Last week’s story focused on New England slavery and the free black community in Andover. This week we’ll focus on the anti-slavery movement.
Although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, the practice continued on in the Southern states for decades, creating tension between the states that would last through the Civil War.
The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1793, stating that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
Cotton became a major cash crop following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The practice of slavery grew to support the industry and by 1830 there were an estimated 2 million slaves in America.
Between 1830 and 1860, slavery was the most significant national issue, due in part to western expansion and controversy over which states would be free and which slave states. Free states fought against the admission of new slave states into the union, while slave states held to their position.
Tensions increased after the Compromise of 1850 that brought California into the union as a free state. In return for California’s free state status, Congress strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. By this Act, the federal government was now empowered to prosecute any black or white person who assisted runaways. The stiff penalty of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine enforced the law. Any white person had the right to challenge a black person not in the company of a white man. Federal agents had permission to pursue slaves into free states and apprehend suspected fugitives, even though they had been living free for years. Even ex-slaves who purchased their freedom were at risk.
Like so many stories from history, the story of anti-slavery, Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad is messy. Some abolitionists advocated for equal rights for African Americans, while others contended that freedom was desired as long as people of color “kept their place.” Some actively supported the Underground Railroad movement, while others supported the movement financially. Given that participation in the Underground Railroad was an act of civil disobedience that required a significant risk of prosecution, it’s not surprising that many mainstream sympathizers found other ways to help the movement.
Andover was home to abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists. Many supported the movement without being active in the Underground Railroad by bringing anti-slavery speakers to town. In 1835, the fiery abolitionist George Thompson was invited to speak in Andover, but was refused podiums at the Seminary and South Church. He eventually delivered his two hour speech at the Methodist Church where an angry mob rushed the pulpit. Students formed a flank around Thompson and maintained a watch throughout the night to protect him.
Others joined anti-slavery societies and groups. West Parish Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1837. As an auxiliary of the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, its objective was the immediate and entire emancipation of the oppressed. The Society collected money to support abolitionist writers and lecturers, sent delegates to conferences, and raised fund for clothing and resettlement needs for fugitives in Canada.
Andoverites also participated in the New England Emigrant Aid Society, formed to send settlers to the territory o f Kansas in order to increase chances that it would be a free state. Anti-slavery supporters also financed passage of liberated slaves to the African colony of Liberia.
Free Christian Church was founded in 1846, “All are cordially invited to unite with us….Believing that slave holders and apologists for slavery do not honor Christ, they are NOT included in this invitation.” One of the founders was John Smith (Smith & Dove Manufacturing) who witnessed a slave auction in South Carolina that “filled him with a life-long repugnance to the system of slavery” and he became one of the pioneers of abolitionism.
Famous Abolitionists also visited Andover. Harriet Beecher Stowe, fired by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin – or Life Among the Lowly. It was published in book form in 1852, the year the Stowes moved to Andover. Other abolitionist visitors included Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth. Sojouner Truth took the train to Andover in 1853 determined to meet Stowe and ask her to recommend the second edition of her book, Narrative of Sojourner Truth.
Andover was home to a number of fugitive harbors or Underground Railroad stops. The story of those sites was published by The Townsman on June 30, 2010 and can be found on TheTownsman website.
In spite of the messiness of history, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad remain a symbol of interracial cooperation and courage born of common convictions.