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Portraits of abolitionists Charles Sumner, Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Horace Greeley and Henry Wilson, c. 1866
Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-111195
National Abolition Movement

In 1832, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed. Within five years, it had several hundred local chapters primarily in Massachusetts, New York and Ohio. In late 1833, William Lloyd Garrison allied with black and white abolitionists to form the American Anti-Slavery Society which had, as associate members, interracial female antislavery societies in Philadelphia and Boston. The organization grew quickly and had almost a quarter of a million members by 1838. The American Anti-Slavery Society divided at its 1840 convention when a woman, Abby Kelley, was elected to a committee. Garrison's group supported female participation and retained control of the much-reduced American Anti-Slavery Society. Seeing the deep involvement of the Federal government in slavery from the Constitution onward, it advocated the dissolution of the Union as the only means of withdrawing Northern support from slavery and forcing emancipation. Most of the Garrisonians were pacifists who rejected all violent means of ending slavery. They were as suspicious of organized religion as they were of government and they explored utopian communities and women's rights for the next two decades.

Religiously-motivated abolitionists constituted a much larger group and were organized loosely into the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society from 1840 until the mid-1850s. Political abolitionists were closely aligned with the church-based group and were themselves divided into three regional factions. The most radical of these political abolitionists, who urged political action against slavery, was the faction organized around Gerrit Smith in upstate New York. They argued that the United States Constitution, properly interpreted, prohibited slavery in the states and that the Federal government had the power to abolish slavery in the South. Another political faction, centered in Cincinnati, was part of the Liberty Party and then the Free Soil Party, both third-party movements designed to force the major parties to end slavery. The third political group were Boston-area abolitionists who could not support Garrison. Most of the political abolitionists found their way into the new Republican Party, organized in 1854.

Black abolitionists, who had sought white allies, often felt that they were kept on the margins of the movement they had sustained and promoted. Increasingly, free blacks had their own meetings and read newspapers published by African Americans, such as Samuel Cornish's Colored American and Frederick Douglass's abolitionist weekly North Star. The argument over which set of abolitionist tactics was more productive sometimes obscures the fact that the abolitionist movement, with all its divisions, was extremely effective.

[photo] Roger Sherman Baldwin, Connecticut abolitionist and lead for the Mende's defense team
Photo from Baldwin Family Papers. Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library, Image Number 253

Connecticut Abolitionists

The slave trade in Connecticut was prohibited in 1788. However, it remained legal to hold slaves until as late as 1848. The state had passed an act of Gradual Emancipation--children born to enslaved parents after March 1, 1784, would be freed at the age of 25 (later dropped to age 21). As a result slavery was slowly phased out. Meanwhile, African Americans and their allies organized to build schools and churches, and petitioned the General Assembly and local governments demanding the right to vote.

In 1833, Prudence Crandall opened a school for "young misses of color" in Canterbury, Connecticut. The townspeople protested and harassed Crandall and her students. She resisted and kept her school open. In 1834, Connecticut's General Assembly passed what came to be known as the Black Law. The Black Law restricted African Americans from coming into Connecticut to get an education and prohibited anyone from opening a school to educate African Americans from outside the state without getting a town's permission. This law, in effect, expelled those attending Crandall's school and closed it down. The Prudence Crandall trial and the establishment of the Connecticut Black Law of 1834 were huge setbacks for the abolitionist movement in the state.

The Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1838. By 1839, Connecticut abolitionism found itself at a crossroads. After several disheartening legal defeats like the Crandall case, Connecticut abolitionists were in search of a new cause to bring slavery to the public's eye. Abolitionists embraced the publicity given to the Amistad captives' plight as a means to publicize and reinvigorate their cause.

Abolitionists Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt (both from New York) and Simeon Jocelyn (from Connecticut) formed the Amistad Committee to defend the Amistad captives. The Amistad Committee appealed to the public for both legal and living expenses throughout the trial. Jocelyn, founding member of New Haven's Third Church, was a white abolitionist and the first pastor of New Haven's Congregational church for African Americans in the 1820s. In 1831, he proposed the establishment in New Haven of the first institution of higher education serving African Americans--never realized because of overwhelming opposition.

Jocelyn was supported by New Haven attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin. Baldwin, a member of North Church, offered his legal services to the Amistad captives. For two years, Baldwin successfully defended the Africans' right to freedom (first assisted by some fellow Yale graduates, later by former President John Quincy Adams). As abolitionists, Baldwin and Adams seized the opportunity to refocus the case on human rights and to challenge the institution of slavery on moral and constitutional grounds. Baldwin and Jocelyn were also instrumental in securing first local, then national support for the captives.

Home of Farmington abolitionist Austin F. Williams
Photo courtesy of the Farmington Historical Society

Lewis Tappan, another member of the Amistad Committee, corresponded with his friend Austin F. Williams during the Mende's imprisonment. Williams and fellow Farmington abolitionists Samuel Deming, Horace Cowles and John Treadwell Norton were founding members and officers of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society, and had established possibly the first local anti-slavery society in the state. They arranged for the Africans to be sheltered in Farmington after their release while the Amistad Committee raised funds to send them home to Sierra Leone.

Oral tradition indicates that Williams was an Underground Railroad conductor and, along with other citizens, made the Farmington community a major Underground Railroad stop. After the Civil War, Williams was appointed director of the Freedman's Bureau of New England and New York and found housing and job opportunities for freed African Americans. Deming was a legislator, merchant, farmer and one of the town's most respected citizens and churchmen. Cowles had been an early advocate for abolition. Norton was an active international abolitionist and while in Farmington, the Mende were frequent guests at his home, performing gymnastics on his lawn. His son, John Pitkin Norton, then a Yale student and later a much-honored professor, served as a tutor for the Africans and detailed his conversations with them in his diaries.

[photo] First Congregational Church in Farmington, where the Mende attended church
Photo courtesy of the Farmington Historical Society

While in Farmington, the Amistad Committee required that the Mende attend the First Congregational Church. They attended school five hours each morning at Deming's store. The Mende also were taken to different parts of New England and asked to participate in various fundraising events. With the money raised at these events, the Amistad Committee hoped to establish a Christian missionary in Africa and pay for the Mende's transportation home. Within a few months, it became clear that the Mende were anxious to return home. The Mende, accompanied by several missionaries (two of whom were black), left Farmington on November 27, 1841, and arrived in Sierra Leone in January 1842.

National coverage of the Africans' case before the U.S. Supreme Court gave fresh impetus to the cause of abolishing slavery. One of the first "civil rights" cases in the history of the United States, the Amistad trial illuminated tensions concerning the issue of slavery. For the next 20 years, the abolitionist movement would find the momentum necessary to propel this issue forward, ending with an explosive national conflict: the American Civil War.

The above essay includes passages from Exploring a Common Past: Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad. For further information on Connecticut Abolitionists, you may also want to visit www.yaleslavery.org

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