Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

An Unknown Hero: an Essay on Theodore Dwight Weld

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An Unknown Hero An Essay on Theodore Dwight Weld From 1830 through 1844, during the formative years of the American abolitionist movement, many arose as leaders in the fight for freedom. Author, editor, and auditor, Theodore Dwight Weld, was one of the leading framers of this movement. Many historians regard Weld as the most influential figure in the abolitionist movement. Despite his great works, Weld strove for anonymity in all his endeavors. This has long made him an unknown figure in American history.

Weld, born in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, was the son and grandson of Congregational ministers. At the age of fourteen he began earning money to attend Phillips Academy. He continued his studies here until failing eyesight caused him to drop his courses in 1822. Following his attendance at Phillips Academy, Weld began a lecture series on mnemonics. He traveled for three years throughout the United States, including the South where he saw slavery firsthand. Weld’s family moved to upstate New York, where he studied at Hamilton College.

Here Weld became a disciple of Charles Finney. Finney was best known as an innovative revivalist, an opponent of Old School Presbyterian theology, an advocate of Christian perfectionism, a pioneer in social reforms in favor of women and blacks, a religious writer, and president at Oberlin College. Weld was drawn to Finney's system for many reasons. It left no excuse for sin; it emphasizes present responsibility; it exalted the atonement of Christ; and it magnified the work of the Holy Spirit. Weld became a member of Finney’s “holy band” and worked under Finney for several years.

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When Weld decided to begin lecturing again, he became a preacher and entered the Oneida Manual Labor Institute in Oneida, New York. There, he would travel in two-week intervals about New York, lecturing on the virtues of manual labor, temperance, and moral reform. In 1831, philanthropists, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, hired Weld as the general agent for the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions. The Tappan brothers devoted their time and money to causes such as temperance, the abolition of slavery, and the establishment of theological seminaries.

In Weld’s report to the Tappan's, he reveals that he "traveled 4,575 miles; 2,630 miles by boat and stagecoach; 1800 miles on horseback, 145 miles on foot. En route, he made 236 public addresses. " During his time as a manual labor agent, Weld helped establish and became a student at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1833. Pastor, Lyman Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati to become the first president of the Lane Seminary. The Seminary was founded during a time of rising social, political and religious conflict.

Beecher was well known for his fiery sermons, yet attempted to contain his students’ social activism to maintain mainline support for the Seminary. His opposition of fellow revivalist Charles Finney’s views led him also to refuse demands made by a group of students led by Weld at the Seminary in 1834. Weld was an advocate of immediate emancipation, despite the fact that the Seminary had its own colonization society, which proposed to send slaves back to Africa. Weld convinced nearly every student of his beliefs over a period of months. This led to a debate that pned across eighteen days over the appropriate solution to slavery.

This debate addressed these two main questions:

"Ought the people of the Slaveholding States to abolish Slavery immediately? "Are the doctrines, tendencies, and measures of the American Colonization Society, and the influence of its principal supporters, such as render it worthy of the patronage of the Christian public? " Addressing the first question, the opponents of immediate emancipation argued that slaves were too incompetent to provide for themselves, leaving unlearned freed slaves without homes. This lack of education would lead to a increase in violence and criminal activity.

Immediate emancipation would be “unsafe to the [white] community”. Members of the American Anti-slavery Society refuted these arguments with the first hand testimony of, the newly emancipated, James Bradley. Bradley was stolen from Africa when as a baby, and sold into slavery to his master, who lived in Arkansas. When Bradley was eighteen years old, his master died, leaving Bradley to his master’s widow. For years, he managed the plantation for his mistress. All the while, Bradley was money to buy his freedom. After five years he paid his owners $655 to he received his "free papers".

He then emigrated to a free State with more than $200 in his pocket. Every bit of the $855 he earned by labor and trading. Once free, Bradley became well-respected member of the American Anti-slavery Society. Bradley ended his testimony by saying, "They [slaves] have to take care of, and support themselves now, and their master, and his family into the bargain; and this being so, it would be strange if they could not provide for themselves, when disencumbered from this load. " He said the two most prominent desires of the slaves were "liberty and education. "

The debate resulted in a consensus to support abolitionism. The group also pledged to help the 1500 free blacks in Cincinnati. Consequently, the board of directory at Lane Theological Seminary banned further discussion of slavery. In rebellion, eighty percent of the students left the Seminary. Many of these enrolled at the new Oberlin Collegiate Institute. Some of Weld’s converts included such well-known abolitionists as James G. Birney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher. Theodore moved to New York to head the new American Anti-Slavery Society’s training session.

Here he continued lecturing on the inhumanity of slavery to gain recruits into the Society. When he lost his voice in 1836, Weld became the appointed editor of all the Society’s books and pamphlets. He began working as the editor of The Emancipator in 1836. It was an abolitionist newspaper founded in 1819 by the son of a Quaker minister. Weld used pen names for the majority of his writings. This attribute has contributed to the degree of his popularity when pitted against many other notable 19th century civil rights advocates. Weld married Angelina Grimke in 1839.

She and her sister, Sarah Grimke, were abolitionists and strong women’s rights advocates. In letters written to the Grimke sisters, Weld conveys his ideology on women’s rights. He wrote, “sex neither qualified nor disqualified for the discharge of any functions mental, moral or spiritual… Woman in EVERY particular shares equally with man rights and responsibilities”. He furthered this by proposing that qualified women should have the right to choose their own spouse, and should be able to hold a place of authority in the court of law. Weld had been the first to suggest this “ultraism” of women’s rights, as he described it.

Even many women had opposed the idea that a women had a right to courting a man of their choice. Such propositions had been unheard of up until these letters. Weld, with the help of his wife and her sister, wrote American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses in 1839. This pivotal book is regarded as the most influential work on the antislavery movement. It is composed of the testimonies of those who had witnessed the inhumane treatment of slaves. Many topics were addressed in this book, including: the housing of slaves, the treatment of the sick, the amount of labor, their food, and their clothing.

On the subject of labor, a slaveholder by the name of Asa Stone testified, “Every body here knows overdriving to one of the most common occurrences. The planters do not deny it, except, perhaps, to northerners. ” This and a thousand other accounts on the treatment of slavery were compiled to create this book that would convert many to the abolitionist movement. Theodore wrote two other greatly influential works on the civil rights movement. The first was The Bible Against Slavery, written in 1837. This book compared the context of ancient Israel to the context of a 19th century America to denounce the practice of slavery.

Through passages from the Bible, Weld argued the religion involved in the abolition movement. In 1838, Weld wrote the pamphlet, The Power of Congress over the District of Columbia. In this piece, Weld argued the political side of abolition, revealing Congress's power to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. Both of these works played an enormous role in recruiting followers for the abolitionist movement. Theodore Dwight Weld devoted his life to the American abolitionist movement. He remained dedicated until the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery in 1865.

From his mentors, to his lectures and writings, to the woman he chose to marry, Weld’s passion for the equality of man can be seen in every facet of his life. This undying resolve is what has earned Weld the title of the most influential figure in the abolitionist movement.

Works Cited

  1. Barnes, Gilbert H. The Antislavery Impulse: 1830-1844. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964. Print. Debate at the Lane Seminary, Cincinnati. Boston: Garrison ; Knapp, 1834.
  2. Print. The Dickinson College Archives. "Slavery & Abolition in the US. " Slavery ; Abolition in the US. Instructional and Media Services, July 2010.
  3. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. ;http://deila. dickinson. edu/slaveryandabolition/title/0182. html;. Johnson, Rossiter, ed. "Weld, Theodore Dwight. " Appletons' Cyclopedea of American Biography. 1st ed. New York: D. Appleton and, 1889.
  4. Print. Prince, Monique. "Theodore Dwight Weld, 1803-1895. " Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina, 2004. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. <http://docsouth. unc. edu/neh/weld/summary. html>. Smikin, John. "Arthur Tappan. " Spartacus Educational.
  5. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd, n. d. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. lt;http://www. spartacus. schoolnet. co. uk/USAStappanA. htm>. "Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895). " WWHP. Worcester Women's History Project, 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. ;http://www. wwhp. org/Resources/Biographies/theodoredwightweld. html;.
  6. Thomas, Benjamin P. Theodore Weld, Crusader for Freedom. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1950. Print. Tikkanen, Amy, ed. "Theodore Dwight Weld (Abolitionist). " Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia: Columbia UP, 1935. Print. Vaughn, Stephen L. , ed. "The Emancipator. " Encyclopedia of American Journalism. N. p. : Routledge, 2009. 4. Print. Weld, Theodore D.
  7. American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839. Print. Weld, Theodore D. , Angelina Grimke, and Sarah M. Grimke. Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld and Sarah Grimke, 1822-1844. New York: Da Capo, 1970. 425-32.
  8. Print. Weld, Theodore D. The Bible Against Slavery. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838. Print. Weld, Theodore D. The Power of Congress over the District of Columbia. New: John F. Trow Printer, 1838. 27. Print. Wright, G. F. Charles Grandison Finney. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1891.
  9.  "Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895). " WWHP. Worcester Women's History Project, 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .
  10. . Wright, G. F. Charles Grandison Finney. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1891. Print.
  11. . Smikin, John. "Arthur Tappan. " Spartacus Educational. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd, n. d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .
  12. . ^Thomas, page 38
  13. Debate at the Lane Seminary, Cincinnati. Boston: Garrison & Knapp, 1834. 3-4. Pamphlet.
  14. Vaughn, Stephen L. , ed. "The Emancipator. " Encyclopedia of American Journalism.
  15. N. p. : Routledge, 2009. 4. Print.
  16. . Tikkanen, Amy, ed. "Theodore Dwight Weld (Abolitionist). " Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia: Columbia UP, 1935. Print.
  17. . Weld, Theodore D. , Angelina Grimke, and Sarah M. Grimke. Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld and Sarah Grimke, 1822-1844. New York: Da Capo, 1970. 425-32. Print.
  18. . Prince, Monique. "Theodore Dwight Weld, 1803-1895. " Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina, 2004. Web. 16 Nov. 2012. .
  19. Weld, Theodore D. American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.
  20. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839. Print.
  21. Weld, Theodore D. The Bible Against Slavery. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838. Print.
  22. The Dickinson College Archives. "Slavery & Abolition in the US. " Slavery & Abolition in the US. Instructional and Media Services, July 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .
  23. . Weld, Theodore D. The Power of Congress over the District of Columbia. New: John F. Trow Printer, 1838. 27. Print.
  24. Barnes, Gilbert H. The Antislavery Impulse: 1830-1844. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964. Print.

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