To Set This World Right - Winter 2008 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Winter 2008

To Set This World Right

Reprinted from Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau’s Concord. Copyright © 2006 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

In the year 1837, a few friends of the slave, two or three in number, held a meeting to see if a Society could not be formed in Concord for his benefit.
--“Annual Report of the Concord Female A. S. Society,” Liberator, June 23, 1843

As thirty-six-year-old Mary Merrick Brooks glanced around at the crowd of women gathered in Susan Barrett’s Concord home on October 18, 1837, she saw faces long familiar to her from childhood friendships and years of local charity work. Many had worked with her in the town’s Female Charitable Society “to help the poor and needy of the town, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” Today, however, these sixty-one women met to undertake a new and more overtly political project, one with far-reaching implications for them all, perhaps most for Susan Garrison, likely the lone black woman in the room, and soon to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary with a man who had spent much of his life as a slave. Little did Brooks and the others at this gathering imagine that in organizing a local antislavery society they had joined thousands of women across the country poised on the brink of social and political revolution. Over the next three decades, these women would transform what Lori Ginzberg has called an “ideology of benevolence,” a largely private project, into public activism. At their behest, Concord, Massachusetts, would become an abolitionist stronghold; through their example, prominent townsmen would direct international attention to the plight of millions who subsisted as chattel property in the “land of liberty.” Officers of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society would later characterize this formative meeting as “an event noticed but little by the inhabitants of the town, or noticed but to be ridiculed.” In their own words, this organization was “destined … to do not a little towards swelling that great tide of humanity, which is finally to turn our world of sin and misery into a world of purity, holiness, and happiness.” Thus, from the society’s inception, founders conceived their mission as social, political, and even global reform. Finally, radical abolitionism made a tentative appearance in the birthplace of the American Revolution ...

When thirty-eight-year-old Prudence Ward and her mother moved from Boston to Concord in November 1833, their radical abolitionism, kindled by nearly three years of reading the Liberator, came with them. Concord had no organized abolitionist effort yet, although the next month a regional antislavery convention would take place there. The Wards took up residence in the center of town with their longtime friends Elizabeth, Maria, and Jane Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau’s aunts. Just ahead of them, Rev. John and Mary Wilder, both also abolitionists, had relocated to the community when John took over as minister at the Trinitarian church. The Wilders rented from Cynthia Thoreau the rooms vacated when son Henry left that summer for Harvard College. At this time, the Thoreau household consisted of Cynthia and John Thoreau, and their four children—Helen (twenty-one years), John, Jr. (eighteen years), Henry (sixteen years), and Sophia (fourteen years—in addition to Cynthia’s sister, Louisa Dunbar. John Thoreau, Sr., made a modest living running a pencil manufactory, but paying boarders like the Wilders regularly supplemented the family’s income. John Wilder would eventually steer a more moderate course than his more radical neighbors, but his activism in Concord during this formative era—coupled with the Wards’ influence on the extended Thoreau family—initiated a reformist sensibility that gave the orthodox church’s sanction to radical abolitionism.

The Concord in which the Wilders and Wards settled was a comfortable, prosperous town of some two thousand people, eighteen miles from Boston. In 1833, an average of forty stagecoaches per week brought passengers along a well-used route to what Robert A. Gross depicts as a “vital, bustling town.” Agriculture still provided most of the town’s income, but manufacturing and trade had expanded the economy over the last few decades. Christian congregants worshipped at one of two churches, the Unitarian First Church or the recently erected Trinitarian Second Church. In contrast to most northern clergy at this time, both of Concord’s ministers promulgated an antislavery position. In fact, Wilder’s predecessor at the Second Church, Rev. Daniel Southmayd, had been a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, while the venerable Ezra Ripley and his lieutenant, Barzillai Frost, tendered a cautious antislavery sentiment from the Unitarian pulpit. Town leaders, however—Samuel Hoar, Nathan Brooks, John Keyes-vigilantly upheld the status quo and avoided extremism of any kind, certainly abolitionism. Civic pride notwithstanding, revolutionary ideology belonged to Concord’s past.

In the early 1830s, slightly more than 1 percent of Concord residents were black—approximately thirty men, women, and children who with a few exceptions lived literally and figuratively on the margins of town. Some men, such as former slaves Thomas Dugan and John Garrison, owned property; along with butcher Peter Hutchinson, their names appeared on tax rolls. John and his wife Susan hosted antislavery meetings at their home and otherwise exchanged social courtesies with their white neighbors. More typical, however, were those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, black men such as “Town pauper” Isaac Barrett, and Henry Marble, who died in the Concord jail.

To Prudence Ward’s way of thinking, her new home was absurdly behind the times. “There is a Lyceum here,” she informed her brother shortly after arriving. “The speakers come very near saying hard things—on politics & religion—subjects, which by the laws of the Lyceum are not to be introduced.” As intellectual community forums, New England lyceums sponsored debates and disseminated information to interested citizens—from social and political issues, to lectures on art, philosophy, history, and religion. The Concord lyceum had been established for five years when Ward arrived in town, but the questions recently considered there must have seemed insipid indeed to an abolitionist from Boston: “Ought the antislavery society to be encouraged?”; “Would it be an act of humanity to emancipate at once, all the slaves in the United States?”; “Are the intellectual qualities of the whites naturally superior to those of the negro race?”; and “Is the difference of Colour in the human Species particularly the difference betwe[e]n the African & the European races the effect of Climate or of other Causes?” While such inquiries at least reflected an awareness of antislavery, they hardly engaged with the radical abolitionist agenda. When John Wilder argued the abolitionist side in these debates a month after moving to town, he came up squarely against local bigotry ...

Editor’s Note: Petrulionis is professor of English and American studies at Penn State Altoona, and a recipient of Penn State’s 2008 George W. Atherton Award, honoring excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.