Case Study: Abolition
There have been principled objections to slavery for as long as there has been slavery—which is to say, from the first days of human history. But hatred of enslavement didn’t become a mass conviction until Christian philanthropists in Britain and America got deeply involved in popular campaigns to expose slavery as an ugly, immoral, and sinful activity, utterly incompatible with life in a free land. This was demanding and dangerous work that required guile, endurance, commitment, courage, managerial genius, and money. The movement got all of these things from leaders like Arthur and Lewis Tappan.
Fired by their deep evangelical Christian convictions, the Tappan brothers were leading providers of strategy and funding to the cause of abolishing slavery. (They also powered many other important social reforms. For some biography on the men, see the last third of the case study on the Second Great Awakening.) Arthur was the lead funder and visionary, and Lewis the vital organizer, behind creation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Starting from nothing in 1833, the AASS quickly became the largest and most effective culture-change organization in American history. Leaders of the charity brilliantly orchestrated massive shifts in public sentiment.
Organizing culture change
Culture change is not for cowards, and abolitionists were bullied from the moment they first stuck their heads up.
As part of their broader effort to refine Americans through worship, education, discussion, and service, Arthur and Lewis Tappan had in 1832 leased a tatterdemalion old theater in lower Manhattan and converted it into a church. The building “squatted in the midst of the slums” next to Five Points, a neighborhood notorious for its gangs and grog shops. During recent years the theater had been home to a circus, and with his sharp nose for drama and public interest, Lewis noted that “the sensation produced by converting the place with slight alterations into a church will be very great, and curiousity will be excited.”
The Tappans placed their Chatham Street Chapel at the disposal of Charles Grandison Finney—a powerful public speaker, former lawyer, and Presbyterian minister who had recently led a series of phenomenally large and passionate religious revivals across upstate New York and other parts of the country, bringing the boiler of the Second Great Awakening to its peak steam. In addition to the large services attracted by Finney, the chapel was made available to other groups of black and white worshipers, as a venue for religious music concerts, and as a public lecture and meeting location for various charitable associations the Tappans supported, including the first national convention of the U.S. Sunday-school movement (see companion case study) and many abolitionist gatherings.
Large-scale organizing of anti-slavery societies began, as things often do in America, at the state level. The New York Anti-Slavery Society was created at a meeting the Tappan brothers arranged at Chatham Street Chapel on October 2, 1833. And before the charity was two hours old, a riot broke out.
The new society was having a respectably dull democratic birth—written constitution adopted, officers elected (Arthur Tappan was chosen as president)—when a mob tried to snatch up the baby and bash its brains out. When they heard that an anti-slavery association was being organized in the city, a group of opponents posted handbills and gathered a crowd for a counter-meeting. Whipped into a frenzy by speechifiers, the assemblage turned to angry protest. They streamed out of Tammany Hall, where they had convened, and surged a few blocks to the Chatham Street Chapel, where they broke up that inaugural meeting of New York City anti-slavers. At least one drunken rioter pursued Arthur and Lewis Tappan into the darkness with a lantern and dagger, but allies hustled the reformers away.American philanthropists engineered a range of popular campaigns that exposed slavery as an ugly, immoral, and sinful activity, utterly incompatible with life in a free land. This was demanding and dangerous work.
The brothers were not cowed. Arthur funded a new abolitionist newspaper called the Emancipator. He provided grants to set up anti-slavery societies in other states. He and Lewis were sparkplugs behind the convening of the first national convention of abolitionists. At that gathering, in Philadelphia, a Declaration of Sentiments was approved, and the American Anti-Slavery Society was launched to coordinate civil actions aimed at ending human bondage on our shores.
Philanthropists across the country started to publicize simple moral arguments against enforced servitude:
- No one, they insisted, has the right to buy and sell other human beings.
- It is wrong for slaveowners to be able to severely punish and even kill a slave without trial.
- Parents should never have their children taken away from them and sold.
- Husbands and wives should be legally married and protected from involuntary separation.
- The pattern of planters making concubines of slaves is sinful and abusive.
- Laws prohibiting education of the enslaved must be repealed.
- It’s immoral that slaves should be blocked from practicing organized faith.
A great crusade had begun.
Violence against freedom
As prominent merchants, famous backers of benevolent groups, and now chief donors and organizers of slavery-fighting charities, the Tappan brothers had a high profile in New York City. Vicious rumors were spread about their aims and practices, and those of their philanthropic allies. It was claimed that Arthur Tappan had divorced his wife and taken up with a black woman. It was said that abolitionists wanted to dissolve the Union, that they sought “racial mongrelization,” that they were going to violate the Constitution.
On a hot July 4, seven months after the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Lewis Tappan opened the Chatham Street Chapel to a racially mixed congregation for a special worship service. Tappan himself gave a “forcible and impressive” presentation of abolitionist principles. Then white and black choirs began to sing a new anti-slavery hymn written for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier. But slavery apologists had infiltrated the balcony, and now they rained down prayer books and hymnals from above. Stomping, hissing, and fighting, they drove the worshipers away.
The pro-slavery press celebrated the action, and published more calumny about what the Anti-Slavery Society and its backers were up to. A few days later, bullies were back at the chapel, throwing benches, trashing the premises, and beating bystanders. They traveled a short distance across lower Manhattan to Lewis Tappan’s home at 40 Rose Street and yelled for him to come out, before finally dispersing.
The next evening, a mob of several thousand people gathered on the streets and began to maraud. The violence was observed and even orchestrated by some leading citizens. A well-dressed man on a horse led the crowd back to Tappan’s house on Rose Street. Lewis was warned that trouble was on the way and he and his family fled. The rabble broke down his front door, smashed windows, and entered and vandalized the home. They dragged all of the family’s personal possessions—clothing, pictures, furniture, personal papers, and so forth—into the street and set them on fire. Arthur observed the destruction of his brother’s domicile from the nearby shadows.
Some observers suggest the house was saved from even more complete destruction by a spasm of rectitude among the rabble. It seems a portrait of George Washington was one of the items torn from the family walls and handed out to the street. Someone observed that it was an image of the father of our country and shrieked, “for God’s sake, don’t burn Washington.” The cry rippled through the ranks of the brawlers: “For God’s sake, don’t burn Washington!,” and there was a lull in the violence. A later writer recorded that “in an instant, the spirit of disorder was laid, and the portrait handed carefully from man to man, til, at length, the populace carried it to a neighboring house for safety,” attended by an honor guard of rioters. About then, a group of watchmen and firefighters arrived, and the mob was driven off.Within months of the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, rioters were attacking the homes and businesses of its charitable backers.
But the next day they were out again, smashing black and white abolitionist churches, beating blacks on the street, and threatening to destroy Chatham Street Chapel, offices of abolitionist publications, and homes of other white donors and leaders. They roared up to the three-story warehouse and store run by the Tappan brothers at 122 Pearl Street, on Hanover Square, where they beat police trying to guard the premises, pummeled the building with rocks, and attempted to batter in the front door with a street pole. But it was a heavy granite building, and Arthur Tappan had holed up inside with some clerks and friends—to whom he handed out 36 muskets, with orders to shoot low and disable anyone entering. When a watchman told the attackers as he was being stabbed and beaten that the building was full of armed men, the invasion halted.
Other rioters sought out Arthur Tappan at his lodgings, but found the premises guarded by soldiers. By now the Tammany Democrats who had helped foment the anti-abolitionist uproar were concerned that the violence was out of control and could threaten prosperous allies, so they belatedly called in cavalry troops and infantry, and placed the city under martial law. Police and soldiers flooded Manhattan. They were told to deal leniently with the ruffians, though, and most of the 150 leaders of the multiday violence who were arrested got quickly released by political authorities.
The great mailing campaign
New York’s political establishment and pro-slavery elements of the press initially tried to airbrush this anti-abolitionist violence. The destruction of Lewis Tappan’s home was described in the Courier and Enquirer newspapers as a peaceful demonstration by some gentlemen, in the course of which a window was broken. To put the lie to this false reporting Lewis announced he was going to leave the ruined shell of his house, strewn with his destroyed personal possessions and those of his wife and children, exactly as the attackers left things, to serve as a “silent anti-slavery preacher to the crowds who will flock to see it.” With his vivid sense for public sentiment, he recognized that his personal misfortune provided an opportunity to advertise his cause, and the cruelty of those who opposed it. His wife, Susan, was similarly brave and stoic, joking with her husband as she viewed the wreckage that the events had pared away some furnishings he had never liked anyway.
The final accounting from the riot, though, was no joke. Seven churches and a dozen houses had been wrecked. Fires smoldered across southern Manhattan. Scores of private citizens had been beaten, and many police and members of the 27th Regiment of Infantry had been clubbed, stoned, or stabbed.
This became national news. Descriptions of how white and black advocates of ending slavery were being violently persecuted spread across the country. The same stories outlined the principles of the new national and state-level Anti-Slavery Societies, and precisely how their members hoped to change America.
Despite their narrow escapes, both of the Tappan brothers were undeterred. Arthur immediately put up the money to have 15,000 copies of a special installment of the Emancipator circulated. One ally observed that in the aftermath of the riots Arthur Tappan’s “whole soul never seemed so enlisted.” Lewis too was invigorated by the danger. His only defensive reaction was to start carrying a copy of the New Testament in his breast pocket. After one of the Manhattan pro-slavery newspapers suggested that local residents were ready “to give him a second lesson in public manners,” he wrote that “the Lord, we trust, will overrule this ‘madness of the people.’”
In the weeks after the 1834 riot, the two brothers and their abolitionist allies resolved to fight back. Except they would use words rather than battering rams and stones. They made a plan to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings.
These philanthropists founded, expanded, and subsidized a host of weekly and monthly publications devoted to popularizing arguments against enslavement. These included high-circulation newspapers, a children’s magazine (which Lewis Tappan headed up himself as it was being created), a more philosophical journal, and a heavily illustrated monthly. With extensive volunteer labor, these publications and others were churned out in volume on new steam-powered presses, and then staged at New York City post offices to be hurried across the country. The campaign was powered by $30,000 of personal donations pledged to the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The abolitionists called this their effort in “moral suasion.” The National Postal Museum has described it as America’s first-ever direct-mail campaign. It was certainly one of the most ambitious polemical blitzes ever conducted in our country. The main targets of the mailings were ministers, local legislators, businessmen, and judges living all across the country, including in the South. Barely one year after the 1834 riots, the American Anti-Slavery Society’s publications committee, headed by Lewis Tappan, had the first batch of newspapers, magazines, journals, and pamphlets ready—175,000 separate items delivered to the main New York City post office in large piles. From then on, at least 25,000 copies of each publication rolled off the presses each week, and over the next ten months the society mailed out a total of more than a million pieces of anti-slavery literature.
Speaking and authoring
This mail blitz was just the most visible prong of the moral suasion campaign. At the same time, the American Anti-Slavery Society launched special efforts to woo ministers. Anti-slavery materials were printed up for use by the Sunday schools beginning to burgeon across the land. Among the hundreds of thousands of new Christian converts then being mobilized by Charles Finney and other revivalists, the society promoted the idea that slavery and complicity with slavery is a sin. Scores of church associations and denominational groups went on record with that position, and evangelical Christians began to shift en masse into the “immediate abolition” camp.
Meantime, the Tappans and other leaders of the AASS created a program that hired gifted lecturers to go on public-speaking tours across the country presenting the case against slavery. To coordinate the effort they enlisted a brilliant young man named Theodore Weld, whom the Tappans had previously funded to establish schools in upstate New York and then Ohio for training the next generation of Christian reformers. Weld and three other men undertook so dense a schedule of public speeches that within two years he had damaged his voice for life.
When it became clear how effective the itinerant speakers were, Weld was charged with recruiting and training a full cadre of 70 lecturers and then sending them roving across the nation. He did his job well, and these 70 orators—described by Lyman Beecher as the “he-goat men…butting everything in the line of their march…made up of vinegar, aqua fortis, and oil of vitriol, with brimstone, saltpeter and charcoal to explode and scatter the corrosive matter”—soon became famous for helping bring this first bloom of abolitionism to a climax during 1836 and 1837.
As soon as he got his public speakers dispatched across small-town America, Theodore Weld jumped into another project funded by the American Anti-Slavery Society’s donors. He methodically combed through thousands of installments of Southern newspapers, public speeches, and facts and figures to collect true accounts of the real-life treatment of slaves. How are they disciplined? What about if they become ill? What happens to their families when they are sold? Runaways get what sort of treatment?
Weld condensed his documentary snippets into a simple but repellently rich book entitled American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The volume made waves after it was published by the AASS in 1839 and distributed from the charitable society’s headquarters on Nassau Street in New York. And it had an even more climactic effect when it became the major background source for the bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The cultural power of that work by Harriet Beecher Stowe is captured in Lincoln’s description of her, when they first met, as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”
Opponents—and government—lash out
This moral-suasion campaign absolutely maddened apologists for slavery. In particular, the circulation of abolitionist arguments through the federal mail hit a nerve. Anti-slavery mailings began to be methodically pulled out of post offices and burned. Threats were floated against anyone who subscribed. The U.S. Postmaster General gave aid and comfort to local postmasters who abetted these acts of censorship and intimidation. Indeed, U.S. President Andrew Jackson actively encouraged postal authorities to suppress deliveries of all abolitionist documents, or at least look the other way while others did. In his 1835 message to Congress, Jackson called for a national censorship law that would shut down the charitable mailings of “incendiary” writings, and severely punish the men organizing them. Legislation was not passed, but the officially encouraged vigilante actions effectively halted the distribution of abolitionist arguments within the South.
Up to this point in American history, historians like Kathleen McCarthy note, defenders of slavery had “kept the leavening potential of civil society in check…watchfully curbing any trend which might contribute to the development of alternative, independent power bases.” But now they were faced with a savvy and well-funded mass charitable campaign that educated people and mobilized volunteers in opposition to their interests.
So when this flood of exhortation in favor of freedom crested across the country, the enemies of abolition lashed out. Arthur Tappan was hung in effigy in town squares, as torches were put to piles of newspapers and magazines. Lewis was mailed a slave’s ear, a hangman’s rope, and many written threats. A Virginia grand jury indicted him and other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Offers of $30,000 and $50,000 were made for delivery of Arthur’s or Lewis’s head to Louisiana. A South Carolinian raised the bid to $100,000 for Arthur. After hearing of these prizes, Arthur was reported to have said in an uncommon moment of humor that “if that sum is placed in a New York bank, I may possibly think of giving myself up.” The mayor of Brooklyn stationed police patrols in front of Arthur’s house to deter assassins, and a military force was organized at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to prevent kidnappers from carrying him away in a pilot boat headed for the South, as had been rumored.
“Frequently in times of crisis, hatreds focus upon a single individual who comes to symbolize all that is thought evil,” comments Wyatt-Brown. For a period, the arch nemesis of slavery’s defenders was philanthropist Arthur Tappan. Many establishment figures without a strong position on slavery also put pressure on the Tappan brothers to stand down for expedient reasons. At one point a delegation of city dignitaries and leaders of the New York Chamber of Commerce trooped into the Tappan store to complain to the brothers that their organizing was damaging the business of merchants who depended on southern trade. “You demand that I shall cease my anti-slavery labors?” spluttered Arthur. “I will be hung first!”
The Tappans weren’t hung, but they did become financial martyrs to their cause. Starting in Charleston, dry-goods dealers organized a boycott of the Tappan wholesaling operation. This was one of the first organized attempts to damage a national business because of the moral and political convictions of its proprietors. It would not be the last. A “vigilance committee” in Nashville and newspapers in Virginia urged local businessmen and citizens to punish the Tappan’s firm in every way possible. Southern buyers walked away from their debts to Arthur Tappan and Company, and Southern lawyers refused to pursue the delinquents in court.
Victims, and victors
There were many other serious victims. A seminary student named Amos Dresser was publicly whipped in Nashville when he was discovered to be carrying a copy of the Emancipator in his luggage. For “circulating Tappan papers,” Dr. Reuben Crandall was thrown in jail in Georgetown, then a separate city in the District of Columbia. Blacks in many places were attacked without provocation. Elizur Wright, who edited several of the publications mailed by the AASS, was besieged in his house by a mob that aimed to kidnap him and whisk him off to North Carolina. Publisher William Lloyd Garrison had to be locked by the mayor inside the Boston jailhouse to save him from violence at the hands of a raging pack. Abolitionist donors Gerrit Smith and Lewis Tappan were harassed while in Utica.For publishing the anti-slavery Philanthropist in Cincinnati, printer James Birney had his press thrown into the Ohio River. When a mob in Philadelphia discovered abolitionist materials on a wharf awaiting shipment, they dumped them into the Delaware River. In Alton, Illinois, a local printer of abolitionist literature named Elijah Lovejoy was shot and killed while defending his press. At one of the large churches he had established in New York City, Lewis Tappan organized a memorial service for Lovejoy, and a special 40,000-copy edition of Human Rights, an AASS periodical, was published to catalogue the crime.
Theodore Weld thundered against the censure and lynchings and intimidation. “The empty name of freedom is everywhere—free government, free men, free people, free schools, and free churches. Hollow counterfeits all!…Rome’s loudest shout for liberty was when she murdered it…. Free! The word and sound are omnipresent masks, and mockers! An impious lie!”
William Jay, son of founding father and first U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay, commented on how dramatically the abolition struggle had been transformed by the Southern backlash against the Tappans’ mailing campaign.
We commenced the present struggle to obtain the freedom of the slave; we are compelled to continue it to preserve our own. We are now contending, not so much with the slaveholders of the South about human rights, as with the political and commercial aristocracy of the North for the liberty of speech, of the press, and of conscience.
Though elites remained skittish, the hearts and minds of many middle-class Northerners were won by the anti-slavery forces amidst this struggle. The attacks on the New York City homes and churches, the violation of the mail, the suppression of speech in American precincts, the attempts to have the Tappans and other advocates extradited to the South, the many acts of thuggish violence by slavery apologists—these actions turned large chunks of public opinion, especially among Northern churchgoers, firmly against slavery. The South’s refusal to even tolerate discussion on slavery was exposed for the first time, along with the ugly behavior of slavery apologists. The pro-slavery response to the great mailing campaign, wrote Elizur Wright, “has done more than could have been by the arguments of a thousand agents to convince the sober and disinterested” of slavery’s vicious effects on all who traffic in it.Philanthropists created a host of new advocacy techniques—steam printing, lecture tours, cultivation of pastors, fundraising craft shows, monthly concerts, and so forth—to move public opinion.
The rioters and mail burners who were hoping to suppress the American Anti-Slavery Society and intimidate its charitable backers had exactly the opposite effect. In the year after Lewis Tappan’s home was invaded, 15,000 Americans bought new subscriptions to AASS publications. Anti-slavery societies began to spread like wildfire all across the country. There were 200 chapters in 1835, then 527 a year later, and 1,400 just two years further on. In an era of difficult communications, the American Anti-Slavery Society had by then enrolled 250,000 paying members—a full 2 percent of our national population. In comparative terms, that made the AASS bigger than today’s Boy Scouts, or National Rifle Association, or Chamber of Commerce. For the first time, philanthropists had turned abolition into a major popular crusade, and slavery was now a subject no American could ignore.
The techniques of abolition advocacy
Lewis Tappan received a letter from his brother Benjamin, whose politics and faith were quite different, complaining about a billboard-style campaign against problem drinking that Lewis and other evangelicals had sponsored. Lewis replied with good-humored vigor that “you infidels should keep up with the age. This is a century of inventions.”
The techniques of advocacy that Lewis and his allies pioneered and then employed to great effect changed the country in many ways in the three decades prior to the Civil War. Creating associations, sponsoring petitions, distributing handbills, holding conventions, circulating ideas for sermons, organizing nationwide speaking tours, creating Sunday schools and their curricula, publishing periodicals and pamphlets in large numbers and then distributing them by a combination of subscription and free mailing to culture-influencers—these and other techniques fueled by a mix of devoted volunteer time and steady private donations had deep effects on both grassroots and establishment opinion.
Before he shifted his patriotic energies (in concert with many other evangelical businessmen of his time) from often-frustrating political action to the more entrepreneurial work of culture change, Lewis had been involved as a young man in Federalist politics. He learned during that foray to avoid negativity, snobbery, and obstructionism. Such techniques, he found, annoyed and felt unpatriotic to many average Americans.
So instead, inspiring monthly concerts and prayer meetings for the enslaved were organized in parlors and churches all across the country on the first Monday. Very popular fundraising bazaars were organized by and for women, where handcrafts would be created and sold, often bearing anti-slavery slogans. Special school lessons and social events and magazines were created for children, and they were organized to collect pennies to prepare for the day when those in bondage might go free.
The vast majority of active abolitionists were volunteers and part-timers. They were busy with jobs and family responsibilities, and had to grab opportunities for informing and captivating the wider public whenever and wherever they came along. They chimed in at church meetings and business gatherings. Chapter leaders were asked to collect and send in the names of “inquiring, candid, reading men who are not abolitionists” so that these candidates could be mailed persuasive materials. Special efforts were made to reach ministers and enlighten them on issues surrounding slavery, on the grounds that “ministers are the hinges of community, and ought to be moved.” Calling on local ministers in person was one of the important duties of the roving lecturers that the AASS hired as agents working across the country.
While Lewis Tappan was the main supervisor of the printed publications that gave the AASS its intellectual backbone, Arthur Tappan was officially in charge of the lecture agents. Both men became quite good at uncovering and recruiting talented thinkers and arguers to work as writers, editors, or speakers. Many abolitionists became convinced in the mid-1830s that the roving agent-lecturers were the most important element in their campaign, on account of their ability to reach the rural masses. Though he was himself an editor of several of the abolitionist journals, mathematician Elizur Wright believed that living, spoken words were even more important than written words at reaching “the country places” that were the key to abolitionist success. “The great cities we cannot expect to carry till the country is won,” he concluded. Repeatedly, farmers and the agricultural population rose up to protect abolitionists threatened by urban mobs, and “no city proved in future years as strong in abolition sentiment as rural areas,” as historian Whitney Cross put it.
Betting on middle America
As mentioned, the Tappans built up a network of evangelical churches in New York City which they hoped could become a power-pack for abolition and other types of social reform. They had some success in this, creating large and active congregations of prosperous individuals, featuring young men’s societies, female auxiliaries, and some impressive pastors. But even in the city, it was discovered, the men and women most devoted to the anti-slavery cause were transplanted country people.The donor-funded Mississippi Valley Campaign turned our Midwest into an anti-slavery bastion. This cultural metamorphosis could later be seen in the avenging actions of William Sherman’s western army during the Civil War.
Building on this lesson, Arthur Tappan and other philanthropists became passionate advocates for a push to build reform energy among rural people living along our nation’s western frontier (which at that point included the states and territories stretching from Missouri up to the Wisconsin region, then east to Ohio). Arthur was a heavy funder of this effort to bring evangelical culture to a vast swath of land that was fast filling up with the next generation of Americans. This became known as the Mississippi Valley Campaign.
Cincinnati—the “London of the West”—was initially picked as the regional headquarters, and Arthur hired an impressive group of evangelizers, thinkers, writers, and speakers to relocate there and set to work. These included Lyman Beecher, Theodore Weld, and Charles Finney. Arthur thought of these as the movement’s “best generals” who “should occupy the very seat of Western warfare.” Extensive work was also done down in the trenches. A mechanics’ lyceum, Sunday schools, lending libraries, and evening classes were established to spread literacy and new ideas to laborers, farmers, and free blacks. Prayer sessions and sermon series were organized. Schoolteachers were transported from the East, and publications of all sorts were circulated.
Parts of the Cincinnati establishment, however, were scandalized by the mixing of races these activities encouraged, and the activists were chased out of the city. Very quickly, the center of Western abolitionism shifted to the new college Arthur Tappan had established in 1833 at Oberlin, Ohio. Tappan wooed Charles Finney to run the new institution, and poured his personal funds into building it up. “If you will go to Oberlin and take hold of the work,” he told Finney, “I will pledge myself to give my entire income, except what I want to provide for my family, till you are beyond pecuniary want.”
Arthur Tappan annually put tens of thousands of dollars into Oberlin for years. Soon, it was not only a well-functioning college but a kind of training academy for activists who subsequently fanned out all across the developing American heartland. “Oberlinites spread an influence, ‘unseen and unsuspected,’ over the Western Reserve and in hundreds of Western communities,” summarized Wyatt-Brown. From that moment, the area we now call our Midwest became tightly allied to upstate New York and New England as the heat- and power-generating reactors of abolitionism. The avenging actions of William Sherman’s Midwestern army during the Civil War were one later sign of this cultural metamorphosis.
A final technique of the Tappan organizational genius was their marshaling of important legal-defense efforts. By this means they were able to protect pioneer activists. They established vital precedents in courtrooms. And they used high-profile proceedings to educate Americans on the realities of slavery and get them involved in righting the wrong.Lewis Tappan almost singlehandedly orchestrated the Amistad courtroom struggle into widespread revulsion against slavery. Abolition turned a huge corner toward a wide popular following for the very first time.
Arthur Tappan’s first foray into legal defense came in 1830. Very early in his career as an abolitionist publisher, some of William Lloyd Garrison’s reporting on the trade in slaves within the U.S. got him sued for libel by a shipowner, and convicted of criminal charges by the state of Maryland. Garrison was sent to jail for six months. When Tappan heard of his travail, he paid Garrison’s fine and court costs, and got him released after seven weeks behind bars. He then gave the editor $100 to help him set up a new weekly anti-slavery newspaper called the Liberator. These were the first of many subsidies Arthur provided to the reformer.
Arthur also got involved in a legal case in 1833, in defense of a Connecticut schoolmistress who enrolled a black girl in one of her classes, only to have the state legislature pass a law shutting down her school. Not wanting this precedent to become established in New England jurisprudence, Tappan wrote to offer unconditional support: “Consider me your banker. Spare no necessary expense. Command the services of the ablest lawyers.” Upon appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, the schoolmistress won her case (though public pressure forced her to close nonetheless).
The most dramatic Tappan courtroom drama began to unfold in 1839. Though the British Navy was then enforcing a ban on the international slave trade, rogue slavers continued to run Africans into the Americas—sometimes protected by false papers supplied by corrupt U.S. or foreign government officials, assistance from Southerners, and the indifference of much of the American public. Several dozen Africans recently kidnapped from the nation of Sierra Leone were being transferred across Cuba in a ship called La Amistad when the captives took over the ship, killed the captain, and ordered remaining crew members to sail them back to Africa. Instead, the navigators landed the ship near Long Island. The Africans were taken into custody and charged with murder.
As soon as he heard of the case, Lewis Tappan leapt into action. He scoured the New York docks and found a cabin boy who could speak the dialect of the defendants; he was hired to serve as translator. Lewis clothed and fed the prisoners with his own money and donations from other abolitionists. While they were held in New Haven, Lewis arranged for Yale students to tutor the Africans in English, American social practice, and Christianity. He engaged a first-rate legal team to defend them in court. And he launched a journalistic and public-relations effort to use the case as a teachable moment for informing Americans on the realities of slavery.
It took two years for the case to wend its way though the courts. Amidst many legal twists, the case became a national and international cause célèbre, drawing large crowds and banner headlines over many months. As in their great mailing campaign a few years earlier, the Tappans had to battle a U.S. President and the weight of the federal government—lower-court verdicts exonerating the Africans were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by Martin Van Buren (spurred by Southern interests). At that point, Lewis Tappan convinced former President John Quincy Adams to join the all-star legal team for the final appeal. Our highest court ultimately ruled that the Africans were kidnap victims, not property, with a right to defend themselves. They were declared wholly free.
Lewis Tappan had almost single-handedly orchestrated this defense (on an entirely volunteer basis, while continuing to attend to his business responsibilities). He engineered the communications and reporting that transfixed many Americans. He hired the legal horses. He attended every day the courts were in session. Some months later he raised the donations needed to return the Africans to their native lands. “The captives are free…thanks in the name of humanity and justice to you,” wrote Adams to Tappan after the trial.
“By some peculiar alchemy, Tappan had made the Amistad case a ‘safe’ cause,” comments Wyatt-Brown. All across America, the courtroom struggle aroused revulsion against the victimization of innocents. “Such bloodhound persecutions of poor defenseless strangers cast upon the shores should call down the manly and scorching rebukes of universal civilized man,” concluded one Ohioan. New disgust with human bondage, mistrust of government and sectional apologists for slavery, sympathy for those held in captivity, and appreciation for freedom fighters erupted across the country. Thousands of people donated money. More subscribed to journals making arguments against enslavement. Abolition turned a huge corner, for the first time, toward a wide popular following.
The most consequential social change in the history of the United States had begun. And two philanthropist brothers were at the center of it. Combining abundant generosity with high principle, personal passion, and a genius for organizing, they powered a national tide shift that would never be reversed.