restricted access 7. A “Nest of Abolitionists”: Antislavery Goals and Southern Identities
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7 A “Nest of Abolitionists” Antislavery Goals and Southern Identities In 1860, Philadelphia Quaker Dillwyn Parrish, accompanied by fellow Friend Edward Hopper and their wives, toured Niagara Falls. While they sat on the banks of the Niagara River, “a colored man” approached the group and “enquired if” Parrish “was from Loudoun Co. Va.” When Parrish replied that he was not, the stranger explained that he thought Parrish “resembled Mr. Saml Janney” of that county. Although Janney and Parrish shared little physical resemblance, Parrish was a close friend of Janney’s, and after he revealed this coincidence, “a considerable conversation” soon arose between the man, Amos Norris, and Parrish’s party. Norris informed Parrish that he had fled from Loudoun County in 1850 and now resided in Canada. He also introduced Parrish to Daniel Dangerfield, who had escaped from slavery in Loudoun to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1854. Using the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Dangerfield’s owners had tried to re-enslave him, but after a celebrated 1859 trial, in which Parrish’s companion Hopper played a role, the Pennsylvania court freed Dangerfield and he had moved to Niagara Falls. Parrish wrote to Janney that Norris and Dangerfield were “thriving, respectable” men, “doing well [in] every way, and . . . faithful subject[s] of the Queen.” Norris wanted to contact his sister-in-law, Betsy Lambert, who “lived with” Janney when he “last heard from her.” Parrish sent Norris’s address to Janney and hoped that he could help the man.1 Norris approached Parrish and his party tentatively, but he likely decided to talk to them because of their plain Quaker dress and distinctive speech patterns. By 1860, some liberal Friends had begun to question Quakers’ “external peculiarities” in dress and speech as “formalism” that placed “trivial” concerns above “personal worth and spiritual growth.” But the Society’s distinctive dress and speech remained symbols of identity for most Friends. A “Nest of Abolitionists”: Antislavery Goals and Southern Identities · 205 For black Americans, Friends’ peculiar dress and speech served another function: it enabled them to identify white allies. As historian James O. Horton notes, Quakers acquired a “legendary” “reputation as opponents of slavery” among African Americans in the years after the American Revolution . Norris’s decision to approach Parrish thus made great sense. More striking, his identification of Samuel Janney as a potential ally in his efforts to reunite his family demonstrates the impact of Janney’s antislavery campaign after 1840. In the decades before the Civil War, white and black Virginians recognized Friends as foes of slavery, willing to aid free and enslaved African Americans in a variety of ways, legal and (on occasion) illegal . For allies and enemies, the region’s Quakers were a “nest of abolitionists ,” committed to ending slavery in the state. After the Civil War, Friends’ antislavery reputation grew. As a descendent of Loudoun County’s Steer family reminisced in the 1940s, “no Quaker of the [antebellum] generation . . . would hesitate to enter into their [African Americans’] protection and assist in a get-away.”2 Yet for all the repute (and, for some, notoriety) that local Friends garnered , by 1860 they had little to show for their antislavery efforts. In that year, slavery remained entrenched in northern Virginia, and their white neighbors more committed to the institution and less willing to tolerate dissent than they had been sixty years earlier. Dismayed by the South’s commitment to slavery and many white northerners’ apathy, some radical abolitionists criticized religious bodies, including the Society of Friends, for refusing to join their antislavery crusade. Friends, argued abolitionist Stephen S. Foster, claimed to oppose slavery, but by “electing man-stealers to fill the highest offices in the government,” they “legalize[d]” the institution . Such hypocrisy, Foster averred, made them “more reprehensible” than “sects” who said nothing against slavery. Likewise, some historians question the image of Friends as antislavery activists. Most Quakers, argues historian Larry Gara, did little to undermine the institution of slavery. The “legend” of Friends aiding runaway slaves, he notes, reflects sloppy historical research and the actions of a few individuals (who faced criticism from fellow Friends), rather than a Society-wide commitment to helping fugitives . More recently, historian Ryan Jordan, echoing Foster, has argued that Quakers’ unwillingness to participate in radical abolitionism made them the unwitting allies of proslavery politicians.3 In northern Virginia, a number of factors established the parameters of Quaker antislavery activism. Above all, the tolerance of the white 206 · Quakers Living in the Lion’s Mouth community...


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Subject Headings

  • Quakers -- Virginia, Northern -- History -- 18th century.
  • Quakers -- Virginia, Northern -- History -- 19th century.
  • Society of Friends -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Dissenters -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Pacifism -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Antislavery movements -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Quaker women -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Religious pluralism -- Virginia, Northern -- History.
  • Whites -- Virginia, Northern -- Attitudes -- History.
  • Virginia, Northern -- Social conditions.
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