin he continued on to Canada, while Lewis and Milton remained in Oberlin. Then one day, Cyrus’ fears were justified, when Lewis and Milton were staying in Madison, Ohio, where Lewis had been asked to lecture about slavery. Slavecatchers had learned of their presence and were able to abduct Milton. But fortunately the residents of Lake and Ashtabula counties rallied, rescued Milton, and arrested the slavecatchers, who they eventually sent packing back to Kentucky, angry and empty-handed.[1]

After this, Lewis and Milton moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed in the home of Aaron and Mary Safford. While here, Mary introduced Lewis to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] Lewis also wrote his ‘slave narrative’, which was widely circulated and which I’ve been quoting above. He also became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit and toured the country telling of his experiences as a slave. In fact he was one of the keynote speakers at the founding convention of the Republican Party in Michigan in 1854.

But his fame put the slavecatchers on his trail again, and Clarke was forced to leave the United States and return to Canada, where he stayed until 1874. Then he returned to Oberlin and continued to lecture, also helping former slaves return from Canada and find work in the United States. In his final years he returned to Kentucky, where he suffered from physical ailments and financial difficulties. He died in 1897 at the age of 82. In addition to being laid in state in the Lexington City Auditorium, he was eulogized by newspapers around the country.

Lewis Clarke tombstone

So is the inscription on Mr. Clarke’s tombstone correct? Although Clarke had claimed to be the George Harris character ever since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, a daughter of Mrs. Stowe disputed the claim near the end of his life. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, 7 years after Clarke’s narrative. In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote another book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (referred to hereafter as “the Key”). In this non-fiction book she sought to set the record straight for those who claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was unrealistic, by revealing the sources that inspired the characters and events in her novel, as well as other supportive sources. One of the first topics she addresses is the George Harris character, of whom she says:

“With regard to the incidents of George Harris’s life, that he may not be supposed a purely exceptional case, we propose to offer some parallel facts from the lives of slaves of our personal acquaintance. Lewis Clark is an acquaintance of the writer. Soon after his escape from slavery, he was received into the family of a sister-in-law of the author, and there educated. His conduct during this time was such as to win for him uncommon affection and respect, and the author has frequently heard him spoken of in the highest terms by all who knew him. The gentleman in whose family he so long resided, says of him, in a recent letter to the writer, ‘I would trust him, as the saying is, with untold gold’ … The reader is now desired to compare the following incidents of his life, part of which he related personally to the author, with the incidents of the life of George Harris… ” [3]

She then goes on and recounts several pages of material from Clarke’s own narrative. Much of the material she cites was not included in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but some of it was and became part of the George Harris character: George Harris was born into slavery in Kentucky to a white father and mulatto mother and a large family. Like Lewis Clarke, he had a “handsome” older sister, “a pious, good girl – a member of the Baptist Church”, who was abused by her master before being sold down to New Orleans. George Harris was separated from his family at a young age, of which he says: “when I was a little fellow, and lay awake whole nights and cried, it wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters – it was because I hadn’t a friend to love me on earth.” He made his escape when he was a young man, through Ohio and across Lake Erie to Canada. One other similarity that Mrs. Stowe doesn’t mention in the Key, but is quite apparent, is that George Harris also spent the night prior to crossing the Ohio River in a tavern, which he entered in disguise, and where he recognized some of the clientele.

But just like there are many parts of Clarke’s story that aren’t shared by George Harris, there are also parts of George Harris’ story that weren’t shared by Clarke. As Mrs. Stowe explains, the George Harris character, like other characters in the novel, is a “mosaic” of her own imagination and several real-life people, including the renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

But all this was called into question in 1895, when a newspaper article appeared in Boston, telling about Lewis Clarke and claiming that he was the inspiration for George Harris. This prompted a firm and prompt denunciation from Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, who wrote a letter to the editor claiming that her mother “never saw the man, or even heard of him, until two years ago” and that his claims were “entirely untrue from beginning to end, so far as it had any connection with my mother or her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[4]  But nowhere in the letter does the younger Miss Stowe explain the contradiction of what her mother wrote in the Key forty years earlier, nor does she even acknowledge that those words were ever written.

So what to believe then, the Key, or the letter? Well, the Key was written by Mrs. Stowe herself, 9 years after she would have first met Lewis Clarke and 2 years after she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The purpose of the key was to validate the claims in her novel, as explained above. The contradicting letter was written by Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, 50 years after Mrs. Stowe would have first met Lewis Clarke, and 43 years after the publication of her novel. By this time, Harriet Beecher Stowe herself was 84 years old and had “drifted into dementia and was often found wandering through the gardens and greenhouses of her neighbors.“[5]

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself which story to believe, but in my mind there is no question: Lewis Clarke was indeed a major inspiration (but not the only one) for the George Harris character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But more importantly, he was a real-life, flesh and blood, American hero in his own right.

Lewis Clarke is buried in Westwood Cemetery, 455 Morgan Street
(Section D-56#4; GPS coordinates N41°17.002′ W82°14.167′)

Footnotes:

[1] L. I. Rice, “Lewis and Milton Clark: A Bit of History”, Sept 14, 1892; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[2] Cambridge Historical Commission J. MILTON CLARKE (1820 – 1902) and LEWIS CLARKE (1818 – 1897) Writers and lecturers (Marker location: 2 Florence Place)

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 23

[4] “A Contradiction from the Daughter of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe”, Boston Transcript, December 7, 1895; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[5] National Historic Landmark Nomination: Stowe, Harriet Beecher, House, p. 20

Other sources consulted:

Lewis Garrard Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Carver Gayton, “Lewis G. Clarke: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Hero”

Leanne Smith, “Peek Through Time: The Republican Party celebrates its 157th anniversary with a re-enactment Under The Oaks on Wednesday”

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life