The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
BELLEVILLE AND WASHINGTON AGAIN
By April, 1842, Weld was back in Belleville, busy planting his crops. He had been asked to speak in Philadelphia en route to his home, but as usual he preferred to expend his efforts in smaller places and came "through the interior." "My poor throat still gives me trouble," he wrote to Gerrit Smith, "but I manage to talk about twice a week, which is too much for it; but by talking short and taking care not [to] get into a tempest I slowly move up stream." He was speaking at Paterson every Sabbath evening on the moral bearings of the slave question, and planned to continue to do so for several weeks. "The leaven of abolition is working even in New Jersey," he rejoiced.
In August Weld went to Manlius, New York, to help his parents sell their house. While there he gave a temperance lecture and planned to speak on abolition. But he had been afflicted all summer with fever and ague, and he was seized so frequently with shaking fits that he had to desist. Lewis Tappan again brought up the matter of his taking a church in New York, and Angelina hoped her husband would consider it. The farm was a fit place to regain his health, but it was not where he belonged.
The pulpit, however, no longer attracted Weld. The generality of preachers were too insincere. There were outstanding exceptions, he conceded, but "there is among the professed ministers of Christ such connivance at cherished sins, such truckling subserviency to power, such clinging with mendicant sycophancy to the skirts of wealth and influence, such humoring of pampered lusts, such cowering before bold transgression when it stalks among the high places of power with fashion in its train, or to sum up all, such floating in the wake of an unholy public sentiment, instead of beating back its waves with a 'thus saith the Lord' and a 'thou art the man'--that even men of the world who are shrewd discerners, regard them rather as the obsequious cooks and confectioners who cater for a capricious palate, than as the faithful physician who administers the medicine demanded by the disease, however much the patient may loath[e] it, and steadily pushes the probe to the core, whatever his struggles or upbraidings." Weld wanted iron in his religion. The perfection of religion was to be like Christ--humble, charitable, forgiving, but ruthless with sin.
On December 27 Weld was back in Washington for the short session. Mrs. Spriggs had reserved him a warm, light room on the second floor, where board, lodging, lights, and shoe-brushing cost him eight dollars a week. The antislavery activities of Mrs. Spriggs' roomers during the last session had caused her place to he called the "Abolition House," and her friends had thought this might ruin her. But instead her house was filled, and she was one of the few landladies who had not been obliged to cut rates. The slaves she had employed before had all run away, as VVeld had foreseen that they might, and now she made it her practice to hire only free colored help. "Stick a pin there!" exulted Weld when he wrote to tell Angelina.
Abolition was the talk of the town, and Weld thought there might be "warm work." It would be nothing like last winter, however, for the Southern members were more tractable. They made a half-hearted effort to remove Giddings from the chairmanship of the committee on claims, and also showed displeasure over Northern manifestations of sympathy for the fugitive slave George Latimer who had been captured and subsequently ransomed in Boston. Weld thought the slaveholders had been so smitten with Adams' bolts at the last session that they were unable to rally, but actually the 'Whig leaders had decided not to harass the Whig insurgents needlessly, inasmuch as their votes would be needed for the passage of party measures.
Weld found plenty to do. A number of disputed claims for reimbursement to masters whose slaves had been killed in government service were scheduled to come up, and the abolitionists were girding to combat them. A petition from certain citizens of Boston in behalf of free Negro sailors was referred to the committee on commerce, of which Andrews was a member. He, Gates, Giddings, Slade, and others were planning to give battle when it came before the House, and Weld had fortitled them with a long memorandum expounding the constitutional aspects of the subject. Also coming up from the committee on Territories was a resolution to inquire into the expediency of repealing those laws of Florida Territory which forbade the immigration of free blacks into that region and imposed a capitation tax on free colored persons already residing there. When these matters came before the House the Boston petition was tabled, eighty-five to fifty-nine, and the Florida resolution suffered the same fate by a vote of 113 to 80; but eighty votes mustered for a resolution of this sort was, in Weld's opinion, "the best vote for liberty that has ever been taken in Congress since the antislavery question came up."
Weld left for home about two weeks before the session ended on March 3, and with his departure the antislavery offensive lost something of its verve. Giddings wrote that things were not the same without him. Leavitt told Angelina that his research and counsel had been of basic importance. "He has been doing foundation work," he wrote, "and we all feel that our future labors will be the more available for the services of a wise masterbuilder."
Weld's work so clearly demonstrated the utility of an antislavery agency at the national capital that the American and Foreign Antislavery Society established a new paper, the National Era, there in 1847, with the capable and affable Gamaliel Bailey to perform the functions of editor, lobbyist, adviser to antislavery congressmen, and factotum of the antislavery enterprise. With the passing years the composition of Congress also testified to Weld's work, as districts where he or his disciples had proselytized rolled up a rising total of antislavery votes. Into the House to aid Giddings and his colleagues came bellicose Ben Wade of Ohio, one of Weld's own converts. Caustic, vengeful Thaddeus Stevens, won to abolition by an agent whom Weld had trained, was elected to the House from Pennsylvania, and brought to bear a derisive eloquence and a proficiency in parliamentary tactics that Giddings lacked. Owen Lovejoy, himself one of Weld's former workers, who had vowed eternal enmity to slavery at his martyred brother's grave, would win election from Illinois in 1857. State legislatures were similarly infiltrated.
Shortly before leaving Washington, Weld wrote to Lewis Tappan that he would be very busy at home for about six weeks, for he planned to set out a hundred peach trees and a similar number of apples, pears, plums, and cherries, besides grafting and trimming some fifty others. The farm kept him busy all through the summer and autumn, but with the harvest finished he took up the antislavery cudgels again, speaking all too frequently for his ailing throat. One of his addresses was to be before the Newark Lyceum, and he had chosen as his subject "Truth's Hindrances"--a philosophical query into those preiudices that closed men's minds, a plea for the right of free discussion, and a challenge to follow conscience and reason even in the face of hatred, contempt and ridicule. "I reckon it will be the last time they will be guilty of the indiscretion of asking me to talk to them," Weld predicted. Tappan reminded Weld that New Jersey would soon elect representatives to a state constitutional convention. Were the antislavery men "up and doing"? he inquired. How about Weld's writing a pamphlet analyzing and criticizing the present state constitution? Tappan seemed to think Weld was not as active as he should be, and hoped he would soon burst forth again "like the sun after a partial eclipse."
In fact, Weld had worries at home. He was concerned about his two boys. Neither of them seemed to have "a benevolent disposition," and they would not share their toys. Angelina was in "high tension" over William Miller's prediction that the second coming of Christ would occur sometime between March, 1843, and March, 1844. She was expecting a child about the latter date, and it may be she suspected that she had been chosen as the instrumentality of a world-shaking event.
In addition to Weld's domestic worries, other matters gave him poignant concem. A series of unsavory disclosures had put reform in bad odor. A leading reformer of Brooklyn, pastor of one of the "free churches," was discovered to have been molesting young girls of his Sunday School. It came out that the late editor of the New York Evangelist had been drinking intoxicating liquor, attending the theater, and consorting with loose women for several years. The editor of the Oberlin Evangelist, an outstanding moral leader and spokesman of the Liberty Party, was found to be an adulterer and a thief. Weld and Lewis Tappan agreed that the nauseous facts must be proclaimed to the world, for reform must never seek to cover up its dirt.
Other reform leaders were in trouble through no fault of their own. Elizur Wright was obliged to earn a precarious living by peddling copies of his translation of La Fontaine's Fables from door to door. Marius Robinson was in poor health and had refired to a farm near Putnam, Ohio, where he contemplated raising silkworms for a livelihood. Edward Weed, another Lane rebel, who lived near Weld as pastor of a free church at Paterson, was inconsolable by reason of the death of his wife, the former Phoebe Mathews, one of the girls whom Tappan had sent to work with the Cincinnati Negroes. James A. Thome and George Whipple were hanging on desperately at Oberlin, where faculty salaries were crushingly in arrears, and both would soon be obliged to find other employment to sustain their families.
In January, 1844, Leavitt, Tappan, and Giddings all urged Weld to return to Washington. Giddings believed the antislavery forces could abolish slavery in the District of Columbia during the present session of Congress if they could command the services of a dozen men like Weld. Someone was needed to go among the people of the District to speak and circulate petitions and to visit wavering congressmen at their lodgings. Weld could do incalculable good, if he would return.
But this time Weld said no. Others could do the work as well as he could, he told Tappan, and he would not leave home until Angelina was delivered of her child. Besides, he was surfeited with Washington and the politicians who infested it. Except for the little band of Whig insurgents, politicians were a noisome lot, he wrote to Giddings, afraid to vote their convictions, crouching on their marrow bones before public opinion, fawning at their masters' feet and "wriggling for the privilege of licking their spittle as it falls." "Just such creatures are nearly the whole democratic delegation in Congress and a majority of the Whigs," he complained, "if I see with true eyes." This detestation of politicians and political methods still kept Weld aloof from the Liberty Party, and he declined numerous invitations to speak at Liberty rallies.
The Welds' third child, a girl, was born on March 22, 1844. They named her Sarah Grimké. Angelina had an easy delivery, "Not half as bad as the extraction of a tooth," but at first she could not nurse the baby. She was almost ready to give up when a poultice of cabbage leaves applied to the breast brought the milk abundantly. When William Miller's millennial date came and passed with nothing noteworthy occurring, Angelina concluded that Christ's coming would be in the hearts of the people.
With Angelina and the baby safe, Weld accepted Lewis Tappan's reiterated invitation to speak in Brooklyn. There would be no riot, Tappan assured him, for the Hutchinson Family Singers, giving a concert at the Brooklyn Lyceum a few nights previously before an audience of eight hundred, had let go in full chorus with
"We are for Emancipation--
The Friends of Human Rights"
and not an egg had been loosed. Tappan engaged the Lyceum for April 11, but when Weld announced that he would repeat his speech on "Truth's Hindrances," Tappan wondered whether such a subject would draw a crowd. "If you will only (!) take a little brandy & water . . . swear a little--get on a spree, etc. or stand up very straight with a white neckcloth, and turn up your nose at a 'nigger,' I could have the Lyceum filled," Tappan declared, "provided you would lecture upon 'The Glory of America'--'The Vast Fertility & Resources of the Western Continent'--'Sketch of American Statesman' . . . etc--But TRUTH'S HINDRANCES!! or Hindrances to Truth--it smells of radicalism--mad dog."
The lecture was delivered as planned, but it was Weld's last speechmaking effort for a long time. Six months later Tappan was asking him, "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" But Weld was destined not to speak again for eighteen years. Again he had overtaxed his throat, and while he tried exercise, water cures, and remedies of everv sort, he concluded at last that he was finished as a speechmaker.
He settled down to farm work, but expenses kept piling up. He was obliged to provide a home for his parents until his father died and his brother Charles rented a nearby house and took their mother in. A ninety-six-year-old uncle and his eighty-year-old wife also lived with the Welds for a while, as well as Mrs. Anna Frost and her daughter. At one time or another they cared for an invalid nephew, for Theodore's sister Cornelia, also an invalid who later became insane, and for an impoverished friend of the Grimké sisters' Charleston days and her daughter. Samuel Dotrance, a young man from Paterson, also lived with the Welds to undergo instruction in temperance and antislavery lecturing. Charles Stuart Renshaw, a former Lane student and missionary now become an antislavery lecturer, made their home his headquarters and probably paid no board. "We know not whom else the Lord may send among us," Sarah wrote, "and only pray Him to help us fulfill his will towards all whose lot may be cast among us."
Sarah and Angelina had asked their mother to will them all the family slaves. She did so, but had disposed of all except four of them before her death. These wished to remain in South Carolina, but since the law of that state forbade manumission, the sisters conveyed them to one of their brothers, who lived in South Carolina, with the understanding that the Negroes should be allowed to keep their earnings. Betsy Dawson, another former Grimké slave, became the Welds' servant, but they treated her as an equal, insisting that she eat at the family table and sit with them in the parlor. Later they employed another former Grimké slave, a worthless lout named Stephen, whom no one else could tolerate. The sisters dispensed much quiet charity, giving freely of their small means to aid the sick and poor, especially the needy colored folk. Angelina wrote a petition against the sale of intoxicating liquors in Belleville Township and both sisters canvassed the neighborhood to find signers.
Then Sarah Grimké had a sick spell. Little Theodore was never healthy. And Angelina was obliged to go to a sanitarium for several months. Knowing that Weld was hard pressed to make ends meet, the ever-helpful Lewis Tappan asked if he could put him in the way of earning something by writing. But Weld was bogged in frustration. He had many mouths to feed and must work desperately to make the farm produce. He could not speak; and neither writing nor speaking paid more than a pittance in any event.
About this time the passage of a new and more stringent Fugitive Slave Law as a component of the Compromise of 1850 sent a blast of hot hysteria across the North. Free Negroes in the Northern states began an exodus to Canada or to places affording quick access to it, for to prove one's right to freedom was not easy under the new law. Moreover, every man was under potential obligation to be a slave catcher. The judicial scales were weighted to favor the slaveowner.
Garrison trumpeted louder than ever for separation from the South. Giddings swore that the freemen of Ohio would flout the law, and advised fugitives to arm themselves and shoot down their pursuers. Theodore Parker said the new enactment was "framed in iniquity," and declared he would shelter and defend the fugitive with every means he could command, and every decent man should do the same. Henry Ward Beecher avowed from his pulpit that he would fulfil his constitutional duty of running after slaves, but confessed a liability to be taken suddenly lame on such occasions, illustrating his debility by limping across the pulpit. The Lowell American asked if men would tolerate the "monstrous" law; surely no man with a heart in his bosom or a Bible in his home would do so. Vigilance societies were organized in Northern cities to aid and defend the Negro. The Massachusetts Antislavery Society called the law "a piece of diabolical ingenuity"; the abolitionists would defy it and rest their case on the judgment of God and future ages. Several sensational rescues of apprehended Negroes took place in Northern cities, and some attempts at rescue were frustrated.
It was a time for antislavery men to be up and doing, and Weld moped in fretful impotence. Angelina, under treatment in a sanitarium, wrote that she was distressed to see him working as he was in such a state of mind, "because you feel constantly that you are not in your right place, you are not now doing the Lord's will, but your own--& it seems to me this is the thing that is eating at the root of your peace--it grieves me sorely dearest to see you thus & I entreat you no longer to kick against the pricks of conviction & condemnation that are tearing & wearing your spirit all the while."
Perhaps Weld would have felt better had he known what was taking place at Brunswick, Maine. For there a little plain-faced woman, "thin and dry as a pinch of snuff," was writing a book. Often suffering with headaches, worn with household cares, constantly interrupted by servants, tradesmen, and the demands of her numerous children, worried about bills because her husband's salary, meager as it was, often went unpaid, she was pouring out her heartache in Uncle Tom's Cabin. And much of Theodore Weld's own antislavery passion was going into her book.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had not previously been identified with the abolitionists, though she always abhorred slavery. At Lane Seminary she came under the influence of the debates, and she visited a slave plantation across the river. This and another trip into the South were her only close views of slavery. The Stowe home had been a haven for fugitive slaves, however, and she had also tried to educate free Negroes. It was the Fugitive Slave Law that awakened her. Her husband had recently accepted a new post at Bowdoin College, and she left Cincinnati to join him in the midst of the excitement evoked by the new law. Stopping in Boston to visit her brother Edward Beecher en route to Bowdoin, she learned of the many Negro families that were breaking up and fleeing toward Canada. Arriving in Brunswick, she received a letter from Edward's wife beseeching her: "Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
Now she was writing out of a bursting heart, the narrative rushing upon her, so she said, scenes and incidents flashing and fading in her brain by day and by night so that she must write fast to capture them while they were vivid. Sometimes the tears stole down her cheeks and wet the paper as she drove her pen. She was tired, overwrought, baffled by her own restraints, eager for escape herself, a condition likely to quicken her imagination. One writer thinks her own self-pity found expression in the character of Uncle Tom, a man sustained by gentle faith.
The story was planned only as a sketch at first, to be run in installments in Gamaliel Bailey's National Era for perhaps three months. It ran for ten. As encouraging comments induced the editor to prolong it, Mrs. Stowe visited the rooms of the American Antislavery Society, now located in Boston. Here she obtained Weld's Slavery As It Is and other abolition tracts. Weld's source materials for his book were also on deposit there, and Mrs. Stowe pored through them.
When proslavery persons sneered at Uncle Tom's Cabin as a grotesque distortion of slavery and the true character of the Negro, Mrs. Stowe prepared a 262-page defense. Its long but descriptive title was A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: presenting the original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded together with corroborative statements verifying the Truths of the Work. This book contains twentv-one citations to Weld's Slavery As It ls and two references to Weld and Thome's Slavery and the Slave Trade in the United States. It also has a chapter comparing American slavery with Hebrew servitude in the manner of Weld's "Bible Argument," and another chapter, patterned after a chapter in Slavery As It ls, to show the impotence of Southern public opinion to protect the slave. Following Weld's method, Mrs. Stowe printed hundreds of advertisements culled from recent issues of Southern newspapers to prove her points, so that in effect this portion of her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was a continuation of Weld's researches.
Only a small part of the material in her Key influenced her in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. Most of what went into the later book was in the nature of corroborative afterthought. But this was not true of Weld's work. She drew upon it as she wrote. George Harris's account to Eliza of his violent beating at the hands of his master's son was suggested by a letter from John M. Nelson to Weld on page fifty-one of Slavery As It Is. The character of Simon Legree, and slave life on a plantation managed by the sort of man he was, were suggested in large part by facts that Weld had gleaned. Later Mrs. Stowe told Angelina Weld that while writing Uncle Tom's Cabin she slept with Slavery As It Is under her pillow, and it is said that when she wrote Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, another but less influential antislavery novel, in 1856, she came to Weld for advice. Perhaps she did; perhaps these statements are apocryphal. The important point is that she made extensive use of Weld's work, and that through her and her novel his influence touched millions of people.
For Uncle Tom's Cabin enjoyed phenomenal success. Presses could not keep pace with the demand for it. All over the North, people devoured it. In England it sold over a million copies. Young men who would later make up the hard core of the Union Army during the Civil War felt its impact in the impressionable years of boyhood and youth.
The politicians who had hoped to make the Compromise of 1850 a final settlement of the troublesome slavery issue were thwarted at the very moment of success. For as moderates of both sections rallied behind the Compronfise measures, the tumult engendered by the Fugitive Slave Law had begun to calm down; but now thousands in the North who had been hostile or apathetic to antislavery were aroused, not to vindictive clamor but rather to a quiet hardening of purpose to put slavery down. At a pen stroke Mrs. Stowe reaped the fruits of twenty years of abolition labor. No longer could antislavery discussion be stilled. A novel had reached an audience that would have scorned a tract.
Influence is often an unmeasurable, intangible quality, but in whatever degree Weld influenced Mrs. Stowe, through her he helped move the world. And this was the way he would have wanted it. He had no wish for popular acclaim for himself.
Insofar as the Weld-Grimké correspondence shows, neither Weld nor Angelina nor Sarah so much as suspected until years afterward that Mrs. Stowe had even seen Weld's book. They were tussling with problems of their own. Along with their other individualistic idiosyncrasies, the Welds wished to educate their children after their own fashion and spent several hours each day instructing them. In their pinch for money they concluded that it would require only a little more labor to teach other children as well. Pupils were easily obtained, and soon Theodore, Angelina, and Sarah were conducting a school. Still none of them was altogether happy. Angelina thought their talents were too circumscribed. "Altho' home education has some advantages," she wrote, "yet I am satisfied that it never can expand the hearts of our children as we want to see them expand, & as they must be expanded in order that they may be useful in developing the great principles of Love practically in their generation."
They were living too selfish a life to know true happiness. She would gladly endure any sacrifice, if only Theodore could find his proper niche.
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