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Oberlin's James Monroe: Forgotten Abolitionist Frederick J. Blue Oberlin College and the Ohio town bearing its name have long been remembered as hotbeds ofabolitionism. Ever since the establishment of the academy in 1833 and the arrival of the famous Lane Seminarians, Oberlin became synonomous with Western Reserve antipathy to slavery.1 Long before the outbreak ofthe Civil War it provided refuge for free blacks.2 At the insistence ofthe Lane Rebels the college acted as one ofthe first institutions in the nation to admit blacks, although they constituted only a small minority of the largely white male student body. Numerous well-known advocates of abolitionism, including Theodore Weld and Charles G. Finney , were associated with Oberlin's crusading efforts.3 Yet the man who contributed as much as anyone to its subsequent efforts is rarely recalled today outside of the immediate area. James Monroe, who arrived as a student in 1844, advanced rapidly to prominence among the college faculty and state legislators. He became deeply involved in the antislavery politics of Ohio, with the famous Oberlin-Wellington rescue of 1858, and in the ramifications of the Harpers Ferry raid a year later. At Oberlin he evolved from a Garrisonian abolitionist to a moderate antislavery politician, albeit one firmly dedicated to the eradication of slavery. James Monroe was born ofQuaker parents in Plainfield, Connecticut, in 1821. Well-educated in both public and private schools, he began teaching 1 The Lane students came to Oberlin from the Cincinnati seminary when trustees there denied them the right to continue debates on colonization and slavery. See Lawrence T. Lesick, The Lane Rebels: Evangelicalism andAntislaveryin Antebellum America (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980), 169-71; Robert S. Fletcher, A History ofOberlin Collegefrom Its Foundation Through the Civil War (Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1943), 1:150-78; Louis Filler, The CrusadeAgainst Slavery, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 68-70. 2 William Cheek and Amy Cheek, John Mercer L√§ngstenandtheFightfor Black Freedom, 1829-1865 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1989), 278-315. 3 Lesick, The Lane Rebels, 170-71; Cheek and Cheek, Langston, 376-79; Fletcher, Oberlin , 1:34-36. Civil War History, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, ¬ģ 1989 by the Kent State University Press 286CIVIL WAR HISTORY in the public schools at fourteen.4 From his earliest childhood, his parents instilled him with a concern for others. Their humanitarian values and support of abolition convinced him of the evils of slavery and the importance of nonviolence. A Quaker upbringing in an area visited by leading abolitionists such as Benjamin Lundy, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, provided Monroe with the necessary incentive; he "began lecturing as early as 1 840"as a temperance and abolition advocate. The following year he joined Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society on the lecture circuit delivering "several hundred addresses" over the next two and a half years. The inexperienced youth was poorly paid, but spoke before "large and interesting" audiences.5 Like most abolitionists, Monroe did not always receive a friendly reception , as his audiences occasionally included those "who threw missies at my head." His addresses were often critical ofthose New England clergy who remained silent on the evils ofslavery. One such attack on a Dr. Dow in the Congregational church in Thompson, Connecticut, in 1841 led the pastor to retort that when Monroe cried "fire," the fire in question was in distant Louisiana. Monroe considered the evening a disaster, his defense lost in derision and ridicule: "The meeting," he said, "closed with much merry feeling in all hearts but one."6 Such setbacks only drove the young abolitionist to further attacks on slavery, and he was soon in increasing demand as a speaker. Defenders of the peculiar institution, such as the New England cleric who claimed that slaves enjoyed religious freedom, came under special attack. Monroe found it impossible to believe that anyone could argue that God condoned slavery.7 In his efforts he worked with the most prominent ofeastern abolitionists . In addition to receiving valuable tutelage in the philosophy ofGarrison , Monroe benefited from frequent contacts with Wendell Phillips, Charles Burleigh, Alvan Stewart, William Goodell, and Frederick Douglass . The latter described Monroe as "less aggressive than Abby...


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