america's first student rebellion -- 10/07/16

Today's selection -- from Heaven's Ditch by Jack Kelly. America's first great student protests occurred in 1834 and were against slavery -- and the students conducted themselves in a way that foreshadowed the more recent Freedom Summer of 1964. As early as 1835, abolition was both reviled and celebrated as the most important cause in the country, and abolitionist newspapers proliferated:

"During the summer of 1834, America experienced its first great student rebellion. The cause was the republic's original sin: the enslavement of human beings. The uprising found its perfect leader in [thirty-year-old] Theodore Dwight Weld. ... During his travels, Weld had become a thoroughgoing abolition­ist. 'Abolition immediate universal is my desire and prayer to God,' he wrote in an 1833 letter. 'I hardly know how to contain myself.' Obsessed with the issue, he embraced the slaves' cause as his own. 'My heart aches with hope deferred,' he said. ...

Theodore Dwight Weld

"In February 1834, against [its] better judgment, [Lane Seminary] al­lowed [its] students to hold a series of debates about two questions: Should slavery be immediately abolished? Should Christians support colonization? Weld, an experienced and persuasive talker, took the lead. ... For eighteen days, regular classes were suspended while the stu­dents and guest speakers discussed the questions. ... Almost to a man, the students converted to the radical, unpopular idea of imme­diate abolition of slavery without compensation to owners.

"It was a dangerous opinion. ... To slave owners, abolition meant the loss of an enormous and essential investment. The effrontery of ignorant northern idealists out to wreck the south­ern economy and way of life infuriated them to the point of madness. And it was not just southern plantation masters. Cotton, grown in the South by slaves, was processed in northern factories. It was a critical asset of the young republic. Businessmen north and south insisted that the end of slavery would bring the nation's commerce to its knees. ...

"The Lane students, who now embraced the antislavery cause as their creed, dismissed all objections. They went into the community of free blacks in Cincinnati and started schools. They stayed in black homes, escorted black students to the seminary. 'While I was at Lane Seminary,' Weld remembered, 'my intercourse was with the Colored people at Cincinnati, I think I may say exclusively .... If I ate in the City it was at their tables. If I slept in the City it was at their homes.' The summer of 1834 would have an echo 130 years later, when blacks and whites united to defy Jim Crow in the Freedom Summer of 1964. ...

"[For] Weld and his fellow students ... abolition was 'the cause of God.' Drunk with righteousness, the students saw themselves as the nation's only hope. ... The Lane trustees ... ordered the students to give up their abolitionist activities. In response, almost all the rebels walked out. A school, they in­sisted, should be concerned with Truth. If not, Weld said, 'better the mob demolish every building.' The millennium was coming. The cause was urgent. They wanted to be treated 'as men.' In fact, Weld was thirty-one, most of the others in their late twenties. ...

"During the next few years, an antislavery newspaperman would be shot dead in Illinois, abolitionists would be hounded from Missouri, and a reward of $20,000 was offered for the delivery of Arthur Tappan to the levee of New Orleans for lynching. ...

"By the end of 1835, talk of abolition was buzzing across the northern states. The idea was daring, visionary, exciting. For a time, it seemed unstoppable. The number of abolitionist newspapers grew from three to thirty-five in a single year. Local antislavery societies proliferated -- in a few months there were two hundred. Weld had helped make abolition the most celebrated cause in America."



Jack Kelly


Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2016 by Jack Kelly


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