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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,504

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This is the grave of Amos Phelps.

Born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1805, Phelps went to Yale, graduating in 1826. He then took a degree from Yale Divinity in 1830. He became a Congregational minister, having churches first in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and then later in Boston. But it turned out that his real interest was not in the ministry. It was fighting the evils of slavery. So in 1834, he left the ministry and took a job with the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The AASS was founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan in 1833. This was a critical moment in the history of anti-slavery. Before this, other than random Quakers, there wasn’t really an organized anti-slavery movement per se. There were plenty of people who weren’t particularly comfortable with slavery and hoped that it would eventually go away. Some of them, such as Henry Clay, were even slaveholders themselves. But their vision for what a post-slavery society would look like was to ship them all back to Africa, if possible. This was racist and ridiculous and it showed the limited vision of even more progressive whites on these issues. Meanwhile, the 1820s had seen the start of the Second Great Awakening in America and much of that was concentrated in New England and upstate New York. With the smashing of time and space due to the canals and then the railroads a bit later, everything seemed open to questioning. So this was the great era of social experimentation, leading to everything from the women’s suffrage movement to all the weirdo religious communes of the day to prison reform.

For people such as Garrison or Phelps, this meant that one could articulate slavery as an outright evil that needed to be fought, not with wishy-washy language about gradual emancipation, but yesterday. For men (and most of them were men in the official movement for reasons I will get to shortly) slavery needed to be confronted directly. That’s what the AASS was intended to do. But like nearly every leftist movement (if you want to call these people leftist, which probably is more an anachronism than a particularly useful framing, but they were radical reformers at least), it was completely riven with internal conflicts about what they were doing, strategy, radicalism versus compromise, the boundaries of the movement, etc. A lot of these reformers were interested in the other types of reform as well. But given just how radical anti-slavery was in the 1830s, did it want to throw in with other super radical extremists, such as those women suggesting they had the right to vote and people like that?

This is a long preface to get at how the AASS split and Phelps’ role in it. That happened in 1840. Basically Garrison and his supporters wanted to embrace all radical movements and create some pretty extreme politics around them. They supported women’s suffrage, temperance, and everything else. For them, abolitionism was part of a larger radical edge that required separating oneself from the mainstream of America. So Garrison was the guy who would burn copies of the Constitution publicly to show how the nation could not be saved under its current form from a document that sanctioned evil. Then you had others, lead by people such as James Birney, who believed that a third party opposed to slavery was the way to go. Phelps, along with the Tappan Brothers, William Jay, and others disagreed with both of these methods. They were relatively conservative. They completely rejected women’s suffrage out of hand. They did not see burning copies of the Constitution as a useful strategy. They also did not think abolitionist third parties made a lot of sense. Generally, they wanted to work within the given political system and “respectable” political thought to fight against slavery.

As such, Phelps became a co-founder with these other men, of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, in 1840. The AFASS had several core beliefs, in addition to opposing slavery. First, it believed the Bible was literal truth. Second, it believed that women should not have the right to vote and that to even discuss such a matter was to show abolitionism to be completely insane. I mean obviously women shouldn’t vote……It also believed that the path forward to abolitionism was moral persuasion. Trying to do this through creating political parties or through attacking current church structures would be a disaster. To say the least, this was not an effective organization and most saw it as nothing more than a way for one side of the abolitionist movement to engage in factionalism.

Phelps became the corresponding secretary for the organization. In fact, he was the only full time employee of the AFASS. One of his big roles was to attend major ecclesiastical meetings to push religious groups toward embracing abolitionism. Incidentally, as well, while Phelps strongly rejected women’s suffrage as crazy town, he did embrace other moral reforms that AFASS members did not always find comfortable, including temperance. In fact, he had to leave his first parish in Hopkinton because he was basically fired by the congregation for ranting against the alcohol that they loved.

Interestingly given Phelps’ central role in all of this politically sorta conservative version of abolitionism, he portrayed fugitive slaves in speeches as a potent protest movement, a group of people who he compared favorably to himself (of course) and were also comparable to the patriots of the Boston Tea Party and the like. His role, as he saw it, was to publicize the testimony of these fugitive slaves to white audiences and get them to act on it. Phelps also was very colonization-curious. At least earlier in his career, he thought sending slaves back to Africa was the only real way to fight for Black rights. He stated about colonization that it was “one of the most prominent if not the only effectual means of eradicating [slavery and the slave trade] an restoring the African to his long lost rights.” And yet, to cite a different Phelps speech, one had to appeal to Black folks themselves, not play around trying to make tentative alliances with southern whites for a gradual emancipation, saying “If either party is to be favored, it MUST BE the slave.” As he stated of those abolitionists who thought they could work with the southern slaveowner, they “did not life a finger in breaking the rod of the oppressor.” Oh, there are so many liberal positions that do the same thing today, making people feel good about themselves without doing anything useful at all. (Quotes are from Richard Newman’s The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic).

Phelps died in 1847. He was 41 years old. Not sure why. For someone who was pretty hugely important in his time, Phelps has few good summaries of his life online, including on Wikipedia, which by this point in time is unusual. Say what you will about Wikipedia, but it is usually pretty good at finding out why someone famous died.

Amos Phelps is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lewis Tappan is in Brooklyn and William Jay is in Rye, New York, with his father, the far more famous John Jay. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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