Professor Gray lectures on Lawrence’s abolitionist movement

Chris Chan

In an effort to begin discussing human rights issues, the Lawrence student chapter of Amnesty International held its first lecture of the year. Amnesty strives for the enforcement of the United Nations’ declaration on human rights worldwide and responds to violations of human liberties by extensive letter-writing campaigns and sending petitions to various governments, seeking more humane practices.

History professor Natasha Gray lectured on Lawrence’s involvement with the abolition movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Gray initially assumed that Lawrence would have had a strong history of abolitionist support due to the fact that Amos Lawrence, founder of Lawrence, had many ties to abolitionist movements. There are several rumors that Main Hall was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Intrigued when Amnesty approached her, Gray began to research the topic in the library archives. Gray commented that the information she found was “fascinating, but it didn’t meet the goal of a human rights heritage at Lawrence…[Opinions were] more ambiguous than previously thought.”

Gray compared Lawrence and his University to the Deist conception of God. Lawrence came to Appleton, created a college, and withdrew, not to be seen again. Unlike most colleges named after an individual, Lawrence University has no statue or memorial to Lawrence, as Gray noted. The city of Lawrence, Kansas is also named in his honor.

The principal sources on Lawrence are letters and diary entries, as well as a biography written by his son. All of these sources, Gray noted, are “models of filial piety.” These writings portray Lawrence in a highly favorable manner, so his real character remains somewhat obscured.

Lawrence graduated from Harvard and managed a profitable textile company that used a lot of Southern cotton. Thus, Lawrence often saw pro-slavery views. His own views on slavery, said Gray, were originally rather moderate, upholding the “classic Whig stance.” This called for the eventual exhaustion of slavery by stopping its spreading outside of current boundaries, thereby ending international slave trade. Lawrence also supported a program that sent free blacks who desired to return to Africa to the colony of Liberia. Interestingly, Gray mentioned, the first African graduate of Lawrence was Frederica Kla Bada Brown, originally from Liberia. She graduated in 1917 and became the dean of an American college.

Gray explained that two events turned Lawrence towards abolitionism: the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. The Fugitive Slave Act permitted slave owners to reclaim slaves who had escaped to the North. In 1854, Lawrence witnessed the capture and judgment of a runaway slave in Boston, and commented, “I would rather have the courthouse razed than have him returned to slavery.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Bill was a measure to determine whether or not these two new states should allow slavery. Lawrence, concerned about the spread of slavery, was worried about the upcoming vote. On election day, citizens of Missouri (a slave state) crossed the border and stuffed the Kansas ballot boxes in favor of slavery. Furious at these illegal tricks, Lawrence helped to encourage immigration of willing, abolitionist New Englanders to Kansas in order to shift the vote on slavery.

At this time Lawrence, assisted by his cousin, President Pierce, was still only in favor of containment, not full-fledged abolition. Tensions increased greatly, especially when Lawrence sent rifles to slavery opponents in Kansas. Gray told how Lawrence used his private money to fund the shipment of firearms hidden in boxes labeled “primers.” These supposed religious texts were meant for “the education of their Missouri neighbors.” Some of these rifles came into the possession of the famous abolitionist John Brown, leader of the failed raid at Harper’s Ferry. Lawrence’s feelings toward Brown, said Gray, were mixed, for he described Brown as both “a true American warrior” and “a monomaniac.”

At the university, said Gray, there were many debates on the subject of slavery. Due to faculty decisions, female students were not allowed to debate and were restricted from attending more than one debate a year. The student body, originally slightly against slavery, grew increasingly radical and abolitionist as time went on. Supporters of slavery argued that black slaves were better off than poor white northern workers and Native Americans. On Nov. 10, 1856, the question, “Have opponents of slavery been justified in sending men to Kansas to fight slavery?” was propounded.

Gray concluded her lecture by commenting that Lawrence was a very complicated individual, and given the stilted information we have on his life, it is hard to understand the true complexity of his thoughts on slavery. As an institution, Lawrence University wrestled with the ethical question of slavery for years. Gray finished by saying, “People don’t have an innate genetic ability to tell what’s right and wrong.”

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