Theodore Dwight Weld

views updated Jun 27 2018

Theodore Dwight Weld

Born November 23, 1803
Hampton, Connecticut
Died February 3, 1895
Boston, Massachusetts

Religious leader and abolitionist

Author of the influential book
American Slavery as It Is

Theodore Dwight Weld was a leading abolitionist (person who worked to put an end to slavery) during the years of heated debate over slavery that led to the Civil War. He was one of the most effective opponents of slavery during the 1830s, when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to gain ground in the Northern United States. He converted thousands of people to the cause with his passionate speeches and powerful books. But in the 1840s, long before the issue of slavery was resolved, Weld disappeared from view. Poor health, the loss of his voice, and a series of public defeats caused him to reevaluate his life. He lived quietly from that time on, although he occasionally emerged to comment on a particular social issue.

Brought up in a religious household

Theodore Dwight Weld was born on November 23, 1803, in Hampton, Connecticut. He was the fourth of five children born to the Reverend Ludovicus Weld and his wife, Elizabeth Clark Weld. Both of his parents came from prominent families that had lived in New England for over one hundred years. The Weld house was usually noisy and chaotic during Theodore's childhood. In addition to five active children, it often contained a number of his father's theology students. As a result, Theodore sometimes resorted to practical jokes or wild pranks to get attention.

But the Weld household was also a deeply religious one. The children were expected to live by strict rules of moral conduct. When they made mistakes, they sometimes received harsh punishment. For example, Theodore once cut the casing on a hunk of cheese, causing it to spoil. When his parents asked about it, he lied. In response, they confined him to his bedroom alone for a week and gave him only bread and water. As a boy, Weld respected his minister father but did not feel close to him. He tried to win his father's love by reading the Bible and studying to become a minister.

In 1819, Weld went to the prestigious Andover Academy to further his religious training. But within a year he became ill and suffered an emotional breakdown. One of his teachers suggested that traveling in a warmer climate might help. Since Weld did not have money for a vacation, he took a job as a traveling lecturer on mnemonics—the science of memory. As he visited towns throughout the South, he developed his public speaking and presentation skills. He was also exposed to slavery for the first time.

Joins the abolitionist movement

Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's culture and economy.

For most of his youth, Weld had not thought much about slavery. After all, he lived in the North, a region where slavery was not allowed in most states. In 1826, though, Weld experienced a religious awakening under the guidance of evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792–1875). He began to view slavery as a sin against God. In the early 1830s, he joined a group of young religious leaders who shared his views in forming the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Around this time, Weld began to argue that the best place to wage a war against slavery was in the West. The western United States was still being settled at that time, and much of it remained wilderness. Weld wanted to bring his antislavery message to the West while settlers had not yet formed solid opinions on the subject. He and many other young abolitionists went to Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from the slaveholding state of Kentucky.

The head of Lane Seminary (a school that trains for the ministry) was Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), a fiery Puritan minister and father of the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896; see entry). Weld also came into contact with Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) and Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) at Lane. These sisters had been raised in a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, but had adopted the abolitionist cause after converting to the Quaker religion. They were the first American women to speak out against slavery, and eventually became leaders in the fight for women's rights.

Becomes an effective abolitionist speaker and writer

In 1836, a dispute between the students and faculty at Lane caused Weld to leave the school. He then turned his full attention to speaking out against slavery. He traveled to small towns around the country and made passionate speeches about the evils of the institution. Some people called him a fanatic, but many others were forever moved by the experience of hearing him speak. He ended up convincing thousands of people to support the abolitionist cause. For example, he brought six hundred new members to the local antislavery society in Utica, New York, in February 1836. A month later, he converted eight hundred more people in Rochester, New York. In addition, he recruited and taught other talented speakers to spread the antislavery message in other areas across the country.

In his speeches, Weld told his listeners that America had to end slavery in order to relieve itself of sin and follow a path of moral rightness. He argued that the nation was not truly based on principles of liberty if millions of people were denied freedom and basic rights. He supported freeing all the slaves immediately and granting black people equal rights as fellow human beings. "No condition of birth, no shade of color, no mere misfortune of circumstances, can annul [cancel] that birth-right charter [guarantee specified rights], which God has bequeathed [granted] to every being upon whom he has stamped his own image, by making him a free moral agent," Weld stated. "He who robs his fellow man of this tramples upon right, subverts [overthrows] justice, outrages humanity, unsettles the foundations of human safety, and sacrilegiously [in violation of something sacred] assumes the prerogative [special power] of God."

Weld also spread his antislavery message through printed materials during this time. For example, he acted as editor of a magazine called the Emancipator. Although he wrote many articles for the magazine, he usually used a different name so that readers would focus their attention on the issue of slavery rather than on him. He also distributed thousands of antislavery pamphlets around the country. In 1839, Weld published an important book called American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This book reached a wider audience than any antislavery book ever had before and had a profound effect on its readers. In fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as one of the main sources for her antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

American Slavery as It Is included a collection of articles and notices from Southern newspapers, as well as letters from people who had had direct personal involvement with slavery. Weld tied all of these materials together with his own analysis. The idea behind the book was to show people the horrors of slavery. At that time, many Southern slaveowners argued that slavery provided the best possible life for black people. They claimed that blacks were not capable of caring for themselves. But Weld's book made an angry and passionate argument against such attitudes. "Suppose I should seize you, rob you of your liberty, drive you into the field, and make you work without pay as long as you live," he wrote. "Would that be justice and kindness, or monstrous injustice and cruelty?"

Disappears from public view

Throughout his career as an abolitionist, Weld experienced periods of intense energy and activity followed by emotional breakdowns. In addition, he had always felt a great need to look inward in an attempt to understand himself and define his relationship with God. Weld suffered his first major public defeat in 1836, when an angry mob prevented him from speaking in Troy, New York. Shortly afterward, he lost his voice from years of shouting to be heard in crowds. By the late 1830s, these factors convinced Weld to step back from the abolitionist movement and reevaluate his life. He gradually came to believe that his efforts were useless in solving America's problems.

In May 1838, Weld married fellow reformer Angelina Grimké. They opened a school in New Jersey in the 1840s and slowly faded from public view. They eventually had two sons and a daughter. When the Civil War began in 1861, Weld came forward to express his support for the Union cause. He even went on a brief speaking tour to encourage public support of the Emancipation Proclamation, an order by President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) that freed the slaves living in Confederate territory. He also spoke up during Reconstruction, the period in American history immediately following the Civil War, when the country struggled to settle its differences and bring the Southern states back into the Union.) Weld urged the federal government to send troops into the South to defend the rights of freed slaves. "The Nation is its citizens, and the Nation's right and duty to protect and defend its citizens, all of them, is absolute and paramount [of primary importance]," he stated.

In 1868, Weld and his family found an opportunity to help freed slaves directly. The Grimké sisters discovered that their father had had children with one of his slaves. They suddenly found that they had three half-brothers who had lived in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Weld and his wife accepted these men into their family, paid for their education, and helped them become some of the most prominent black men of their generation. Following the death of his wife in 1879, Weld lived quietly in Boston, Massachusetts. A humble and private man, he refused to allow anyone to write about his life or his activities in the early days of the abolition movement. He died on February 3, 1895.

Where to Learn More

Abzug, Robert H. Passionate Liberator: Theodore Dwight Weld and theDilemma of Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Thomas, Benjamin P. Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1950. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1973.

Weld, Theodore Dwight. American Slavery As It Is. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1972.

Theodore Dwight Weld

views updated May 21 2018

Theodore Dwight Weld

Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895) was an American reformer, preacher, and editor. He was one of the most-influential leaders in the early phases of the antislavery movement.

Theodore Weld was born in Hampton, Conn., on Nov. 23, 1803, the son of a Congregational minister. Sent to Phillips-Andover to prepare for the ministry, he was forced to leave because of failing eyesight; he tried lecturing and later entered Hamilton College in New York. Here he was especially influenced by evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who conducted revivalist meetings in the area. Weld toured with Finney's "holy band, " leaving for Oneida Institute in 1827 to complete his ministerial studies.

Weld soon converted to the antislavery cause. "I am deliberately, earnestly, solemnly, with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength, " he wrote in 1830, "for the immediate, universal, and total abolition of slavery." The New York philanthropists Lewis and Arthur Tappan hired Weld as an agent for the Society for the Promotion of Manual Labor to lecture and also to choose a site for a theological seminary for Finney. Weld chose Lane Seminary, and when the Tappans installed the Reverend Lyman Beecher as president, Weld remained as a student. However, Weld and other "Lane rebels" left in 1834 to train agents for the new national American Antislavery Society. Weld himself was a powerful speaker, and his famous agents, the "Seventy, " preached abolition across the West.

In 1837, his voice failing, Weld went to New York to edit the society's books and pamphlets. His The Bible against Slavery (1837) summarized religious arguments against slavery, while American Slavery as It Is (1839, published anonymously), a compilation of stories and statistics, served as an arsenal for abolitionist speakers and writers. In 1838 Weld married Angelina Grimké, one of two sisters he had helped train as antislavery speakers.

By the late 1830s antislavery forces formed a significant bloc in Congress, led by John Quincy Adams. Weld helped to develop the "petition strategy, " which forced the slavery issue into open debate. In 1843, feeling that abolition was established as a political issue, Weld, in poor health, retired to New York. In 1854 he founded an interracial school in New Jersey. He died Feb. 3, 1895, in Massachusetts.

Weld's passion for anonymity and fear of pride tended to osbcure his role in the antislavery movement, on which he exerted an enormous influence. He trained more than a hundred agents for the cause, directed its strategy for a decade, and influenced many of its leaders.

Further Reading

The best biography of Weld is Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld (1950). Additional information is in Gilbert H. Barnes and Dwight L. Dumond, Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké (2 vols., 1934). For Weld's place in the antislavery movement see Gilbert H. Barnes, The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (1933); Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830-1860 (1960); and Martin Duberman, ed., The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists (1965).

Additional Sources

Abzug, Robert H., Passionate liberator: Theodore Dwight Weld and the dilemma of reform, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. □

Weld, Theodore Dwight

views updated Jun 27 2018

Weld, Theodore Dwight (1803–95) US campaigner for the abolition of slavery. He was leader of the more moderate wing of the abolitionist movement. In 1839 he and his wife, Angelina Grimké, published American Slavery As It Is.

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