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URGENT GRADUALISM: The Case of the American Union for the Relief and Improvement of the Colored Race James R. Stirn Historians of ante-bellum America have managed to study, dissect, and label the various segments of the antislavery movement. An exception is a small group that gathered at Boston in January, 1835, to plan and publicize a theme of urgent gradualism. They called themselves die American Union for the Relief and Improvement of the Colored Race. Their goals were to: (1) convince Southern planters that slavery must end; (2) initiate the religious and secular education of Negroes; and (3) promote dispassionate inquiry into the difficulties of abolition in America, the West Indies, and elsewhere with an aim at overcoming those difficulties. Because the American Union failed to gain much popular support, historians have either ignored it or else dismissed it as merely a diversionary maneuver designed to draw attention away from the ever more outspoken Garrison.1 Admittedly, fear of Garrison infused the enterprise from the start and caused the organizers to launch the society prematurely and to become embroiled in an open confrontation with the notorious Boston agitator.2 Many potential converts, already disgusted with the noisy theoretical contentions between colonizationists and abolitionists, foresaw more of the same and were quickly disillu1 John L. Thomas, The Liberator: William Lloyd Garrison, A Biography (Boston, 1963), 195; William H. Pease & Jane H. Pease (eds.), The Antishvery Argument (Indianapolis, 1965), xlix; Phyllis M. Bannan, Arthur and Lewis Tappan (Ann Arbor, 1972), 94-95. The most authoritative treatment of the Union is to be found in Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Shvery (Cleveland, 1969), 134-141. WyattBrown 's account is sympathetic and full of insights, but emphasizes the role of the Tappan brothers, John and Charles, in Boston, who saw the new organization as a means of luring their abolitionist brother, Arthur, away from Garrison's influence. 2 Robert C. Senior, New Enghnd Congregationalism and the Antishvery Movements, 1830-1860 (Ann Arbor, 1967), 88; Journal of Freedom (New Haven), Jan. 29, 1835; a running account of the Union's opening proceedings also appears in Liberator, (Boston), Jan. 24, 31, 1835. Civil War History, Vol. XXV, No. 4 Copyright ® 1979 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/79/2504-0002 $01.00/0 309 310CIVIL WAR HISTORY sioned. Such a feeble start made it difficult to get established men to risk positions of influence for the fledgling Union.3 The institutional weakness of the Union and its anti-Garrisonian fervor should not obscure the fact that it espoused a coherent ideology and plan of attack against slavery. While it never achieved any concrete accomplishments, the American Union did leave two small, but significant publications, an Exposition of the Objects and Plans and a published survey entitled, Shvery and the Domestic Slave Trade. Neither these documents nor the correspondence surrounding the shortlived society has been closely analyzed, which explains why historians have overlooked its ideological base and mistaken its members for "quasi-colonizationists" or "colonizationists in disguise."4 This paper attempts to disprove such labels and identify the distinctive strategy against slavery which the American Union and urgent gradualists affirmed. For them, piecemeal reforms such as instituting religious instruction among the slaves or outlawing harsh punishments were aimed at ruining slavery as well as diverting attention away from Garrison. Such direct reforms were exactly what an enlightened benevolence required. The founders of the American Union came from Boston's inner circle of Congregationalist ministers, educators, and benefactors.5 This alliance is reflected in the composition of the society's seven-man executive committee: of the seven, all were from Boston, three were prosperous merchants, and three were active on the editorial board of the Boston Recorder, a leading Congregationalist newspaper.8 Most of 3 Boston Recorder, Feb. 6, 1835; Proceedings at a public meeting of the American Union, held in the Temple, Boston, May 26, 1835, (Boston, 1835), 12; Liberator, Jan. 17, 1835. The response of the Andover Theological Seminary is illustrative. There both students and faculty agreed to abstain from the Union and all organized antislavery' activity since it bred divisiveness and might disrupt the institution itself, as had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 309-328
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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