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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 737

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This is the grave of Abraham Bishop.

Born in 1763 in New Haven, Connecticut, Bishop grew up in the city’s elite. He graduated from Yale at age 15 and became a lawyer at age 22. He spent two years in Europe from 1787-89, continuing his studies. But despite being a lawyer, he made his impact in education, particularly promoting women’s education. He became a frequent lecturer and writer on educational issues, both in New Haven and in Boston, where he ran a school for a few years. He also had a short stint in New Hampshire but headed back to New Haven quickly. In his essay “Female Education,” he wrote, “Even now, in some parts of United America, as well as among several other nations, who call themselves civil[ized]—Women are considered as little better than slaves to unfeeling parents, and to idle lordly husbands.” Bishop also wrote frequently on the sin of the theater.

In 1791, Bishop first came to public notice with his three-part essay, “The Rights of Black Men,” a response to the Haitian Revolution that attempted to gain support for the Haitians and in fact urging American intervention on behalf of them to ensure their freedom from the colonialist French. He attacked American racism and urged them to see the Haitians as their comrades against European powers. He was utterly inconsistent though, hedging his bets on race relations and also attacking antislavery societies. Yet by placing himself on the side of the Revolution, he was one of the very few public figures in America who did not outright condemn it based upon both racism and the fear that it would spread to the United States. You can read the essays, republished in the Summer 1982 issue of Journal of Negro History, with some commentary by the historian Tim Matthewson, if you have JSTOR access from your library. Among the key lines is, “The blacks are entitled to freedom, for we did not say all white men are free, but all men are free.” Big words for 1791.

Bishop’s father was a big time local politician and his son tried to follow him down this road, winning minor offices. But he really struggled to rise and was kind of a failson, to be honest. He invested heavily in land schemes in Georgia and lost his shirt (a pretty common issue in the post-American Revolution decades and a big part of the reason while Jefferson created the Northwest Ordinance as the only useful thing to have happened under the Articles of Confederation. Bishop wrote a pamphlet attacking these land schemes and he was probably right about the fraud, but he and others were certainly willing suckers.

What we remember Bishop for is his work with Aaron Burr in 1800, planning out campaign strategies to defeat the Federalists. An anti-religion Jeffersonian in starkly Federalist and religious Connecticut, Bishop wrote and gave speeches on how organized religion should not have any political power and how the Federalist political/religious establishment in New England needed to be broken. Jefferson was a big fan of his work and in response, after the 1800 election mess was cleaned up in Jefferson’s favor, gave his father a nice plum patronage position as New Haven’s collector of the Port of New Haven. This was despite the fact that Bishop’s family was also Federalist and he was the radical outlier. In 1803, Bishop himself took this over and held onto the position for the next 26 years, until Andrew Jackson kicked him out to replace him with one of his cronies as the Spoils System came into full effect. He pretty well settled down on the radicalism in these years, becoming a rich local landowner and donor to Yale. He died in 1844.

Abraham Bishop is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other early whites who expressed support for Black rights, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Benjamin Lay is in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania and Moses Brown is at the graveyard in Providence down the hill from my apartment that I have never visited. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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