The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
POLITICS OR MORAL SUASION
While Weld strove to put his rundown farm into production, momentous events were shaping up in abolitionism. The moral appeal had roused large segments of the Northern people; but many abolitionists insisted that moral precepts could only be made effective at the ballot box. An increasing number wished to implement their program by electing antislavery representatives to Congress and to the state legislatures. James G. Birney thought one good congressman was worth a hundred lecturers. "He has almost daily occasion for agitation," Birney argued, "and he speaks to the whole people. We can reach the South through no other means. The slaveholders gain their advantages in national politics and legislation, and should be met in every move they make." Adopting a strategy that had already proved effective in Ohio, Birney withdrew the national society's agents from organizational work and sent them forth to influence state and local elections, confident that the momentum already attained would bring spontaneous gains in membership of local societies without further direction from agents.
Under this new policy, candidates were questioned regarding their views of Congress' power over slavery in the Territories and the District of Columbia, their attitude on the annexation of Texas, and, in the case of would-be state legislators, their opinions regarding the so-called "Black Laws" of the Northern states which discriminated against free Negroes. Abolitionists were urged in no circumstances to vote for anyone whose answers were unsatisfactory.
This was well enough when antislavery and proslavery candidates opposed each other, but if two rival candidates both answered unfavorably, or if a candidate ignored the inquiries, as many of them did, the abolition voter was in a quandary. Still there was as yet no movement to put forward independent abolition candidates. "The cause of antislavery belongs to all parties and all sects," explained the Philanthropist, "and we should as much regret to see abolitionists drawing off from the parties to which they belong as we should to see them leaving the churches of which they are members to build up a separate antislavery church."
As the antislavery voters gained strength they came to hold a balance of power in some electoral districts. Two often, however, candidates who owed their election to abolition votes forgot their benefactors once they were in office, while in other cases they found party discipline too potent to resist. Perplexed and disappointed, some abolitionists were ready to try independent nominations. Joshua Leavitt declared in the Emancipator that the antislavery movement was now like "the young of a noble bird, grown too large for the nest and feeling its strength and courage equal to . . . committing itself to the bosom of the air and training its powers in the region of thunders and lightnings and storms." Other leaders of the American Antislavery Society, notably Birney, Myron Holley, C. T. Torrey, Elizur Wright, and Stanton, favored Leavitt's idea, convinced that questioning of candidates and the balance-of-power policy were too uncertain
The case of old John Quincy Adams gave point to their objections, for after enjoying the support of abolition voters he refused to vote for emancipation in the District of Columbia unless the people of the District were allowed to express their views, and even favored the admission of Florida to statehood with or without slavery. Then, to crown his recreancy, he attacked the abolitionists' tactics, charging that to urge immediate emancipation was like pouring oil in a volcano. The abolitionists recoiled in stunned amazement, all the more persuaded that they must cut loose from these old-line politicians. But they encountered a stumbling block in Garrison, who, holding himself aloof from the contamination of government, would not besmirch himself with politics.
Still confident of the potency of moral suasion and distrustful of politicians, Weld watched from the sidelines as the matter came to an issue at the annual niceling of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1839, when the political actionists, led by a group of anti-Garrison ministers, laid plans to seize control of the Massachusetts society. Political action was not the only issue; equally inciting factors were displeasure at Garrison's dictatorial methods and extra-abolition hobbies. But Garrison was forewarned of the revolt, and rallied his cohorts to counteract this new emanation of "priestly bile."
Weld's friend, Henry B. Stanton, who attended the Massachusetts meeting as an informal representative of the American Antislavery Society, reported that it was "stormy enough," and brought out "the disease in the anti-slavery body, which has long been concealed under the surface. The Reverend Amos A. Phelps led off with a blast at Garrison's dictatorial propensities, asserting his right to work for freedom "without doing it through your paper, and without coming and kneeling devoutly to ask your Holiness whether I may do so or not." He was as sincere an abolitionist as Garrison was, he avowed, and he would not be subservient to one "whose overgrown self-conceit had wrought him into the belief that his mighty self was abolition incarnate." Garrison's supporters were incensed, but they wrote off the diatribe as simply another example of "the hautiness of the cloth."
The attendance was the largest of any meeting the Massachusetts society had ever held, for both sides were out in full force. But the Garrisonians had the votes to control, and the dissidents were forced to content themselves with what their rivals characterized as "boisterous and unmannerly demonstrations."
Stanton fought hard for a resolution making it the duty of every abolitionist to exercise his right to vote; but his resolution was defeated by "Garrison's train bands." Garrison, who claimed he never tried to dictate in matters of conscience, then proposed a substitute resolution which declared it recreant in those abolitionists whose consciences told them they should vote, not to do so. Twice Startton asked Garrison publicly whether he did or did not hold it a sin to go to the polls, to which query Garrison smugly replied: "Sin for me!" When Stanton tried to prove that Garrison had originally favored political action, he was answered by the Garrisonians with shouts of "It is false"; and when he attempted to offer the files of the Liberator in support of his assertion, he was "browbeaten down," indeed "well-nigh mobbed down," as he described it.
"But I cared nothing for this," wrote Stanton to the national executive committee, "and only mention it as an illustration of the unfairness with which the whole proceedings were conducted. But the point is,--the Society hauled down its flag and run [sic] up the crazy banner of the non-government heresy, and we had to rally round or be ostracized. The split is wide, and can never be closed up .... Our cause in this State is ruined unless we can separate the A.S. Society from everything that does not belong to it. That is the issue now tendered to us, and meet it we must, sooner or later. I am for meeting it here, now, on the spot where the evil exists." Stanton informed Birney that he would come to New York to explain the situation more fully. But the national executive committee should distinctly understand "that Garrisonism and Abolition in this State are contending for the mastery. Finding that Garrison held the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in an unshakable grip, the political actionists seceded, taking all those who had been antagonized by Garrison's foibles along with them. In May, 1839, they met in Boston and organized themselves as the Massachusetts Abolition Society, as distinguished from Garrison's Massachusetts Antislavery Society. Returning to New York, Stanton wrote from headquarters to the secessionist leader Phelps that "all those with whom I have conversed fully approve of your doings in the organization of your new Society. Weld says you have taken the right ground, and he conjures you to maintain it and go ahead."
Weld rejoiced to see the Massachusetts abolitionists renounce Garrison's irrelevancies, but he could not foresee the clamorous fight that was to follow. Transferring his allegiance to the "New Organization," Phelps declared that the "Old Organization" was no longer an antislavery society pure and simple, but "a woman's rights, non-government anti-slavery society." The Reverend Daniel Wise said that he would support the "New Organization" because he preferred to have the hairs served on one plate and the butter on another. As a medium of expression the new society set up the Massachusetts Abolitionist and imported Elizur Wright from the headquarters office to edit it. With the establishment of this paper the rival factions mixed it lustily at close quarters, Garrison and the Liberator swinging heavily from one side and Wright and the Abolitionist pumping punches from the other.
Weld had scarcely bargained on such a mêlée as this. Hearkening to the din of battle coming out of Massachusetts, he despaired. "The spirit of the Massachusetts belligerents on both sides is absolutely ferocious," he lamented to Gerrit Smith. "Their calling each other dishonest hypocritical double tongued false witnesses, etc., is probably what each believes of the others, and believing it, let them say it; but the manifest state of mind toward each other in which it is all said, Oh how it crucifies the Saviour afresh. I instinctively recoil from its fiery contact and charge my soul 'come not thou into their secret.' . . . I have not read a single article in the whole controversy, but every week since it began I have turned to the Liberator as it came, with unspeakable yearnings and prayer that I might find in it the heart of Jesus, and as my eye ran hastily from column to column almost wherever it fell on anything touching the subject of controversy. I saw the vibrations of serpents tongues and the darting of envenomed stings. The Mass. Abolitionist I rarely see, not being a subscriber to it. From my long acquaintance with Elizur Wright I can hardly conceive of his indignation against wrong... degenerating into that personal hostility which inflicts pain with a relish. If it has so degenerated in him, I know of no one in Mass. except dear Samuel May whose temper has not been poisoned by the fierce feud."
Beriah Green took less of an alarmist view. "Dead men never quarrel," he wrote to Weld. "So many men of intelligence, independence, and decision of character--all and each alive to his responsibilities, which so heavily press upon them; sharp strife now and then must be expected and put up with. We must be willing to quarrel for the slave and endure the quarreling of others. God grant, we may be saved from contending for ourselves and against the slave!"
As "No-government" became a vital issue, Weld tried to save his friends from this delusion. When Gerrit Smith came to New York for the annual meeting, Stanton reported that Weld had several conversations with him, and that "he is very much further from being a non-resistant than when he came to the anniversaries. W. is strong in the faith that Smith will come out right." Thus Weld was influential in confining this Garrisonian heresy to New England; it never gained much favor among abolitionists elsewhere.
At the annual meeting of the American Antislavery Society in 1839--from which Weld stayed away as usual--the champions of political action and the Garrisonian non-voters came to grips again, with the outcome a virtual draw. At Garrison's insistence, and after a long, unpleasant controversy, the national society agreed by a close vote to interpret the word "person" in its constitution to mean women as well as men; and on the issue of political action it adopted--again by a close vote--a resolution to the effect that exercise of the electoral franchise was "a duty . . . we owe to our enslaved fellow-countrymen, groaning under legal oppression."
It was evident, however, that most members of the national executive committee, and especially the Tappans, were displeased with the action taken on the woman question, and that their sympathies were altogether with the "New Organization" in Massachusetts. Both Garrisonians and anti-Garrisonians flexed their muscles for a finish fight at the annual meeting of the national society in 1840.
In the interim each faction watched the other closely. The national executive committee was fearful of the outcome, and about three weeks before the 1840 convention it transferred ownership of the Emancipator to the New York City society, alleging lack of funds to finance it any longer. The Garrisonians were furious, charging the executive committee with bad faith in thus disposing of a paper that was the property of the society, and insisting with some reason that it could sureIy have survived its financial troubles for three weeks.
Unmoved by Garrison's strictures, indeed, almost oblivious of them, abolitionists throughout the Northwest were almost unanimous for political action. The Illinois Antislavery Society declared the franchise to be a gift from the Author of all good and perfect things, while one local society after another passed resolutions declaring the exercise of the voting right to be a sacred duty. Indeed, both East and West, except among the Garrisonians, the question was not whether an abolitionist should vote or not, but whether he might in conscience vote for anyone except a professed abolitionist. Most leaders of the movement thought he should not; but that inevitably raised the corollary question of what to do when no abolition candidate was in the field. Myron Holley again proposed to resolve the dilemma by the formation of an independent party, but other leaders, including the Tappans, thought such action ill-advised. "Great efforts are making to form an abolition political party in this country," wrote Lewis Tappan to the Englishman, Joseph Sturge. "... The number of abolitionists is now so large here, and their views on so many points of policy so various, that it will be impossible, I think, to have them united long. In fact they are disunited already. There will probably be an abolition political party--a religious association--a Garrison party, etc. etc. We shall, I hope and pray, get along without quarrelling, for it will be a sad sight to witness the friends of human rights contending angrily among themselves."
But Tappan's hopes were destined to be dashed. After much maneuvering and several false starts, a "National Third-Party Anti-Slavery Convention" was called to meet at Albany on April 1. Birney was selected as the presidential candidate, with Thomas Earle of Pennsylvania as his running mate.
Political action left Weld supine and indifferent. To Garrison, however, it was a challenge; and, with Birney, Stanton, Leavitt, and other leaders of the American Antislavery Society now committed to a political movement, he prepared all the harder for a finish fight at the 1840 convention of the national society. Both sides labored to get out the vote, but Garrison was more resourceful than his rivals. Two special trains conveyed the delegates of the Massachusetts society, together with others favorable to Garrison's views, from Boston to Providence, where a chartered steamer waited to take them to New York. More than four hundred persons crowded aboard, many of them women; for Garrison had taken full advantage of his victory on the woman question to bring out the ladies in force. Many of the delegates were colored, but both the railroad and the steamship company waived the color line. Whites and blacks mingled indiscriminately on both trains and boat, although this mixing of races occasioned excitement and some rioting when the delegates reached New York.
The staterooms of the steamer were insufficient, and many of the passengers spent the night on deck. It was a lively crowd, decorously jolly, happy in the thought of laudable purpose. Speeches and hymns enlivened the evening until it came time for the embattled Garrisonians to retire that they might husband their strength.
The convention met in a Presbyterian church at the corner of Madison and Catherine streets. Again Weld stayed away. More than one thousand delegates attended, however, and all the remaining space was filled with spectators. The anniversary exercises in the morning passed off without incident, although the surcharged atmosphere betokened storms in the afternoon.
Arthur Tappan, president of the national society, did not attend, and when the business session opened Vice-President Francis Jackson was in the chair. The break came over the woman question, although this was only the immediate manifestation of many underlying differences, chief of which was the question of political action. Instructed to appoint a business committee, Jackson named several men and one woman, Weld's convert, the tempestuous Abby Kelley. Her nomination brought objections from the floor and then a lively debate. The delegates avoided indecencies, but the New York press, reporting the proceedings, indulged in innuendo as to what might happen in a committee room where Miss Kelley was the only woman with six or eight men.
The vote which settled the dispute not only upheld the chair, 560 to 450, but also showed that the Garrisoninns had enough votes to control, whereupon the vanquished faction claimed that Garrison had packed the meeting. The Garrisoninn contingent had "come on in a body," declared the Emancipator, "not to meet their brethren from other sections, and take counsel and reason together, and act by the common voice, but by the force of numbers to take possession of the National Society to subject it to their own particular policy and particularly to displace the late Executive Committee."
The New York leaders could not abide defeat. At the invitation of Lewis Tappan they withdrew to a lecture room in the church basement to decide what they would do. Almost all the ministers and all but one member of the old executive committee joined the seceders. Out of their deliberations came the formation of a new organization, the American and Foreign Antislavery Society, with a constitution guarding against female intrusion.
The Garrisonians, now in full control of the old national society, passed a resolution declaring that its constitution did not attempt to settle the question of whether an abolitionist must vote or not, and another resolution condemning the nomination of abolition candidates for political office. As a shot at the departed clergymen they declared the church to be "the foe of freedom, humanity, and pure religion."
The American Antislavery Society that the Garrisonians took over was merely a shell. Its treasury was empty and it had lost its paper. But Garrison determined to revitalize it. The executive committee was reorganized in accordance with his wishes, an office was set up in Nassau Street, New York, and a new paper, the National Antislavery Standard, was established. Later the headquarters were moved to Boston. Under Garrison's leadership the society continued to denounce political action and to rely exclusively on moral suasion, a strategy that reminded Birney of a Chinese army rattling tin pans to frighten the enemy.
In the East Garrison had split the abolition ranks wide open, but the rift was far less serious in the West. The Ohio state society refused to take official action on the advisability of running abolition candidates, but Gamaliel Bailey, who had succeeded Birney as editor of the Philanthropist, put the influence of his paper back of Birney and Earle by calling a third-party state convention. The state societies of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan also refused to endorse political action officially, but in each state individual leaders came forward to head the movement. Everywhere, however, organization was hasty and superficial, with few third-party candidates running for state and local offices.
As the excitement of the campaign mounted, with the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, "the Hero of Tippecanoe," running strongly against Martin Van Buren, the abolitionists were merely a faint whistle in the shrieking winds. Most abolitionists were Whigs, and, with such a good prospect of defeating the detested Democrats the great majority of them could not bring themselves to throw away their votes on Birney and Earle, who had no chance whatsoever. Others, prepared to vote for Birney, could find no third-party ballots or did not know the names of third-party electors. Birney mustered only 7,069 votes, running strongest in Massachusetts, Michigan, Vermont, and New York, although only in Massachusetts did he poll as much as one per cent of the vote. Harrison was borne into the White House by the popular tide, with both his nomination and election due in no small measure to the votes of antislavery men.
The rift among the abolitionists was lasting. Writing to John Scoble, an Englishman, on March 1, 1843, Lewis Tappan observed: "The warfare between the old organization--which is in possession of the name of the American Anti-Slavery Society--and the New Organization, including the Liberty Party--is unrelenting. They denounce us without reserve, and have no sympathy with us or English abolitionists who sympathize with us. All hope of reunion is out of the question."
The family feuds of the abolitionists were a stench in the nostrils of the nation, declared Tappan to Weld, and Weld agreed. Indeed, Weld was now almost a voluntary castaway so far as the abolition movement was concerned. He could not bring himself to join the Garrisonians with all their extraneous projects; he would not affiliate with the "New Organization" so long as it denied the rights of women; and he had no stomach for politics--too often politicians had used the slavery issue to promote selfish or sectional aims. He wrote to Gerrit Smith that he and Angelina and Sarah felt impelled to hold aloof from both national societies. Nor would they take sides in the quarrels. When Joseph Sturge discussed the antislavery situation with the Welds in July, 1841, he commented that "they may be justly accounted allies by each party . . . and I could not but wish that those, of whatever party, who are accustomed to judge harshly . . . might be instructed by the candid, charitable, and peace loving deportment of Theodore Weld."
For the duration of the antislavery struggle the abolitionists were destined to be divided into two major camps, almost as hostile to each other as they were to slavery. Garrison led the radical no-government men, whereas the political actionists, after running independent candidates again in 1844 under the name of the Liberty Party, were to join the Free Soil Party in 1848 and then try to reinvigorate an independent party in 1852. Moreover, the political actionists themselves lacked unity, and often split into factions. Some men of abolition convictions remained Whigs or Democrats until, in the end, all voting abolitionists came together to form the radical wing of the new Republican Party. As time went on, it would become increasingly difficult to draw a sharp distinction between political abolitionists and opponents of slavery extension, the so-called "free soil" men; but the Garrisonians were readily recognizable for what they were. Associated with none of these groups, but no less fervent for emancipation, were a few strong-minded individualists like Theodore Weld.
Return to THEODORE WELD Index Page
HOME | FINNEY LIFE | FINNEY WORKS | TEXT INDEX | SUBJECT INDEX | GLOSSARY | BOOKS STORE