Carl R. Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
“This bank is just what the Freedmen need” said Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865, when the bill chartering the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was signed into law. Yet, by the time it was all over, Frederick Douglass would say that “the Freedman’s Bank was the black man’s cow but the white man’s milk” (Frederick Douglass to Gerrit Smith, July 3, 1874, Smith MSS, Syracuse University Library, in Osthaus, 1).
W. E. B. Du Bois gives a brief survey of this episode in his Black Reconstruction and sums it up like this: “No more extraordinary and disreputable venture ever disgraced American business disguised as philanthropy than the Freedmen’s Bank—a chapter in American history which most Americans naturally prefer to forget” (Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (Oxford, 2007), 491).
In 1976, Carl Osthaus published his dissertation on the Freedman’s Bank, which he completed at the University of Chicago under his mentor John Hope Franklin. The book is a superb study enabling us to not forget. His detailed, meticulous account tells both the story of the Freedman’s Bank as well as as the broader movements in America during Reconstruction.
The Freedman’s Bank and Racial “Uplift”
The Freedman’s Bank is a powerful illustration of dynamics that were taking place throughout the country, involving every sphere of society:
“Just as the Freedmen’s Bureau would seek to satisfy the ex-slaves’ need for land, education, and immediate relief, and the Christian missionaries would care for the reformation of their souls, the Freedman’s Bank would instill economic morals and social values in the Negroes”
I found particularly fascinating the role of northern missionaries, white and Black, in promoting the bank, and the way moral and spiritual “uplift” was intertwined with the material operations of the Bank:
“Every piece of Freedman’s Bank literature revealed the officers’ missionary zeal. Bank officials incessantly distributed, in D. L. Eaton’s words, ‘tracts and papers… on temperance, frugality, economy chastity, the virtues of thrift & savings; explaining how daily savings in small sums at interest will accumulate & the duty of men to provide for their families–and in a word giving short & simple homilies on the virtues which constitute the moral life of civilized communities'”
Eaton to Committee on Freedmen’s Affairs, July 5, 1868, Committee on Freedmen’s Affairs, National Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., Legislative Records, NA, RG 233, in Osthaus, 49.
Osthaus does not shy away from describing the paternalism that infused some of the efforts on behalf of the bank:
“Bank officials spoke with egalitarian rhetoric, although sometimes their actions and comments displayed paternalistic attitudes… A circular intended for the freedmen would, they erroneously believed, “of course” be referred “for advice to those more intelligent whom they have been accustomed to trust.” Other statements were not so subtly condescending. The Memphis cashier declared that “the fickel [sic] mindedness of the Colored people makes it impossible for me to remit to you yet the small sum I have as yet on deposit.”
Cooke, Railroads, and Banks
The original reason I was drawn to look at the Freedman’s Bank was the role of Jay Cooke, his brother Henry Cooke, and the way the massive enterprise of trans-continental railroads affected the entire country. Osthaus tells the story of the Cookes and the Bank in full:
“The name of Jay Cooke, the famous Civil War financier, appeared frequently in Bank advertisements, although he had no connection with the Bank and was associated with it only tangentially because his brother and business partner Henry D. Cooke, became chairman of the Finance Committee in mid-1867. That the Cookes had no connection with the Bank before 1867 did not prevent the Semi-Weekly Louisianian from praising their roles in its establishment. Later Bank officials used the Civil War fame of Jay Cooke specifically to bolster confidence in the Bank’s investment policy and generally to highlight the Bank’s sound financial standing”
Ironically, the Cookes would take advantage of the Freedman’s Bank as their own banking and investment institutions came under severe strain in the early 1870s. At one point, Henry Cooke transferred $500,000 from the Freedman’s Bank to the First National Bank (which they controlled):
“$500,000 [was] an enormous sum on which the Cookes paid only 5 percent interest, while the Freedman’s Bank was paying its depositors 6 per- cent”
This was a pattern in the management of the bank:
“This episode reveals a significant pattern: Cooke, Huntington, and other officers and trustees on occasion used the Freedmen’s Bank as a dumping ground for their bad private claims or the poor securities of the First National Bank”
When Jay Cooke & Company went bankrupt in 1873, it sent shockwaves through the entire world and triggered a massive recession and the failure of a number of banks, companies, and individuals. The Freedman’s Bank failed at this time, though Osthaus notes that this was not a simple case of cause and effect:
“Obviously no single factor was decisive, and even a combination of fraud and national economic crisis leaves much to be explained”
As the bank was floundering, they appointed Frederick Douglass to be the president in an effort to prop up its reputation, while keeping important information from him:
“Later it was alleged that Douglass was elected president so that a black man would be in office when the Bank failed. (Fleming, p.85, makes this statement but fails to document it)”
All along, southerners opposed the bank:
“The most avid purveyors of the conspiracy legend were the southern Democratic newspapers. For years they had regarded the Bank as just another element in the Reconstruction carpetbaggger-missionary complex, and the failure with all its scandalous exposures simply vindicated their judgment”
Du Bois notes the same thing:
“the white planter regarded the Freedman’s Bank as part of the Freedmen’s Bureau and did everything possible to embarrass it and curtail its growth”
Black Reconstruction, 492.
(As a historiographical note, this southern attitude is reflected in another book on the Freedman’s Bank, Walter Fleming, The Freedmen’s Savings Bank (1927), which I cannot recommend).
Long after it was all said and done, in 1890 Frederick Douglass would assess a number of institutions established to “help” Black people after the Civil War, including the Freedman’s Bank:
“Like the Peabody fund, the Slater fund, the Freedman’s Bank, and many other Institutions, nominally established for the benefit of these people, the hands are white that handle the money. The Germans have a proverb “That they who have the cross will bless themselves,” and there is nothing in the history of the Institutions named, or in the history of others that might be named to contradict this proverb.”
The story of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company is a fascinating, instructive, and little known episode in American history. Carl Osthaus’s book is a the best and most thorough treatment of it, and I highly recommend it. (There’s a copy available for $2,333 on Amazon–I borrowed it from my public library).
Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was a Presbyterian minister and seminary president, and was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). In the early 19th century, evangelicals were increasingly active in a multitude of reform movements, and Beecher was one of the most active. Among other issues, Beecher was particularly concerned about the sin of intemperance.
The sermons are widely recognized as foundational to the temperance movement that was developing in the 1820s:
“Perhaps no man in America has done more to mould public opinion on the temperance question than Lyman Beecher… Dr. Beecher’s celebrated ‘Six Sermons on Intemperance,’ delivered in 1826 and published in book form in 1827, mark a most important epoch in the temperance movement. Reprinted abroad and eagerly read by many thousands, they did more than any other agency to create a distinct and practical temperance sentiment and were recognized as the standard authority on the temperance question for many years” (The Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition(1891), 43, 44).
“Reprinted during the next decade by almost every temperance or organization of consequence, the sermons were as widely read and exerted as great an influence as any other contribution.” (John Allen Krout, The Origins of Prohibition (1925), 105–6.)
“In the fall of 1825 Beecher preached six thunderous sermons on temperance; these were published the following year and had a tremendous influence, both at the time and over the decades.” (Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860(1978), 126.
“In 1825, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, gave a series of six sermons which helped to launch the temperance movement” (Cynthia Hamilton, “Dred’: Intemperate Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 34.2 (2000): 257)
“the social organization of the temperance movement begins in earnest in the 1820s in Boston, with the American Temperance Society (ATS) and its cofounder, the abolitionist Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher.” Beecher’s Six Sermons were a “foundational document of the temperance movement” (Mark Lawrence Schrad, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition (2021), 313).
There is much to digest and analyze in the Six Sermons, but I wish to highlight one issue in particular: Beecher’s rhetorical use of American slavery to argue against intemperance. This particular feature has been noted by Charles Cole, Cynthia Hamilton, and Mark Schatz:
“Noteworthy in Beecher’s work is the connection he made between the evils of intemperance and slavery. The sale of ardent spirits, he believed, was just as vicious as the slave trade and the fight for the abolition of the enslavement to drink just as noble as the plea for the cause of the Negro. Both were enormities that had to be eradicated.” (Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860 (1966), 118–19).
“Beecher used the slave trade as a moral yardstick for the evils of intemperance.” (Hamilton, “Intemperate Slavery,” 257).
“Like many abolitionist activists, Beecher reasoned that drunkenness was actually a greater threat than slavery: one-tenth of the American population were subjugated to the slave-master, while all of humanity was vulnerable to being enslaved to the liquor trader. The slave-master went home after sundown, they reasoned, while liquor’s grasp knew no rest” (Schatz, Smashing the Liquor Machine, 315).
Beecher uses the issue of slavery rhetorically in several different ways in the sermons, both implicitly and explicitly. He implicitly ranks the sins of slavery and intemperance, he describes intemperance using the imagery of slavery, and he compares intemperance and slavery and the efforts to eradicate them.
The first “reference” to slavery is not a reference at all, but rather an implicit ranking of two issues:
“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.”
Six Sermons, 7–8.
Alcohol was indeed a big problem in the 19th century: “By the 1820s, the typical adult white American male consumed nearly a half pint of whiskey a day. This is about three times the present consumption rate” (W. J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Very Short Introduction (2020), 9).
Yet, comparing the two issues, Beecher asserted that intemperance, rather than slavery, was “the sin of our land.”
In the next reference to slavery, Beecher describes intemperance in terms of slavery:
“many a wretched man has shaken his chains and cried out in the anguish of his spirit, Oh, that accursed resort of social drinking: there my hands were bound and my feet put in fetters ; there I went a freeman, and became a slave—a temperate man, and became a drunkard.”
Six Sermons, 19.
For Beecher, intemperance was a form of slavery, and this may be why he felt so comfortable comparing the two issues throughout the sermons.
In addition to ranking and describing, Beecher includes many comparisons between slavery and intemperance, their evils, and their remedies:
“WHAT THEN IS THIS UNIVERSAL, NATURAL, AND NATIONAL REMEDY FOR INTEMPERANCE? IT IS THE BANISHMENT OF ARDENT SPIRITS FROM THE LIST OF LAWFUL ARTICLES OF COMMERCE, BY A CORRECT AND EFFICIENT PUBLIC SENTIMENT; SUCH AS HAS TURNED SLAVERY OUT OF HALF OF OUR LAND, AND WILL YET EXPEL IT FROM THE WORLD” (63). [note: this is the only passage in the sermons printed in all-caps].
“This however cannot be done effectually so long as the traffic in ardent spirits is regarded as lawful, and is patronized by men of reputation and moral worth in every part of the land. Like slavery, it must be regarded as sinful, impolitic, and dishonorable. That no measures will avail short of rendering ardent spirits a contraband of trade, is nearly self-evident” (64–65).
“It is admitted that the trade employs and sustains many families, and that in many instances the profits are appropriated to useful purposes. But this is no more than might have been said of the slave-trade” (67).
In a striking passage, Beecher elaborates at length on the similarities—in his mind—between American slavery, including the middle passage, and intemperance:
“We execrate the cruelties of the slave-trade—the husband torn from the bosom of his wife—the son from his father—brothers and sisters separated for ever— whole families in a moment ruined! But are there no similar enormities to be witnessed in the United States? None indeed perpetrated by the bayonet, but many, very many perpetrated by intemperance” (70).
“We have heard of the horrors of the middle passage, the transportation of slaves, the chains, the darkness, the stench, the mortality, and living madness of woe, and it is dreadful. But bring together the victims of intemperance, and crowd them into one vast lazar-house, and sights of woe quite as appalling would meet your eyes.
Yes, in this nation there is a “middle passage” of slavery and darkness and chains and disease and death. But it is a middle passage, not from Africa to America, but from time to eternity, and not of slaves whom death will release from suffering, but of those whose sufferings at death do but just begin. Could all the sighs of these captives be wafted on one breeze, it would be loud as thunder. Could all their tears be assembled, they would be like the sea” (71).
Beecher also believed that the same remedies that he thought were adequately addressing slavery would also work to address intemperance:
“And what has been done justifies the expectation that all. which yet remains to be done will be accomplished. The abolition of the slave-trade, an event now almost accomplished, was once regarded as a chimera of benevolent dreaming. But the band of Christian heroes who consecrated their lives to the work, may some of them survive to behold it achieved. This greatest of evils upon earth, this stigma of human nature, wide-spread, deep-rooted, and intrenched by interest and state policy, is passing away before the unbending requisitions of enlightened public opinion” (84).
“Men who are mighty to consume strong drink, are unfit members of that kingdom which consisteth not in “meat and drink,” but in “ righteousness and peace.” The time, we trust, is not distant, when the use of ardent spirits will be proscribed by a vote of all the churches in our land, and when the commerce in that article shall, equally with the slave-trade, be regarded as inconsistent with a credible profession of Christianity. All this, I have no doubt, can be accomplished with far less trouble than is now constantly occasioned by the maintenance or the neglect of discipline, in respect to cases of intemperance” (90).
Beecher’s rhetorical use of slavery reveals a few things about his views of American slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin, he was quite optimistic that the institution would inevitably decline and disappear from American culture. In his 1826 Sermons, Beecher felt that slavery was well on its way to being “expelled from the world,” that it was “an event now almost accomplished.” Unfortunately, slavery and the Southern “Slave Power” would grow and increase for 40 more years, and would only be expelled violently through a bloody civil war.
Because he thought slavery was well on its way out, he did not feel the same sense of urgency in addressing it as he felt about intemperance, a fact noted by abolitionists:
“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”
By contrast, one of Beecher’s students at Lane Seminary, Theodore Dwight Weld, inverted the priority and urgency of the two issues:
“As Weld put it to Tappan in late 1835, the abolition cause “not only overshadows all others, but it involves all others and absorbs them into itself. . . . revivals, moral Reform etc., etc., will remain stationary until the Temple is cleansed.”
J. Earl Thompson compares up Beecher’s activity on slavery and intemperance and sums it up thus:
“During his career he gave barely a respectable amount of time and attention to the slavery question, and it can hardly be placed at the top of his list of favorite reforms— a position that was occupied probably by Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement for him and the many other evangelical reformers who reached the apex of their dynamism and influence in the 1820s.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 108–09.
The larger movements of abolitionism and temperance reform are quite illustrative and fascinating to compare, with many overlapping figures (including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and others), and overlapping concerns. Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons offer a vivid illustration of the way one prominent white evangelical viewed these social ills and the rhetorical use he made of one in combatting another.
Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). Beecher was a Presbyterian minister in Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1832 became the president of Lane Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Cincinnati. Beecher was involved in a number of evangelical social reform movements, especially Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement, and his endorsement was coveted:
“Being one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders, his endorsement of moral causes was highly coveted and assiduously cultivated and gave them an aura of legitimacy, respectability and urgency.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 109.
Thompson highlights the white Christian nationalism at the heart of Beecher, and other evangelicals, reform efforts:
“Many historians have pointed out that he and most evangelical Protestants of his generation yearned for the millennial age of spiritual purity, material abundance, democratic freedoms and socio-political tranquility and that they dreaded any individual, group or institution that threatened to delay or block it. But what has been neglected almost altogether is that these Protestants perceived this halcyon era to be tantamount to the triumph of white evangelical Protestantism in America… Beecher’s goal was the ascendancy of white evangelical Protestantism in a predominately white America.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,”90.
How did the issue of slavery fit into Beecher’s vision of a Christian America? Beecher was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin. However, in spite of the fact that the population of enslaved people in the United States increased over 30% (from 1.5 million to over 2 million) between 1820 and 1830, Beecher was naively optimistic that slavery would inevitable decline and disappear from American culture (see J. David Hacker, “From ‘20. and Odd’ to 10 Million: The Growth of the Slave Population in the United States,” Slavery & Abolition 41.4 (2020), 13).
At an 1834 Colonization meeting in Cincinnati, Beecher said this:
“There can be no doubt that slavery, through the world, is destined to cease.”
Additionally, Beecher did not see a place for free Black people in American society, and endorsed the colonizationist dream of sending all freed Black people back to Africa as “missionaries. Thompson describes the way abolitionists viewed Beecher:
“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 93.
The conflict between Beecher’s moderate opposition to slavery and the more urgent efforts of the “immediate abolitionists” reached the national stage in 1834, just two years after he assumed the presidency of Lane Seminary. That year a number of anti-slavery students had joined the seminary (including Theodore Dwight Weld), had organized debates on “immediate abolition” versus colonization, and had subsequently formed a student anti-slavery society. Not content merely to discuss these issues, the students took to the streets of Cincinnati to put their ideas into action:
“It was only after they plunged into missionary work among the freedmen of Cincinnati, which also involved frequent social contacts with them—visiting, eating and boarding with them—that the Lane educator became upset and unsure of his proteges. Just as the town’s respectable white citizens became enraged by the missionaries’ practicing ‘immediate intercourse irrespective of color,’ so Beecher was also repelled by this doctrine and offended by his students’ refusal to give up their style of evangelism.”
Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 100.
The faculty met with the students repeatedly and asked them to stop. Eventually the faculty and trustees disbanded the anti-slavery society, and a large group of students withdrew from the school and went down the road to Oberlin College instead. The whole incident is a case study of the white, northern, paternalistic racism in some of the conservative “anti-slavery” circles, and has been much written about. However, what I have not seen much attention to (though some, like Thompson, mention it briefly) is the main point of contention at the heart of the whole dispute: “social intercourse irrespective of color.”
“The Evils Which Its Existence Occasioned”
In shutting down the society, the faculty had complained of “the evils which its existence occasioned” (“Statement of the Faculty Concerning the Late Difficulties in the Lane Seminary,” 33). The faculty sought to clarify why they had shut down the society: not because of abolitionism per se, but because of “the spirit and manner of doing a few things not necessary to the prosperity of the society itself, against the advice of the faculty, and reckless of the consequences in doing violence to public sentiment” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 34). What were these “few things” and their “consequences”?
The main issue, which the faculty emphasized over and over, was “social intercourse” with Black people, or, in Thompson’s words, “treating blacks as equals with dignity and respect” (“Beecher’s Long Road,” 100):
“In the discussions preceding the organization of the society, the doctrine of social intercourse according to character, irrespective of color, was strenuously advocated, and the knowledge of this opinion of the students became extensive in the city, and it was not long before reports multiplied, that they were beginning to put their doctrine in practice. These reports, greatly amplified, appeared, on examination, to originate in the fact, that an influential member of the anti-slavery society, weary with lecturing and too much indisposed to return to the seminary, accepted the proffered hospitality of a respectable colored family to pass the night with them, and that one of the teachers of a colored school, a member of the Abolition Society, and till recently a member of the seminary, boarded in a colored family.”
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
Manisha Sinha describes the activities of the students:
Contact with African Americans made the Lane rebels even more committed to immediatism and against colonization. Their activities caused an uproar, and school authorities sought to ban discussion of slavery. Two of the students, Augustus Wattles and Marius Robinson, began to teach full-time in black schools. Weld never forgot his experience with black Cincinnatians, many of whom had bought themselves out of slavery and continued to scrape money together to buy friends and families. Recounting their stories, he ‘was forced to stop from sheer heart-ache and agony.'”
The trustees and faculty could not abide this. They were perfectly fine with efforts to “help” Black people…:
On this occasion the students were convened, and the reports in circulation and the state of public feeling were explained to them by the faculty, and the belief was expressed that, without offence to the community or injury to the seminary, the colored people might be instructed in common schools, and Sabbath schools, and lectures, and by any missionary labors, among them, necessary for their best good…
…so long as that help was meted out from a proper distance:
…provided they abstained from the apparent intention of carrying the doctrine of intercourse into practical effect. That this, in our belief, would not be endured by the community, and would be resisted in a manner which would render it impossible to protect either them or the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
The faculty tried to pressure students to stop associating so closely with Black people:
These considerations were pressed upon the attention of an influential member of the Abolition Society, who had been especially instrumental in the establishment of the schools, and he was requested to exert his influence to change the residence of the instructor, and to prevent that kind of intercourse, which would offend the community and injure the seminary.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.
The “influential member” was likely Weld. In his autobiography, Beecher describes the scene:
“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.”
In reply, he justified the boarding of white instructors in colored families, as indispensable to secure the confidence of that injured people and do them good. That any reference to color, in social intercourse, was an odious and sinful prejudice, and that some action, in advance of public sentiment, was necessary to put it down.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 36–37.
A further bit of trouble and controversy involved the Lane students associating with Black women in public:
The next excitement was caused by a visit paid to the seminary by several female colored persons, in a carriage, and the marked attention said to have been paid to them by the students. In this case, also, the public excitement was greatly increased by various exaggerations and misrepresentations of the fact.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.
And further, a seminary student walked with a Black woman as they travelled to their respective destinations:
Sometime after this, a new excitement was created by the walking of the instructor, who boarded in a colored family, with a colored female to the seminary or its vicinity, and returning in like manner. It was said that their meeting on the road was accidental, and that the young gentleman merely complied with her request to be directed to some place with which she was not acquainted. But they returned to the city in the same manner, and it was regarded by the community as part of a settled design to carry into effect the scheme of equalization.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.
Again, the faculty tried to convince the seminary students to stop this practice of “immediate intercourse irrespective of color”:
About this time the dissatisfaction in the community became so great, as to induce the faculty to convene and address the students once more… they were distinctly notified that it was the doctrine and practice of immediate intercourse irrespective of color, which provoked the community, and arrayed its rising indignation against them and the seminary… and that if they persisted in their course with the distinct admonition and high moral certainty of these amplified and exasperating measures, they would be accountable for all the mischief which they produced; and that a continuance of this course would be, in our opinion, intolerable and ruinous.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 37–38)
What were these “intolerable and ruinous” effects on the seminary? One was fundraising:
Lane Seminary … is in its infancy, and has a character yet to form, confidence to earn, and funds for its complete endowment to collect; its patrons, past and to come, are deeply committed on both sides of this question [of slavery].
“Statement of the Faculty,” 35.
Another consequence was the affect on recruiting Southern students. In their response to the students, the faculty complained that the anti-slavery society “repelled the accession of southern and western students” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 43). Several years later, Beecher was able to reassure an Old School Presbyterian leader in Virginia, in an 1840 recruitment letter:
“Our trustees and faculty are not abolitionists—and our students are conservatives rather than ultra and young men from the south will not be annoyed here or disqualified for usefulness at home.’”
Vincent Harding, “ Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, 1965), p. 624, n. 1.—cited in Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 105 n. 97.
The “interests” of the seminary, both in terms of fundraising and enrollment, meant that pro-slavery patrons could not be provoked by the outrageous behavior of students in promoting anti-slavery and living out the principles of equality in the city of Cincinnati. When push came to shove, Beecher’s personal “anti-slavery” sentiments were pushed aside in light of these more compelling interest of the school.
The Students’ Response
The students met to consider the recommendations of the faculty to cease their activities, and responded with their own report. They outlined what the anti-slavery society had done in its official capacity, and what members had done “as individuals.” As individuals, they had done four things:
1st. Engaged in instructing in the elements of science and in religion, the colored population of Cincinnati.
2d. Written for the newspapers.
3d. Avowed opposition to the principles of the American Colonization Society.
4th. Visited, eaten, and boarded with colored people.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.
They agreed with the faculty that it was especially Number 4 that had incited the opposition of the community:
“But the great stone of stumbling to the community seems to be found in the fact, that some of our number have associated with the colored people upon terms of equality, have visited and eaten with them ; and, especially, that an individual, late a member of this institution, in the course of his missionary operations, has boarded in a colored family.”
“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.
The students defended this practice at length, and their reply provides a great contrast to the more blatant paternalism of their faculty:
But as the measure, to which he [that student] has resorted, involves a principle of action, to which the faculty have called our attention, the frankness which we mean to manifest, forbids that we should conceal our sentiments upon this point, especially as such a perfect unanimity of sentiment obtains among us. The following considerations have had great weight with your committee:
1st. The objection is unintelligent and founded in prejudice.
2d. Public sentiment upon this subject is partial. It is found essential to success in all foreign missions, for the teachers to associate intimately with the people they instruct. It is essential to the gaining of that confidence, without which all efforts to good will fail in time to come, as they have in time past. The same thing, which so scandalizes the public here, is practised without reproach at Liberia upon similar communities ; nay, it is even commended by the same public who condemn it in our brother.
3d. He, whose example it is our business and our glory to imitate, once suffered detriment to his popularity by ‘sitting at meat with publicans and sinners.’ Surely their condition and the estimation with which they were regarded, gave them no advantage over the African race. Surely their color would have been a bar to free intercourse, with such as hold the sentiments of the Caucasians of this generation.
If he, who was harmless, undefiled, and thus separate from sinners, did nevertheless associate with those whose hearts were stained with sin, we are ashamed to claim his image, and then shut in our social sympathies from the children of God, because their skins independently of volition, absorb the rays of the sun.
It is fundamental to our principles to treat men according to their character without respect to condition or complexion. Thus we have learned the law of love. Thus we would act against the pride of caste. Thus we would practise as we preach—the only mode to get credit for sincerity or to influence others.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 40.
The students concluded their report with a number of formal resolutions, including this:
“Resolved, That we cannot censure the practice of our members in eating, visiting, and boarding in colored families, on any principle of religion or of reason.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 41)
The faculty considered this report by the students in the anti-slavery society to have an “ungracious aspect” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 41).
The term ended, and students went on summer vacation. The faculty had been willing to wait and hope that the controversy (like slavery itself) would fizzle out over time. However, in contrast with the issue of “immediate abolition,” they soon found themselves pressed to immediate action regarding the anti-slavery society:
“During the vacation, and in the absence of a majority of the faculty, events occurred which brought upon the executive committee, the necessity in their judgment of immediate action. The urgency of this necessity was greatly increased during their attention to the subject, by another visit to the seminary, of a carriage of colored persons. This augmented greatly the public exasperation, and occasioned, as the committee believed, a necessity for suspending the Abolition Society in the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 42.
Again, the faculty repeated, the main problem with the society was not their ideas; the suspension of the society “had in its origin no reference at all to the rights of discussion and free inquiry, or to the question of abolition as right or wrong, expedient or inexpedient, or to the rights of the students to associate for the discussion and the propagation of abolition principles” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 42).
Rather, the problem was their direct association with Black people:
…there was a frequency and familiarity of intercourse between the students and the colored families of the city, which was on some accounts inconvenient to them, and occasioned animadversions, which we cannot repeat, but which subjected the students to ridicule, and were derogatory to the dignity and propriety, which ought ever to characterize young men who are in preparation for the ministry. These attentions of the young men to the colored people of the city, were also reciprocated with great frequency at the institution, and by invitations to dine with the students and other marked attentions, they were encouraged to come ; and these things, which were done, with the amplifications and invidious insinuations to which they gave occasion, went out over the city and over the West, and rendered the institution an object of intolerable odium and indignation.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 42.
The faculty again made themselves very clear:
And if, at any time, the committee or the trustees have spoken of abolition in terms of strong aversion, or expressed their determination to rid the institution of it, it has always been abolitionism associated with the doctrine of immediate equalization irrespective of color, and the attempt to reduce it to practice, and in view of the inflammatory influences, and odium, and peril thus brought upon the institution.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 43, italics original.
By way of contrast, all other manner of voluntary reform societies were still approved:
…we also regard with favor, voluntary associations of students designed to act upon the community, in the form of Sabbath schools, tract, foreign mission, temperance, and other benevolent labors in subordination to the great ends of the institution, of which, in all instances, the faculty, as the immediate guardians of the institution, must be the judges.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 44.
In the end, the faculty blamed the students for the whole thing:
…no impediment has existed, to the full exercise of free inquiry and benevolent action, which the abolitionists did not themselves create, by pressing upon public sensibility the doctrine, and countenancing and justifying the practice, of intercourse irrespective of color.
“Statement of the Faculty,” 47.
The “Statement of the Faculty” reports were signed by Lyman Beecher, Thomas Biggs, and Calvin Stowe.
Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes in grossly offensive terms how the news was reported to the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan, who had helped to fund Lane:
“Hence, it came as a shock to Arthur Tappan when the board of trustees threatened to expel Weld’s company because of their ‘n*ggerism’”
This incident is reflective of Beecher’s general views on slavery in America. Though he was personally opposed slavery, and hoped and believed it would fade away from American society, he held antipathy for “both sides” of the controversy, and felt that the abolition movement was just as much a divine punishment on the country as the slaveholders in the South. A few years after the Lane controversy, he expressed himself on the subject:
I regard,” writes Dr. Beecher, March 1838, “the whole abolition movement, under its most influential leaders, with its distinctive maxims and modes of feeling, and also the whole temper, principles, and action of the South in the justification of slavery, as signal instances of infatuation permitted by Heaven for purposes of national retribution. God never raised up such men as Garrison, and others like him, as the ministers of his mercy for purposes of peaceful reform, but only as the fit and fearful ministers of his vengeance upon a people incorrigibly wicked.
Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, vol. II, 426.
Thompson notes that “This opinion, uttered in 1838, was never retracted or altered.” (Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 102).
When considering the issue of slavery in the United States, it’s easy to oversimplify the matter. The slaveholding south was bad, the free north was good; simply being opposed to slavery surely is enough to be on “the right side of history,” right? Lyman Beecher gives us a great case study of a conservative evangelical minister, and we can learn much from his example. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he saw no place for Black people in what he saw as a white Christian America. Though he was perfectly happy for white people to “help” Black people from a distance, he felt that “social intercourse” on equal terms was too scandalous. Though the issue of slavery carried little urgency for him, the issue of whites and Blacks associating together carried great urgency, and moved him to take immediate action to shut down the anti-slavery society.
Christians today who look around and see the problems in their country, issues of systemic racialized injustice, often want to do something about it. They can think that simply by noticing the evil, and being personally opposed to it, they are doing the right thing. They can even get involved in “helping”—many white Christians get involved in missionary and non-profit work to address the ills they see. But is their effort to “help” constrained by an unwillingness to actually join the community they seek to serve? Are they more concerned with losing donors and constituents, then they are with living and acting consistently with their stated beliefs? Is their perception of the “problems” in the target community colored with an unrecognized assumption of their own cultural superiority? Do they maintain a careful distance from those they are seeking to help? Or are they cultivating genuine partnerships, partnerships established on the basis of “equality irrespective of color,” partnerships that involve walking together, eating meals together, and even living together, mutually giving and receiving from each other?
These are some of the lessons we can learn when we move past simplistic portrayals of the past, and dive deeper into the details.