The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
A TIME TO TEST MEN'S SOULS
With the Ohio sod well broken, Weld left its further cultivation to his young recruits while he journeyed on to western Pennsylvania. His reputation had preceded him, and church groups vied for his lectures. Pittsburgh, almost untouched by abolition influence, gave him a pleasing welcome and the Pittsburgh Times described him as "one of nature's orators--not a declaimer--but a logician of great tact and power. His inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and general information--with the power of being intensely pathetic, enables him to give the greatest imaginable interest to the subject."
Year after year Elizur Wright urged Weld to speak at the anniversary exercises of the American Antislavery Society which were held in New York City. But Weld would not even attend. "The stateliness and Pomp and Circumstance of an anniversary I loathe in my inmost soul," he wrote to Lewis Tappan. "It seems so like ostentatious display, a mere make believe and mouthing, a sham and show off. It is an element I was never made to move in. My heart was never in that way of doing things and never can be .... I am a Backwoodsman--can grub up stumps and roll logs and burn brush heaps and break green sward. Let me keep about my own business and stay in my own place."
He saw no good to come of anniversaries. "I fear much lest our antislavery agents get too much in the habit of gadding," he explained, "attending anniversaries, sailing around in Cleopatra's barge, clustering together, six, eight, or ten of them in a place at a big meeting, staying a few days and then streaming away some hundred miles to another and another, and lingering round large cities. The great desideratum of our cause is work, work, boneing down to it."
Weld never remained long in a community after things were going well. The executive committee of the national society now urged him to go to New York State, Elizur Wright declaring that "As the battle goes in this empire state, it will go elsewhere." Indeed, it seemed that Weld was wanted everywhere, and he was distressed as to where he should go. After some further speeches in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, however, he set his course for New York and began to work his way across the state toward Utica. Here he expected trouble, for on October 21, 1835, about four months prior to his arrival and the same day that Garrison was mobbed in Boston, delegates who assembled in Utica to organize the New York State Antislavery Society had been dispersed by a mob of "very respectable gentlemen" led by a member of Congress and a judge. Some of the abolitionists had shown a disposition to fight back. But they were outnumbered; and yells, catcalls, and swinging fists broke up the meeting. Among the spectators, however, was a rich landowner, Gerrit Smith, a colonizationist who had been wavering toward immediatism. The rowdyism of the anti-abolitionists completed his conversion, and he invited the convention to adjourn to his country estate at nearby Peterboro. Hastening home in a driving rain to make ready for the arrival of his guests, he put his numerous household to work baking bread and rolls, grinding coffee, paring apples for pies, and making other preparations for entertainment. Weld's estimate of the differing attitudes of town and country was given a striking illustration, for as the abolitionists straggled out of Utica before the angry townsmen, the farmers in the neighborhood brought out their teams and wagons and transported the fugitives free of charge to Peterboro.
Had Weld been a less intrepid man, he would have stayed away from Utica, but to him a danger spot was like a magnet. He opened his campaign in Utica as he had planned, and by the eleventh night such throngs were coming to hear him that many persons were turned away.
Indeed, so great was Weld's success in New York State that his fame flashed like a meteor in abolition circles. Garrison rejoiced in his victories and yearned to hear him speak. The ladies of the Massachusetts Female Antislavery Society invited him to accept a three-months' commission to lecture as their agent in Boston and eastern Bay State towns; but Weld replied that he was the sole antislavery agent in New York State where at least a dozen lecturers were needed. He was familiar in upstate New York, he explained, but utterly unknown in Massachusetts. "I am a Backwoodsman untamed. My bearish proportions have never been licked into city shape, and are quite too uncombed and shaggy for 'Boston notions,' . . . A stump is my throne, my parish, my home; my element the everydayisms of plain common life .... "
Weld's experience in New York was the same as that in Ohio--hostility or even threatening mobs at first, until he won a hearing; then respectful attention, and finally heavy enlistments in the local antislavery society or the organization of a new one if none already existed. Nor were these converts mere pledge--signers, for Weld had little patience with that sort. "If your hearts ache and bleed we want you," he would plead, "you will help us; but if you merely adopt our principles as dry theories, do let us alone, we have millstones enough swinging at our necks already. Further, if you join us merely out of a sense of duty, we pray you keep aloof, and give place to those who leap into our ranks because they cannot keep themselves out; who, instead of whining duty, shout 'privilege,' 'delight'... as they give their names to execration and their bodies to buffetings." Weld's progress was a triumph until he came to Troy, but there he was to suffer a dismal defeat.
"Anti-Abolition fury, after being pent up for a few months, is breaking out anew, and with deadlier hate than ever," he reported. On two different occasions a mob rushed up the aisle while he was speaking and tried to drag him from the platform. Stones, bricks, eggs, and cudgels were thrown at him while he spoke. When he left the meetinghouse he was a target for missiles all the way to his lodgings, and only the most strenuous efforts of his sympathizers kept him from the clutches of his tormentors. One of the city officials was an open leader of the rabble, and the mayor and city council were less than halfhearted in their efforts to quell the riots.
Had Weld been a man of lesser mettle, he could have availed himself of a valid excuse to give up, for Elizur Wright, acting under instructions from the executive committee of the national society, urged him to leave Troy and go to Newport to speak before the Rhode Island legislature which was considering appeals from Southern states to pass repressive laws against the abolitionists. It is "their own spontaneous offer," Wright explained, referring to the Rhode Island legislators; for they wished to be fair and give the abolitionists a chance to present their case. Newport was a favored vacation spot for aristocratic Southerners and proslavery Northerners, a place where Weld might do incalculable good. And Weld might so arrange his schedule that he could also appear before the Connecticut legislature on the same trip.
Seconding Wright's plea, the New England clergyman Simeon Jocelyn also urged Weld to come. Newport was a very old town, he pointed out, and had been deeply implicated in the slave trade. Weld would have a mighty opposition to combat; but to carry Newport would be equal to a victory in Charleston, South Carolina. Henry B. Stanton had been stoned in Newport the same day that Garrison was mobbed in Boston, and a few weeks later, when William Goodell announced a temperance lecture at Newport, a crier had been employed to go through the streets to warn the citizens that Goodell's real purpose was to speak on abolition. The citizens had manifested their feelings in such unmistakable terms that Goodell's lecture was "deferred."
Weld would have been overjoyed to meet the Newport challenge, but he would not retreat from Troy under fire. Twice he was severely hurt by missiles, but he was resolved to battle it out. Refusing the mission to Rhode Island, and even canceling engagements in nearby towns, he continued to speak at Troy. But local feeling was so intense that he was reconciled to martyrdom. To a sympathetic clergyman he wrote: "Let every abolitionist debate the matter once and for all, and settle it for himself . . . whether he can lie upon the rack--and clasp the faggot--and tread with steady step the scaffold--whether he can stand at the post of duty and having done all and suffered all, stand--and if cloven down, fall and die a martyr 'not accepting deliverance.'"
This was abolition's proving time, he thought, a time to test men's souls and show forth their true qualities. And a great many so-called converts were shrinking from the blast. "Poor outside whitewash!" Weld exclaimed, "the tempest will batter it off the first stroke; and masks and veils, and sheep cloathing gone, gone at the first blast of fire. God gird us to do all valiantly for the helpless and innocent. Blessed are they who die in the harness and are buried on the field or bleach there."
By this time Troy was in such turmoil that the mayor announced publicly that he regretted his lack of legal power to put Weld out of the city; and finally, in desperation, he declared that, law or no law, he would eject him forcibly if he refused to go. For the first time, Weld's persistence had failed to overcome the rancor of a mob. Realizing the futility of further efforts, he departed peaceably. He had suffered his first setback.
Weld labored on in other parts of New York state with great success, especially in Washington County, close by Vermont. But he was a broken man. His health had been uncertain since his adventure in Alum Creek. He had worked unremittingly for two years under severe mental and physical pressure. He had overtaxed his throat and his voice was gone. He must give up public lecturing for a season.
Meanwhile, the executive committee of the American Antislavery Society had determined upon a change in tactics. Weld and his men had demonstrated the effectiveness of antislavery lecturers, and the executive committee now determined to increase the number of its paid agents to seventy, the number of the Biblical apostles, and, in accordance with Weld's suggestion, to send them into the country districts. "The good cause goes steadily on," wrote Elizur Wright to his parents. "What we most want now is a greater number of lecturers. We are striving to get at least 50 into the field as soon as the busy season of the farmers is over. These will operate in the country places. Agents never spend their strength in vain in the country. The great cities we cannot expect to carry till the country is won."
Although Weld avoided the antislavery anniversaries and seldom visited the headquarters office, he kept abreast of everything that went on. His opinions were solicited and carried weight. He was prolific with ideas. From Utica he wrote to Lewis Tappan that the national society should turn its attention to the education and elevation of free Negroes, as the students had done in Cincinnati. Such a program would convince the South that abolition was a truly benevolent movement, unconcerned with "politics, sectional feeling, partyism, filthy lucre or any other filthy thing. It would win the candid slaveholder and silence the cavils of the uncandid. By developing the potentialities of the free Negroes of the North it would set them off in striking contrast with the slaves and show that it was slavery that kept the Negro brutish. It would shatter the myth of an inferior race, to which at least three-fifths of the Northern people subscribed. It would prepare the blacks for civil rights. And it would give every Northern abolitionist a job to do. "Let them everywhere establish day schools, evening schools, debating societies, Lyceums, libraries, etc," he suggested, "... and make it a business to call out and vivify and combustionize latent mind. Thus Abolitionism will be living abolitionism, all its fluids in brisk circulation."
This work was too important to be left to casual and unorganized benevolence, Weld wrote. It should be a separate, well-organized department of the antislavery effort under a competent head; and Augustus Wattles, who had gained invaluable experience in Cincinnati and was eager to find his proper place in abolitionism, was a man well qualified to undertake it. Weld's proposal was brought before the executive committee, and a few months later Elizur Wright was pleased to inform Weld that Wattles had been appointed "generalissimo of the colored people."
With Weld incapacitated for further public speaking, the executive committee delegated him to enlist the proposed new agents and prepare them for their work, while Henry B. Stanton, Weld's close friend of the Lane days, was sent out to raise money to pay them. During the late summer and early autumn of 1836, Weld toured New England, combing the colleges and seminaries for recruits. Their job would demand consecration and devotion beyond the ordinary, and Weld wanted only men of heroic mold. Among others, he enlisted Ichabod Codding, then a student at Middlebury College, who, with Owen Lovejoy, was destined later to lead the abolition movement in Illinois.
From New England Weld went to the headquarters office in New York City, where he and Wright mapped out the new agents' work. Weld must have enjoyed the respite after years of strenuous endeavor. He was several times a guest of Lewis Tappan at breakfast, luncheon, or tea. Tappan exchanged watches with him, as he had determined to do when next they met. "I wished him to have a better one than the one he wore three years ago," Tappan recorded in his diary. "I gave it to him." Then, with the meticulousness of the business man, he added: "The value was $21. The one I gave him in exchange cost $45."
Weld and Tappan attended church together, and one Sunday Weld risked disaster to his scratchy throat by speaking to the pupils of Tappan's Sunday School. He attended several meetings of the American Antislavery Society's executive committee. Tappan urged him to accept the position of executive secretary of the national society. If he would assume general charge and Stanton would serve as financial agent, Tappan would have the sort of men he wanted at headquarters. But the job did not appeal to Weld. He preferred to work in the ranks.
Weld's vacation was soon interrupted by a mission to the West. The Oberlin students who had labored as antislavery agents in Ohio during the winter had returned to college in the spring. There they came under Finney's influence, and several of them reported that they were undecided whether to reinlist in antislavery work or labor in the field of general reform. So Weld repaired to Oberlin to reinvigorate them, winning back almost all the former agents and adding twelve additional workers to the ranks.
Wright thought all the agents should be summoned to New York for instruction before they were sent out, and Weld was the man to teach them platform technique and fire their zeal. They should be kindled, warmed, and "combustionized" to a "welding heat," wrote Wright. They should be apprised of what to expect and how to meet it, for it was wisdom to look before one leaped, "especially if you are going to leap among rattlesnakes or steel traps." Moreover, some members of the executive committee were themselves in need of energizing. Wright thought they were too concerned about money, especially since some of them saw indications of an approaching financial depression. Tappan and Gerrit Smith, both generous contributors, should be disabused of the notion that if they "should fail to pay their notes at three o'clock some day, the cause of God's oppressed would fall through! .... The whole big fallow is as mellow as an ash-heap," declared Wright, "and we, forsooth, are too prudent to buy seed more than enough to sow a few patches, for fear we shall not have money enough to pay the harvesters!" Still he did not wish to be too harsh toward the committee. "The noblest horse, you know," said he, "sometimes has a prudent fit going up a long hill."
Despite his aversion to conventions of any sort, Weld agreed to take charge of the agents' meeting, and the workers came together on November 8. They were in session until the twenty-seventh. The course was intensive, with daily sessions from nine o'clock to one, from three to five, and from seven to nine. Weld and the other leaders scarcely took time to eat. Garrison, who came down from Boston, thought the meetings were the most important ever held to advance the antislavery cause, with the exception of the one at which the New England Antislavery Society was organized and that which saw the formation of the American Antislavery Society in Philadelphia. Some forty agents attended of the sixty the society had employed. (It eventually obtained ten more.) Garrison, Stanton, Beriah Green, Charles Stuart, Phelps, Wright, Thome, Dresser, and many others spoke. Their subjects were: What is immediate emancipation?--The consequences of emancipation to the South and to the North--Hebrew servitude--Colonization--Compensated emancipation--Prejudice--The treatment and condition of the free colored population-- Gradualism.
At one session Weld spoke for two hours on the question, "What is Slavery?" For four straight days he held forth on "The Bible Argument against Slavery." One listener had never heard "so grand and beautiful an exposition of the dignity and nobility of man in my life." Garrison described Weld as "the central luminary around which they all revolved." Another attendant said: "He was the master spirit, the principal speaker in that assembly, his labors were intense--I have heard him speak 8 or 10 hours in a day at three sessions of the Convention, notwithstanding he had a severe cold--human nature could not endure it . . . for besides his speaking he would be up night after night until 2 & 3 o'clock." Every day Weld felt his aching throat becoming worse until he could not speak above a whisper. Still he kept on. At the end he was almost prostrate.
But as the young men left New York to broadcast the antislavery message to the country, they carried the teachings of Theodore Weld throughout the North. Indeed, his influence even penetrated into the South, for Marius Robinson, after working in southern Ohio around Salem, Steubenville, and Marietta, ventured across the Ohio River into the Virginia panhandle. Wheeling was receptive, but the region around Parkersburg was "flaming hot." Yet the zeal which Weld inspired took heavy toll. His voice would never be altogether well again.
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