"We waked up stark mad Abolitionists"

Inside the New England big money, made off of slavery, that also funded the fight to keep slavery out of Kansas

Published August 5, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

Stark Mad Abolitionists - Robert Sutton
Stark Mad Abolitionists - Robert Sutton

Excerpted with permission from "Stark Mad Abolitionists" by Robert K. Sutton. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

From May 24 through June 2, 1854, Boston was in an uproar. On May 24, Anthony Burns, a young African American enslaved man, who had escaped from his bondage in Virginia and settled in Boston where he worked at a men’s clothing store, was captured by his owner on his way home from work. Burns’s owner, Charles Suttle, tracked his whereabouts from a letter he had intercepted from Burns to his brother. There was no question that Burns was an enslaved man and was Suttle’s property. Under the United States Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, there also was no question that Burns had no rights whatsoever.

Stark Mad Abolitionists

Although Burns had no legal claim to his freedom, to the citizens of Boston, his capture was an outrage. Antislavery lawyers representing Burns used several legal maneuvers to delay the hearing to send their client back to slavery. On May 26, a mob of some seven thousand black and white abolitionists, led by a Unitarian minister, the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, stormed the courthouse attempting to free Burns. When order was restored, one US Marshal was dead, and a dozen more individuals were injured. Abolitionists and federal troops faced off again the following day when the hearing began under heavy guard. Burns was represented by Richard Henry Dana and Charles M. Ellis, two of Boston’s finest abolitionist attorneys. Unfortunately for Anthony Burns, the Fugitive Slave Act did not allow for legal representation, so there was very little Dana or Ellis could offer as a defense. US Commissioner Edward G. Loring found for Suttle and ordered Burns returned to servitude.

President Franklin Pierce, although a Northerner, was committed to upholding the Fugitive Slave Act and was determined that Anthony Burns would be returned to servitude no matter the cost in dollars and manpower. So, on June 2, more than two thousand federal soldiers and marines cordoned off the streets of Boston. An estimated fifty thousand people watched as Anthony Burns was escorted in chains to an awaiting ship in Boston harbor. He was returned to Virginia and bondage. The government expense for the whole affair was $40,000.

The story did not end on June 2, 1854. True, no more enslaved people were returned to bondage from Boston, so that part of the story was over. The Burns affair had a profound impact on Amos Adams Lawrence, who was a patriarch of one of Boston’s wealthiest and most powerful families. On June 1, the day before Burns was returned to slavery, Lawrence wrote to his uncle that “we went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”

We know very little of Amos Adams Lawrence’s physical attributes. From the best image we have, he appears to be diminutive in stature, but that is based on conjecture, since no description of him survives. We know more about his persona. He was a deeply religious man, who was also absolutely devoted to his family. He was a very private man. He kept his innermost thoughts to himself, but fortunately for us, he shared his personal musings with his diary, which has survived. He shunned public attention whenever possible; he preferred communicating in writing rather than by the spoken word.

Lawrence fulfilled the adage of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, with all of the benefits his noble birth implied. He was sent to a boarding school, Franklin Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but was so unhappy there, he ran away for several days. He entered Harvard at age seventeen, but he left a year later when the college president suggested to his father that he needed private tutoring before he continued with his studies. Lawrence was sent to Bedford, Massachusetts, where he received private tutoring from J. Stearns; he then returned to Harvard, from which he graduated in 1835.

Amos Adams Lawrence was able to enjoy all of these advantages because his father, also Amos Lawrence, along with his uncle, Abbott Lawrence, built one of the largest and most successful wholesale mercantile businesses in the country. They also developed cotton and woolen milling enterprises in Massachusetts. When Amos senior retired from his business interests in 1831 at age forty-five, he devoted the remainder of his life to philanthropy, reportedly giving over $1 million to charitable causes, organizations, and projects.

So the younger Amos Lawrence grew up in a wealthy but generous household. He acquired both his father’s business skills and passion for philanthropy. Shortly after he graduated from Harvard, Lawrence created a business niche as a commission merchant selling manufactured textiles produced in New England mills. Then in 1843, when he and his partner, Robert Mason, consolidated their interests into Mason and Lawrence, Lawrence was a successful textile merchant. From the very beginning of his business successes, the younger Lawrence was generous with his money; so much so, in his personal diary entry from earlier in 1854, he wrote that he needed to continue with his business enterprises so he would be able to meet the demands of the charities he supported.

It didn’t take long for Amos A. Lawrence to connect his money with his “stark mad” abolitionism. On May 30, during the nine days of turmoil in Boston over Anthony Burns, President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. For Lawrence and other New England abolitionists, the Burns episode and the Kansas-Nebraska Act must have seemed like a perfect storm.

After extensive debate, divided along sectional lines, and with shepherding from Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Congress adopted the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law changed the paradigm in place since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in which new territories above the 36°30’ parallel would be free, and those below would be slave. Citizens in both territories could decide whether they wanted slavery or not under the concept of popular sovereignty.

Amos Lawrence had followed the progression of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation for several months. He visited Washington, DC, to dine with his half-cousin, President Franklin Pierce, and his wife. While there, on April 13, 1854, he met Senator Stephen A. Douglas for the first time. In his diary, he wrote that Douglas was “apparently desirous to make me his friend.” The feeling was not mutual, however, for Lawrence went on to say that the senator from Illinois was “a very bright man and an ambitious and unscrupulous one,” and noted that Douglas likely would have had a good shot at being elected president, except that his sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska bill likely killed those chances. When the law passed in May, Lawrence observed that while President Pierce believed that the new law would “forever allay agitation about slavery,” he and many others saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act as “a fool-hardy scheme.”

Lawrence was unhappy with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but with this new law and the capture and return of Anthony Burns, he moved from the sidelines of the slavery issue to firmly within the antislavery camp. He wrote that the Burns incident “made one resolve in his mind the value of our union when such a scene [Burns’s return to servitude] must be enacted here in order to support slavery and the laws.” From that moment on, Lawrence put his efforts and his considerable fortune toward keeping slavery out of the new territories.

Since Missouri, a slave state, was adjacent to Kansas, the conventional wisdom in the spring of 1854 was that Missourians would flood the new territory with settlers and slaves and make Kansas a slave state. For that reason, many antislavery advocates wrung their hands in despair. Some, like Lawrence, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to match wits and strength with the pro-slavery forces by beating them at their own game — to encourage such a high number of antislavery people to settle in Kansas, that when it came for citizens to decide whether Kansas would be slave or free, the antislavery side would win.

Shortly after Anthony Burns was returned to slavery, Lawrence wrote that he had “been made a trustee . . . [in an organization] to settle Kansas [with free residents] in advance of the introduction of slavery there.” The organization was the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, established by Eli Thayer, who was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature. Thayer had pushed through the incorporation of this company a month before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act for the primary purpose of encouraging the settlement of Kansas by New England antislavery advocates. The company charter established a ceiling of up to $5 million in capital, which was used to make the journey from New England to Kansas as painless as possible. Company agents would find the easiest transportation routes and negotiate the lowest fares. Company scouts would find and survey the most desirable land and provide temporary housing until settlers could build permanent dwellings. The company also would invest in schools, mills, and other economic infrastructure, such that the community would be self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Thayer envisioned that investors would invest in the company and reap profits from their investments.

Just when enthusiasm for Thayer’s plan was building, however, it looked as if the company might fold for lack of capital. Under the Massachusetts charter, board members were required to personally assume financial liabilities if the company failed. At this point, Amos Lawrence came to the rescue. Lawrence’s friend and fellow Boston merchant, Patrick T. Jackson, recognized that Thayer had a great idea but not a good sense of business, so Jackson cajoled Lawrence into bringing his considerable business skills as well as his deep pockets to the company. Lawrence was delighted to join forces with Thayer and put his “stark mad” abolitionism to work, yet he had no idea how much hard work the project would entail or how much money he would contribute. Lawrence’s son would later say that his father “had undertaken a piece of work which was as arduous as it was expensive.”

Thayer and Lawrence would work together for the next several years to make Kansas a free state. Thayer came from a prominent but not prosperous New England family. He worked his way through Worchester County Manual Labor High School and Brown University, became a teacher in Worcester, and founded the Oread Institute—a school for young women. Regarding his passion to end slavery, Thayer later wrote that “during the winter of 1854, I began to have the conviction . . . that something had to be done to end the domination of slavery.”

With Lawrence on board, the organization was reorganized into a private company, which did not have the onerous requirements of liability for the board members. The new entity, the New England Emigrant Aid Company, was managed with three board members, with a new target capitalization of $200,000, which would be raised by selling $20 shares. The charter stated that the organization would “promote the emigration to Kansas Territory of persons opposed to slavery there, and to prevent, by all legal and constitutional means, its establishment there as well as in the Territory of Nebraska.”

Thayer continued to hold to the notion that investors could expect returns on their investments. Lawrence did not share his optimism and privately cautioned his friends that they should only contribute funds if they could spare them, rather than invest with the expectation of a return. “I am willing to contribute to the cause,” he wrote to a clergyman seeking his advice, “and I have already given a part of this away, and I intend to do the same with the balance,” without expecting anything in return. Writing to another friend, he said that he believed his financial backing would contribute to the “impulse to emigration into Kansas which cannot easily be stopped.”

Before long, Lawrence grew increasingly worried that the demands for funds were becoming more than even his deep pockets could tolerate. In his diary, he wrote that the Emigrant Aid Company appeared as “a vigorous and rich company in the public prints, when in fact it is only an embodiment of the feeling of the people without material [or financial] strength.” And a few weeks later, he wrote that “all expenditures thus far have been by myself, but I cannot go further without funds in hand.”

From his diary entries, it was clear that Amos Lawrence was committed financially and economically to the cause of keeping slavery out of Kansas Territory, even though that effort put a tremendous strain on his personal and business finances. Yet in none of his diary entries of other correspondence did Lawrence ever suggest that the source of his wealth was in any way incompatible with his antislavery passion. He, his father, and his uncle made their fortunes from buying, selling, and producing textiles—mostly made of cotton. Where did they get the raw cotton? Or, more to the point, who planted, picked, ginned, baled, and transported this cotton? The answer, of course, was the enslaved population in the American South—the same population for whom he was seeking freedom. Whether he had difficulty juxtaposing his antislavery views with his business dealings or not was and is a mystery. But if there was a conflict of conscience, it certainly did not dampen his commitment to the cause, nor did it stop him from recruiting other wealthy, like-minded friends to join the company.

One of Lawrence’s first recruits was a friend, John Carter Brown, whom he tapped as the president of the company. The title of president was, by design, mostly honorary. But Lawrence was strategic in drafting Brown as president. First, he was from a prominent New England family, and second, he was a moderate Whig, with no radical political baggage. Brown attended most board meetings and allowed his name to appear on many of the company’s circulars. Like Lawrence, much of the money Brown donated to the Emigrant Aid Company came from the backs of slaves and the institution of slavery he was trying to eradicate. His father and uncles made their fortunes from the “triangle trade.” Slaves were shipped to the Americas from Africa in exchange for sugar, which was transported from the Caribbean to New England, where it was distilled into rum. Rum and other goods were then shipped to Africa, where the process started all over again. The Browns donated a large portion of their profits to the College of Rhode Island, and for their generosity, they were honored when the school changed its name to Brown University.

John Carter Brown, however, followed in the footsteps of one of his uncles, Moses Brown, who made an about-face from his brothers, separated himself from their slave-trading business, and became an early leader in the antislavery movement in Rhode Island. In addition to his antislavery passions, John Carter Brown amassed one of the largest collections of rare books at the time. His son donated the collection to Brown University, creating the John Carter Brown Library, one of the finest research libraries in the country today.

Joining Brown, Thayer, and Lawrence on the board was Dr. Thomas H. Webb as the secretary. Like many who would join the cause, Dr. Webb was well educated, having attended Brown University and graduated from Harvard Medical School. Whether he was an unsuccessful businessman or lost interest—or both—his medical practice failed. His interest shifted to history and science, and he was one of the founding members and the first librarian of the Providence Athenaeum. Webb signed on early with Thayer and served as secretary until his death in 1866.

Webb was concerned that the wonderful idea of the Emigrant Aid Company would be stillborn. On May 24, 1854, he wrote to Thayer that the whole scheme would be “perfectly Quixotic” since at that point the company was “endorsed by nobody” and that “not one of the [in]corporators has subscribed for a shilling’s worth of Stock.” But Webb also showed his determination to do his part to achieve success, writing: “I am ready and willing to put on the harness and work to the best of my ability and power.” He did just that.21

Several months later, when the emigration to Kansas began, Webb negotiated reduced fares on the conveyances and assisted ­prospective travelers in their plans to relocate. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, was to write, revise, and publish a circular each year, beginning in 1855, to “answer the numerous inquiries respecting Kanzas [sic; sometimes it was spelled with a z], daily addressed to the Secretary both by letter and in person.” Amos Lawrence recognized how hard Webb worked for the success of the company, and later wrote that he was “the truest man of all.”

In addition to Thayer, Lawrence, Brown, and Webb, many others contributed to the success of the venture. Few were as important as the Reverend Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister from Worchester. Hale entered Harvard as a prodigy at age thirteen and graduated second in his class. His passion for liberating slaves was much like the passion for liberty of his great-uncle, Nathan Hale, who, when faced with his execution by the British in the Revolutionary War, regretted that he “only had one life to give for his country.” Hale signed on as the company’s chief publicist. Nine years earlier, Edward Hale had written a pamphlet—"How to Conquer Texas Before Texas Conquers Us"—advocating for abolitionists to settle in Texas to check the advancement of slavery there, which may or may not have planted the seed for the Emigrant Aid Company with Thayer. Hale threw his considerable energy into promoting the Emigrant Aid Company by making numerous speeches, writing articles, enlisting the help of clergymen around New England, and by publishing the book, Kanzas and Nebraska in September 1854, in which he described the territory, although he had never been there.

The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson—the same Higginson who led the mob trying to free Anthony Burns—passionately supported the Emigrant Aid Company, corresponded with the company’s settlers in Kansas, and later led a group of antislavery emigrants to Kansas. As the Kansas antislavery movement became more militant, Higginson worked behind the scenes to provide guns to the settlers. He came from one of the bluest of blue-blooded Boston families. His ancestor, Francis Higginson, was a member of the first Puritan settlement to New England and the first minister of the Salem, Massachusetts, church. Thomas graduated from Harvard and entered Harvard Divinity School but left after a year, drawn to Transcendentalist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. He returned to Harvard, finished his theology studies, and, in 1847, accepted a call as minister of the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a Unitarian church known for its liberal religious views. He invited speakers such as Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson to address his congregation. He railed against the poor treatment of white workers in northern mills and condemned the institution of slavery. But when he implied that his own congregation was not doing enough to end the institution, he was asked and agreed to resign.

In 1852, Higginson accepted the appointment as minister of the Free Church in Worchester, Massachusetts, a nondenominational congregation, which was more in tune with his radical social views. After the failed attempt to free Anthony Burns, and after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he joined Eli Thayer and the others as a key member of the Emigrant Aid Company.

Religious leaders in New England often held a great deal of influence over their congregations. Some were held in such high esteem that their names and stature were universally recognized and revered. Such was the case with the Reverend Dr. Lyman Beecher. If his name was associated with any program or cause, other clergymen paid attention. So to take advantage of his prestige, and to hopefully bring some money into the company’s coffers, Amos Lawrence drafted two circulars and obtained Lyman Beecher’s permission to attach his name at the top of the list to “the Clergymen of New England,” urging them and their parishioners to buy shares of $20 in the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

Lyman Beecher was nearing eighty when he agreed to attach his name to the Emigrant Aid Company appeal. He was a patriarch among clergy, but he was also the head of one of the most famous families in America. His daughter Harriet married a professor of biblical literature named Calvin E. Stowe. The couple lived in Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin was a professor at Bowdoin College. There, in 1852, Harriet wrote one of the most influential books in American history, and one of the best selling books in the United States next to the Bible in the nineteenth century—Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom and the other characters in the story drew sympathy to the plight of enslaved African Americans more than any other book in the 1850s.

Harriet’s younger brother, Henry Ward Beecher, followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry, and became one of the most dynamic and influential ministers in the 1800s. Following his graduation from Lane Theological Seminary in 1837, the younger Beecher ministered in two churches in Indiana, and then in 1847 he was called to establish a new church in Brooklyn, New York. Beecher achieved success overnight. His Plymouth Church grew in membership to over two thousand members—an early mega-church—in a building that seated three thousand and was frequently full. His style was the opposite of his father and nearly all other clergymen of the day. He was informal, often telling funny stories from the pulpit. He encouraged congregational singing, which is taken for granted today, but was nearly unheard of then.

Following the Compromise of 1850 and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Henry Ward Beecher began to preach against the evils of slavery from his pulpit, and allowed his church to become a station on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. He even brought attractive young slave girls into church and conducted a mock auction, working the congregation into a frenzy to donate enough money to buy their freedom. His church in Brooklyn became one of the bastions of the American antislavery movement. Henry Ward Beecher would play an interesting role in the Kansas struggle that would involve his name and an important symbol of his profession. But before he could take the stage, the antislavery pioneers for which his father’s circular was trying to raise money had to settle in Kansas.


By Robert K. Sutton

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