The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
SLAVERY AS IT IS
The wedding festivities ended, Theodore and Angelina attended the sessions of the Women's Anti-slavery Society in Pennsylvania Hall. Built by the abolitionists and their reformer friends, this edifice was dedicated to "free discussion, virtue, Liberty and Independence" on the same day that Theodore and Angelina were married. Weld had been invited to speak, but declined because of his voice. Explaining this fact in a letter written for the dedication ceremonies, he exulted in the completion of this "temple of freedom," the only building consecrated to free discussion and equal rights for all "in a republic of fifteen millions." "God grant that Pennsylvania Hall may be free, indeed!" he prayed.
Fired by the murder of the abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, in Alton, Illinois, six months before, and by other proslavery excesses, Weld wrote with impassioned grandiloquence on the theme of mere lip-service to freedom. "The empty name is everywhere," he scoffed, "--free government, free men, free speech, free people, free schools, and free churches. Hollow counterfeits all! . . . Free! The word and sound are omnipresent masks and mockers, an impious lie, unless they stand for free lynch law and free murder, for they are free .... "
Two days after the dedication of the new building, Garrison, Maria Weston Chapman, and Angelina Weld were scheduled to speak before the Women's Convention; but no sooner had Garrison concluded his address than a mob broke in, "yelling and shouting as if the very fiends of the pit had suddenly broke loose," as Garrison described it. The intrepid antislavery women kept their seats, and the mob withdrew, only to surround the building, however, and bombard the windows with stones and brickbats. Mrs. Chapman spoke for ten minutes against the crash of shattering glass. Then Angelina, two days a bride, took over and continued for an hour. "As the tumult from without increased, and the brickbats fell thick and fast..." recorded Garrison, "her eloquence kindled, her eye flashed, and her cheeks glowed, as she devoutIy thanked the Lord that the stupid repose of the city had at length been disturbed by the force of truth."
The next day, when the convention reconvened, the streets around the hall were thronged, and rumors circulated that the mob designed to burn the building. Before the evening session the mayor demanded the keys, locked both delegates and rioters out, and requested the milling mobsters to disperse. After he had left, however, rioters burst open the doors with axes and applied the torch, then thwarted every effort of the Philadelphia firefighters to save the structure. Within two hours it was a gutted ruin.
With this outrage vivid in their minds, the Welds left Philadelphia for Manlius, New York, for a visit with Weld's parents. Their honeymoon was brief, and soon they were busy setting up housekeeping in their new home at Fort Lee. Sarah and Angelina were excommunicated by the Society of Friends, as they had foreseen, but they suffered no regrets.
Angelina found cooking easier than she expected; Sarah commented that she boiled potatoes to perfection. Weld had won the sisters to Graham diet, and they extolled it as both healthgiving and an emancipator of woman in that it lessened the time she must spend over the stove. Angelina's practice was to cook a week's supply of food in a day, inasmuch as they "took their food cool." Their orchard yielded an abundance of fruit, and their field beans flourished. If "Theda" found any deficiencies in "Nina's" cooking, he was not a man to bicker about his victuals.
Weld made regular trips to antislavery headquarters in New York; and as evening came, Angelina would listen for the piston stroke of the Echo, breasting upstream from the city. As soon as the sound of its thumping came across the water she would run out and blow a whistle, and Theodore, also equipped with a whistle, tooted a reply from the deck to inform her that he was aboard. On moonlit evenings they walked along the water's edge together. On Sunday, if the day was warm, they climbed to the top of the palisades and sunned themselves on the rocks. In the evenings they revised Weld's Bible Against Slavery, preparing copy for the third edition.
Weld was appointed to the executive committee of the American Antislavery Society, but declined to serve. Oberlin was some thirty thousand dollars in debt, and the trustees asked him to go to England on a money-raising trip. This, too, he refused, but he wrote an "Appeal to the Philanthropists of Great Britain" in behalf of the institution that he rated as having done more for human liberty and truth than any other in the United States. The American Antislavery Society wanted Weld to tour the country to enlist twenty agents, as he had done in 1836; and speaking invitations streamed in from various quarters. But Weld had resolved to give his throat a prolonged rest. "When I stopt speaking I found it required far more firmness to resist the importunity of friends," he commented, "than it ever did to face a mob."
Notwithstanding the many tasks he declined, he was extremely busy. He not only edited the Antislavery Almanacs for 1839, 1840, and 1841, but also prepared a great deal of the reading matter that went into them. The executive committee had resolved to publish a number of tracts refuting the objections to abolitionism, and the first, which Weld was commissioned to compile, was designed to represent slavery as it really was. It would be eyewitness testimony, and to collect his evidence Weld sent a lithographed letter to leading abolitionists throughout the country, asking them to furnish names and addresses of persons who had resided in the South and were willing to describe what they had seen. Especially to be desired was the testimony of such persons as ministers, editors, teachers, lawyers, and physicians, for Weld wanted only truthful witnesses.
The response was less generous than Weld anticipated. Many abolitionists were willing to go as passengers on a pleasant sail, he complained to Gerrit Smith, but too few could endure the drudgery of coiling ropes. "They are willing to take the helm, or handle the speaking trumpet or go up aloft to see and be seen, but to bone down to ship work as a common sailor, especially in the hold," had small attraction. Weld asked Smith to bring his request for antislavery material before the meeting of the New York Antislavery Society, not just once, but at every opportunity; and he sent a similar plea to leaders of other abolitionist gatherings.
Meanwhile, he had an idea. The New York Commercial Reading Room subscribed to scores of Southern papers, which, after being kept on file for a month, were sold for waste. Weld arranged to buy the discarded papers and bring them home. There he put Sarah and Angelina to work culling out news items, speeches in Congress and state legislatures, trials and court decisions, advertisements for runaway slaves, anything containing facts adverse to slavery. "Our present occupation," wrote Sarah to her friend Jane Smith on January 24, 1839, "looking over southern papers, is calculated to help us . . . see the inside of that horrible system of oppression which is enfibred with the heart strings of the South. In the advertisements for runaways we detect the cruel whippings & shootings & brandings, practiced on the helpless slaves. Heartsickening as the details are, I am thankful that God in his providence has put into our hands these weapons prepared by the South herself, to destroy the fell monster."
"The fact is," recorded Weld when this, his most important book, was finished, "those dear souls spent six months, averaging more than six hours a day, in searching through thousands upon thousands of Southern newspapers, marking and cutting out facts of slave-holding disclosures .... Thus was gathered the raw material for the manufacture of 'Slavery As It Is.' After the work was finished we were curious to know how many newspapers had been examined. So we went up to our attic and took an inventory of bundles, as they were packed heap upon heap. When our count had reached twenty thousand newspapers, we said: 'There, let that suffice.' Though the book had in it many thousand facts thus authenticated by the slave-holders themselves, yet it contained but a tiny fraction of the nameless atrocities gathered from the papers examined."
In his introduction, Weld impaneled the reader as a juror to bring in a verdict on the question: "What is the actual condition of the slaves in the United States?" Then, from his eyewitness statements and newspaper clippings, he presented evidence that slaves were undernourished, overworked, poorly and immodestly clad, inadequately sheltered, neglected in sickness and old age. and inhumanly punished.
Weld denied the stock argument that it was to the interest of the slaveholder to treat his slaves well. How about old slaves? he asked. Or worn out slaves, diseased slaves, the blind, the dumb, the deformed, the maimed? Was it not to the master's interest to have them die as soon as possible? How about the habitual runaways, slaves that were hired from other masters, slaves who worked under an overseer whose wages were proportioned to the crop raised? People were not always guided by self-interest, anyway, Weld asserted. It was to the interest "of the drunkard to quit his cups; for the glutton to curb his appetite; for the debauchee to bridle his lust; for the sluggard to be up betimes; for the spendthrift to economize; and for all sinners to stop sinning. Even if it were for the interest of the masters to treat their servants well, he must be a novice who thinks that a proof that the slaves are well treated. The whole history of man is a record of real interests sacrificed to present gratification. If all men's actions were consistent with their best interests, folly and sin would be words without meaning." Self-interest was a strong impellent, Weld granted, but equally strong were lust, pride, anger, revenge, and love of power.
As a matter of fact, both slaves and masters were victims of a brutalizing system, Weld contended. From the files of Southern papers he adduced scores of instances of brutal shootings, duels, and fights, with a purpose to show that the masters were so accustomed to work their will upon the slaves that indulgence of passion had become second nature with them. Weld quoted hundreds of instances where slaves were maimed, beaten, and sometimes killed. From advertisements of runaways he adduced descriptions of slaves with lacerated backs, brands, cropped ears, knocked-out eyes and teeth. Anyone could kill an outlawed slave, he pointed out. Away from his own plantation, a slave might be "examined" by any white person, no matter how crazy or drunk the examiner might be, and if the black man dared to do so much as lift a hand against a white man, he could be killed with impunity. The laws which made the testimony of a colored person worthless against a white man meant in practice that a white man could work his will upon a Negro without risk of punishment so long as no white witnesses were present. Nor were the slaves protected by public opinion. It was public opinion that denied their manhood and made them chattels. How could they derive protection from public opinion such as that?
Weld's Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses was a devastating indictment. To be sure it was misnamed. A more descriptive title would have been "Slavery's Excesses."
For Weld portrayed the system at its worst. When Weld asked his Kentucky friend, James A. Thome, for instances of cruelty he had witnessed, Thome replied: "I have really witnessed so few cases of cruel treatment in Ky., that any account I could give from personal observation would, I fear, have the impression that cruelties were rare. I might have stated numerous facts which have occurred in other places, and of which I have heard; but this would not have been in pursuance of your request." Weld was scrupulously careful to present trustworthy evidence; but his evidence was altogether on one side.
Although Slavery As It Is appeared without the author's name upon it, the abolition clan knew it as Weld's work and acclaimed it as a major accomplishment. It was a mass of solid facts. proclaimed Zion's Herald, amassed by a master-workman. It was an irresistible battering ram, constructed of materials the South itself had furnished, that would burst jagged breaches in the wall of slavery. No man could read it without hating slavery with undying hatred. No man who had not embraced antislavery principles should be without it, unless he was afraid of being convinced; and for an abolitionist to be without it, would be like a soldier refusing to use the ammunition provided for him.
The Christian Exmniner called the book "a very remarkable and terrible volume." The Emancipator described it as "a terrible and faithful" picture of the South's "peculiar institution," but it was not shocked at what Weld had revealed. "That our brother was enslaved was enough for us to hear," declared the editor. "... Finding him a brute, we took for granted he had brute treatment." Weld had performed a mighty feat, to be sure. He spoke the strongest human language. But the delineator of slavery "must consult the lexicography of Hell."
A correspondent of the Enmncipator regarded Weld's book as the "greatest stumper of the slaveholders that was ever invented by man." When traveling in company with slaveholders this correspondent made it a practice to relate instances of cruelty that Weld had cited. Invariably his listeners called them lies; whereupon he would pull Weld's volume from his pocket and give names, places, and dates from Southern papers. "This reply I have seen close up the mouth of a slaveholder as quick as though his jaws had been clamped with the lockjaw," he gloated, "--at the same time he would change color, like a man who has taken an emetic."
The New York American wondered why so few political, literary, and even religious journals and periodicals had noticed the book. If it had described Russian serfdom or Turkish, African, or Chinese slavery, or if the same industry and talent "had been exercised in furnishing forth the adventures of some lewd minx," it would have received the widest notice. "But when the South struts menacingly before their vision, how many editors, even those of religious journals," the American derided, "have the courage of a kitten to cry mew?
Priced at 37 1/2 cents a copy, or $25.00 a hundred, Slavery As It ls was spread over the North. Twenty-two thousand copies were sold within four months, and at the end of a year sales exceeded a hundred thousand copies. It was as influential in England as in America, and when Joseph Sturge, the English abolitionist, read it he rated Weld the greatest of all American antislavery propagandists. Weld's arguments were irresistible, and his talent for succinct statement was unsurpassed. "He would be a bold antagonist who should enter the lists against him," Sturge declared; "he would be a yet bolder ally who should attempt to go over the same ground, or to do better what he has done so well." When Charles Dickens published his American Notes in 1842, his chapter on slavery was taken almost entirely from Weld's book, although the celebrated Englishman made no acknowledgment of his source. Until the appearance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, Weld's Slavery As It Is enjoyed preeminence in antislavery literature.
Indeed, Weld's book aroused such interest in England, where Weld's friend and former patron, Charles Stuart, was instrumental in publicizing it, that the officers of the British and Foreign Antislavery Society requested information on the economic, social, and political effects of slavery upon the North. The executive committee of the American Antislavery Society, to whom these inquiries were addressed, commissioned Weld to reply, and authorized him to employ assistants for three months to collect materials in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Most of this research was done by James A. Thome, who, forced to flee from Oberlin when he was implicated in helping a fugitive slave escape to Canada, was glad to find employment until things cooled down to the point where he dared return to Ohio.
"By the way," wrote Thome to Weld in the midst of his labors, "ever since the reception of your last letter, I have been admiring the perfect nonchalance with which you talk about cutting down the manuscript one half, 'as likely as not, and a little more;' and that too without having so much as seen a sheet of it! How perfectly characteristic! You have already begun to scent the slaughter at the distance of sixty miles, and doubtless you are licking your chops in anticipation of your gory feast." Would Weld make mincemeat of his brains? queried Thome in mock complaint. He knew what to expect from Weld in the way of compression from his experience with Slavery in the West Indies; but he chided that if he had Weld close at hand, he would twitch his whiskers.
It was planned to send this new book to the World Antislavery Convention, which was scheduled to meet in London in June, 1840, but publication was delayed when Thome's materials were destroyed by fire. Furthermore, the national society was in desperate straits financially, for the aftermath of the panic of 1837 had left the Tappans, Gerrit Smith, and other large contributors in stringent circumstances. Weld's salary was reduced from a thousand to seven hundred dollars a year at his own request, and Thome worked for several weeks without pay. On May 15, the Emancipator announced that Weld's book would not be ready in season for the World Congress, but that an elaborate statistical work by Weld and Thome would be forwarded in its place. This was published in London in 1841 under the title Slavery and the Internal Slave Trade in the United States. Weld was the first choice of the executive committee to represent the American and Foreign Antislavery Society at the London convention, but he declined.
Meanwhile, the executive committee of the American Antislavery Society had persuaded Beriah Green to do a companion book to Weld's The Bible Against Slavery. Elizur Wright explained to Green that Weld's book on the Old Testament had created a demand for "a finishing stroke"; people were asking if the abolitionists were afraid of the New Testament, inasmuch as Weld had expounded only upon the Old Testament. Green stipulated that Weld should edit his manuscript, and the executive committee authorized him to do so. But Weld refused at first. Who was he to criticize the work of a man like Green? he protested; but when Wright convinced him that Green had asked for his assistance, Weld gave it willingly. Green's product was published in 1839 with the marathon title, The Chattel Principle the Abhorrence of Jesus Christ and the Apostles: or No Refuge for American Slavery in the New Testament.
Weld's books were all in great demand, and both The Bible Against Slavery and Slavery As It Is went through many printings. It was music to Lewis Tappan to hear the New York newsboys shouting, "Antislavery Almanac! Slavery Almanac!" as they sold ten thousand copies of the Antislavery Almanac for 1840 in two days. "We sell to poor men," one of them told Tappan. "Not a rich man has bought one." Antislavery was the common people's cause.
Weld thought the national society should put a larger number of intelligent colored speakers into the field. "They would do more in three months to kill prejudice," he wrote to Gerrit Smith, "(and our cause moves only as fast as that dies) than all our operations up to now." And they would attract larger audiences than white men could command. Weld continued to work for amelioration of the condition of free Negroes, helping to make it an objective of the New Jersey Antislavery Society of which he was now an active member. Nor were Angelina Weld and Sarah Grimké idle. They visited indigent colored people in their neighborhood and helped circulate antislavery petitions. "We have just finished our work of petitioning," wrote Sarah to Jane Smith on January 24, 1839. "It has done us good to go among our neighbors, altho' we had much to try us, the selfishness, unfeelingness & ignorance we met with almost every where were calculated to awaken the feeling of gratitude to God who had touched & softened our hearts & enlightened our minds. I never felt so much compassion for the ignorant before, altho' patience was sometimes sorely tried. One woman told me she had rather sign a petition to have them all hung than set free . . . she was a professing Methodist."
Weld also brought another forceful worker into the antislavery cause about this time. At the Woman's Antislavery Convention in Philadelphia he had been forcibly impressed by the young Quakeress Abby Kelley, who made her first public address at that gathering. At the close of the meeting, Weld had urged Miss Kelley to give up schoolteaching and become an antislavery lecturer. Laying his hand on her shoulder, he declared: "Abby, if you don't, God will smite you!" But Abby had an aged mother to support. She needed time to decide. By January, 1839, however, she was writing to Weld to ask how best to prepare herself for antislavery work? Soon she was enlisted in the cause. Coming under Garrison's influence, she would later marry the turbulent Garrisonian agent, Stephen S. Foster, who made it his special mission to heckle the clergy. Stomping into church in the midst of the service, Foster would demand the right to speak. Sometimes his wish was granted, but more often the outraged worshipers threw him out.
To Parker Pillsbury, who often accompanied him on his disputatious pilgrimages, Foster wrote in January, 1842, that he was laid up from a vigorous Baptist kick in the side, and doubted if he could continue his self-appointed mission much longer. In the past fifteen months he had been in four jails, and had been ejected from twenty-four churches, twice by way of a second-story window. Under Garrison's and Foster's influence Abby Kelley became a fiery termagant. From her mild exterior Weld could never have guessed what a spitfire he was to loose upon the country.
On December 13, 1839, Angelina Weld gave birth to a son. They named the child Charles Stuart, after Weld's friend. Angelina was still a devotee of Andrew Combe, whose books on the rearing of children contended that most infants were overfed; so when young Charles was weaned, Angelina put him on a Spartan diet. He languished until, one time when Theodore and Angelina were away from home, Sarah began to feed him all he would eat. His health improved so rapidly that Weld insisted thereafter that the child must not be stinted in his fare.
Weld had always hankered for a farm and thought farm labor might improve his voice. Moreover, he must find means to make a livelihood, for the American Antislavery Society lacked the money to employ him longer. Early in 1840 he learned of a farm for sale at Belleville, New Jersey. It comprised fifty acres with a seven-hundred-foot frontage on the Passaic River, and had once belonged to Nathanael Greene, the famous Revolutionary general. The yard, elevated several feet above the highway which passed in front, was surrounded by a stone wall surmounted by palings. Flanking the gate were two gigantic weeping willows. Rosebushes climbed the pillars of the forty-eight-foot piazza, and the yard was filled with lilacs, pines, and hemlocks. South of the house was a garden, with grapes, raspberries, gooseberries, and fruit trees. On the west was a grass plot enclosed with lilac bushes. To the north was a woodlot. The house itself was originally a five-room two-story stone structure, but a wooden addition had been built on at the rear so that it now contained fifteen rooms. Fences, barn, and corncrib were in poor repair, but the dwelling itself was well preserved. In March, 1840, Weld and the sisters bought the property at sheriff's sale for $5,750. They grieved at giving up the majestic Hudson, Sarah told her friend Jane Smith, but here they were on "a sweet little river, gliding noiselessly by thro' rich meadow land."
The purchase took all their ready cash, but Lewis Tappan agreed to loan Weld money for a cow and chickens, lime, horse feed, and fencing until Angelina and Sarah received their share of their mother's estate, and until the national society paid Weld what it still owed him. So Weld went to work with vigor, hoping not only to earn a living from the place but also to regain his voice by manual labor. Visiting Weld one day in July, 1841, the English abolitionist Joseph Sturge found him bringing in a load of rails on a wagon drawn by oxen. Disposing of his cargo, Weld took Sturge into the wagon and drove to the house. Two or three former Lane students arrived about the same time; indeed, the house was always filled with company. "In the household arrangements of this distinguished family," observed Sturge, "Dr. Graham's dietetic system is rigidly adopted, which excludes meat, butter, coffee, tea, and all intoxicating beverages. I can assure all who may be interested to know, that this Roman simplicity of living does not forbid enjoyment, when the guest can share with it the affluence of such minds as daily meet at their table."
There is no evidence that the Fort Lee home, the Belleville residence, or any of the other places where the Welds were to reside, were stations on the Underground Railroad. Yet Weld helped, at least indirectly, in aiding slaves to escape. He was a member of the New York Committee of Vigilance, whose functions were to protect endangered free Negroes, obtain redress when they were wronged, and "to counsel and direct the stranger." Four months before his marriage Weld wrote to Angelina under seal of secrecy that a half-dozen fugitive slaves were in New York City. They had arrived at Lewis Tappan's home on New Year's night, one man having swum every river between Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the Pennsylvania line. They had been hidden and would be embarked for England, Weld confided, and once they were safely on their way he planned to write a pamphlet telling of their heart-rending experiences. There were so many things like that to be done, if he could find the time.
Return to THEODORE WELD Index Page
HOME | FINNEY LIFE | FINNEY WORKS | TEXT INDEX | SUBJECT INDEX | GLOSSARY | BOOKS STORE