The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
In the latter months of 1852 it seemed that the broader field for which Angelina was yearning had opened at last before the Welds. Marcus Spring, a philanthropic New York businessman, enticed by the current fad for communal living, planned to establish a "Union" for the promotion of industry, education, and social life in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Two hundred and seventy acres of land had been acquired on the shores of Raritan Bay, and here it was proposed to erect a wharf, workshops equipped with modern labor-saving machinery, studios for artists, a large dwelling unit, a laundry, a bakery, and a refectory.
The idea was to form a joint-stock company and open subscriptions at twenty-five dollars per share. The promoters hoped to raise a capital of five hundred thousand dollars but the project would be started when fifty thousand dollars had been subscribed and fifteen thousand paid in. The several units of the enterprise--farms, workshops, laundry, and so forth--would be rented out to individuals or groups. An office for the sale of products would be set up in New York.
The society would have a religious base, non-sectarian, but of a nature to foster "that loving communion, which is the only true law of life in God's kingdom."
Education was a primary objective. "The intention," the prospectus stated, "is to organize such a thorough system of training--gymnastic, industrial, scientific, literary, artistic, social and spiritual--as shall promote vigorous development, and a practical preparation for whatever sphere the tastes and abilities of the young, of either sex, seem best to qualify them." The school would be open to children of members, and to as many others as could be accommodated.
It was hoped that the community would commend itself to capitalists as a safe and profitable investment medium, to farmers, mechanics, and artists aspiring to "a freer, larger, more harmonious form of human existence," and also to New York and Philadelphia businessmen who wished to rear their families in quiet, healthful surroundings.
An abolitionist himself, Marcus Spring was married to a daughter of Arnold Buffum, first president of the New England Antislavery Society. Well acquainted in abolition circles, he knew about the Welds' educational endeavors and now offered Weld the chance to take over the school, which, like the other departments of the project, would be rented out. Weld's few years of teaching had awakened a desire to bring better educational advantages to children of the middle class, an aim which accorded with Spring's ideals. And the opportunity was all the more appealing to Weld by reason of its similarity to the Oberlin ideal Christian community supporting a liberal school.
Spring promised to put twenty thousand dollars into the school if Weld would take charge, and by December, 1852, Theodore, Angelina, and Sarah were committed to the venture. Sarah subscribed a thousand dollars. Theodore and Angelina put in two thousand, although they were obliged to borrow part of their subscription from Sarah.
Weld and the sisters found the site of the new community delightful. Located at the confluence of Raritan River and Raritan Bay, it was twenty-five miles front New York by water and sixty miles from Philadelphia by rail. The woods and shore were beautiful. with a view of the Navasink Highlands rising in foliated grandeur south of Sandy Hook across the bay. The ever-varying surface of the bay was a constant enjoyment, now sparkling in bright sunlight, sliding soft swells along the sand, now dancing sprightly with little waves flipping dainty white petticoats, again overcast with sullen clouds and lashed by heavy winds that rolled up booming surf along the shoreline.
The Raritan Bay Union was housed in a large stone building, 250 feet in length, with a turret and porticos. One wing contained apartments for families and rooms for single occupants. The other wing housed the school. In the center were parlors and a dining room.
Weld opened his school--they called it Eagleswood--in the fall of 1854. It accommodated fifty-six boarders. Since his manual labor days Weld had never lost his faith in exercise; and gymnastics, calisthenics, rowing, and swimming were important features of his curriculum. The institution was coeducational, for to separate the sexes was "to ignore a law of reciprocal action vital to the highest weal of both." Weld taught English grammar, composition, and literature, placing special emphasis on Shakespeare in which he had three different classes each day. Angelina's subjects were writing and arithmetic while Sarah instructed in French and kept the books. Two or three younger teachers completed the staff. Nathaniel Peabody, father of the celebrated Peabody sisters of Massachusetts, was a member of the Union, and his daughter Elizabeth taught at Weld's school for a time.
The non-sectarian religious ideals of the community comported with the Welds' philosophy; for they, and Sarah too, were becoming ever more unorthodox. Weld scorned religious creeds and forms. Like Garrison, he had come to reject Sabbath observance and refused to take the Bible literally in its entirety. More and more his religion was coming to be the simple precept: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself." Sarah found herself adopting his views, although he never tried to influence her in matters of faith. "When I began to understand what the gift of the Holy Spirit really was," she wrote, "then all outwardism fell off .... I could not help it; it was unexpected in me, and I wondered to find even the Sabbath gone." The sum of Sarah's religion was "God is love."
The Raritan Bay experiment did not turn out as Weld had hoped it would. Not only did he and the sisters derive no dividends from their investment, but his rent was fixed at such a figure that he was obliged to put his tuition rates beyond the means of the middle class whom he had hoped to benefit. The managers whom Marcus Spring employed were inefficient. All winter the place had insufficient heat. Gas lights were not installed as promised. And the water supply was so precarious that every drop must be conserved.
Weld was severely overworked. He not only carried a full teaching schedule, but all problems of discipline also fell to him. Administrative work absorbed his evenings. He was half sick all winter, suffering recurrent attacks of fever. At one period he was too weak to shave, and grew a beard; and Sarah and Angelina persuaded him "to wear his snowy honors."
The inmates of the Union were uncongenial. Several had moved in from the unsuccessful North American Phalanx at nearby Red Bank, and they were a troublesome lot. Jealousy and selfishness were rampant. Sarah reported that the place was filled with "innumerable sponges who suck up every spare moment." Weld complained that Sarah was always cross. Weld himself worked at such a pace that he had no time for his family. By the end of the first school year they were ready to give up.
Marcus Spring persuaded them to stay for one more year, but by the summer of 1856 the Union itself had gone under. The more famous Hopedale Colony of Adin Ballou, in Massachusetts, was also in precarious circumstances at this time, and Weld and Ballou exchanged letters in an effort to discover the fallacy in the communal idea. "I was under a mistake about the evils of competition and love of money being the chief ones," confessed Ballou. "Love of command, love of ease, and the inclination to throw off care and responsibility upon others are equally potent and mischievous .... Few people are near enough right in heart, head and habits to live in close social intimacy. So far as household and industrial organization on the basis of united pecuniary interests is concerned, Association is impossible and undesirable at present. It costs more than it comes to. I give it up. The integrity and due privacy of the family ought to be sacredly preserved. Likewise the proper individuality of human nature in its sphere. I concur with you in the opinion that we shall ere long find a way to carry our divine principles into social arrangements so as to secure all the good without the evils of Association as attempted in these unsuccessful experiments. At this let us aim, and for this labor. We will unshackle and elevate the slave. We will raise woman to her destined sphere. We will educate the young. We will regenerate the public conscience, heart and opinion. We will do all in our power to make individuals and families what they ought to be,--and thus elevate society itself to the glorious state hoped for. . .
The demise of the Raritan Bay Union was really a blessing to Weld. For with this he began his real career as a schoolmaster. In default of other possibilities of income, the proprietors rented him the school on a sliding scale commensurate with the number of his students. A lady rented the remainder of the building as a boarding house, and the Welds also took boarders during the summer months. The gas lights were installed at last, the water system was improved, and a new gymnasium was completed with apparatus for both sexes. Weld planned to build "upon the basis of God's model school--the family."
It was still hard going, however. At the end of 1858 the Welds' books showed a thousand dollars uncollected. A few of the Associationists still stayed around, but as they were sloughed off people of more congenial temperament moved in, until at last Sarah was able to report that "now we have a charming circle of friends." Several of their neighbors were artists or poets. In 1853 Weld's old friend James G. Birney and his wife moved to Eagleswood from Michigan, where they had lived since Birney left the antislavery headquarters in New York. Birney had twice been the Liberty Party's candidate for president, but in 1845 he had suffered a bad fall from a horse. His injuries caused intermittent paralysis, and he finally lost the power of speech. He died at Eagleswood in 1857. Arnold Buffum, Spring's father-in-law, brought his family to Eagleswood in 1854, and when Buffum died in 1859 he was buried beside Birney.
A son of Birney's was enrolled in Eagleswood School, and other friends of Weld entrusted their children to him for instruction. Gerrit Smith and Henry B. Stanton each sent a son, and Augustus Wattles sent a daughter. Rosanna Gould, another pupil, was the daughter of a Lane rebel.
Weld was a superlative teacher. He was now in his middle fifties and his character had mellowed. His once impetuous zeal had given way to quiet patience. His detestation of wrongdoing was tempered with pity, so that his discipline was firm but also kindly. His own stern self-control induced self-restraint in his students. He inculcated high principles and noble purposes. His thoroughness gave him an easy familiarity with whatever subjects he taught. His perseverance kept him working with laggard pupils when others would have despaired. All his better qualities blossomed now that he bad again found a way to serve mankind.
His pupils loved him. In the Weld-Grimké collection are scores of letters from former pupils expressing gratitude and affection, some of them confessing they never realized how much Weld's teaching meant to them until years afterward. A grateful parent, a New York editor of whom Weld asked permission to use his name as a reference, replied: "Just give me a chance to recommend you and your school--and see how high I will set you up--Not only by word of mouth, but by editorial word will I help you, thou good man and perfect teacher." Eagleswood lacked Brookfield's rich traditions, but the abolitionist firebrand Theodore Weld had become a sort of real-life counterpart of Mr. Chips.
Weld gave up his Graham diet to the extent of eating meat once a day. But Angelina and Sarah had a new fad. It was the costume sponsored by Amelia Bloomer, which they first took up in Belleville as a symbol of female equality and a utilitarian housedress. Angelina called the costume an experiment. When woman was no longer merely "man's pretty idol," "coaxed and gulled with sugar-plum privileges" while denied her intrinsic rights, and when at last she took her place as man's equal, then she would also assert her right to practical dress, elegant, if she wished it so, but in any event not of an "absurd circumference and length." The sisters wore their "Bloomers" for several years, but eventually renounced them for conventional dress.
Every Sunday Weld conducted religious services in the school, even though he himself held the Sabbath to be no holier than any other day. Sunday afternoon was open house, when visitors and neighbors gathered in the spacious parlor and everyone was free to speak his mind. Weld also organized a lyceum, a feature of which was a course of agricultural lectures on drainage, subsoiling, care of trees, and kindred topics instructive to the neighboring farmers.
The Sunday gatherings and lyceum courses attracted famous guests. William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Post, came down from New York. Horace Greeley, editor of the rival New York Tribune and oracle of the backcountry. was another visitor. Greeley had lost money in the North American Phalanx, close by at Red Bank, and deplored the failure of the associationist experiment on Raritan Bay.
Many of Weld's guests were Unitarian clergymen, whose diverse reform hobbies and pet "causes" of one sort or another made Eagleswood a potpourri of liberal thought. Among them were Edwin Hubbell Chapin, Robert Collyer, Henry W. Bellows, James Freeman Clarke, William Henry Channing, and Octavius B. Frothingham. Their interests ranged through temperance and prohibition, eradication of social diseases, woman suffrage, education, abolition, improvement of the condition of the workingman, freedom for the oppressed minorities of Europe--every worthy movement of that day. They were intellectually restless--some of them, like Chapin and Bellows, brilliant and original thinkers; others, like Clarke and Frothingham, prolific writers. Bellows was a champion of self-help education, as Weld had been, and was one of the founders of Antioch College at Yellow Springs, Ohio. With the coming of the Civil War he would found and head the United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the Red Cross, with Collyer as one of his lieutenants. With varying intensity these men believed in man's perfectibility--Clarke, especially, sought truth and goodness in all persons, sects, and creeds; while Channing, nephew of the celebrated William Ellery Channing, made a fetish of the equality of men and the ultimate harmony and happiness of the human race through faith and love. Channing had tried communal life at Brook Farm, then set up a "Religious Union of Associationists" of his own that failed.
Bellows, Clarke, Channing, and Frothingham were Harvard graduates, and Harvard influence was paramount at Eagleswood. Weld's old friend Beriah Green was horrified to learn that Weld, Mrs. Birney, and Gerrit Smith were all planning to send their sons to Harvard. "To Harvard University!" Green gasped. "Was not Charles Follen there spurned? Were not Horace Mann and R. W. Emerson there hissed? Thence, did not Webster derive encouragement in supporting the Fu[gitive] Sl[ave] Bill? And then said young Weld & Birney & Smith just entering! ... When the Son of Man cometh, shall he find fidelity upon the earth! How could you throw such a stumbling block before your weaker brethren?" asked Green reproachfully.
Henry David Thoreau spent several weeks at Eagleswood. In October, 1856, Marcus Spring, who had taken up his residence near the school, invited the eccentric Yankee sage to give a course of lectures and do some surveying for him. Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods had been published two years before in protest against the industrialization and commercialization which he saw engulfing the country. Widely traveled in New England and Canada, a frequent lyceum lecturer, Thoreau was now living with his parents in their yellow house in Concord, where the family earned a precarious living by making pencils, an occupation in which Henry David took little part, for he had much thinking to do and often sat bemused at the back door under a poplar tree.
Simple to the point of naiveté, a rustic dreamer who loved solitude, Thoreau distrusted group action and demurred at all communal schemes. Eagleswood was still tinctured with "associationism," with some associationists still hanging on, and Thoreau thought it "a queer place." Everything revolved around Weld's school, he wrote to his sister, with the Quaker spirit much in evidence. When he lectured, his audience was mostly children, "not so bright as New England children," he opined. "Imagine them," he wrote, "sitting close to the wall, all around a hall, with old Quaker-looking men and women here and there. There sat Mrs. Weld and her sister, two elderly gray-headed ladies, the former in extreme Bloomer costume, which was what you might call remarkable; Mr. Arnold Buffum, with broad face and a great white beard, looking like a pier-head made of the corktree with the bark on, as if he could buffet a considerable wave; James G. Birney . . . with another particularly white head and beard; Edward Palmer, the anti-money man . . . with his ample beard somewhat grayish."
On Saturday night Thoreau went to the schoolroom for the weekly dance, for it was thought strange, he said, if one did not attend. Children, teachers, and patrons were all on the floor, Weld, with his long white beard, romping and tripping as gaily as any of them.
On three successive Sundays while Thoreau was at Eagleswood, his neighbor, Amos Bronson Alcott, came down from Concord. A seer, a mystic, so unconcerned with worldly things that his wife and daughters were obliged to support themselves by sewing, teaching, and domestic service until Louisa wrote Little Women, Alcott liked to visit Eagleswood, not so much to lecture as to observe Weld's school. For Weld's methods, aiming at a symmetrical development of moral, esthetic and intellectual qualities, mixing gymnastics and organized play with classroom work, enforcing discipline with kindness, posing questions designed to make a pupil think, seeking to bring pleasure and beauty into the educational process, were much the same as those that Alcott had tried at his Boston Temple School some years before.
It must have been a rich, full fare at Eagleswood, if one could assimilate it, full-flavored and well spiced as it was. Of course there were not always famous visitors; they came at relatively rare intervals. Usually it was only the local people who gathered in the parlor of a Sunday, and at such times things might be a trifle boring. At least Sarah found them so when she noted that "in all free meetings there will be those who love to hear themselves talk, and who are not specially improving or attractive." Still she thought it better than being obliged to listen to the same preacher every Sunday, and it was vastly stimulating when Theodore dipped back into literature or philosophy to "give us some of the great thoughts that have been conceived and buried alive."
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