The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey by E. Fuller Torrey (review)
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Charles Torrey, Abolitionism, Antislavery, Liberty Party

The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey. By E. Fuller Torrey. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Pp. 248. Cloth, $39.95.)

History has waited far too long for a comprehensive biography of abolitionist Charles Torrey, who played an instrumental role in pushing the movement to become more political. Author E. Fuller Torrey has answered that call in The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey. Most who have written about Torrey primarily portray him as one of William Lloyd Garrison’s chief nemeses, who helped orchestrate the split in the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s. E. Fuller Torrey not only [End Page 523] offers a sympathetic read of Charles Torrey’s motivations in that effort but also demonstrates that he actually contributed so much more to the abolitionist cause in his short thirty-two years of life.

By stringently rejecting Garrison’s moral suasion, Charles Torrey insisted on “political and then aggressive and radical abolitionism as alternative strategies” (183). As practical applications of his beliefs, he helped establish the Liberty Party and managed the Washington, DC, artery of the Underground Railroad. Eventually, political abolitionism and abolitionist editing ceased to satisfy Charles Torrey, so he decided to take his activism to the next level. Unlike most white Underground Railroad operators who did not believe in going into the South to entice African Americans from bondage, Torrey’s religious and moral convictions motivated him to do just that. He actively encouraged slaves to abscond from slavery and then transported them to freedom himself. For him, this type of abolitionism was a more direct and decided attack on slaveholding than either his work in the abolitionist press or political abolitionism had been. Torrey’s Underground Railroad activism included a brazen plan that centered on wresting the bondspeople from many prominent politicians, to cause political embarrassment and undermine the system in the nation’s capital. He was effective enough in this endeavor that he became an enemy to powerful southern congressmen and other politicians, ultimately leading to his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in 1844 for slave stealing. His death in prison two years later at the age of thirty-two is why Charles Torrey has been considered an abolitionist martyr.

The biggest strength of this project is the masterful job of contextualizing Torrey within the world of antebellum abolitionists. The animus between Charles Torrey and William Lloyd Garrison (13–15) is laid bare. The author presents that relationship in terms of the two men’s dissimilar class backgrounds, morals, and levels of self-control, as much as their concerns about politics, religion, and abolitionist tactics. The author also covers in depth the differences in philosophy that led to the split of the American Anti-Slavery Society from the larger abolitionist movement over tactics.

Although the author is a descendent of Charles Torrey, he largely resists the temptation to slide into hagiography. The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey portrays the abolitionist as a man with many flaws, weaknesses, and failures. Among Torrey’s shortcomings are his failures to succeed in various careers and as a provider for his family. Moreover, [End Page 524] the book explains why some of his contemporaries believed he was insane.

In short, this biography offers a fair assessment of Torrey’s real contributions to the abolitionist movement, without making him appear larger than life or perfect. The author provides a very engaging story that makes this an easy read. Still, there are a few weaknesses. First, the book does not adequately examine how Charles Torrey felt about women’s role in the abolitionist movement, nor does it detail his interaction with female abolitionists. Because this was a time when women’s issues intersected with the abolitionist movement at every turn, this is a glaring oversight. Second, the author repeats many oft-cited myths about the Underground Railroad when he depicts it as being led by Quakers and white men like Torrey, Levi Coffin, and John Rankin. African American agents like Torrey’s friend and chief UR collaborator Thomas Smallwood, and even William Still are portrayed as pawns of, or assistants to, white agents. Moreover, the system itself...