Monthly Archives: September 2013

Quakers as Slave Owners

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Levi Coffin (Source: The Full Wiki)

Anyone who has studied the antebellum period knows that slavery violated Quaker principles and that some Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad. One of the most notable Quakers in the Underground Railroad was Levi Coffin, who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, but as a young man moved to Indiana and later to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served in the unofficial capacity of “president” of the Underground Railroad). But it was not always so. For well over one hundred years, slave ownership did not violate Quaker principles. Some Quakers owned slaves prior to the American Revolution and others retained that status even after the American colonists won their freedom from Great Britain.

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

The Levi Coffin House (Source: LittleIndiana.com)

In that most propitious of years, 1776, the Society of Friends made the purchase of slaves a disownable offense (i.e., a Quaker who persisted in violating that principle would be taken off the rolls of the Society). The issue then became how to handle those Quakers who already owned slaves or those who inherited slaves at a later date. The Society of Friends’ practice with respect to all Quaker principles was to persuade non-compliant Quakers to desist from actions inconsistent with those principles.

That was easier said than done in North Carolina, where state law forbade owners from freeing their slaves absent proof of some “meritorious” act, largely defined as some form of heroic conduct. The owner was also required to post bond with the court in an amount equal to the slave’s value – not easy when money was in short supply.

So how did North Carolina Quakers bring themselves into compliance with their religious principles if they lacked the wherewithal to post bond or proof of meritorious conduct? The North Carolina Yearly Meeting  (hereinafter “NC Society of Friends”) remedied the issue in 1808 by providing that Quaker slave owners could clear their consciences by transferring the slaves, in trust, to – drum roll please – the Society of Friends! Thus, the NC Society of Friends became one of the largest slave owners in the state.

In 1828, the NC Society of Friends owned more than seven hundred slaves. Of course, these African Americans were not treated as slaves, although they retained that status under North Carolina law. Over the years, the Quakers gradually achieved the slaves’ freedom by transferring the slaves to Quakers who left North Carolina to live in free states. Upon arrival in a free state, the Quaker “slave owner” would then set the slave free.

Thus, one should understand that although Quakers reached their anti-slavery principles almost ninety years before the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed the practice, they, too, took time to reject the institution as inconsistent with their moral principles and religious beliefs. Of course, they reached that conclusion without a bloodbath that took over six hundred thousand American lives.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Seth B. Hinshaw’s The Carolina Quaker Experience (Chapter 12, “Effects of Slavery in the South”), Thomson-Shore, Inc., Dexter, MI (1984).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Quakers, slavery, Uncategorized, Underground Railroad

Fathers of the California Gold Rush

One man owned the land and stream where the gold was found. The second found the gold. The third created a frenzy that emptied San Francisco and filled the Sierra Nevada foothills with men burning with gold fever.

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John Sutter (About.com)

It all began when John Sutter employed James Marshall to build a sawmill for his Mexican land grant of over forty thousand acres. Mexico and the United States were still at war in January, 1848, less than a month from signing a treaty ending the conflict, when Marshall spotted flecks of metal downriver from the incomplete mill. Several days later, Sutter confirmed Marshall’s suspicion that the flakes of metal he had found in the American River were gold.

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James Marshall (Examiner.com)

The news spread like wildfire when Mormon entrepreneur Sam Brannan bought gold dust, put it in a bottle, and walked through the streets of San Francisco shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” [H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 43] Brannan had no intention of searching for gold himself. He wanted to enrich himself by selling supplies to the miners. His Sacramento store later would sell as much as five thousand dollars of merchandise per day [H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 276], a fantastic sum at a time eastern farm workers were earning thirty to forty dollars per month.

Ultimately, the gold rush was not kind to these three men. Marshall lived humbly most of his days.

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Sam Brannan (Source: Sierra Foothill Magazine)

Sutter lived to see his inland empire overrun by fortune hunters and squatters. He died in relative poverty in Washington, DC.

Brannan used much of his fortune speculating in real estate, only to lose much of his wealth when his wife divorced him. (Early in its American territorial history when men outnumbered women nineteen to one, California had liberalized its divorce laws in an effort to attract women to its borders. Divorce included the divorcee’s right to fifty percent of the marital property.) While Brannan did remarry, he was never able to regain his old knack for success in business. He died in poverty in 1889 leaving his nephew to finance his burial. [Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 484].

Marshall’s discovery, and the publicity which followed it, brought a torrent of argonauts from around the world.

So, in a sense, these three men, who accelerated California’s transition from a territory to a state, can also be viewed as the fathers of the state of California.

For a well-documented and entertaining account of the California Gold Rush, I highly recommend Professor H.W. Brands’ The Age of Gold, Anchor Books (2003). Also consider J.S. Holliday’s The World Rushed In, Simon and Schuster (1981); Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, Norton & Co. (2000); and Jo Ann Levy’s They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, Shoe String Press (1990).

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Washington’s “It Girl” during the Civil War

Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Since the time of the Madison administration, when Dolly Madison set the tone for Washington Society, the nation’s First Ladies dominated the Washington social scene. Mary Todd Lincoln expected nothing less when she arrived in the nation’s capital in March 1861. She had not expected formidable competition from the Treasury Secretary’s twenty-year-old daughter, Kate Chase, whose primary goal in life was to see her widower father occupy the office then held by Mrs. Lincoln’s husband.

Kate counted among her admirers Governor William Sprague, Rhode Island’s largest and wealthiest citizen, and John Hay, one of President Lincoln’s two personal secretaries, who later in his career would serve as Secretary of State. Sprague’s successful pursuit and Hay’s infatuation with Kate are among the principal topics in Gore Vidal’s brilliantly entertaining Lincoln.

William Sprague (Source: Wikipedia)

William Sprague (Source: Wikipedia)

Kate also enjoyed the admiration of the capital’s women, who sought invitations to the Chase home and Kate’s companionship at Washington’s many social events.

In 1863, Sprague left the governor’s mansion for the United States Senate. In November of that year, he won Kate’s hand in marriage, presenting her with a diamond and pearl tiara rumored to have cost fifty thousand dollars – almost one million dollars in today’s money. The wedding guests included President Lincoln and the entire cabinet. Mrs. Lincoln chose not to attend her social rival’s grand wedding.

A young Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

A young Kate Chase (Source: Wikipedia)

Although the couple had four children, their marriage ended in divorce in 1882, after her husband’s financial reverses and her alleged affair with Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. After the divorce, Kate dropped the Sprague name and lived in her father’s home (Chief Justice Chase had died in 1873.) in Washington, DC. She died in poverty in 1899.

The New York Times said of her at her death:

[She] was born in Ohio about fifty-nine years ago. She was educated under her distinguished father’s eye, and when she became old enough to be of assistance to him acted as his private secretary. * * * There was magnetism in her personality and the friendships she made were of the most loyal character. When she went to Washington to reside she found herself in a congenial atmosphere. She was a diplomat of uncommon tact, and within a short time the homage of the most eminent men of the country was hers. She was ambitious, and she wielded her power and the influence of her high social station as no other woman in this country had ever wielded such forces.

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history, Lincoln, Uncategorized

A Confederate in the White House

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Emilie Todd Helms
Source: Kentucky Legislature Research Commission

The Civil War eventually would claim over 600,000 lives in a country with only ten percent of today’s population. Some families split their loyalties – some siblings throwing their lot in with the Union and others attempting to forge a new nation with an economy dependent upon a workforce of African slaves.

No family demonstrated this split more publicly than the Todds of Kentucky. Mary Todd had married the man who would not allow a permanent split in the Union. One brother and one sister remained loyal to the Union. The rest of her siblings – four brothers, and three sisters – went with the South.

The secessionist Todds had made their choice. Three brothers died on the battlefield, one at Shiloh, one at Baton Rouge, and one at Vicksburg. A brother-in-law died at Chickamauga. In a war that claimed so many lives, one would think the North’s leader had to turn his back on those who had chosen rebellion. But that was not entirely the case.

Benjamin Helm, the brother-in-law who died at Chickamauga, had married Mary’s sister Emilie in 1856. Lincoln had offered Helm a commission in the Union army early in the war. After Helm fell at Chickamauga in 1863, the Lincolns invited Emilie to stay with them at the White House. Emilie accepted the invitation and lived at the White House for several weeks, all the while making it clear she had not renounced her loyalty to the rebel cause, much to the chagrin of many Northerners. When Union General Daniel Sickles complained to the President, Lincoln issued a strong rebuke to the general, adding that the Lincolns chose their own guests.

Can anyone imagine a president behaving in a similar manner today? The more we learn about Lincoln – the burden of forging a united country split asunder by war, the compassion he demonstrated to friend and foe alike, his capacity for humor in the country’s darkest hours – the more we count our good fortune that this humble, brilliant man commanded this country’s highest office when we needed him most.

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