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Autobiography, Correspondence, &c., of Lyman Beecher
Edited by Charles Beecher
New York: Harper, 1864

ANTI-SLAVERY IMBROGLIO

[Volume II, Chapter 34]

  THERE are some expressions toward the close of the letter given in the last chapter that have a singular appearance, coming from a student in a seminary class. One would naturally suppose them to have been written by one of the faculty. This, however, is not entirely unaccountable, in view of the previous career of the writer, his executive talents, habits of control, experience as public lecturer and teacher, and the encouragements held out to him by the agent of the institution.

  At the time when, as already mentioned, he was planning the establishment of a grand national Manual Labor institution, Mr. F. Y. Vail writes to him (November, 1831) as follows: "Brethren W—— and T——, finding I possessed a spirit congenial with yours and their own on the subject of a great model Manual Labor institution for the nation, have confidentially and fully made me acquainted with your plans and prospects in reference to such a seminary. Brother W—— will write you fully on this subject, and express his full conviction that you ought not to fix upon your location for this institution until you have paid a visit to this great valley, and have conferred with some brethren who have been looking over the rising millions of the West with a view of raising up just such an institution as you wish. * *

  "Now, as we already have New England identified with this enterprise, we only need to have your plan and efforts identified with our own, in order to secure the influence of New York, and make it strictly a national, model institution. * * * We want now, my dear brother, just such a man as you are (I do not flatter you) to be the mainspring in the whole concern. We want the funds promised you exceedingly for buildings for 500 or 600 students, for more land if necessary, for workshops, tools," &c., &c.

  Again, in August, 1832, he writes: "I wish, my dear brother, you could join us this fall, and aid us in getting this great seminary of the West into successful operation; * * * and remember that, by God's blessing, you are yet perhaps to bear one of the four corners of our institution by occupying the chair of Sacred Rhetoric and Oratory."

  The sentiments of the students toward their gifted companion and leader may be gathered from the following testimony by Professor Fairchild, in his Address to the Alumni of Oberlin: "Among these students was Theodore D. Weld, a young man of surpassing eloquence and logical powers, and of a personal influence even more fascinating than his eloquence. I state the impression which I had of him as a boy, and it may seem extravagant, but I have seen crowds of bearded men held spell-bound by his power for hours together, and for twenty evenings in succession."

  In his reminiscences of that period Dr. Beecher observed: "Weld was a genius. First-rate natural capacity, but uneducated. Would have made a first-rate man in the Church of God if his education had been thorough. In the estimation of the class, he was president. He took the lead of the whole institution. The young men had, many of them, been under his care, and they thought he was a god. We never quarreled, however."

  It was a noble class of young men, uncommonly strong, a little uncivilized, entirely radical, and terribly in earnest. Penetrated as they were with admiration and love for their brilliant leader, they constituted a kind of imperium in imperio, to govern which by ordinary college law might prove difficult.

  An illustration was soon found. At first they recited daily to the professor of Ecclesiastical History, a most amiable and excellent man, but not possessed of all the elements of character necessary to bridle these fiery and unbroken steeds, or to inspire them with sufficient interest in the lectures of his department. At length there was a species of emeute. The class informed Dr. Beecher that they could not and would not attend the obnoxious lectures any longer, and implored relief.

  After consultation, the doctor replied, in his vivacious way, "Boys, I'll tell you the best we can do for you. You must attend Professor ——'s lecture once a week, and behave, and Stowe and I will take care of you the rest of the time." This was before the regular course of study had been matured. With this arrangement the young malcontents were, of course, highly delighted, and all things moved on smoothly and pleasantly.

  All this time, however, the great subject of emancipation was not forgotten. "A great work," observes Mr. Weld, "was to be done in preparing the way for an open discussion. We early began to inculcate our views, by conversation, upon our fellow-students. Those of us who sympathized together in our abhorrence of slavery selected each his man to instruct, convince, and enlist in the cause. Thus we carried one after another, and, before ever we came to public debate, knew pretty well where we stood."

  Dr. Beecher's position on the slavery question, before the discussion was held, is sufficiently clear from the following reply to Arthur Tappan, who had written to inquire whether the trustees had taken any action in reference to admitting students of color to the institution. "We have taken," he says, April 23, 1833, "no order on the subject, as none is needed, and I trust never will be. Our only qualifications for admission to the seminary are qualifications intellectual, moral, and religious, without reference to color, which I have no reason to think would have any influence here, certainly never with my consent.

  "I am not apprised of the ground of controversy between the Colonizationists and the Abolitionists. I am myself both, without perceiving in myself any inconsistency. Were it in my power to put an end to slavery immediately, I would do it; but it is not. I can only pursue the measures best calculated, in my judgment, to get the slaves out of bondage in the shortest time and best manner; and this, as I view the subject, is to make emancipation easy instead of difficult, to make use of the current of human fears, and passions, and interests, when they may be made to set in our favor, instead of attempting to row up stream against them.

  "I would press the consciences, so far as they have any, of the Southerners, and shake their fears, and press their interests, as the Abolitionists are doing; but then, that the pressure might avail, I would not hermetically seal their hearts by cutting off the facilities of emancipation, and tempt them to delay it till insurrection might do the work, but offer them an easy, practicable way of doing their duty, as the Colonizationists are doing; and I can perceive no need that the two classes of philanthropists should fall out by the way, though, if they do, perhaps they may provoke one another to do more than they might otherwise accomplish. I trust God has begun, by the instrumentality of both, a great work, which will not stop until not only the oppressed here are free, but Africa herself shall have rest in the Lord along her extended coast and deep interior."

  A practical answer to the question of admitting colored students was given by the presence in the first class of James Bradley, once a slave, and his cordial welcome to go wherever his classmates went. On one occasion, the class having been invited to a levee at the president's, James was absent through timidity. When the doctor discovered the fact, he expressed to Mr. Weld and others his great regret; "if he had thought of his feeling so, he would have gone to him personally, and told him he must come."

  When the idea of a debate was first mentioned to Dr. Beecher in conversation, so far was he from deprecating free discussion, that he offered to attend and take part in the argument. It was the result of more cautious counsels from some of the trustees that led him and the other members of the faculty to advise postponement. The reasons assigned were the absorbing nature of the discussion, its divisive tendency, the risk of exciting popular prejudice, and the probability that at a later period discussion might be either needless or safe.

  As the students, however, insisted on being allowed to go on, the faculty would not refuse them. The result was a nine evenings' annihilative onset upon slavery, followed by a unanimous vote in favor of immediate emancipation. Nine evenings more devoted to the colonization scheme resulted in its rejection, with but a single solitary vote in its favor. Anti-slavery and colonization societies were immediately organized, and active efforts commenced to elevate the colored population of the city.

  "We have formed," writes Mr. Weld to Arthur Tappan, April 12, "a large and efficient organization for elevating the colored people in Cincinnati; have established a Lyceum among them, and lecture three or four evenings a week on Grammar, Geography, Arithmetic, Natural Philosophy, &c. Besides this, an evening free school, for teaching them to read, is in operation every week-day evening, and we are about establishing one or two more. * * * We have three large Sabbath-schools and Bible-classes. By sections in rotation, and teaching the evening reading-schools in the same way, we can perform an immense amount of labor among them without interruption to our studies. * * *

  "I visited this week about thirty families, and found that some members of more than half these families were in bondage. May God make us more humble, fearless, unflinching, full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, full of sympathy for suffering humanity, and rejoicing that we are counted worthy to suffer shame for his name."

  Perceiving the momentum of their motion, and well aware how easy it was in those days to rouse the slumbering demon of pro-slavery fanaticism, Dr. Beecher endeavored to caution them, particularly with reference to putting in practice their principle of social intercourse according to character, irrespective of color"—a principle as dangerous as it is just.

  "When they founded colored schools," said Dr. Beecher, "I conversed with Weld repeatedly, and pointed out these things. Said I, you are taking just the course to defeat your own object, and prevent yourself from doing good. If you want to teach colored schools, I can fill your pockets with money; but if you will visit in colored families, and walk with them in the streets, you will be overwhelmed."

  The young men, however, thought they saw the danger, and really tried to guard against it. Their opinion was, and probably still is, that no amount of prudence, nothing short of surrender of the enterprise altogether, would have availed.

  Dr. Beecher thought differently. He felt decidedly that the students had not, in all respects, shown a proper spirit in their treatment of their instructors. Still, his letters show that, before leaving for the East during the summer vacation, he anticipated no such serious results as actually ensued.

  As late as June, 1834, he writes: "Our first class is forty, and the large majority of it composed of men of matured age, powerful mind, and ardent and devoted piety. I have never known such power for intelligent and strong action condensed in a single class. Their progress in study is highly satisfactory to the faculty, and we are quite willing that their attainments should be the first specimens to represent the seminary.

  "The only inconvenience we encounter as the offset to so much good is from the independence inseparable from such mature age and power of mind, unaccustomed to the discipline and restraints of college life. But this has not occasioned the slightest trouble except in one instance: we allude to a few particulars in respect to the Abolition Society, in which, as a matter of conscience, mistaken we suppose, but real, they have not regarded our advice as we hoped they would, and think they ought to have done.

  "But, after having said and done all which we consider proper, and waited for the teachings of experience and wisdom from above, we are united in the conclusion that, if we and our friends do not amplify the evil by too much alarm, impatience, and attempt at regulation, the evil will subside and pass away."

  Some time previously a committee had been appointed by the trustees on this subject, but the recommendation of strenuous measures was resisted by the faculty. After the departure of Dr. Beecher, Professor Stowe, and Professor Morgan, however, this committee, in connection with the Professor of Ecclesiastical History, proceeded to consider the subject.

  The result was, Dr. Beecher was informed by letter that on the 20th of August the executive committee adopted a resolution "declaring that rules ought to be adopted prohibiting any societies or associations in the seminary, any public meetings or discussions among the students, any public addresses by the students in the seminary or elsewhere, or appeals or communications to the students at their meals or when assembled on other ordinary occasions, without the approbation of the faculty; and requiring that the Anti-slavery Society and Colonization Society of the seminary should be abolished; and providing that students not complying with these, as with other rules, should be dismissed. * * *

  "It was decided to postpone the enactment of these rules until the faculty should be reassembled; and in the mean time, in order that the students might not remain in ignorance of the contemplated regulations, and that the public impressions on the subject might be rectified, it was ordered that the proceedings should be published, which will be done in a week or two."

  A few days later the following letter was received from the same writer (September 13, 1834), still farther unfolding the state of affairs: "We have acted with great deliberation, and great reluctance in the absence of the faculty. If we could have felt any reasonable confidence that even the existence of the seminary could have been preserved, we should have postponed every thing till the faculty were reassembled. Many of our best citizens were looking upon the seminary as a nuisance, more to be dreaded than cholera or plague.

  "The spirit of insubordination, resistance to law, and of civil commotion, which they regarded it as fostering, was deprecated in a tone to make one shudder. The scenes of France and of Hayti recur to their imaginations, and it is impossible to make them calm or even reasonable. It is impossible for persons not well conversant in the slave states, and the part of the country on their borders, to realize the state of the public mind on these subjects. If once excited, we may as well tamper with the whirlwinds and the lightning."

  These resolutions of the trustees, having been published, were denounced by the anti-slavery press as an attack on freedom of speech. "In what age do we live?" asks the New York Evangelist "and in what country? and who are the persons thus restrained) and with whose endowments was the seminary founded? and who is its president? * * Nor do we see how such men as Dr. Beecher and Professor Stowe, and Professor Morgan could consistently remain, nor how those subscribers to the funds of the seminary who expected to make it an institution of elevated character, could make any farther payments to trustees so incompetent to appreciate the wants of the age. But let us hope the trustees will pause before they take the final step."

  Unquestionably, but for this hope, Dr. Beecher might have been justified in resigning. But the laws were not yet passed, nor did the absent professors consider themselves compromised by what the trustees had done. "We, of course," writes Professor Stowe, September 20, to Dr. Beecher, "are not responsible for the doings of the committee, especially as we tried with all our might to prevent the passage and publication of the resolutions referred to." Nor would Dr. Beecher's sanguine temperament permit him to leave his post without an effort to avert the threatened rupture.

  In this, however, he was destined to be disappointed. The hope had been cherished by some of the students—so it was stated publicly at the time in the Emancipator, of New York—that Dr. Beecher, on his return, would be able to arrest the execution of these laws. This hope, however, proved vain. The trustees declined to await Dr. Beecher's return; the laws were formally promulgated and as things had gone too far to afford much prospect of a change the students, with one consent almost, resolved on retiring from the institution.

  "When I got back," said Dr. Beecher, "I found all in a flurry. If I had arrived a little sooner I should have saved them; but it was too late." An attempt was made, indeed, to expound the obnoxious resolutions and orders as containing "nothing which is not common law in all well-regulated institutions, since they merely commit the whole management of the internal concerns of the seminary to the discretion of the faculty," but this the students regarded as indorsing the despotic enactments in all their extent.

  After the departure of the students, and during their residence at Cummingsville, a final attempt was made at an agreement. "I determined," said Dr. Beecher, "to make one more effort. I went to the trustees, and told them that the manner of reformation in my absence was untimely, and the phraseology of the resolutions and orders not the most felicitous, and that they must let us offer terms. They consented. The laws were revised, and the objectionable features struck out.* We then called a meeting of a number of the most discreet and sober among them, telling them I had a confidential communication to make to them.

  "'The fact is,' said I, 'there are some things you don't know, and you have ignorantly done just what others meant you should. Professor ——, though an excellent man, has not been popular with you, nor you with him, and, in fact, it was either you or he must leave. So, when he saw the tide of public excitement rising against you, and a mob threatening, he felt his time had come, and used all his influence with the trustees to do what they did, hoping you would bolt, and he has succeeded. He has ousted you, and you have helped him: If we had been here it would not have been done. We can not say it openly, but he has led the trustees, who know nothing about such matters.'

  "'Well,' said they, 'what can be done?'

  "I said, 'That is for you to determine. It is sad for us; it will be apt to be sad for you. You are excellent men, but I am afraid it will wreck you, some of you. You may tell the rest what I have told you, on condition that you do not divulge it publicly.' They worked like beavers to form a reaction, but said they could not do it."

  Our limits do not allow us to insert extracts from the statements published by the students and faculty respectively, setting forth the reasons of their course.

  Viewed at this distance of time, we find much to commend and something to condemn on either side in this most painful affair. That the rules as passed by the trustees are indefensible, we do not deny; that the first "declaration" of the faculty was equally so, we frankly concede; but that the final revision of the laws was perfectly unobjectionable, and such as ought to have been accepted by the students as a ground of reconciliation, we see not how any candid mind can question. As to the statement of the Liberator that "Lane Seminary was now to be regarded as strictly a Bastile of oppression—a spiritual Inquisition," time has shown how to estimate its real value. Certainly the two sons of the president, who entered in the very next class, found no shackles imposed on their minds, and have not been generally regarded as graduates of a school of tyranny, nor have the professors and their families impressed the world as keepers of a spiritual Bastile.

  In our judgment, nay, to our certain knowledge, those young men might have kept their place and their principles, and accomplished all their noble aims, if they had consented to adopt Dr. Beecher for their leader. They made the mistake, common to ardent minds, that to submit to an unjust law is as sinful as to enforce it. They forgot that men may waive their rights voluntarily, even to the laying down of life. They abandoned too easily their noble design of stamping an anti-slavery character upon this central seminary of the West. Without the least concession of principle, they might have calmly and quietly gone on with their studies, trusting to time and to Dr. Beecher, whose heart they knew beat for liberty with a pulse as high as their own, to bring things right again.

  But it was overruled for good. The seminary suffered, being "obliged to bear up under a load of prejudice as a pro-slavery institution;" but it was not a pro-slavery institution, and God would not permit it to go down.

  At the same time, the students were taken care of. Providence stirred up friends to their support. Arthur Tappan exhibited a princely liberality in their behalf. A theological department was projected and endowed at Oberlin; and although the welcome to students "irrespective of color" was ungracious in appearance, it proved cordial in effect.*

  Thus, though by a way he knew not, was Dr. Beecher's removal to the West directly or indirectly instrumental in the establishment of two theological schools instead of one; and we can almost imagine we hear the seminary on Walnut Hills exclaiming, as she gazes on the numerous alumni of Oberlin, "Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children and been desolate? Who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where have they been?"

  * By this revision the laws were restored nearly to the same form in which they were before the discussion, the only difference bearing upon this subject being the following:

Original Laws (before the discussion).

  No student shall be absent from the premises of the institution during study hours without permission from the instructor of his class for the time, or from the president.* It was with great difficulty, and only in the prospect of rich endowments and of securing a large class of students, that the principle of admission irrespective of color, already in practice at Lane, received from the trustees of Oberlin a cold and ambiguous sanction.

Revised Laws (November, 1834.)

  "No student shall be absent in term time without permission from the instructor of his class, or from the president. General meetings of the students, and public addresses or lectures by them, and societies formed among them in the seminary, shall be with the consent and subject to the direction of the faculty."

  Rather a slender foundation, one would think, for so painful a measure as rending away a whole class, and threatening to wreck the institution.

  * It was with great difficulty, and only in the prospect of rich endowments and of securing a large class of students, that the principle of admission irrespective of color, already in practice at Lane, received from the trustees of Oberlin a cold and ambiguous sanction.