Theodore Dwight Weld
Theodore Dwight Weld was the key force behind the Lane Debates on the issue of slavery, and for that reason alone has earned his place in American History. However, his antislavery activities as an orator, writer, and organizer put his contribution alongside William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips in the abolitionist pantheon. He brought countless thousands into the antislavery fold and inspired in his fellow reformers almost worshipful loyalty.
Weld was born in Hampton, Connecticut, in 1803, the son of Ludovicus Weld, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Clark. He assumed he would follow in the family's ministerial tradition, and toward that end he entered Andover Seminary in 1819. However, by the next year, he left Andover after working himself into a state of collapse. He spent the next few years as an itinerant lecturer on mnemonics. Then in 1826, after much inner resistance, he experienced a dramatic religious conversion at the hands of the great evangelist, Charles Grandson Finney. Weld became Finney's indispensable lay lieutenant in the revival, and applied his oratorical talents to the temperance, manuel labor, and sabbatarian crusades as well.
Under the influence of his friend Charles Stewart, he more and more pondered the slavery question. In 1831 Elizur Wright and his circle in Hudson, Ohio, who had become followers of William Lloyd Garrison's doctrine of "immediate emancipation" as espoused in the recently launched Liberator, converted Weld to the abolitionist cause.
At the time, Weld was by all accounts the student leader at Cincinnati's Lane Seminary, where he masterminded the idea of debates on slavery. In fact, these "debates" were a series of well-planned meetings meant to promote abolitionism. Weld also initiated student-run religious and civil rights work among Cincinnati's African-Americans. The broaching of the slave issue and student activities in the black community brought Weld and his fellows the wrath of Lane's Board of Trustees. In 1834 the Board curtailed the right of students to engage in such controversial projects. Weld retaliated by leading a walkout of the majority of Lane's students, crippling the seminary's reputation and infuriating its president, the Reverend Lyman Beecher. The so-called Lane Rebels committed themselves to antislavery activities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some became the nucleus for the student body of Oberlin College, a new revival-based institution led by Charles Grandison Finney and committed to reform activity. Weld, however, devoted himself entirely to abolitionist agitation, gaining a reputation as the most powerful and the most mobbed of antislavery orators in the West.
When his voice gave out in 1837, he took upon himself the task of creating a new roster of antislavery speakers. Under the auspices of the American Antislavery Society and in imitation of the New Testament, he personally supervised the training of an antislavery "Seventy," exposing his recruits to the substance and most effective methods of abolitionist agitation. At training sessions in New York in late 1837, he meet Sarah and Angelina Grimké, renegade sisters from South Carolina's slaveholding élite who had become antislavery activist. Angelina Grimké and Weld fell in love. Their courtship coincided withe the Grimké sisters forthright advocacy of women's equality, an issue that acted as a lightening rod for various matters dividing abolitionists and which helped to bring a schism in their ranks. Weld as caught between warring factions. In love with Angelina and egalitarian in his own views toward women, he nonetheless worried that agitating the "women's question" would divert energies from antislavery and bring that movement new opposition. After a romance made stormy in part by the tensions among reformers, they were married in 1839 in a ceremony marked by explicit commitment to sex equality. They also vowed to share their life together with Sarah Grimké, who would live with them for more or less the rest of their lives.
Almost immediately, Weld and the Grimkés began work on American Slavery As It Is (1839), a compilation of first-hand descriptions of slave life in the South. It became the most widely distributed and most influential of all American antislavery tracts, even informing Harriet Beecher Stowe's depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet ultimately marriage and family restricted the public careers of both Weld and the Grimkés. For Angelina and Sarah, domestic duties and the care of two sons and a daughter severely limited the time they could spend in public life. Weld continued for a time at the Antislavery Society Office but he became increasingly absorbed by an inner religious journey that led him from the public life to more private expressions of holiness and promotion of good. He performed one last important antislavery missions in 1844, working as a behind-the-scenes aide and researcher for John Quincy Adams in his fight against the Gag Rule. Yet Weld felt increasingly that the public life was not for him, that its contentious atmosphere made organized reform ineffective. To Lewis Tappan's plea for his continued participation in abolition, Weld replied simply: "God does not call me to such a position."
Instead Weld became an experimental educator, running several schools that catered to the children of the reform community. One was at the Fourierist Raritan Bay Union, a utopian community if the 1850s, the graduates of which included many children of Weld's fellow reformers. He returned to the speaker's rostrum to rally the North during the Civil War, but after the war concentrated on local community involvement. He helped found the first public library in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and presided over a literary society affectionately known as the "Weld Circle." He defended free access to controversial books, supported local groups fighting for aid to Blacks in the South, and marched for women's suffrage. He also lived to eulogize Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimkés, and other reform notables. Indeed, he spent the last twenty five years of his life amidst an aging abolitionist community in greater Boston, drawing lessons from the past and rallying new generations to complete the unfinished work of reform.
The vast majority of Weld's correspondence and other manuscript material is at the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Much of these holdings significant for his public life is available in Gilbert H. Barnes and Dwight L. Drumond, eds, Letters of Theodore Dewight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Sarah Grimké, 2v (1934). In addition to American Slavery As It Is (1839), Weld wrote the influential Bible Against Slavery (1839) and several shorter antislavery pamphlets. The most recent biography, one that explores the relation of his private and public lives, is Robert H. Abzug, Passionate Liberator: Theodore Dwight Weld and the Dilemma of Reform (1980).
Robert H. Abzug