Saturday, May 31, 2008

Podcast Appalachia: "Appalachian Abolitionism"


Hello and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

First of all, I should apologize for my neglect of this podcast over the past month. As some of you know, I just started a new job that required me to move to South Korea. So the move, work, and adjusting to life in a new country have taken most of my free time. However, I have not forgotten Podcast Appalachia and plan to continue to produce new episodes, hopefully more regularly than I have this month. So please bear with me, and hopefully I can get back to a more regular schedule in the near future.

With that being said, let’s get onto Appalachia.

A little known chapter of Appalachian history that should be a source of pride for all of us is the role Appalachians played in the Abolitionist movement. Abolitionism, of course, was the nineteenth century movement to abolish slavery in the United States. While names like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the radical John Brown (no relation) are closely associated with abolitionism today, countless different people played a role in ending slavery, and many of them were Appalachians.

Early abolitionists often found inspiration in their faith. John Brown and Henry Ward Beecher, for example, were both ministers. Quakers had also long been morally opposed to human slavery, so it’s not surprising that the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania, with its large Quaker population, became a region sympathetic to abolitionists. But further south Quakers and people of other faiths were also decrying the inhumanity of human bondage.

In the early 1800s a Presbyterian minister near Jonesborough, TN named Samuel Doak began to challenge popular acceptance of slavery. Although slaves were more scarce in the mountain South than in the rest of the South, the mountain elites were dependent on the institution and thus largely defended it. Although Doak was moderate by later standards, he did profess to personally oppose human bondage and encouraged theological debate on the issue. This encouragement of debate would lead to many of his followers embracing the anti-slavery cause and would help influence his fellow Presbyterians in the Cumberland church to oppose slavery. Eventually Doak would become convinced as well.

Born in 1749 in Augusta County, VA, Doak graduated from Princeton in 1775. A staunch supporter of education, he helped establish Tusculum College. Doak himself had been a slave owner, but had become convinced of the evils of slavery in 1818. In response, he freed his own slaves and advocated immediate emancipation for the rest of his life.

One of Doak’s students who would become fiercely anti-slavery was Elihu Embree. Embree had grown up a Quaker but had left the faith as an adult and toward the popular elite belief in deism, which held that God had set the universe into motion but did not play a role in day-to-day events. By 1812, however, Embree came to reject deism and returned to Quakerism, and with it, a strong opposition to slavery.

Elihu Embree had likely been instilled with an abhorrence of slavery from an early age. His father, Thomas Embree, had written a letter to a Knoxville newspaper in 1797 calling for a gradual abolition of slavery. It’s no surprise then that Embree would become the star of anti-slavery activism in the mountain South.

An acquaintance of Embree who would also become an outspoken abolitionist was North Carolinian Charles Osborn. Also a Quaker, Osborn become an itinerate minister in 1809 traveling throughout the mountains establishing meetinghouses in both the North and the South. Anywhere he preached, he spoke out against an injustice he saw all around him: the bondage of African-Americans and the need to emancipate them.

Many people today would be surprised to learn that the first anti-slavery society formed in the United States was formed in East Tennessee, but it is true. Osborn established anti-slavery societies in most of the places he visited, and the first was in Jefferson County, TN. In 1815 Osborn and a small group of Quakers founded the Tennessee Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Over the next year sixteen chapters were created in East Tennessee, boasting hundreds of members. These chapters were united under the renamed Manumission Society of Tennessee. Elihu Embree was also an early leader of this group. This society was the first in America dedicated to the abolition of slavery, truly a visionary group.

There was disagreement among members of the Society as to what form emancipation should take; some favored gradual emancipation, others immediate emancipation. But there was universal agreement that emancipation should come. All members of the society were required to post the following message in their homes: “Freedom is the natural right of all men; I therefore acknowledge myself a member of the Tennessee Society for promoting the manumission of slaves.”

Critics of Elihu Embree and his efforts pointed out some hypocrisy on his part: while he vocally abhorred slavery, he was himself a slave owner. Embree had inherited some slaves. Although he would eventually free them, he felt a great sense of personal guilt for having taken part in such a horrendous institution. The hypocrisy of both owning slaves and opposing was shared by many Americans, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

There were also more radical abolitionists in Appalachia. John Rankin, another Presbyterian minister, for example, and his father-in-law Adam Lowry both favored immediate emancipation of slaves. Rankin was born in Jefferson County, TN in 1793. A fiery minister, he preached an anti-slavery sermon in Jefferson County that earned him censure from elders of his church, he told him he should consider leaving Tennessee if he wanted to oppose slavery from the pulpit. He took their advice and relocated to Ohio.

In Ohio Rankin and his wife would become involved in the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped escaped slaves reach the North, and, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, to Canada. He also wrote many letters condemning slavery that would later be published by the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. These letters would be very influential to Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Garrison would even call Rankin his “anti-slavery father” and state “his book on slavery was the cause of my entering the anti-slavery conflict."

Many people today assume that Garrison’s The Liberator was the first anti-slavery periodical, but that is not so. In reality, that honor falls on Appalachians from the mountain South.

The first anti-slavery was published in 1817 by Charles Osborn, who by then had left the south and moved to Mount Pleasant, Ohio. His newspaper, entitled The Philanthropist, called for an immediate end to slavery and, he hoped, would educate northerners about the evils of the institution.

Further south, Osborn’s old friend Elihu Embree was outraged and felt there was not sufficient discussion of the moral issues surrounding slavery, such as the treatment of the slaves themselves. He even went so far as to criticize the North for its silence and indifference on the issue.

In 1819 the Manumission Society of Tennessee, under the leadership of Embree, began publishing in Manumission Intelligencer. This newspaper was published weekly and a subscription could be purchased for $3 anywhere in the U.S. The newspaper focused on abolitionist activities in Tennessee, but also featured other news as well. The newspaper was almost completely financed by Embree at a very difficult time for him financially, demonstrating his commitment to the cause of freedom. Unfortunately, very few copies of this newspaper survive today.

A year later, in 1820, the newspaper switched formats to a monthly newspaper and changed its name to The Emancipator, although Embree remained editor. The newspaper would gain about 2,500 subscribers, as big as any newspaper in Tennessee or Kentucky at the time. Predictably it was also very controversial as it condemned slave owners in the strongest possible terms. Sadly, the paper would last only eight months. In December 1820 Embree died at the age of 38. Had he survived longer, perhaps it would be his name and newspaper instead of that of William Lloyd Garrison that would fill our history books. Nevertheless, Embree and his efforts deserve to be remembered for advocating a heroic point of view in a place and time that was incredibly hostile to that point of view.

Embree’s newspaper was not the only one of its kind in a slave state. In eastern Kentucky, an Appalachian named John Finley Crow launched his own anti-slavery newspaper in 1822. Entitled Abolition Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine, it was published monthly and was solely dedicated to the abolition of slavery. In the magazine’s own words, “to aid, so far as they may have their power, the cause of suffering humanity.”

The controversy on whether slavery should be allowed to spread into the western territories, particularly in regard to the Missouri compromise, would serve as a rallying cry for Appalachian abolitionists. In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state. This was to keep an equal number of slave and free states in the union; neither side was willing to cede the majority of states on the issue. Additionally, all other territory west of Missouri was divided 36 degrees by 20’ north; slavery was allowed south of this line but prohibited north of it. Although considered a “compromise,” this act enraged anti-slavery forces.

Unfortunately, abolitionism would slowly fade away in the mountains as the nineteenth century rolled along. As slavery became more and more a polarizing issue, the environment in the south became less and less tolerant of anti-slavery voices. Some southern states even made the possession of anti-slavery material a crime. As a result, abolitionism in the south faded away, and those southerners who continued to oppose slavery were either forced to keep quiet or relocate to the north lest they face reprisals from pro-slavery radicals.

Nevertheless, the efforts of Appalachian abolitionists deserve to remembered for their efforts on behalf of human liberty. While they may not be remembered as well as their more famous colleagues in the north, they unquestionably influenced the abolitionist cause and helped make America more adequately live up to her ideals as a land of liberty for all.

The sources for this podcast were The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Judy Haskell and The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America by Jeff Biggers.

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is Also, please feel free to suggest topics for future episodes. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.

No comments: