The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
Having indoctrinated "the Seventy" and sent them on their way, Weld remained in New York. His throat was so aggravated that he resolved to give it a prolonged rest, and on April 14 he resigned as an agent. But if he could not speak, there was much he could do at headquarters. He edited tracts. He counseled with the agency committee regarding the placement of agents, a matter requiring planning and judgment if the central office was to use its limited manpower to the best advantage. If an agent proved unequal to his work, he was shifted to a less difficult field; men of anti-Masonic convictions were kept away from territories where Freemasonry was strong; dull speakers were sent to places where they could do administrative or organizational work; men who were competent to meet the colonization argument were deployed in colonizationist strongholds. Agents were shifted constantly according to their varying aptitudes.
At first Weld had no title and no specific job at headquarters. He helped wherever he could. He had thought the dull routine of office work would stifle him, but he found it vastly exciting. Here he was at the very center of the antislavery movement where he could watch the meshing of all the cogs. The office was filled with visitors from morning till night. He was busy without letup, "with a dozen and more stunning me with questions and discussions and a tap on the shoulder at least as often as once in a minute or two." Elizur Wright, Henry B. Stanton, Joshua Leavitt, and John Greenleaf Whittier, who comprised the office staff, were jabbering constantly. "They buzz-hum, hum, buzz, buzz, all the time," Weld reported.
Wright was executive secretary and in general charge. Stanton, who had demonstrated his ability in New England, had been brought to headquarters to supervise a petition campaign. Leavitt was a Yale graduate, forty-three years old, who had begun to practice law, returned to Yale for a divinity degree, but after preaching for three years had become secretary of the Seaman's Friend Society. Ranging wide in the reform arena, he had founded sailors' missions, compiled an evangelical hymnal, combated liquor and vice. An experienced journalist, his special job was to edit the American Antislavery Society's paper, the Emancipator. He was fiery, cocky, self-confident; and his Massachusetts origin and powerful physique had earned him the sobriquet, "the sturdy Puritan."
Whittier was a protege of Garrison's, although he would break with him later. Only thirty years old, he was already widely known as an editor and poet. Tall and slim, with black eyes gleaming in his swarthy face, he relieved the office tedium with his quick wit, and sometimes flashed out with quick temper. Simple and reticent in manner, he was dandified in dress. Inclined to be romantic, he spent many of his evenings with a young poetess, Lucy Hooper, who lived in Brooklyn. While Whittier was working at the headquarters office, Isaac Knapp, the publisher of Garrison's Liberator, brought out the first collected edition of Whittier's poems. Weld worked well with all three of these men. He and Whittier prepared a "library system" of antislavery literature, suitably bound and boxed, and available to local societies at cost. Weld and the young poet were much together and indulged in long discussions. One summer evening about sundown they climbed to a balcony above the entrance to the City Hall and became so engrossed in conversation that they failed to hear the clock boom out the hours overhead, and were surprised when they saw the sun rising
"Weld, Whittier, Stanton, Wright," wrote Wright to his parents, "--what a pestilent, dangerous clump of fanatics all in one little room plotting freedom for the slaves! We are all busy--of course more than usually so."
Weld became so absorbed in office work that with his usual disregard of health he overtaxed himself. Obliged to take a vacation, he visited his brother Lewis at Hartford, Connecticut, went to Manlius, New York, to see his parents, then spent a week at his native town of Hampton, Connecticut, where he rambled over the nearby hills and revisited the scenes of his early childhood. He had hoped to accompany Charles Smart on a trip to England, but was afraid to undertake it in his uncertain health. Yet even on vacation he could not put antislavery labors entirely aside. Everywhere he went he talked abolition, not to public audiences, but to lawyers, clergymen, legislators--anyone who would listen.
Visiting Hartford, Connecticut, he learned of a slave girl, Nancy Jackson, twenty-four years old, the property of a Presbyterian elder from Georgia, who had brought the girl to Hartford with his family two years before and was keeping her there in bondage. Weld and a local abolitionist instituted suit to obtain her freedom, and Weld showed remarkable knowledge of the legal aspects of slavery by proffering advice and citations of authorities to his lawyers.
The girl was brought before Justice Thomas Scott Williams on a writ of habeas corpus, and the facts of the case being presented, the judge deferred the arguments of counsel until the sitting of the Court of Errors in order that the decision might .be made by a full bench. On June 17, 1837, the court declared the girl free, thus setting a precedent which might liberate every slave brought into Connecticut and would carry weight in other Northern states as well. Weld reported that he was plentifully threatened with mob violence during the course of the trial, but he showed his usual indifference to danger.
By the summer of 1837, Weld was back at headquarters, ready to welcome his old friend, James G. Birney, who, largely through Weld influence, had been appointed executive secretary during Weld's absence. At Weld's suggestion Wright now took over foreign correspondence and routine editorial work, Stanton was put in charge of finances, Leavitt continued to edit the Emancipator, and Birney assumed responsibility for relations with auxiliary societies and agents. Weld himself was editor of special publications.
It was a job for which he was well qualified, for Stanton declared that he "will pick a dry metaphysical bone for a week, with the gusto of an epicure dining on his favorite dish. Long protracted investigation seems to rest, rather than fatigue him. He will dig a month with the patience of a Cornwall miner, into a dusty library for a rare fact to elucidate or fortify a new position."
To the people of that day the divine inspiration of the Bible and its authority over the minds and hearts of men were accepted tenets. There were a few freethinkers, to be sure, but the generality of people took the Bible as infallible. Southerners claimed that slavery was sanctioned by the Old Testament and permitted by the New Testament, while antislavery Northerners insisted that it was in direct violation of God's commands. Each side backed up its assertions with ample citations of scripture; and, in refutation, each reminded the other of the devil's skill in quoting scripture for his purpose. Southerners started with the premise that moral laws never change, that what was right in Biblical times is right today. If God allowed His chosen people to own slaves, as the Old Testament asserted He did, then slavery was sanctioned by God. The argument was elaborated and refined in ultimate degree, and gave the abolitionists no end of trouble.
Early in Weld's antislavery career he had developed a "Bible argument against slavery" for special use on Sundays; and whenever he trained agents he gave them special instruction along this line. It was a feature of the New York agents' convention, and all the Oberlin agents had mastered it. Indeed, Weld's argument was so effective that while he was still an agent Elizur Wright had urged him to write it out for publication, even if to do so required his hiring an amanuensis or taking two or three weeks off from lecturing. Weld finally got around to doing it, and the argument was published anonymously in the Quarterly AntiSlavery Magazine for April, 1837, under the title "Is Slavery from Above or Beneath." Weld's disquisition proved so popular in antislavery circles that one of his first editorial assignments was to prepare it for publication as a pamphlet. In less than a year it had gone through three editions, and the national society continued to bring out new editions for several years. Antislavery papers quoted it extensively, some of them reprinting the whole pamphlet in serial form. The Philanthropist rated it "the most comprehensive and condensed, the clearest and most conclusive, of any we have seen on the subject."
Weld began by defining slavery, whose essence, as he saw it, was reducing men to articles of property, converting persons into things. It was not a matter of curtailing rights, but of annihilating them; not of restraining liberty, but of destroying it. This was the nature of American slavery, and there was nothing like it under Mosaic law. All the prescriptions of that code which proslavery men were pleased to quote as defining the relations of masters and slaves were really admonitions to masters and servants. Weld contended that slavery as Americans knew it never existed among the Hebrews. The Jewish system of servitude was contractual. Hence, slavery in the American sense was entirely lacking in Biblical sanction. In explaining the meaning of certain Biblical terms, Weld showed no little learning in philology. His knowledge of the Old Testament was profound. It would be profitless to reconstruct his argument in detail. Suffice it to say that his work was immensely influential. The pamphlet was scattered broadcast through the North in God-fearing homes, and became a textbook for antislavery agents.
A multitude of special publications kept Weld busy. James A. Thome, whose health, like Weld's, had broken down in lecturing, had been sent to the West Indies with J. Horace Kimball, editor of the Herald of Freedom at Concord, New Hampshire, to study the results of emancipation in Antigua, Barbados, and Jamaica. In Antigua, abolition was immediate; in Barbados and Jamaica a system of apprenticeship had been interposed between slavery and freedom. Weld and Thome conceived the idea of studying conditions in these islands with a view to disproving the contention of the proslavery press that emancipation had been a failure, and Weld persuaded the executive committee to provide the necessary money. Thome and Kimball spent six months in first-hand study. Kimball had contracted tuberculosis before he undertook the trip, and died soon after his return, at the age of twenty-six; but Thome compiled the results of their investigation in a manuscript of some eleven hundred pages.
Weld thought this much too long; the audience they wished to reach would never read it. So he notified Thome that he would undertake to reduce it by about five hundred pages. Even this drastic revision was not enough for Weld. The book was still too long, and he went over it again, cutting out sentences and paragraphs in an effort to compress it to readable length. Nor was his editing confined to deletions. He verified every statement carefully in order to make the book immune to criticism. "By the way, my dear brother," he chided Thome, "you were exceedingly careless in some little things, which if they had been printed as they were left in the manuscript would have kicked the dish over." Thome was appalled at Weld's dissection of his handiwork, which amounted almost to a rewriting, but he took it in good part.
The book was published early in 1838 in an edition of twenty-five hundred copies under the title Emancipation in the West Indies. But the edition was so soon exhausted that the executive committee authorized Weld to make another revision and prepare the book for stereotyping with a purpose to bring out another printing of a hundred thousand copies.
Thome and Kimball's conclusion was that apprenticeship did not work well in Jamaica because of the planters' failure to cooperate. In Barbados it brought marked benefits to whites and blacks alike; but Antigua, where emancipation was complete and unconditional, showed the most striking advance. Instead of the troubles and disruption that had been anticipated by reason of the abrupt change in established social and economic relationships, there had come blessings to all classes, manifesting themselves in increased economic efficiency, elevation of character and moral tone, banishment of fear of Negro insurrection, amelioration of racial prejudice and distrust, and promotion of general tranquillity and well-being.
The case for immediate emancipation presented by Weld, Thome, and Kimball was so convincing that the leaders of the American Antislavery Society abandoned the policy of immediate emancipation gradually accomplished, which few persons could comprehend, and now announced for unconditional freedom without delay. Most persons, including many abolitionists themselves, had believed that was their objective from the first.
Weld wrote several antislavery disquisitions for the New York Sun. He also revised a series of articles he had written for the New York Evening Post, where they appeared over the signature of "Wythe," in order that the national society might republish them as a pamphlet with the title The Power of Congress over the District of Columbia.
Publication of this tract was part of a new strategy which contemplated stepping up the petition campaign, with special emphasis on Congress' power and duty to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. From the beginning of the antislavery movement abolitionists had sought to influence Congress through petitions. The Quakers had long been active in this line, centering their fire on slavery in the District and the Territories. Whittier initiated a petition movement in New England through the medium of the Essex County Antislavery Society, and in 1835 the New England society began to circularize. In the West, the Lane students sponsored a monster petition, and Weld wrote a section into the constitution of the Ohio Antislavery Society pledging it to make the utmost use of petitions. As early as 1834 the American Antislavery Society had undertaken to encourage these local efforts by sending out printed forms; and so eager was the response that Congress was deluged. Irritated almost beyond endurance, Southern congressmen, abetted by Northern sympathizers, had invoked a "gag" rule prohibiting the reception or discussion of these pleas.
In this they were ill-advised. Petition for redress of grievances was a cherished American right whose abridgment brought a new champion onto the field. Up in the chamber of the House of Representatives rose old John Quincy Adams to excoriate and denounce. Although he had been wary of antislavery agitation, seeing it from its beginnings as a menace to the union of the states, yet he was even more apprehensive of curtailment of constitutional rights. Day after day he shuffled into the chamber laden with petitions subscribed with long lists of names, and day after day he insisted upon presenting them, only to be silenced when the Speaker applied the gag.
An able, learned, testy-tempered man, the Puritan zeal of his forebears coursed in his veins. Obstinate, uncompromising, fearless, stern, he had not thought it beneath his dignity to serve in the lower house of Congress after holding the high office of president as well as serving as secretary of state and at important diplomatic posts. Enfeebled by age, his voice, once rich and resonant, now tremulous and fitful from his years, he tried repeatedly to override the gag, only to see it made a permanent rule of the House. The rank and file of the abolitionists thought he had joined their clan, but actually he held himself aloof, hating slavery, but holding it subordinate to the questions of constitutional privilege and his own right of free speech as a member of the House. If he was not an abolitionist, nevertheless he would use every device or subterfuge to put antislavery petitions before the House. James G. Birney, taking over the direction of the national society, was determined to make the most of this ally. "We wish to remind our friends of what is before them the coming fall and winter," wrote Leavitt in the Emancipator. "Petitions are to be circulated and sent to Congress by hundreds and thousands, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The State Legislatures should also be memorialized."
The attack was well planned. Two persons were appointed in every county to receive petition forms from national headquarters and to see that they were subscribed with signatures and sent to Congress. These persons in turn selected two leaders in each township. "Let petitions be circulated wherever signers can be got," read the instructions. "Neglect no one. Follow the farmer to his field, the wood-chopper to the forest. Hail the shopkeeper behind his counter; call the clerk from his desk; stop the waggoner with his team; forget not the matron, ask for her daughter. Let no frown deter, no repulse baffle. Explain, discuss, argue, persuade." The North was flooded with petitions, which, subscribed with long lists of names, cascaded into Washington upon apprehensive congressmen.
Brief and to the point, most of the petitions protested against slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, but others opposed the annexation of Texas, the interstate slave trade, the extension of slavery to the national Territories, the admission of Florida to statehood unless slavery were proscribed by her constitution--indeed, they were directed against any act or situation calculated to give comfort to the slaveholder.
Women played their part in the crusade. The work of obtaining signatures fell largely to them, and in 1837 they formed a national organization of their own. Carrying petitions from door to door, discussing slavery in their sewing circles and at their quilting bees, arguing with recalcitrant husbands and sons, the women brought a potent influence to bear.
Cooperating with Birney at the New York headquarters, Weld, Stanton, and Whittier stoked the forge. When financial stringency resulting from the panic of 1837 forced the dismissal of many agents, they filled the ranks with volunteers, and the petition flood showed no abatement. And by 1840, when every agent of the national society had either been dismissed or transferred to a state or local society, more petitions than ever were coming in. The abolition movement was no longer the cause of a few zealots and hired workers. The people were taking over.
Instead of stagnating in the New York office as he had expected to do, Weld wrote: "I have never done half so much for Abolition as since I have stopped speaking." Yet his was a lonely life. "I am a hermit here in the midst of throngs," he complained. He boarded with a colored man and woman, brother and sister, eating his meals with them in a little room with an uncarpeted floor and walls with newspapers pasted over the plaster cracks. He slept in a tiny attic room two miles uptown, with a colored man for his landlord. Every morning he was up at dawn or earlier, and after taking his customary bath he would go out and walk and run and hop for an hour or more, sometimes going four miles and never less than two before breakfast. In winter he split his own wood and carried it up the three flights of stairs to his room. He was always at the antislavery office by eight o'clock. Before and after office hours he visited sick and needy colored persons, so that he never returned to his lodgings before eleven o'clock at night.
And besides the burden of his work, Weld was racked by mental turmoil. He had vowed never to marry till the slavery struggle was won; but an irresistible lady had entered his life.
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