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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Abolitionist Sisters

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into good fortune. Their father, John Grimké, had been a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War and speaker in the South Carolina House of Representatives before becoming a plantation owner and judge on the state Supreme Court. The girls could look forward to a life of ease. In front of them lay a future of balls, concerts, picnics, rides, dinners, parties, and entertainments. They would spend their days in spacious rooms with high ceilings in beautifully decorated homes and stroll in well-manicured gardens. Their wardrobes would be of the finest kind, full of the latest fashions, and their tables would be laden with both local and imported food and wine. What’s more, they’d hardly need to lift a finger, thanks to the house slaves on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to attend to their every whim. Outside, field slaves would work just as hard if not harder on the plantations that made all this possible.

But Sarah and Angelina were to reject the highly privileged existence spread out before them by the simple accidents of their births. Instead they both moved north, embraced principle, and devoted their lives to campaigning for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights.

They rejected the thinking of the day that blacks were inferior to whites; they rejected the idea that it was proper for one individual to own another; they dismissed the notion that slavery was acceptable as long as you treated your slaves well and did not beat or torture them; and they had no time for the belief that the solution to slavery was to send freed slaves back to colonize African states such as Liberia whether those were their countries of origin or not. The sisters became outright abolitionists.

Sarah Moore Grimké was born in 1792 and grew up in a magnificent house in the center of Charleston and on the family plantation inland at Beaufort. She had three elder brothers and one elder sister, and three younger brothers and two younger sisters. Her education was to consist of reading, writing, and enough mathematics to run a household. Needlework, art, music, and a little French were featured on the curriculum, but the most important subject was the learning of manners. She craved more from her education, however, and started to learn secretly from her brother Thomas, six years her senior, studying his books at night. She delved into history, geography, science, Greek, and advanced mathematics. She was allowed to participate in the semiformal debates her father arranged for his sons as law school preparation. Judge Grimké reportedly commented that if Sarah had been a boy she would have been America’s greatest jurist. But while Thomas went to Yale, Sarah was kept at home.

From an early age Sarah became aware of the unjust treatment meted out to slaves. When at the age of five she saw a slave being beaten, she tried to run away from home to a place where there was no slavery. Later, in her speeches, she recalled the many harrowing experiences of slavery she had witnessed, ranging from whippings to torture at the local workhouse where slaves were sent to be disciplined. She even witnessed the gruesome spectacle of the severed head of an escaped slave on a pole by a country roadside, placed there as a warning to other would-be runaways. What she saw was to turn her into a rebel.

Sarah’s family was devoutly Episcopalian, and she taught Sunday school to younger slave children. When she asked why she couldn’t teach them to read so they could discover the Bible for themselves, her father replied that the 1740 Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Act levied a fine of £100 (about $10,000 today) for educating such people or employing slaves with these skills. Sarah’s reaction was to teach her young black maid, Hetty, to read secretly at night until her mother discovered them; Sarah was severely admonished by her father, and Hetty was very lucky to escape a severe whipping. Sarah later wrote: “I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my locks. The light was put out, the key hole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the law of South Carolina.”

In February 1805 Mary Grimké produced her 14th and last child, Angelina Emily. Sarah begged her parents to make her the new child’s godmother and to give her a major central role in raising the girl; they assented in part to relieve some of the child-rearing burden from Mary and in part to cheer up the morose Sarah.

Angelina became the focus of Sarah’s existence and by the time the former started to talk she addressed her elder sister as “mother.”

Time Among the Quakers

In 1818 Judge Grimké fell seriously ill, and in the spring of 1819 his Charleston doctor referred him to a Philadelphia specialist. Sarah accompanied her father on the sea journey. After two months the doctor could do no more than recommend the sea air and the bathing at Long Branch, New Jersey. Father and daughter traveled there, but to no avail. Judge Grimké died with Sarah as his sole mourner.

Looking after her dying father all alone and staying with Quakers in Philadelphia for months on either side of his death seem to have hardened and focused her, resolving many issues. On the ship back to Charleston she was befriended by a prosperous Quaker family called Morris, who gave her books and tracts. She started a correspondence with Israel Morris, the head of the family.

Back home, she threw herself into discovering all she could about the Quaker movement, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, and its outright opposition to slavery. She also took to wearing the plain habit of Quaker women, and in 1821 she relocated to Philadelphia to live alternately with Israel’s family in the country and his sister Catherine Morris in the city, supported by the interest on her inheritance. In May 1823 Sarah Grimké became a full member of the Friends.

Angelina, meanwhile, was on her own spiritual and intellectual journey from the Episcopal Church, with its emphasis on the rule of the clergy, to the more democratic Presbyterian Church, and from a merely argumentative to a highly opinionated anti-slavery activist. But she could not abide the idea of Christians owning other Christians, and she too became attracted to the Quaker religion and its dedication to peace and equality.

It was not only the impact of slavery on the slaves that troubled Angelina but also its effect on their owners. Having everything done for you by house slaves and living off the work of field slaves, she observed, was deeply amoral and undermined families. She wondered what hope there was for affection to arise from familial duty if you could not even move a chair for your mother or open a window so she that she might enjoy the air.

In November 1829 Angelina stopped her one-woman crusade in Charleston and headed north to be with Sarah in Philadelphia. Soon she too had joined the Quakers.

Seeking a Niche

Both sisters still struggled to find their niche. Initially their mission to abolish slavery had little real direction, partly because the Quakers considered their views too radical. While Quakers might be against slavery, their social activism was unlikely to extend beyond praying for a solution. Angelina yearned for an activist role, while her elder sister was more cautious.

In the mid-1830s there was an explosion of anti-slavery societies in the North, as well as female versions of such groups in which women were able to play a leadership role previously denied them. Both sisters began to engage more and more in the antislavery movement, Sarah through reading and study, and Angelina by attendance at meetings of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.

The era also saw a great deal of violence directed at such activities, even in the North, where slavery for many people was little more than an abstract idea. Most had never witnessed it personally.

Against this background Angelina wrote to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, the leading antislavery periodical. Garrison had been editorializing strongly against mob violence and demanding that British reformer George Thompson be given a peaceful platform.

“The ground upon which you stand is holy ground; never—never surrender it,” she urged Garrison. “If you surrender it the hope of the slave is extinguished.” She concluded: “This is a cause worth dying for.”

Without consulting her Garrison published the letter and identified its author as being from the prominent Grimké family of Charleston. It was widely read, reprinted, and admired, suddenly giving Angelina a public profile and deeply impressing the leading reform spokesman, Theodore Weld. Her future as a radical abolitionist was assured. At the same time, the letter was intensely embarrassing to Angelina. It outraged the Philadelphia Quakers, whose way of life Sarah and Angelina were finding more and more stultifying and at odds with their reforming zeal.

Meanwhile Angelina tried to purchase her former maid, Hetty, who now had children, in order to free her and her family, but to no avail—the requests were ignored. Angelina later rejected this purchase-to-free strategy as being insufficiently pure since it implied acceptance of the system.

In February 1836 both sisters attended the Quaker Convention in Providence, Rhode Island, where they met abolitionists from all over the northeast with whom they felt much more comfortable than their Philadelphia group. This resulted in an invitation to Angelina, a talented and passionate public speaker, to become a spokeswoman for the New York City-based American Anti-Slavery Society. While she considered this offer she penned a highly influential monograph, Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States.

In this publication she wrote as a Southern lady, addressing her friends and their friends in their language. She took on every argument advanced in favor of slavery and refuted them all. Set your slaves free, she urged her fellow southern women. “If they wish to remain with you, pay them wages,” she continued. “If not, let them leave you. Should they remain teach them.”

Sales of Angelina’s monograph took off. This led to acclaim but also to trouble. Police in Charleston paid a visit to the sisters’ mother. The postmaster had burned copies of Appeal in public, and the police warned that Angelina was not to visit; if she did she would be arrested, imprisoned, and deported on the first available boat back north.

The Quakers of Philadelphia disapproved too and insisted the sisters could not leave the city without their permission. Angelina resolved to move to New York City, and as Sarah wondered what to do, she received a letter from their mother begging her to accompany her sister so as to look after her. Sarah and Angelina were on their way to becoming America’s first female agents for abolition.

New York City

Arriving in New York City in October 1836, the sisters were immediately thrown into an intense three-week-long training course for new agents run by the Society and led by Theodore Weld. Out of 40 participants, Sarah and Angelina were the only two women. Here the local Quakers were supportive, and for the first time they both felt part of a harmonious team in which everybody was pulling in the same direction.

The plan was for the Grimké sisters to address fellow women at the homes of members of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. However, the response to their lectures was so huge that no parlor was big enough to hold all those who wanted to attend. A room at a local church that could seat 300 was found instead, but that too proved inadequate, and the lectures were moved into the main body of the church itself.

Theirs was an impressive double act. Sarah dealt with the religious aspects of their case and Angelina the political. While Angelina’s monograph had been aimed at the women of the South, Sarah now wrote and published An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, urging southern religious leaders to take a stance. And while Angelina penned her Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States, Sarah wrote An Address to Free Colored Americans. Invitations to speak flowed in and they decided to target New England from a base in Boston. They were an instant hit: Between June 7 and June 23, 1837, they addressed 11 meetings of 3,500 people in total, including many men. But this appeal to men and the fact that they were speaking before a “promiscuous”—mixed-sex—group caused controversy. It was one thing for women to talk with other women in small groups in private homes but quite another for them to address large groups in public with men in attendance.

First the Quakers and then other Christian denominations such as the Congregationalists closed their premises to abolitionists and women speakers; it was quite clear whom they were trying to gag. Sarah, unhappy that women could be denied a public platform, began to move beyond abolitionism and into the area of women’s rights. Weld, however, advised the Grimkés to stick to the issue of slavery. As the fall of 1837 came both sisters fell ill from fatigue, but by then they had already spoken to 40,000 men and women at 80 meetings in 67 New England towns.

In 1838 Weld proposed marriage to Angelina. She was also invited to address the Massachusetts legislature in Boston’s State House. She accepted both, and on February 21 she became the first woman in U.S. history to address a legislative committee.

She started her speech: “I stand before you as a Southerner exiled from the land of my birth by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave. I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder. I stand before you as a moral being.”

One thousand people attended on both days. Such was the reception given to her speeches that Angelina wrote to her friend, the African-American abolitionist Sarah Douglass, “We Abolition Women are turning the world upside down.” Next a series of six formal lectures was booked at Boston’s huge Odeon theatre; Sarah gave the first, and Angelina, who was more of a natural orator than her elder sister, delivered the remaining five. Every square inch of space was packed out by an audience of up to 3,000 people.

The Female Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention was scheduled for mid-May 1838 in Philadelphia. Angelina and Weld decided to marry just before it so that their activist friends would not need to make a special journey. Weld viewed the law that assigned all the property of a wife over to her husband as pure vandalism and looked forward to a ceremony in which he would make himself the exception. They had decided to live in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and invited Sarah to join them.

So on May 14, 1838, the “most mobbed man” in the United States, according to the Grimké sisters’ 1967 biographer, Gerda Lerner, married its “most notorious woman.” They invited scandal by having the ceremony performed before a mixed-race group, which included Grimké family slaves who had been freed and were now living locally. A black baker made the cake using slave-free sugar.

Two nights later, also in Philadelphia, 3,000 abolitionists—mostly women—braved a braying mob to enter the new Pennsylvania Hall, which had been funded by abolitionists. Inside blacks and whites mingled, and The Liberator’s Garrison gave the first lecture. Angelina then spoke for an hour, during which the mob outside hurled stones through newly broken windows. The mayor, perhaps not wanting to buck majority opinion, refused to intervene, and the convention had to resume the next afternoon. But the mob grew and became even more vicious and intemperate. In response the mayor ordered the evening session to be cancelled. Fearing in particular for the safety of the black women, Angelina asked the white women to link arms with their black sisters, and the mob reluctantly backed off as a line of reformers, alternately black and white, left the building. The mob soon looted the hall before burning it to the ground. In polite circles and newspaper editorials, the consensus was that the mob had been provoked by troublemakers who did not know their place in society.

By 1839 Angelina’s health had become a major concern and was to remain so the rest of her life. But she had three children, Charles Stuart Faucherauld Weld, born in 1839, Thomas Grimké Weld in 1841, and Sarah Grimké Weld in 1844.

By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861 the Welds had come to the conclusion that conflict was inevitable. “War is better than slavery,” Angelina wrote. The war energized the couple and brought them back into the public eye.

The Grimké sisters were to hit the headlines one last time when in March 1870, aged 77 and 65, they led a group of women in voting in a Lexington town election. They marched through the snow from a local hotel, each carrying a bouquet of flowers, and placed ballots into a box undeterred by the noisy barracking of male citizens. Of course the ballots would not be counted, but the sisters claimed to be the first women to vote—almost exactly 50 years ahead of the February 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Sarah died in 1873, aged 81; Angelina followed her in 1879, aged 74.

The Grimké sisters were principled and steadfast, and made huge personal sacrifices. They were courageous, generous, and caring. They were also gifted writers and public speakers, and clever strategists. But above all they were driven by an abhorrence of the idea that one individual could own another. To that end they were pivotal in the effort to see that notion pass from an unassailable part of American culture into the dustbin of history.

  • John Blundell (9 October 1952 – 22 July 2014) was a British economist who served as Director General and the Ralph Harris Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.