Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman
The Anti-Slavery Impulse in the Burned-Over District
As an outgrowth of the religious revivals which spread through western
New York in the 1820s, the anti-slavery and then the abolition movements
were to grow in the rural sectors of upstate New York; they were later
to spread to the cities in the 1830s. It was not a continuous growth since,
although the various religions opposed slavery as a sinful situation in
the period after the War of 1812, the major denominations had second thoughts
in the 1830s and tried to back away from the spreading abolitionist tendencies
in the United States.
At first there were towns which were luke-warm to the anti-slavery sentiment,
particularly in and around the villages of Canandaigua, Geneva, and Bath,
centers of the established old families of inherited position after the
War of 1812. Some of these families had originally been encouraged by
Charles Williamson to come from the South to the lands of the Pulteney
Estates, for here was virgin land where large tracts could be purchased,
and thus southerners came with their slaves to create a new "plantation-type"
of agriculture. In 1803, for example, Captain William Helms came from
Virginia bringing with him his fifty to one hundred slaves, and other
settlers followed from Virginia and Maryland along with their slaves.
The New York State legislature had forbidden the selling of slaves in
New York State in the early 1790s, but Charles Williamson's record book
shows that he was buying slaves beyond this date. The 1810 census listed
one hundred and sixteen blacks in Bath of whom eighty-seven were slaves.
By 1813, New York State had banned slavery within the State, but two
years later a huge Conestoga wagon went through Bath supervised by a man
with a whip. Shrieks and cries emanated from the wagon, for Captain Helms
had seized some of his former slaves and their families and was trying
to transport them to Kentucky for sale. By the time the wagon reached
Olean, most of the former slaves had escaped, and Helms was arrested,
tried, and imprisoned for a short time for his defiance of New York law.
Even Judge Thomas McBurney of Steuben County was tried for a similar offense.
In general, the Southern Tier region of New York was not open to many
of the reforms which were to ensue across the Ontario Plain of the State,
for this less viable agricultural land lacked the infusion of Yankee blood
which entered New York across the old Mohawk Trail. Many of the early
settlers in the Southern Tier portion of New York State had come from
Maryland and Virginia, and they lacked the religious inclination and reforming
instincts of the settlers from New England. It would take a number of
years before a unanimity in favor of abolition would take place in New
New York Yankees were inheritors of the old Puritan New England spirit,
and they were to be an inquisitive populace. Prior to 1820 there were
some one hundred and twenty-nine weekly publications in upstate New York,
for these rural immigrant Yankees believed in education and reading. The
various denominations had their religious periodicals, and these especially
circulated within the rural areas, their moralistic tone opposed to the
various sins to which human flesh was heir—and one of the sins against
which they held was that of slavery. However, perhaps the most heinous
of sins denounced from pulpits was that connected with alcohol, and a
strong temperance movement was thus furthered by religious magazines.
The first of the reforms in which western New Yorkers would become active,
therefore, was in the various Temperance Societies which arose. Temperance
had its divisions, however, for there were those who had no objection
to wine in the Communion service, or even hard cider as a refreshing beverage,
and they restricted their ire primarily against hard liquors. Others naturally
opposed all kinds of intoxicating beverages, no matter how dilute. The
temperance movement would flourish and wane in the decades after 1820,
but then the sin of slavery was one which would gather the greatest of
attentions in religious publications as the years went by.
The concern about slavery can be seen in the time of the founding of
the United States, for Thomas Jefferson, albeit a slaver holder, and Gouverneur
Morris of New York had tried to have slavery banned in the creation of
the United States Constitution, an effort derailed by Southern opponents
at the Constitutional Convention. Even Washington had freed his slaves
in his will on his death. The concern about slavery lessened in the period
of the early political years of the new nation, but it revived once more
after the War of 1812, even among some Southerners. One aspect of this
revived concern can be seen in the establishment of the American Colonization
Society in January of 1817. Its goal was the emancipation of slaves and
their return to Africa from which they had been taken by force. There
were, however, limitations proposed for such a return: those slaves to
be returned to Africa were to be either ones who had been voluntarily
surrendered by their owners or those free, former slaves resident in the
Among the sponsors at the 1817 convention which established the American
Colonization Society were Daniel Webster, Thomas Frelinghuysen, John Marshall,
James Monroe, and Henry Clay, a stellar cross-section of leading American
figures. It did not, however, provide a realistic solution to the problem
of American slavery, but it does indicate that the moral concern was alive
in both the North and the South. There were those in the North of a narrower
view who favored the Colonization solution, not for moral reasons, but
since it would help to empty northern slums where crime and poverty were
at large, and often among former slaves who had taken refuge in the North.
In 1827 Henry Clay estimated that it would cost $1,000,000 per annum
to transport 52,000 slaves each year to Africa—and the U.S. Congress
was in no mood to fund such an expenditure, although the U.S. government
did help to select Liberia as the place for a return of slaves. The Colonization
Society did appeal to some earnest reformers, particularly to Gerrit Smith
who lived near Utica in western New York, a participant who was involved
in all of the reforms of the era. Although he was at first an ardent supporter
of the Colonization Society, he was in time to become a more ardent abolitionist,
as was true of others who became disillusioned with the impractical attempt
to return slaves to Africa. Obviously the plantation owners in the South
were not going to free their slaves for such a venture, and those ex-slaves
who were now free saw the pitfalls involved in returning to a foreign
land where they would have no means of livelihood.
The great revivals which Charles Grandison Finney launched across the
Ontario Plain were meant to bring mankind closer to perfection by the
elimination of one's sins through religious conversion. The temperance
movement, as noted, was one of its first crusades, but the sinfulness
of holding another in slavery was another of the evils against which Finney
and others would speak. Their viewing slavery as sinful did not call for
action, however, and it was to be among their younger followers who saw
the need for activity on the part of the morally concerned. Theodore Dwight
Weld was one of Finney's young disciples, and he came under the influence
of Charles Stuart, an English abolitionist who was active both in Britain
and in the United States. Weld was also influenced by the Reverend George
Gale who founded the Oneida Institute, later Knox College, at Whitesboro
near Utica, a religiously based institution which became a center of the
anti-slavery movement in upstate New York. Weld moved to Cincinnati where
he enrolled in Lane Seminary, headed by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father
of Harriet Beecher Stowe of later Uncle Tom's Cabin fame, and
here his anti-slavery indignation would lead him in new directions.
In 1833 the British government had abolished slavery, and Charles Stuart
returned to the United States to foster a similar action in America. Theodore
Weld, before heading west in 1833, had attended a meeting called by the
Tappan brothers of New York City, wealthy philanthropists and reformers,
who. were excited by the British action in banning slavery,. The meeting
was to discuss the formation of a national anti-slavery society whose
goal would be a call for immediate emancipation of American slaves. Weld
became one of the first agents of this new Anti-Slavery Society formed
in December of 1833, and he was to speak throughout the mid-West on slavery
as the great American sin.
Some thirty to forty young men in the Cincinnati seminary soon became
enflamed with the anti-slavery spirit, and they tended more and more to
favor "abolition now." Lyman Beecher, as the head of the Seminary, became
alarmed at this diversion from the young men's theological studies, and,
as a result, these reforming students abandoned Lane Seminary to move
to Oberlin. It was at Oberlin College that Finney and the Tappan brothers
were establishing the Oberlin Theological School for the Lane dissidents,
and the new seminary was to become the font of a generation of young abolitionists.
The concern over the sin of slavery had been growing in western New York,
and it was to reach new heights in the 1830s as the great revivals Finney
had begun continued to flourish. By 1834 the nascent American Anti-Slavery
Society in New York City realized that upstate New York was ripe for the
dissemination of its "immediate abolition" doctrine; soon the national
society would have some 2,000 branches (of which 200 were in New York)
with 200,000 members. Weld was urged to return to New York, which he did
in 1836 to further the cause in western New York. Meantime, a number of
church organizations had actively proclaimed slavery as a sin, and these
included Congregational and several Baptist church organizations. The
ground swell of anti-slavery feelings was being heightened.
Weld's return was accompanied by a host of lecturers who would speak
at the many national societies which were burgeoning, and these lecturers
of seventy young ministerial radicals were alive with the fire of abolitionism.
Their lectures were being enhanced by the numerous anti-slavery journals
which were appearing, The Rights of Man in Rochester, the New
York City Emancipator, the Union Herald of Cazenovia, The
American Citizen of Warsaw, and The Friend of Man in Utica.
Naturally, the most noted of these anti-slavery journals was that of The
Liberator of William Lloyd Garrison in Boston which first appeared
in Rochester in its first issue in January 1831 during the great Finney
revivals, and the Rochester Observer welcomed it and sympathized
with its intent.
Weld's seventy compatriots were trained by Weld himself along with Henry
Stanton, the husband of Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Women's Rights fame;
Henry had been a disciple of Finney and one of the Lane Seminary rebels.
These two men and the "Seventy" helped to move the abolition impulse to
the fore in the 1830s, bringing the movement which had begun as a benign
concern of revivalism over the sinfulness of slavery to an active attack
on slavery itself with the new demand for immediate abolition. These "Seventy"
were to speak throughout the North and West for "abolition now," but they
served as well as "Conductors" on the "Underground Railroad" which helped
fleeing slaves to safety in the North and to Canada. By the 1840s the
movement had become political with the formation of the Liberty Party
which stood for abolition on the national scene, and it nominated its
first candidate for the United States Presidency in 1840. In 1844 the
Liberty Party received 60,000 votes in its campaign for the Presidency,
but it was to be absorbed in time, along with other "radical" groups of
the day, into the new Republican Party in the 1850s.
Weld and Stanton remained active in the American Anti-Slavery Society
until the 1839-1840 national convention in which Garrison packed the house
with his followers and wrested control of the Society. Weld and Stanton
resigned from the Society to form the new American and Foreign Anti-Slavery
Society in its place. Theodore Weld was not always greeted with acclaim
on his speaking engagements, for he soon became known as "the most mobbed
man in America" as those who opposed abolition attacked him and attempted
to break up public meetings which were in favor of abolition.
The anti-slavery movement, now a movement for abolition, continued to
expand on a popular level, but it gradually lost favor within the major
churches of the North and particularly in the Burned-Over District. Under
the spirit of the Revivals, the emphasis had been upon the salvation of
the sinful nature of the individual, not upon social movements of reform.
Its goal was to convert every last sinner, not every sinful institution.
Thus as the church organizations grew more conservative, the anti-slavery
forces found themselves losing their right to hold a public position within
the religious organizations. By 1836 the annual Oneida Conference of the
Methodist Church saw the bishop exclude the pro-abolitionists from the
conference, forcing the dissidents to meet elsewhere. As a result, many
of the Methodist clergy moved into the abolitionist camp, and the threat
of the splitting of the church was possible. One group of Methodists reacted
against the growing conservatism of the Methodist hierarchy, and by 1840
the Wesleyan Anti-Slavery Society had become a national organization and
presented a petition to the Methodist conference signed by 10,000 signatories
in favor of a more active anti-slavery stance. In 1843 the first split
occurred when the separate Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed on the
basis of teetotalism and abolition. (It was the church of the Wesleyan
Methodists in Seneca Falls which was to be made available for the first
Women's Rights Convention in 1848.) A further split would come when the
Free Methodist seceded on the basis of an anti-Episcopal stance.
The Methodist Episcopal Church eventually did come around to a more liberal
anti-slavery position in 1844. As a result the main Methodist Church split
in 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church South seceded over the abolition
issue, the Southern Baptist Church splitting between north and south in
1845, and then the Presbyterian Church splitting on a north/south basis
as well. Only the Episcopal Church remained intact—it was weakest
in the North and strongest in the South where it was primarily the church
of the well-to-do Southern planter "aristocracy."
If the "Seventy" were "Conductors" on the "Underground Railroad," they
were not alone in facing the problem of fugitive slaves. The problem itself
goes back to the United States Constitution which had provided for the
return of escaped slaves, and then the "Fugitive Slave Law" of 1793 implemented
the legal requirement that escaped slaves be returned to their owner and
that those who assisted escaped slaves be penalized. Among the first to
defy this law were the Quakers of Pennsylvania, particularly in Philadelphia,
Lucretia Coffin Mott being one of those Quakers most noted for her work
in opposition to the slave trade. Philadelphia became a center for the
"Underground Railroad" which defied United States law by assisting and
hiding escaped slaves making their way to freedom. The Quakers not only
hid and abetted these escapees, but they opened their homes and their
finances to assist the unfortunate individuals fleeing the South. This
was despite the threat of legal retaliation under the law. Their stance
was put most forcibly in the debate over the Compromise of 1850 in which
William Henry Seward, Congressman from New York with his home in Auburn,
New York, in the Burned-Over District, indicated that in the pursuit of
justice "there was a Higher Law than the U.S. Constitution."
There were many routes for the Underground Railroad which extended into
Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio. Indiana, and Illinois, few of which routes
can be easily identified because of the secrecy involved in the undertaking
which was against Federal law. Few fugitive slaves made their way to New
England since this did not provide the shortest route to Canada and ultimate
freedom from those Federal Marshals seeking to re-enslave fugitives on
behalf of southern owners. Those who did arrive in New England often came
by way of Yankee boats which had put into southern ports and often served
as a means of escape from the South. Among the land routes of the Underground
Railroad, Elmira, New York, was one of the major entry points for fleeing
slaves who had made their way from Virginia and Maryland through Pennsylvania.
Then in 1854 the railroad from Williamsport in Pennsylvania to Elmira
was completed, proving another means of egress for fleeing slaves. Such
fugitives could then be sent on by a night-time train via Watkins Glen
and Canandaigua where a transfer to the New York Central line could make
possible their ultimate arrival at Niagara Falls and Canada.
Although Elmira had its southern sympathizers, it had a nucleus of abolitionist
business men as early as 1836, led by the Reverend John Frost of the First
Presbyterian Church along with John Selover who had been in favor of the
American Colonization Society approach to solving the slavery situation.
He had been involved with Gerrit Smith in Utica in the colonization program,
but when the anti-slavery group was driven from Utica he had moved into
the abolitionist camp.
Jarvis Langdon, the future father-in-law of Mark Twain, was early involved
in the Underground Railroad in Elmira, and in 1844 he was active in protecting
a group of thirty-nine slaves fleeing from slave hunters who were on their
trail. Langdon and his associates provided the men with food and money
and helped them on by night-time flights to Oswego to harbor land owned
by Gerrit Smith, and there they were able to escape by boat to Canada.
Langdon and others of his associates (including Simeon Benjamin, one of
the founders of Elmira College for Women) eventually split from the First
Presbyterian Church since their form of anti-slavery interests and actions
had caused them to wish to found a church which would be strongly abolitionist
in spirit. Thus they formed the Park Church, an independent Congregational
Church in 1845, and its successful place in the community was further
insured when the Reverend Thomas Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe)
served as its pastor from 1854 to 1900. An article by Barbara S. Ramsdell
in the Crooked Lake Review in the autumn issue of 2000 and two
more articles thereafter lists the major individuals in Elmira who were
involved in the Underground Railroad.
In Elmira, an escaped slave, the twenty-seven year old John W. Jones
and four other slaves, walked the three hundred miles from Virginia to
Elmira and to freedom in 1844. In Elmira, Jones learned to read and write,
and in 1847 he became the sexton of the First Baptist Church, later of
the Main Street Cemetery as well, and then of the Woodlawn Cemetery when
it was created. Jones and his family lived in a house next to the Baptist
church, and he often had to hide as many as thirty fugitive slaves at
a time as they made their way to Canada. It is said that during the Civil
War he was responsible for overseeing the ongoing movement of some 800
escaped slaves fleeing to the North. Jones is most remembered in Elmira
and anti-slavery history for the part he paid in the burial of the almost
3,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the Union prison camp in Elmira.
At the beginning of the Civil War, a camp was created in Elmira for the
reception and training of volunteers for the United States Army, and then
on July 6, 1864, it became a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers.
Everything was wrong with the camp, ranging from inadequate response from
the War Department for help by the managers of the camp, to the fact that
in the first winter the prisoners had to live in tents, and, when more
solid buildings were created, the source of the camp's drinking water
was Foster Pond alongside the Chemung River. A contaminated body of water,
the pond led to illness and the ultimate death of 2,973 prisoners. In
Barbara Ramsdell's account of the period, she records that John Jones
supervised the burials in an area back of his farm, a portion of which
today is the Woodlawn National Cemetery. He kept accurate records of each
burial with the name, rank, company, regiment, and date of death of the
prisoner. The wooden marker he set at each grave was eventually replaced
with a simple stone grave-stone by the United States government. Jones
built his last home on his sixteen-acre farm at 311 Woodlawn Avenue, close
to the Woodlawn Cemetery, a house built possibly from some of the salvaged
wood when the prison camp was disbanded. In 1998, the city of Elmira intended
to tear down the house as part of an urban renewal plan, but groups of
citizens have been successful in having the house moved a half a block
from its original site to Davis Street (on part of what had been Jones'
farm) as an historic site. On his death, John Jones was buried in Woodlawn
Cemetery in which he had interred the almost 3,000 Confederate soldiers.
If there is one name mentioned in connection with the Underground Railroad,
it has to be that of Harriet Ross Tubman (1820?-1913). Born a slave on
a Maryland plantation, at twelve she was made a field hand, and in the
course of a problem on the plantation she was hit in the head by a heavy
object which was to cause sudden blackouts throughout her life. Married
to a free black man when she was twenty-four, she decided to flee to the
North and freedom when her master died in 1847 and there were rumors that
his slaves would be sold. Her husband, out of fear, refused to accompany
her, and thus she abandoned him and her other slave relatives. She made
her way north, first through the kindness of a Quaker woman who introduced
her to the Underground Railroad, and then with the assistance of those
of that illegal organization who helped her to Philadelphia where she
found work in a hotel kitchen. Befriended by local abolitionists, she
determined to become a part of the Underground Railroad in order to help
other slaves to their freedom. Returning to Maryland in 1851 to try to
convince her husband to move north, to her dismay she discovered that
her husband had remarried in her absence and would not leave Maryland.
Returning north, Harriet became a part of the Underground Railroad, and
in the course of her incursions into slave holding territory she eventually
brought her parents and her sister and her brothers to freedom in the
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made it exceedingly dangerous
for former slaves who had escaped to the north since Federal Commissioners
were stationed in all the States to bring about the return to slavery
of any escaped slave—and there were heavy financial and penal penalties
to those who aided and abetted escaping slaves. Locating to St. Catherine
in Canada as a safe refuge, Harriet eventually moved to Auburn, New York,
in the Burned-Over District. Here William Henry Seward, Congressman from
that region, sold her a two-story, brick house for a modest sum, an illegal
venture under the law of the time. Over the next ten years, Harriet Tubman
made nineteen sorties into the South to help some three hundred slaves
to make their way north and to freedom. She carried sleeping powders to
use on crying babies to quiet them as they and their parents escaped,
and she carried a gun with which to force onwards those who became recalcitrant
on their journey and wanted to turn back.
Harriet Tubman's modus viviendi was to plan an escape for a
Saturday night since slaves were generally given Sundays free, and thus
they would not be missed until Monday morning, thereby permitting them
to put miles behind as they fled to the north. Miraculously, she never
lost any of those three hundred slaves she was shepherding north, always
finding places of refuge en route as well as food for them. Among
slaves she was known as the "Moses of her people." Her involvement with
John Brown might have embroiled her in the raid on Harpers Ferry had not
illness prevented her from becoming a part of that failed venture, but
thereafter she spoke ever more forcibly for the end to slavery and for
women's right to vote.
During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman worked both as a nurse to black
soldiers and as a spy, even to leading African-American soldiers on raids
in South Carolina. On this latter incursion into the South she met Nelson
Davis, one of the soldiers, and after the death of her first husband who
had re-married, they were married in 1869 in Auburn where they lived thereafter.
After the war she continued her charitable work on behalf of former slaves
turning her home in time to a facility for the welfare of elderly blacks.
(That brick house was later demolished.) In 1953 the Harriet Tubman Home,
the care facility she had created for indigent and elderly blacks, and
which had long since ceased to exist as a charitable organization, was
re-dedicated to her memory by the AME Zion Church. Additional buildings
have since been created as a museum, library, and meeting hall, and in
1974 the Department of the Interior named Harriet's former charitable
Home a national historic landmark
Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) has been mentioned in conjunction with one of
the Elmira anti-slavery men, and he is a prime example of how religious
enthusiasm between 1820 and 1850 could sweep an individual from one reform
to another. One of the early supporters of the religious revivals which
Charles Grandison Finney had undertaken, an early and continuing proponent
of temperance, a believer in human perfection who started Knox College
which was dedicated to the anti-slavery movement, he moved from being
a firm supporter of the American Colonization Society to the more radical
abolitionist position in time. Disgusted with the insufficiently strong
reaction against slavery by the main-stream churches of his day, he created
his own church in Peterboro for the Religion of Reason. Smith's father
Peter had been a fur trader and an associate of John Jacob Astor in this
trade, and he acquired a large tract of Oneida Indian land from New York
State, and here in the town of Peterboro his son Gerrit Smith was to live
and die. Of the eight children Gerrit and his wife had, only one son and
a daughter survived into adulthood, and that daughter Elizabeth was the
creator of the Bloomer dress (which became notorious under Amelia Bloomer
who popularized the outfit). Elizabeth Smith was a favorite of her cousin
Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Smith turned away from colonization to abolition as a result of the 1835
attack by a mob intent on breaking up an anti-slavery meeting in Utica,
a meeting which he then had adjourn to his estate at Peterboro. This and
similar attacks on those opposed to slavery redounded to the cause since
many saw such mob actions as a repudiation of the democratic ideal of
freedom of speech. Another incident involved Smith in contempt for the
Fugitive Slave Law when an escaped slave "Jerry" was apprehended in Syracuse
and jailed. Jerry broke away during the court hearing, abetted by the
onlookers. When the slave was re-taken by the Federal Marshall and his
men, Gerrit Smith and Samuel May (another strong abolitionist adherent)
planned Jerry's rescue by organizing a crowd which broke into the courthouse
and freed the slave. Although some eighteen individuals were arrested
for their unlawful action, the court dismissed all charges— instead
the judge put the United States Marshal who tried to detain Jerry on trial
for kidnapping, since the Syracuse judge declared the Fugitive Slave Law
unconstitutional—at least in his jurisdiction.
A wealthy man and a noted philanthropist, Gerrit Smith not only spoke
frequently in favor of abolition, but he contributed financially to the
anti-slavery movement as well as permitting his home to be one of the
major stations of the Underground Railroad. From his extensive inherited
land holdings (he was the largest land holder in New York State), he generously
gave away forty acres to each of 3,000 poor, but temperate, free Negroes,
thereby providing them with the land which satisfied the law and permitted
them to vote . (John W. Jones of Elmira and his brothers were among the
recipients of this generosity.) A portion of the land at North Elba, New
York, he gave to John Brown in the hope that the Brown family could assist
the other newcomers to these donated lands. Given the nature of Adirondack
soil, this generous action unfortunately did not lead to successful farming.
Ultimately, John Brown was buried at his farm site after his hanging as
a result of his failed Harpers Ferry raid. Smith and the "Secret Six"
of New England were involved with Brown in his planning of the Harpers
Ferry event which Smith helped to finance. The defeat of the raid and
the execution of Brown caused a breakdown for Smith and confinement temporarily
to a mental home.
Smith was one of the major supporters of the Liberty Party which stood
for abolition from its inception in 1840 until its absorption into other
pre-Civil War political parties. As a result he was nominated by the Liberty
Party for the Presidency of the United States in 1848, 1856, and 1860,
unsuccessful campaigns. He did serve one term as Representative to the
U.S. Congress as the only outspoken advocate of abolition. He worked closely
with Henry Stanton in furthering the cause of the Liberty Party and abolition,
and it was at his house that Elizabeth Cady and Henry Stanton met, fell
in love, and eventually eloped. Although he had been a staunch supporter
of women's rights and the movement which was headed by his niece Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, he fell out with the women's group when he supported the
Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave suffrage to African-American
men but did not include suffrage for women, white or black.
Gerrit Smith favored a strong military position for Lincoln's government
in its attempt to subjugate the Southern Confederate states so as to preserve
the Union. On the other hand, he favored a lenient policy to the newly
conquered seceding states after the war, even standing security bail for
Jefferson Davis since he felt that both sides of the slavery conflict
had been to blame for the situation which had resulted in war. In his
final reaction to the Civil War and its aftermath, he had a statement
printed in which he blamed the new Republican Party for its failure to
protect the rights of the newly free and enfranchised slaves. One of the
longest lasting of Smith's relationships was with Frederick Douglass since
they both worked for the same cause and both were supporters of the Liberty
Party. There is a picture of Smith at the 1850 Cazenovia anti-slavery
meeting in which the handsome young Douglass stands in front of the older
Frederick Douglass no doubt is the most noted name in the fight for the
freeing of the slaves and for the rights of African-Americans after the
conclusion of the Civil War. He was born on the 10,000-acre Lloyd Plantation
near Easton, Maryland, in which his mother was a field slave and his father
was a white man, possibly the slave master on that plantation. Douglass
was to develop in time into a six-foot, handsome young man with an olive
brown countenance. When he was six years old he was taken from the care
of his grandmother, as was the custom of slave owners of the time, to
become part of the slave holdings of the plantation. As he developed,
he was sent to be a house slave for the Auld family, relatives of the
plantation Lloyd family, and there he was treated well. In time, his growing
independence was more than the Aulds could handle, and he was returned
to the plantation where he suffered under a brutal slave master, the basis
for many of his later speeches on the problems of the three million slaves
in the South and their mistreatment. As a growing adolescent, he rose
against the slave master one day when being severely punished, and he
downed the man in a fight. He was sent to a shipyard as a slave laborer,
and there, tracing the letters on the sides of ships under construction,
he gradually taught himself to become literate. With the ability to read,
he happened upon a booklet which exposed him to the idea of gaining his
In 1838, at the age of twenty, Douglass made his break from slavery.
He borrowed the papers of a freed black sailor, and, donning sailors garb,
with money given to him by Anna Murray, his future wife, he took the train
from Baltimore to the north. In his new life he adopted a new name, that
of Frederick Douglass which he took from Sir Walter Scott's "Lady of the
Lake." Protected by a white abolitionist in New York City, Douglas sent
for Anna Murray, his fiancée, and they were married. They settled in New
Bedford, Massachusetts, where he felt he could obtain work in the shipyards,
but discrimination was to force him to work at menial labor in Boston
to support his growing family, a family which eventually included five
children. He joined the Massachusetts branch of the American Anti-Slavery
Society, and in 1841 at one of their conventions in Nantucket he was moved
to speak with passion about the sufferings of those in slavery. At that
meeting, William Lloyd Garrison was so taken with Douglass' demeanor,
his speaking ability, and his rich voice that he hired him as a lecturer
to serve the anti-slavery movement throughout the North.
In 1845, Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
a volume which immediately caught the public fancy and sold thousands
of copies. In the book he detailed the problems of the life of a slave
on a plantation, using the incidents and names of those who were part
of the plantation on which he had labored. Since the details of his life
and his escape to the North made him liable to capture under the Fugitive
Slave Law, he was advised to sail to England as a protection against his
being seized by Federal Marshals. The next two years he lectured throughout
the British Isles on the life of slaves in America, and he became an internationally
known and respected speaker whose oratorical skills had developed greatly.
British abolitionists were so taken by the man that they raised the $700
to purchase his freedom, thereby enabling him to return the United States.
Garrison and other abolitionists in Boston wished to have Douglass return
to the lecture stage under their auspices, but he determined that he needed
the freedom to act upon his own impulses and his own needs in speaking
against slavery. He and Anna moved to Rochester, New York, in 1847, a
town with abolitionist leanings, where they bought a house, and there
he started his own newspaper the North Star, a name taken from
that star in the sky which escaping slaves used as their directional guide
in their flight to the North. The paper had as its statement: "Right is
of no sex, Truth is of no color." The newspaper was to be by black writers
and for black people, and its name, as Douglass' fame grew, was changed
to the Frederick Douglass Weekly. Operating a newspaper was an
expensive proposition, and in order to meet the accruing bills Douglass
had to return to the lecture platform to support his family and his paper;
in fact, for a time he had to mortgage their home in Rochester to pay
An English friend, Julia Griffiths, came from England to manage the paper
for him and to bring it to financial stability. She was white, and she
lived with Douglass and his wife; as his assistant she often walked with
him arm in arm in Rochester, to the dismay of those who looked for scandal.
In 1852 she moved out of the Douglass home to discourage gossip, and in
1855, having put the paper on a solid basis, she returned to England.
One of Douglass's great disappointments during these years was his wife's
illiteracy, and although he hired tutors to try to bring her to literacy,
Anna never did become literate. Thus their interests were diverging although
their family life continued intact. She was a most able housewife, and
she looked after the many fleeing slaves who took refuge in the Douglass
house; Frederick, having become the head of the Underground Railroad in
the Rochester area, often found refugee slaves on his newspaper doorstep
in the morning, and it was not unusual for Anna to have to feed up to
eleven escaped slaves at a time. Disturbed by the fact that Rochester
schools were segregated and that he had to hire a tutor for his children,
he was influential in moving the Rochester city government to integrate
its schools in 1857.
Douglass became the most noted black leader of his day, and he became
involved with other reforms as well, particularly the Women's Rights movement
at which he was a primary speaker at the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls.
He was one of the few men at that meeting to vote wholeheartedly in favor
of woman suffrage. Through Garrit Smith he became involved in the Liberty
Party and then the Free Soil Party which opposed the extension of slavery
into the new Western states being formed. He was a friend of John Brown,
but he refused to become involved in the October 1859 Harpers Ferry raid
since he saw that it would bring down the wrath of the Federal government
and would not accomplish its goal. Documents found after the raid implied
his involvement in the planning of the raid, and thus he had to flee to
Canada from which he sailed once more to England in November of 1859.
His British stay lasted but six months, terminating when the furor over
the Harpers Ferry raid had subsided and because of his beloved daughter
Annie's death in 1860.
During the campaign for the Presidency he was a firm supporter of Abraham
Lincoln, and when the war broke out, his two sons volunteered to become
a part of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an all black regiment, the
most noted of the military units in which some 200,000 black soldiers
served during the Civil War. He was not happy with Lincoln's Presidency
at first since he wished abolition to be a goal of the war, an issue which
was settled on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Douglass was active in support of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments
to the U.S. Constitution, the latter of which permitted for black male
suffrage. It was this latter amendment which caused a break with the Women's
Rights Movement since it did not permit for female suffrage. Douglass
regretted the split with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women of the
suffragette movement, a breach which was later made up. His stance in
this matter came from his feeling that it was essential that black males
have the right to vote, particularly in the South after the Civil War,
a situation which unfortunately did not work out since the Hayes administration
removed the Federal military from the South.
Frederick and Anna Douglas moved to Washington, D.C. in 1877, buying
a house which became his last home, and here he became an influence in
national black affairs in the Reconstruction Period. Anna died in 1882,
and two years later Frederick married one of the secretaries on his staff,
a white woman, and the cause of much controversy which he ignored. In
1889 he was appointed Minister to Haiti by the U.S. government. As the
Grand Old Man of the anti-slavery movement, he was criticized by young
blacks as time went by since the Republican Party did not live up to its
earlier support of blacks, especially in the South, while Douglass refrained
from criticizing the Party. These younger black critics and some self-seeking
black politicians did not realize the part he had played in helping to
bring the white citizens of the North to favor abolition and the emancipation
of the slaves. Douglas died in 1895 and his body was interred in the Mt.
Hope Cemetery in Rochester, the town from which he had been most active
in his fight for the emancipation of American slaves.
The Burned-Over District of New York thus had its part to play in the
anti-slavery movement from the 1820s to 1865. Much of the reform movement,
at first came from the Revivals which had swept over the area and made
individuals conscious first of their own moral weaknesses and eventually
of the major shortcoming of society in their time—particularly that
of the holding of their fellow men and women in slavery. After 1865 the
new industrialization of New York cities in the Mohawk Valley and the
Ontario Plain would see a decline in much of the reform spirit as the
population of the area became more diverse. Nonetheless, in the case of
the anti-slavery impulse, the people of the District had acted with commendable
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