Elizur Wright, Jr., and the
Emergence of Anti-Colonization
Sentiments on the Connecticut
Probing the origins of reform sentiment is the sort of sleuthing particu-
larly attractive to students of social history. The Connecticut Western
Reserve has evoked considerable scholarly discussion, much of which
vastly over-simplified the interaction of reformers with their environ-
ment. The origins of sentiments in the Western Reserve in opposition to
schemes for colonizing American blacks in Africa and elsewhere is a
case in point. "Anti-colonization," as it came to be called, represented
the opening wedge for people moving toward acceptance of the notion of
abolition of slavery rather than a gradualist or accomodationist senti-
ment toward it.
In a pathfinding study of abolitionism, Gilbert H. Barnes indicated
that Theodore Dwight Weld traveled to Hudson, Ohio in the thick of the
Western Reserve, and converted three of the faculty of tiny, rudimen-
tary Western Reserve College to the anti-colonizationist immediatism
promoted by William Lloyd Garrison. In his uneven biography of the
enigmatic Weld, Benjamin Thomas argues that in fact the three college
professors, Charles Backus Storrs, Beriah Green, and Elizur Wright,
Jr., converted the itinerant Weld, rather than vice-versa.2
When doing subsequent study, historians seem required to choose
sides between these two interpretations. Interestingly, the conflict
seems to resolve itself in a way that exonerates neither author. Rather, it
points to the potent influence of time and social conditions as primary
motive forces. Weld, for his part, had been moved toward immediatism
prior to his trip north to Hudson through the influences of socially
sensitive reformers in southern Ohio and Kentucky, including James
Dr. French is Dean of the Faculty and Professor of History at Lake Erie College.
1. Gilbert H. Barnes, The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (New York, 1933), 33-40.
2. Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld: Crusader for Freedom (New Brunswick,
50 OHIO HISTORY
Birney, while Storrs, Green, and Wright were arriving at similar conclu-
sions in Hudson. Their meeting in the Western Reserve seems only to
have further solidified pre-existing sentiments. The problem with such
scholarly gamesmanship is that it tends to obscure real issues, and
glosses over the complexities of conversion to a radical cause. What is
significant is that the evangelical, economic, social, political, and en-
vironmental forces working upon one another in that newly settled
region triggered similar psychic responses in many men nearly simul-
taneously. Weld, Storrs, Green, Wright, and dozens of others in similar
circumstances, were moved inexorably toward a common radical per-
To understand how Elizur Wright, Jr., who remained active in
abolitionism for years longer than Storrs and Green, cultivated this new
perception, requires a careful presentation of events surrounding the
early life of Western Reserve College and these men. Abolition-and
anti-colonization-became the focus of their attention rather than the
myriad other activities that competed for their energies, thus offering a
fascinating commentary on the pressures of an age, and the texture of a
complex, though rough-hewn, society.
Elizur Wright, Jr. was appointed Professor of Mathematics and
Natural Philosophy at Western Reserve College in March of 1829 along
with Rufus Nutting, who was promoted to Professor of Ancient Lan-
guages and head of the library. This brought the faculty to three, for
Charles Backus Storrs had been appointed Professor of Sacred Theol-
ogy a year earlier. A fourth member of the faculty was added in 1830
when the Reverend Beriah Green, a graduate of Middlebury College and
long-time pastor in Maine, was chosen as a second professor of Sacred
Literature and Theology.3 In the same year the Board of Trustees ended
its long search for a president by appointing Storrs to the post over his
With the beginning of Storrs' administration, in the fifth year of
Western Reserve College's existence, the institution's work began in
earnest. As the term started on September 29, 1830, the tiny college with
its five buildings, three of them new, was operating in the black and had a
3. "Beriah Green (1795-1874), a graduate of Middlebury College, studied theology and
from 1821 to 1831 preached in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine. ... In 1833 he was made
President of Oneida Institute. ... He was unable to sustain Oneida Institute, and after it
closed he organized an undenominational church in Whitesborough and also opened an
academy on the manual labor plan" (Gilbert H. Barnes and Dwight L. Dumond, eds.,
Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld and Sarah Grimke, 1822-1844
(Gloucester, 1965), 95.
4. Frederick Clayton Waite, Western Reserve University: The Hudson Era (Cleveland,
Elizur Wright, Jr. 51
growing collection in the library as well as a mounting array of equip-
ment.5 With sixty-three members, the student body was a healthy size,
particularly since thirty-six of them had enrolled during the current
year.6 Wright was ready for the new academic year too, having brought
back a new bride, Susan, from the East, where they were married on
September 13th.7 The young professor's life was full to the bursting. In
October of 1831 the first child, Susan Louisa, was born.8 Frequent visits
to his family's homestead in Tallmadge, Ohio permitted the reestab-
lishment of the ties of his youth. Despite all of this, Susan was troubled
by a profound homesickness for the more ordered life of Groton and
Boston. Her malaise increased when Susan Louisa died, and as her
husband became deeply involved in affairs of town and campus.9
As he entered the sedentary life of collegiate teaching, Wright put into
action his father's advice to find ways for ". . . ameliorating the condi-
tion of mankind. .. ."10 Temperance had been one of his "benevolent
plans" since his student days at Yale when he pushed through legislation
to end drinking in the local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. He had surveyed
liquor consumption during a two year teaching stint at Groton Academy
too, and he now discovered that Portage County consumed its share. 11
Though his inclinations were toward abstinence rather than mere mod-
eration, Wright joined the Temperance Society in Hudson, becoming its
president in 1832.12 Missionary tracts drew much of his attention, both
as agent for the American Tract Society and as an officer of the local
chapter. In addition, he promoted a whole variety of plans for the
5. Elizur Wright, Sr. (hereafter EW, Sr.) to Elizur Wright, Jr. (hereafter EW), May 26,
1826, Elizur Wright Papers, Case Western Reserve University (hereafter Wright Papers,
CWRU); Waite, Western Reserve University, 55-56.
6. Records of the Trustees of Western Reserve College, March 1, 1826 to August 28,
1834 (hereafter, Records, Trustees, WRC), August 23, 1831.
7. Philip Green Wright and Elizabeth Q. Wright, Elizur Wright: The Father of Life
Insurance (Chicago, 1937), 46, 48; EW to Susan Wright, May 24, 1829, Elizur Wright
Papers, Boston Public Library (hereafter Wright Papers, BPL).
8. Hudson Observer and Telegraph (hereafter Hudson Observer), January 12, 1832, p.
9. Wright and Wright, Elizur Wright, 62-63; Hudson Observer, January 12, 1832, p. 3;
Clarissa Wright (EW's mother) to Susan Wright, October 1, 1832, and EW, Sr. to EW,
April 8, 1833, Wright Papers, CWRU.
10. EW, Sr. to EW, April 25, 1825 and October 1, 1832, Wright Papers, CWRU.
11. EW to R. Hitchcock, February 24, 1828, Peter Hitchcock Family Papers, Western
Reserve Historical Society (hereafter Hitchcock Family Papers); EW, Sr. to EW, January
25, 1829 and April 28, 1828, Wright Papers, CWRU; Julian Sturtevant to EW, September
19, 1827, Wright Papers, Library of Congress (hereafter Wright Papers, LC).
12. Julian Sturtevant to EW, September 19, 1827, Wright Papers, LC; Hudson Ob-
server, November 1, 1832, p. 3.
52 OHIO HISTORY
improvement of Society activities.13 At one point shortly after arriving
at the college, Wright wrote to the Hudson Observer and Telegraph
chiding those who wasted sacred Sabbath time with idle gossip. To
correct this fault, he created a lending library of books and tracts, hoping
thereby to furnish "work for the mind and eyes and silence for the
tongue," perhaps "by withholding the feet from those resorts of idle-
ness, where alcohol reigns over reason."14
In addition, Wright acted in various capacities in local and national
phases of the Bible Society, promoted subscriptions to the Christian
Almanac, helped found the Western Reserve Branch of the American
Education Society, participated as a member of the Western Seamen's
Friend Society, and even offered a series of lectures in the College
Chapel on the evils of tobacco.15 Reform stirred Wright and his friends,
and what they learned about themselves and society through their
various reform activities carried over into other areas of their lives.
Once their commitment to reform was confirmed through the creation of
effective methods of change, they experienced an awareness of the need
for improvement in many other spheres. Besides, their successes in-
stilled a confidence in their capacity to bring about those modifications,
and a keener feeling for those in need of assistance. Wright and his
associates, particularly Storrs and Green, created a number of agencies
in the Western Reserve. Many of them flourished, but none of them
elicited a burning zeal in their creators.16 This is probably because they
were fairly conventional activities that stirred little opposition, thereby
failing to produce much creative tension among Wright and his friends.
13. Record Books of the Presbytery of Portage, MS, Vol. 2, September 2, 1829,
Western Reserve Historical Society (hereafter WRHS); Hudson Observer, March 5, 1830,
p. 3, October 6, 1831, pp. 2-3, September 6, 1832, p. 3, September 27, 1832, p. 2, October
11, 1832, p. 3; EW, Sr. to EW, October 1, 1832, Wright Papers, CWRU.
14. Hudson Observer, May 21, 1830, p.2.
15. Ibid., September 16, 1830, p. 3, March 8, 1832, p. 4, October 13, 1831, p. 2, October
25, 1832, p. 1, October 6,1831, p. 3, August 30, 1832, p. 3; Records of the Western Reserve
College Church, 1831-1841, MS (hereafter Records, WRCC), July 13, 1831, WRHS;
Elizur Wright, Jr., "A Lecture on Tobacco, Delivered in the Chapel of the Western
Reserve College" (Hudson: published at the request of the students, May 29, 1832),
16. Record Books of the Presbytery of Portage County, Vol. 2; Ephraim Sturtevant to
Reuben Hitchcock, December 22, 1829, Hitchcock Family Papers; Records, Trustees,
WRC, March 3, 1830; Hudson Observer, March 5, 1830, p. 3, May 21, 1830, p. 2,
September 16, 1830, p. 3; Minutes of the Adelphic Society, Western Reserve College,
February 16, 1831, Case Western Reserve University (hereafter CWRU); Records,
WRCC, July 13, 1831; Hudson Observer, October 6, 13, 20, 1831; EW "A Lecture on
Tobacco, Delivered in the Chapel of Western Reserve College," pamphlet, Hudson, Ohio,
May 29, 1832; Hudson Observer, September 27, 1832, p. 2, October 25, 1832, p. 1,
November 1, 1832, p.3.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 53
There was one subject, however, about which Americans became
easily agitated: blacks, free and slave alike. The most often mentioned
solution to the problems engendered by white attitudes towards slavery
and black Americans was colonization. Such respected men as former
President James Madison and Chief Justice John Marshall were active
participants in the American Colonization Society, formed in 1817.17
Colonization quickly achieved a broad, approving consensus among
white men of benevolent inclination in the late 1820s, and nearly total
opposition by free blacks.18 Wright, too, spoke against slavery and for
colonization, often combining his pleas for blacks with diatribes against
liquor and ill treatment of the Indians, especially the Cherokees.19
In many ways consideration of the Indian problem was a means by
which reformers in the North became interested in Southern problems.
Wright and his friends resented Southern political power being used to
drive the Indians from their homes for reasons which seemed to the
evangelicals a blatant mixture of economic self-interest (land hunger)
and racism. The reaction of the Jacksonian political machine in its
treatment of the Cherokees was really a preview of the perspective from
which the Northern reformers looked upon the removal of blacks from
America.20 Wright began to believe that self-interest corrupted the
South's moral view of slavery.
Wright agreed with the editorial position of the Hudson Observer and
Telegraph in the matter of colonization, and that paper faithfully de-
voted considerable space to reports of local and national activities.21
Other sources indicate though, that Hudson and Tallmadge, almost
17. The First Annual Report of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of
Color, of the United States; and the Proceedings of the Society at TheirAnnual Meeting in
the City of Washington, on the first Day of January, 1818 (Washington City: n.p., 1818), p.
3; Daily National Intelligencer, January 18, 1832, p. 3.
18. Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969),
pp. 4-8; Daily National Intelligencer, May 10, 1833, p. 2, August 12, 1833, p. 2; the most
helpful secondary source on the Society is P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization
Movement, 1816-1865 (New York, 1961).
19. EW to Susan, June 15, 1829, and July 13, 1829, Wright Papers, BPL; Hudson
Observer, July 29, 1830, pp. 2-3; throughout all of 1830 and 1831, Hudson Observer is filled
with articles dealing with the problems and plight of the Indians, especially the Cherokees
in Georgia. The whole tenor is bitterly anti-Jackson and pro-Indian. In addition, there are
numerous articles concerning the missionary activities in progress that are aiding the
20. Hudson Observer, December 15, 1831, p. 3, April 12, 1832, p. 2, March 12, 1830, p.
3; Liberator, August 17, 1833, p. 130; for further information on the Indian problem, see
May Young, Redskins, Ruffleshirts, and Rednecks, Civilization of the American Indian
Series, No. 61 (Norman, 1961).
21. See for example various issues of Hudson Observer during 1830-1831 which regu-
larly report the activities of the Colonization Society and speeches by its leaders.
54 OHIO HISTORY
alone in the Western Reserve, showed concern for blacks, and occa-
sional references to "blue light myrmidons of the Hydria [sic] headed
monster of Western Reserve" suggest a strong dislike among many
residents in surrounding communities.22 Whatever the reasons, Wright
did not develop a fervor for colonization. Perhaps he sensed that the
scheme served partly as a way of avoiding the real issues at stake, or he
may have simply been preoccupied with other activities. In any case, he
was a lukewarm colonizationist, usually remaining silent on the subject.
Yet the Southern response to colonization, coupled with their activities
in regard to the Indian question, acted as subtle irritants in the relation-
ship between evangelicals North and South.
Despite being a conservative approach to social change, colonization
nonetheless elicited a strong reaction from South Carolinians in the form
of nullification. This awakened Northern awareness of Southern hostil-
ity to even a limited scheme of conventional wisdom. Colonization
served evangelical activists' purposes especially well. It focused the
religious world's attention on a national issue and led to an understand-
ing of British efforts which had proceeded from slave trade restrictions
to colonization (Sierra Leone), then into a program for emancipation.
Some added catalyst was needed that would activate Wright's sense of
justice, but colonizationist activities were not capable of doing that.
On April 17, 1830, in Baltimore, Maryland, William Lloyd Garrison
was imprisoned, charged with having libeled Francis Todd of Mas-
sachusetts for the involvement of one of his ships in the slave trade.
Garrison was finally released by the intervention of Arthur Tappan of
New York who paid his bail on June 5th.23 The Hudson Observer and
Telegraph jumped to Garrison's defense, and reprinted the
"Liberator's" letter to Todd, including his incisive comment: "I am in
prison for denouncing slavery in a free country? You who have assisted
in oppressing your fellow creatures, are permitted to go at large, and to
enjoy the fruits of your crime!" 24 Garrison's indignant call was heard in
Hudson, whipping some to even greater enthusiasm for colonization as a
method of removing Negroes from the horrors of being black in a white
world. The editorial must have struck a responsive chord in Wright,
perhaps bringing back a recollection of an experience while a student at
Yale when Southern students had attempted to force his silence about
violation of school regulations, and heaped shame and guilt upon him
22. The Cleveland Herald, December 8, 1831, p. 2; Record Books of the Presbytery of
Portage, Volume 2, April 6, 1830.
23. Dwight Lowell Dumond, Antislavery (New York, 1961), p. 168.
24. Hudson Observer, June 24, 1830, p. 4.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 55
when he did not.25 Garrison's prospectus for the publication of The
Liberator was reprinted enthusiastically in the Hudson paper.26
Nearly overnight, tiny Western Reserve College in Hudson became a
western center for discussion about slavery, its alleviation, and remov-
al. In February 1831, on the occasion of his inauguration as the College's
president, Charles B. Storrs described slavery as a central concern of
mankind. He invoked the powerful ideas of William Wilberforce in
asking that the country move toward the removal of this "oppressive
load, which the guilt of slave-holding has imposed." 27 Debating
societies within the College took up the issue, and radicalized their
antislavery attitudes throughout the year.28 On the national level, Garri-
25. Ibid., July 26, 1832, p. 3.
26. Ibid., September 2, 1830.
27. Charles Backus Storrs, "Inaugural Address, Western Reserve College," February
9, 1831, Charles Backus Storrs Papers, CWRU.
28. Minutes of the Adelphic Society, Western Reserve College, February 16, 1831,
April 27, 1831, and June l,passim, January 4, 1832, bound MS at CWRU.
56 OHIO HISTORY
son's suggestion that an American Anti-Slavery Society be formed
found eager listeners on the Reserve. As autumn ended, a small meeting
was held in Hudson, where it was decided to call a county-wide conven-
tion for December in Ravenna to lay plans for the circulation of petitions
to Congress urging abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.29
The Ravenna convention was held amid the mounting hysteria that
followed the Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in
which Turner and his black associates terrorized the area, killing fifty-
five white persons before the insurrection was finally quelled.30 Many,
including most of the people at the convention, believed the uprising
would hasten the Southern impulse toward freeing the slaves, and that if
the District abolished slavery, such an act might lead to universal
emancipation.31 But in fact the opposite reaction took place-
proslavery sentiment solidified even more. There was great local oppos-
ition to the convention by those who felt that Portage County residents
had no business interfering with the affairs of the District of Columbia.32
Wright and his father were present in Ravenna, the latter being chosen
chairman. The group quickly passed resolutions petitioning the Con-
gress to abolish slavery in the District.33 They distributed, signed, and
sent the petition, despite an expectation of discouraging results. The
House Committee resolved not to take any action for three reasons.
First, the District had come into existence as a result of cessions of
territory from Virginia and Maryland, both slave states. Further, it
seemed to them wiser to resist such actions until the surrounding states
devised some way of "eradicating or diminishing" the evils of slavery.
Finally, thinking of the terror at Southampton they suggested that the
time was most "inauspicious" for the consideration of any such ac-
tion.34 The old year consequently closed with only a whimper from
Washington. The Liberator, read by Hudson zealots, summarized the
principal events in the world of slavery for the year, recounting tale after
29. Liberator, July 30, 1831, p. 1; Hudson Observer, December 1, 1831, pp. 2-3.
30. Thomas R. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrec-
tion in Southampton, Va. (Baltimore, 1831).
31. Hudson Observer, December 1, 1831, pp. 2-3.
32. The Cleveland Herald, December 8, 1831, p.2.
33. Hudson Observer, December 15, 1831, p. 3. Elizur Wright, Sr., an early settler in
Tallmadge, Ohio, was a major force behind his son's career as well as being a highly
respected leader in the Western Reserve. Among other notable contributions to his
community, the elder Wright was a founder and trustee of Western Reserve College and a
Deacon in the Presbyterian Church. For a more thorough treatment of him see David
French, "Puritan Conservatism and the Frontier: The Elizur Wright Family on the
Connecticut Western Reserve," The Old Northwest (March, 1975), pp. 85-95.
34. Hudson Observer, December 29, 1831, p. 3.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 57
tale of brutality, heartbreak, and injustice to blacks, and calling for
action on the part of all who felt the sting of such conditions in their
For Elizur Wright and his wife, the larger tragedy of slavery was given
immediacy through their own first major catastrophe: on January 6th
their only child, Susan Louisa, died at the age of fifteen months.36 Yet
even as the child was dying, Wright's wife was pregnant with their eldest
son, John Seward.37 Suffering and death took on new meaning for the
young professor, and he worked out a part of his horror of it in a search
for social justice. Slavery provided an intimate opportunity to express
love and tenderness for his fellow man, and to stave off some of the
suffering that he and Susan experienced upon the death of their child. As
death frequented his personal world oftener, Wright's commitment to
life and justice grew apace. In a long poem written to his dead daughter
and published in The Hudson Observer and Telegraph, Wright estab-
lished this connection between his own personal tragedy and that of the
Nationally, the horror of the Nat Turner incident lent urgency to the
anniversary meeting of the American Colonization Society gathering at
the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., and the report of the
Board of Managers describing the flourishing condition of the Society's
colony increased the members' conviction that somehow this colony
could solve the dilemma of slavery.39 The Virginia Legislature's famous
debates on slavery were given extensive and hopeful treatment in local
Ohio papers, but that they received little coverage in the deep South
attracted little notice.40
Colonization, slavery, and the American dilemma-racial prejudice
intermixed with a commitment to human justice for all men-touched
Ohioans personally during the winter and spring in the form of a report
issued by the State Legislature on the "colored population" of Ohio.41 It
indicated that the number of free Negroes in Ohio was growing at an
"alarming rate," mainly because of Southern repression that caused
growing numbers to flee to "freedom." Arguing that since racial pre-
judice against blacks would keep them in a degraded condition until "the
35. Ibid., January 12, 1832, p. 4, article reprinted from the Liberator.
36. Hudson Observer, January 12, 1832, p. 3.
37. Records, WRCC, July 15, 1832.
38. Hudson Observer, January 19, 1832.
39. Daily National Intelligencer, January 18, 1832, p. 3.
40. Hudson Observer, January 26, 1832.
41. Minutes of the Adelphic Society, February 22 and 29, 1832.
58 OHIO HISTORY
Leopard shall change his spots and the Ethiopian his skin," they urged
that the Ohio "Black Codes" placed on the books in 1804 and stiffened
in 1807 be strictly enforced, thereby excluding "9/lOths of the blacks"
who might otherwise come into the state. Even though such action might
be "wrong" or "unreasonable," "it is not the province of the committee
to inquire; that is a question for the abstract philosopher and metaphysi-
cian."42 Such an attitude incensed concerned men in Portage County.
The Hudson Observer and Telegraph complained that the same attitude
prevailed in Washington on the Indian question. "Suppose," the editor
speculated, "that the abstract philosopher and metaphysician should
take the subject up, and should make it out, that the policy of the
Government had been wrong,-what then?"43
In April, Wright submitted the first of five articles on the supposed
conflict between science and Genesis according to biblical tradition,
particularly in the matter of geologic time and the age of the universe.44
The last of these scientific articles appeared on May 10th, and scarcely
two months later Wright opened his first direct sally against slavery.
Later on Wright connected the two events:
The College, as to its germinal idea, was the child of science, including Theolo-
gy, of course .... The clergy looked upon it as a nucleus of sectarian propa-
gandism ... There were two elements which never coalesced, and the anti-
slavery agitation was the occasion, rather than the cause of the alienation
between a majority of the trustees and the faculty.45
This division within the college community was discernible in events
going back to, and even preceding, the founding of Western Reserve
College. The school was a reality because educated men around Portage
County were committed to the speedy establishment of institutions that
could perpetuate their values. The college became critical to their plan.
The more conservative of these men were primarily interested in the
institution as a cement to bind up their disintegrating faith and the
42. Hudson Observer, February 2, 1832; Liberator, January 5, 1833, p. 2; Ohio Ob-
server (formerly Hudson Observer and Telegraph), February 6, 1834, p. 3.
43. Hudson Observer, February 9, 1832, p. 2.
44. Ibid., April 5, 1832, pp. 2-3, April 12, 1832, p. 3.
45. Rev. Arthur C. Ludlow, "The History of Western Reserve University" (unpub-
lished MS in hands of archivist, CWRU, completed at Cleveland, Ohio 1927), quotes a
letter about EW by one of his former students, written about 1875.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 59
society based upon it.46 The college charter was received while Elizur
Wright, Jr. was away at Yale, and at that time he opposed its establish-
ment on the Western Reserve, suggesting instead that funds and efforts
be thrown to Ohio University in Athens, in the southern part of the
state.47 Wright probably sensed the limitations that a conservative em-
phasis could place upon learning, and it is certain that by 1832 he
understood this perfectly.
The composition of the faculty and trustees of the college increased
the tension that Wright felt. He explained that the trustees were, with
one exception, of the "old School Theology" while the faculty, except
for Rufus Nutting, leaned toward the "New School." Wright's religious
sentiments were suspect by them, and many were "deeply grieved" by
his lectures that tried to reconcile science and religion.48 Wright's arti-
cles in the local paper were his public response to a dispute among
various factions of the local Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The
struggle that led to the development of a national antislavery conflict
was built upon a continuum involving, at its point of origin, more than an
attack upon American inhumanity. Instead it was a commitment to
change the whole theology of a traditional church system, and in the
intellectual politics of these young men, "New School" also meant
reform in both social action and New England values. At the same time it
meant unrelenting hostility to Presbyterian conservatism and conser-
vatism of the traditional South. The quality of impulse in any one of
these elements was indistinguishable from the rest. Thus when they
attacked one theme, they were in effect assaulting the whole structure,
and slavery would be no exception.
The relocation of black Americans in African colonies was an accept-
able and popular rationale that many whites used to deal with their
negrophobia in the 1820s and 1830s. This was especially true if they were
at all troubled by the hypocrisy of a country committed to the "rights of
man," and aware of the indecent compromise of the humanity of blacks
written into the Federal Constitution, but were personally unable or
unwilling to overcome their prejudice. Colonization represented a com-
46. Record Books of the Presbytery of Portage, Volume 1, April 3, 1822, passim; P.
Hitchcock to R. Hitchcock, March 13, 1824, Hitchcock Family Papers; EW, Sr. to EW,
June 10, 1824, and April 5, 1825, Wright Papers, CWRU; The Western Reserve Chronicle,
March 10, 1826, p. 2; The Charter of the Western Reserve College, An Act to Incorporate
the Trustees of the Western Reserve College, by William W. Irwin, Speaker of the House
of Representatives, and Allen Trimble, Speaker of the Senate, February 7, 1826, pamphlet
at CWRU; Waite, Western Reserve University, p. 476, Appendix C.
47. EW to EW, Sr., February 17, 1825, Wright Papers, BPL; Ephraim T. Sturtevant to
RH, February 25, 1828, Hitchcock Family Papers, WRHS.
48. Ludlow History.
60 OHIO HISTORY
promise between the "Old Schoolers" and the Southern conservatives,
and Wright now saw this clearly.
By October of 1832, Wright was deeply enmeshed in the controversy
over colonization, admitting that less than seven months before he had
been "shoved .. ., struggling at every step, quite off from the ground of
African, or any other, Colonization."49 His views were undergoing
refinement in these months, but they had by no means reached maturity
when he first spoke out in the Hudson Observer and Telegraph. The
series of letters written over these months exhibit the emergence of an
advanced viewpoint on slavery and colonization. He was influenced by
Garrison and others who wrote in the Liberator, but by the time he saw
Thoughts on African Colonization, his own attitudes and ideas had
developed quite as far as those of the Boston editor.50 Wright probed
almost instantly to the center of the issue, and while his arguments
ranged over a variety of topics in an attempt to answer a spectrum of
proslavery rationalizations, he repeatedly returned to crucial points:
Placing myself, so far as I know how, in the attitude of a citizen of the world, or
rather of the universe, I would call [your] attention.... to a number of questions
.... Before TRUTH can reign triumphant, the temple of hoary PREJUDICE
must be dragged out, and the light of day must be let in to those Gothic recesses
of abominations whence issue all manner of plagues.51
The South represented the feudal, "Gothic" past of horror and degrada-
tion. "Truth" of course, belonged to the new age.
"Prejudice" as Wright used it was more than abstract bias. In another
article he gave substance to his view. He told of a former student at
Groton, son of an eminent Massachusetts physician, who entered Yale
with good recommendations, fine abilities, and proper intentions. He
had, however, a "dark complexion and remarkable thick, black and
bushy hair." Before many weeks had passed a "leading classmate from
the south" refused to eat with this "negro." The tutor sided with the
"negro" while most of the students, Northern and Southern, sided with
the snobbish Southerner. Tension mounted. Despite letters of proof of
his "whiteness" from his minister and others, the tricks and malicious
assaults continued, until at the close of his sophomore year he trans-
ferred to another college.52 Wright's interest was only secondarily with
this young man's trauma. He was more fundamentally concerned with
49. Hudson Observer, October 18, 1832, p. 3; Liberator, January 5, 1833, p. 2.
50. Hudson Observer, October 11, 1832, p. 3, November 15, 1832, p. 3.
51. Ibid., July 12, 1832, p. 3.
52. Liberator, August 11, 1832, article entitled "A Friend of Light" from Ohio. It is, in
all probablility, EW.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 61
the attitudes behind that trauma-he was deeply troubled that any
"worthy young man should be persecuted and driven off... merely for
looking like an African. . .."53 Again and again, the emotional and
spiritual violence committed through active prejudice became the focal
point of Wright's assault.54
While Wright quickly reached an advanced position on the subject of
slavery, some old problems occurred to him. He determined that he
would bring them into the light through "practical illustrations of thrill-
ing and present interest."55 Bursting into print, he asked a whole series
of rhetorical questions, the first of which was rooted in his Yale experi-
ence with Southern boys, and the dilemma he had faced then: "Can a
wrong course of conduct become a right one by being persevered in .. .?"56
This had been an issue of deep concern then, and now it fit
perfectly with the issue of slavery, and more immediately, colonization,
as a remedy. Wright had come to doubt both the value of colonization
and the motives of those who advocated it. If colonization were a
"wrong" even though engaged in for several generations, it still re-
mained a wrong. Attacked in this view, Wright replied that conscience
could determine right from wrong, and though conscience might be
silenced for a time "by a course of sin," it could not be destroyed. Those
who "found light" incurred the responsibility to bring it to others. At
Yale, Wright had been silent when his conscience had urged him to
speak, and his actions in this crisis indicate his unwillingness to allow
that to happen again.57
Methodically, Wright developed a thorough and logical rationale for
his new views. The first step was to establish as a certainty that slavery
was a sin. It was a sin, he said, that spread its guilt over not only those
who had originally conceived it, but those who continued to participate
in its benefits.58 Displaying remarkable prescience for future proslavery
apologists, he indicated the horrors of slavery that he thought most
emphatically indicted it. Apart from the physical degradation and suffer-
ing involved, the vastly more significant matter, Wright said, was that
53. Liberator, August 11, 1832.
54. Hudson Observer, September 20, 1832, pp. 2-3, October 18, 1832, p. 3, October 25,
1832, p. 3, November 1, 1832, p. 2, November 8, 1832, p. 3; Elizur Wright, Jr., The Sin of
Slavery and its Remedy (New York: n.p., 1833), p. 23; Liberator, January 5, 1833, p. 2.
55. Hudson Observer, July 12, 1832, p. 3, October 11, 1832, p. 3.
56. Ibid., July 26, 1832; Liberator, September 8, 1832, p. 144.
57. Hudson Observer, November 22, 1832, p. 2; EW to EW, Sr., June 19, 1832, Wright
Papers, BPL; Hudson Observer, August 16, 1832, p. 3, November 8, 1832, pp. 2-3,
November 15, 1832, p. 3; Liberator, December 1, 1832, p. 189.
58. Hudson Observer, July 26, 1832, p. 1, November 1, 1832, p. 2, November 8, 1832, p.
62 OHIO HISTORY
slavery "reduces the SOUL of man to a mere article of property-a
mere propelling weight to a convenient machine!"59 He saw that the
psychological damage to human personality was irrevocable, and he
insisted that such destruction must be stopped. Furthermore, he
suggested (by no means a new idea) that perversion of the slave's psyche
destroyed the master as well. The result, Wright proclaimed, was to
annihilate all that "makes human society lovely and desirable."60 While
cloaking them in the rhetoric of the nineteenth century Christian,
Wright's statements lend support to those today who argue that slavery,
as an absolute institution, imposed such controls over the slave that
aside from death or flight, the only adjustment to his condition was to
appear brutish and childlike, behavior that fitted with the exigencies of
the planter economy.61
Shall we be told that the victims of this oppression are contented and happy? Ah!
here is the very bitterness of the evil. It is the contentment of abject
degradation-it is the happiness of souls that have been robbed of everything
that is noble, and aspiring, and virtuous in their natures.62
Again and again Wright returned to what became nearly a litany
among abolitionists: that the "authority of master over the slave is
absolute" while the restraints upon him are minimal at best.63 That a
black could never testify in a court of law against a white was further
evidence of the sense of helplessness engendered in the Negro: "The life
of the slave which the law professes to protect, is made to depend on the
complexion of the witnesses, and he has no security against the anger of
his master, unless we suppose that he who has committed murder will
fear to commit perjury..." 64 Wright addresses himself to the claim that
the "cheerfullness and mirth" of the slave indicates clearly his happy
acceptance of a "natural condition" by suggesting in the same article
that, as one Southern slaveholder indicated, "the only principle upon
which any authority over them. .. can be maintained is FEAR: and he
who denies this has little knowledge of them." Wright drove the point
The master rules by an undisguised REIGN OF TERROR. ... It will not do to
say the slave is attached to his master, and labors with a desire to please him. It
59. Ibid., October 4, 1832, pp. 2-3.
60. Ibid., October 4, 1832, pp. 2-3.
61. Elkins, Slavery, pp. 82-86, 89, 131-133, passim.
62. Hudson Observer, October 4, 1832, pp. 2-3, see also, November 1, 1832, p. 2;
Wright, Sin of Slavery, pp. 9-10; EW to Susan, April 8, 1833, Wright Papers, BPL.
63. Elizur Wright, Jr., "Pro-Slavery Testimony Examined," Quarterly Anti-Slavery
Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, (October 1835), p. 93.
64. Ibid., p.93.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 63
will not do to say that he is filled with a sort of patriotism or loyalty, which makes
his master's wealth and prosperity his own. All this is flatly contradicted by the
witness on the stand, who distinctly asserts, that "the only principle upon which
any authority over them can be maintained is FEAR .. .".65
Speaking again of the question of limitations upon the slave-master's
treatment of his chattels, Wright made another significant comment:
The interference of the law to protect from cruelty the lives and limbs of beasts,
curtails the power of the owner, but it certainly does not change the claim of
absolute ownership into one of mere service, and the reason is, that it vests no
right in the beast, it leaves it wholly in the hands of its owner, to be used solely
for his benefit.66
The solution fastened upon by most whites was colonization, a
scheme that Wright himself had previously supported. But certain
things about colonization had begun to trouble him with increasing
urgency. He believed colonization, not slavery, must be the initial focal
point of attack, since colonization provided a convenient rationale by
which well-intentioned people, and others, could avoid confronting the
violation of their consciences.67 Also it was out of keeping with the
romance and necessity of immediacy-it would take forever. The flurry
of opposition evoked by Wright's series of articles in the Hudson Ob-
server and Telegraph served to push him to greater efforts. He ignored
those who dismissed his statements as those of a man wishing merely to
"get into muddy water, and provoke someone to get in and scuffle with
[him.]"68 His father was wholly sympathetic to Elizur's attack, hoping
that Wright would sink the "boat which contains the Colonizationists,"
but urging that he "give our friends an opportunity to jump off safely to
the shore."69 Here was a clear instance of the generational difference:
the younger man saw idealism as the ultimate test, not persuasiveness
that might lead to compromise and adjustment, while his father argued
restraint and patience with those who had not yet changed. Wright's
assault remained blunt:
So far, then, from acting against an unjust popular prejudice, the Colonization
Society builds on it as a foundation; for nothing can be clearer, than that, if we
65. Ibid., pp. 97-98; the slaveholder quoted by Wright was Robert J. Turnbull, Esq.
66. Elizur Wright, Jr., "Slavery and its Ecclesiastical Defenders," Quarterly Anti-
Slavery Magazine, I, No. 4, (July 1836).
67. Hudson Observer, September 6, 1832, p. 3; Liberator, December 1, 1832, p. 189;
Beriah Green, Four Sermons Preached in the Chapel of the Western Reserve College
(Cleveland, 1833), pp. 30-40, third sermon given on December 2, 1832.
68. Hudson Observer, October4, 1832, p. 3, September 13, 1832, p. 3, October 11, 1832,
p. 2, October 18, 1832, p. 1.
69. EW, Sr. to EW, October 8, 1832, Wright Papers, CWRU.
64 OHIO HISTORY
should, as a community, treat the black people with the kindness which the
Gospel enjoins, that Society would die and be forgotten,-there would be ... no
more motive left to colonize colored men, than there is now to colonize colored
He constantly hammered away with the claim that to colonize a few
hundred blacks a year in the hope that it would solve the problem was
"at war with the combined principles of Arithmetic and human na-
ture...." The most charitable thing he could say was that these fallacies
stood "as a lasting monument of the warping power of prejudice, even
on good hearts, and intelligent minds." 71 If good will toward free blacks
were the motivating force of the Society, Wright said, establishment of
these people on their own land and with their own property in America
would be both more expedient and much less costly.72
Then as now, sexual activity between blacks and whites was the
pivotal issue for most people in race prejudice, and if Wright was correct
in his charge that prejudice was central to the Society's policies its
defenders could be expected to raise the "ineffable specter," intermar-
riage. In a fascinating bit of sophistry, one of Wright's most tenacious
newspaper opponents did just that:
Providence has placed upon them, or upon us, or both, distinctive marks of
nationality, which, . . . naturally excites in each an antipathy [sic] totally
repugnant to any very intimate union. Perhaps I cannot give any very
philosophical reason for the existence of this antipathy, but its very universality
is sufficient proof that it is natural, and being inherent in our very constitution, I
do not believe in itself, it is wicked....
Then the familiar thrust:
If "E. W." will set us the example, by making a negro his intimate companion
and friend, and will unequivocally aver his willingness to have a sister or
daughter marry one ... it may be received as a sufficient test of his sincerity, (to
say nothing of his taste) in his arguments upon that point.73
Wright's reply was curt and to the point, and struck at the central
weakness in the "logic" of his opponent:
If there is a "natural antipathy"-"a total repugnance," where is the danger that
a free intermixture of the race would produce an amalgamation? On what
principle of chemical affinity, I beg to know?74
70. Hudson Observer, September 27, 1832, p. 3.
71. Ibid., September 27, 1832, p. 3, September 6, 1832, pp. 2-3, October 11, 1832, p. 3;
Wright claimed that the per annum increase in the black population at that time was about
60,000-see Hudson Observer, November 1, 1832, p. 2.
72. Hudson Observer, October 25, 1832, p. 3.
73. Ibid., October 11, 1832, p. 3.
74. Ibid., October 18, 1832, p. 3.
Elizur Wright, Jr. 65
Perhaps of greater significance Wright disputed the decency of such an
attitude, and responded scornfully:
Suppose I had, in open day light, lawfully (in a state where it can be done
lawfully, of course.) married a black woman, would it be an unspeakable
abomination, as if (pardon me, courteous reader) I had, in the Frenchman's
phrase, married 'one horses's wife'? I leave the question before common sense
and common humanity.75
His patience wore thin quickly with this attacker, and he frequently
lectured to him as he might a schoolboy, even, at one point indicating
that like the "discouraged schoolmaster," he could not". .. furnish talk
and brains too."76 The whole interchange is fascinating in that it shows
the gradual process of alienation from accepted compromises available
to Wright in the larger society, and his clearer identification with a small,
very special group of young people who shared this alienation.
But as long as the whole subject of race prejudice had come up, Wright
felt disposed to comment at some length on his own views. His state-
ment is quite revealing:
O. C. "had supposed that intermarriage, and even amalgamation was a neces-
sary part of my scheme-necessary to prevent the distinction of caste." But how
could he suppose, when I have been pleading with all my might to break down
the distinction of caste at once by treating the black man, in all his blackness, as a
brother, that amalgamation of the races was the means on which I depended for
the breaking of caste? If intermarriage be a consequence of the demolition of
caste,-I, for one, am not so absurdly arrogant as to dictate to full grown men
and women within what boundaries of complexion they shall restrict their
choice, in a matter which can affect the rights of no other person living.77
The whole newspaper controversy solidified Wright's opposition to
colonization as a remedy for slavery and the American Colonization
Society as a solution to the American brand of that institution, but the
conflict still left him unsatisfied.78
He could not endure a totally negative endeavor, and while the assault
upon the colonizationists permitted him to vent his hostility both to
southerners and toward his neighbors of "piety"-the latter reference
being to "Old School" churchmen-he felt the need for positive activity
that would lead to improvement.79 Professor Silliman of Yale published
a lengthy series of articles that were reprinted in the local paper, in
75. Ibid., October 18, 1832, p. 3, September 6, 1832, pp. 2-3.
76. Ibid., October 11, 1832, p. 3.
77. Ibid., November 8, 1832, p. 3.
78. Ibid., November 15, 1832, p. 3, October 11, 1832, p. 3.
79. Ibid., September 20, 1832, pp. 2-3.
66 OHIO HISTORY
which he responded to the critics of colonization.80 He indicated that
"the enemies of colonization are reduced to two classes, those who
would abolish Slavery instantaneously, and those who desire it may
never be abolished."81 Silliman felt that a "golden mean" could be
found between these extremes, and Wright was incredulous that a "New
Haven man" could take a position that seemed "just about half way
between NOW and NEVER."82 Now the process of Wright's radicali-
zation had begun in earnest. Much to his surprise even men of science
and college intellectuals failed to understand the problem. He had been
taught that science and mathematics were rational disciplines that
opened new vistas of understanding, yet these proponents were infected
with old traditions and prejudices as much as some less well educated.
Indicating a belief that proponents of immediate abolition were increas-
ing in numbers and strength, Wright proclaimed that those who had
" 'inherited the sin' of slavery, are determined not to bequeath its
damnation. They are the friends of eternal justice, and not of justice
eternally delayed!"83 Wright did not know whether intellectual pietists
could ever overcome the fear of recognizing their prejudices, but he
intended to do everything possible to prepare the ground for them
should they choose to do so.84 He felt himself peculiarly equipped for
this task of challenging his elders and superiors.
Wright's sense of urgency that people recognize the "sin of slavery"
and adopt a policy of unremitting hostility to colonization and thorough-
going involvement in immediate emancipation was characteristic of him
as well as of many other young men who would enter the abolition cause.
His quick mind had opened itself to a new position, and he rapidly
worked out all its ramifications. Immediate emancipation and an attack
upon colonization linked together most of the previously fairly discon-
nected impulses working within him: it was a way of acting out hostility
toward conservatism-both secular and religious; it was a reform that
lent itself to rational organization; it did not require sublimation of his
own religious doubts; it appealed to his impatient desire for change, and,
most of all, the successful abolition of slavery would represent a giant
stride toward the sure demonstration of the perfectibility of man by
rational means. Also, the "cause" became his career-leading away
from the church and college-toward that goal of serving others in a
special way which his parents had encouraged him to seek.
80. Ibid., October 11, 1832, p. 4.
81. Ibid., November 1, 1832, p. 2, October 25, 1832, p. 3.
82. Ibid., November 1, 1832, p. 2.
83. Ibid., November 1, 1832, p. 2, October 18, 1832, p. 3, October 25, 1832, p. 3; Beriah
Green, Four Sermons . . ., second sermon, November 25, 1832, pp. 20-29.
84. Hudson Observer, October 25, 1832, p. 3, October 4, 1832, pp. 2-3.