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  • Abolitionist, Suffragist, Philanthropist:The Life and Work of Reformer Elizabeth Buffum Chace
  • Persephone Allen (bio)

Elizabeth Buffum Chace was an active abolitionist and suffragist in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the 1800s. She harbored fugitive slaves and helped to organize a Female Anti-Slavery Society in Fall River, Massachusetts. She spoke out against the discrimination of women; organized petitions; and was president of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, the American Women's Suffragist Association, and the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. Not only was she a vigorous abolitionist and suffragist, but she was also a charitable philanthropist. She was a leading nineteenth-century advocate for orphan and dependent children in Rhode Island, as well as being one of the main creators and monitors of the first State Home and School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Rhode Island. Challenging society, religion, and cultural prescriptions for women's behavior, Elizabeth Buffum Chace changed the lives of hundreds of Rhode Islanders.

Elizabeth Buffum, originally christened Eliza Ann (she changed her name to Elizabeth later in her life) was born on 9 December 1806 in Providence, Rhode Island.1 Elizabeth was the second child in a brood of seven born to Rebecca Gould and Arnold Buffum. Both of her parents, like most members of her family, were "birthright" Quakers and raised their children following the same religion. A "devout believer in and defender of Orthodox Quakerism,"2 Elizabeth was said to have got her inner light from the Quaker religion.3 Although Elizabeth was born in Providence, Rhode Island, she did not live there for very long. Her father's work forced the Buffum family to move all over New England. As a result, Elizabeth spent a fair amount of time living with her father's parents in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where the only two public buildings were the Friends Meeting House and a school, the "Academy."

She earned a high school education at the Friends Boarding School in Providence.4 When she was seventeen, to Elizabeth's "very great grief," her family moved to Fall River.5 But soon that grief turned to happiness, as it was there where Elizabeth met her future husband, textile mill owner Samuel Buffington Chace. As soon as they met, Samuel fell in love with Elizabeth and asked her father for Elizabeth's hand in marriage.6 So with Arnold and Rebecca Buffum's consent, they wed in June 1827. Two years later, after the birth of their first child, George Arnold, Elizabeth became active in the anti-slavery cause.7 [End Page 183]

The Anti-Slavery movement in New England arose during the First Great Awakening in 1730 to 1750. But by 1760 Rhode Island had the largest population of slaves in New England, a situation that Quakers protested.8 In 1774, Rhode Island passed a law prohibiting the further importation of slaves, and in 1784 a second law freed all slaves born after that date, although those born before that date were still enslaved. (The last slave in the state died in 1859.9 ) But owning slaves and trading in slaves were two different issues as Rhode Island's economy flourished in the "triangle trade," a trade with slaves, rum, and molasses between Africa, New England, and the American South—and slave trade was one of the state's three primary sources of wealth. Not all were ready to forego economic prosperity for moral principles.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace came from a family of abolitionists. Her grandfather, William Buffum, was a member of the Rhode Island Society for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,10 and he and his wife kept their Smithfield house open as a safe haven to fugitive slaves who fled New York state. Her father, Arnold Buffum, was also an abolitionist from boyhood, and used to tell his children how he remembered "standing between the legs of a runaway slave and hearing of this loving father's brave adventures."11 Unlike his gradualist father, Arnold Buffum wanted immediate and unconditional emancipation. In 1832, he helped found the New England Anti-Slavery Society and became its first president, lecturing throughout New England and as far away as Ohio.Like his father's, his...


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