Mariko Troyer: Introduction to Stephen S. Foster's Letter to Richard D. Webb

Mariko Troyer
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Introduction to Stephen S. Foster's Letter to Richard D. Webb

Anyone who met radical abolitionist Stephen Symonds Foster would have had a hard time forgetting him, more than likely because they were grossly offended by his vitriolic criticisms and ill-humored nature. Though sometimes overshadowed by his more: famous abolitionist-feminist wife Abigail Kelley, Foster was widely known for his fearlessly argumentative spirit; whether he was brazenly storming in on church services or loudly advocating his brand of non-resistance to the American Anti-Slavery Society, controversy followed Foster wherever he went. Indeed, his brash behavior and even more strident criticisms resulted in him being denounced as a belligerent agitator, sometimes being physically assaulted. Described as ungainly and rugged in appearance with a stalwart personality to match, Foster did not let people's angry reactions daunt him and was noted for having a sonorous voice and a very persuasive way with words (Johnson and Malone 6: 558). As described by James Russell Lowell, Foster was,

A kind of maddened John the Baptist,
To whom the harshest word came aptest,
Who, struck by stone or brick ill starred
Hurls back an epithet as hard
Which, deadlier than stone or brick,
Has the propensity to stick. (Wilson and Friske H: 514)

Foster, though at the extreme, is just one in a long-line of self-assured, overpowering American reformers who resorted to whatever means necessary to get their message heard and awaken the public to what they saw as righteous and holy.

Stephen Symonds Foster was born on the seventeenth of November, 1809 in Cantebury, New Hampshire to Asa and Sarah Morill, both farmers. Asa, a Revolutionary War veteran, clearly influenced his son when he presented antislavery ideas to the local Cantebury leaders in an attempt to make his church more responsive to the hardships of African-Americans. Young Stephen Foster spent a lot of time trying to find an occupation that suited his devout faith, going from a schoolteacher and a carpenter until finally attending Dartmouth College as a candidate for the Congregational ministry. His education at Dartmouth made him increasingly agitated with the clergy's resistance to abolitionism and his repeated attempts to open up debate on the subject were met with, at best, indifference. Ultimately, he abandoned ministerial studies and join the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society in 1839, carrying the resentment that had grown while at Dartmouth with him; that antipathy would become the basis for all his future criticisms and actions against the clergy (Duncan and Dixon, 101-2).

Foster was unyielding and hostile to anyone who did not share his radical abolitionist beliefs. He frequently went after those anti-abolitionist ministers who exercised what he saw as undue authority in suppressing antislavery arguments for the sake of church stability as well as those clergymen who proclaimed to be abolitionist and yet tolerated slaveholders in their congregation. To fight the influence the church, Foster adopted the invective used by evangelical ministers in bringing sinners to repentance (103). In the 1840s Foster became well known for his form of comer-outerism, a general term referring to religious hostility to organized churches that was used to define abolitionist inclinations to radical religiosity. Foster would boldly defy anti-abolitionist ministers by interrupting their church services to declare the inherent sinfulness of slavery and correct the views of the clergy and their parishioners (Perry 108). Few did not take offense to his condemnations and Foster was usually thrown out, beaten, or arrested for his troubles. Not surprisingly, Foster remained undeterred and after years of itinerant lecturing, settled down in Worcester, Massachusetts where in addition to continuing his preaching, he contributed to newspapers and in 1843, published his successful pamphlet, The Brotherhood of Thieves; or a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy (Garraty and Carner 8: 307). In it he declared:

...True, my life is in danger, especially whenever I attempt to utter my sentiments in houses dedicated to what is called the worship of God; but He who has opened my view... has taught me to "be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." Hence I have no pacificatory explanations to offer, no coward disclaimers to make. But I shall aim to present to the comprehension of the humblest individual... a clear and comprehensive view of the intrinsic moral character of that class of our countrymen who claim our respect and veneration, as ministers and followers of the Prince of Peace... (6)

Clearly Foster was willing to do anything to spread his message and stood by his beliefs wholeheartedly; something that would be important for the future strife that would come between him and much of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

William Lloyd Garrison and the rest of the AASS actually accepted Foster's practice of comer-outerism and their differences emerged from the diverging opinions of non­resistance/non-violence and the support the AASS eventually threw to the Republican Party. From its inception in 1833, the AASS made non-violence an entrenched part of its philosophy, relying on moral suasion to convince people of the injustice of slavery and prompt them to call for its abolition. They were especially perturbed by bloody slave revolts, such as the one lead by Nat Turner in 1831, and were averse to using violence not only because it was illegal, but also because it was opposed by the Bible (Harrold 74). However, private judgment, or the right a man has to explain the Scriptures (originally invoked in the Protestant Reformation), made for discrepancies in Biblical interpretations, leading to disagreements over the overall definition of nonviolence; everyone had their own view of what non-resistance entailed, including Stephen Foster. In a convention held in 1855 to discuss nonviolence, Foster's private judgment set him a part from the other attendees. He argued that every man should be free to act according to his own beliefs, whether it be through the use of moral or physical force, and asserts his right to practice non-resistance while retaining the ability to urge others to resort to more violent measures (Perry 250). There was no resounding support for Foster in his more radical views and nonviolence was not the only issue that he and the rest of the AASS butted heads over.

The growth of the Republican Party was not something that Foster was particularly enthusiastic about, seeing it as being no better than its proslavery opponents. Republicans were looking to stop the expansion of slavery and did not support emancipation or full racial equality; Foster saw their stance on slavery as being weak and irresolute, subsequently showing Republicans as much sympathy and understanding as he did the ministers in his other crusade. The AASS supported the Republican Party in hopes of using their own rising influence from within to emancipate the slaves. Foster was outraged by this relationship (he even tried unsuccessfully to form a more militant abolitionist parry) but his denunciations fell upon deaf ears. Throughout the 1850s and before and after the Civil War, Foster remained a harsh critic of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, viewing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 as too little too late and was bitterly opposed to the lenient plans for the southern states' readmission to the Union (Garraty and Carner 8: 307). Foster expresses his grievances over both his dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and nonviolence in his 1858 letter to Richard D. Webb, a prominent Irish abolitionist.

Webb himself was not unfamiliar with controversy as a founding and leading member of the only active abolitionist group in Ireland, the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society (Temperley 227). He met and corresponded with a number of leading abolitionists in Britain as well as prominent members of the AASS. As a successful printer, Webb published a number of articles and pamphlets concerning abolition, some of which were his own. He edited and wrote the introduction to The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown and published an original piece, The National Anti-Slavery Societies in England and the United States, where he expressed his views on nonviolence:

...It was not originally demanded that any man, in joining the abolitionists, should give up his peculiar religious opinions. But he was expected to be true to his convictions, and to carry out the cause consistently with them. It was therefore absurd, invidious and unjust to select the non-resistants for exclusion from the anti-slavery ranks, on the ground that their peculiar views as to civil government disqualified them from rendering substantial assistance... (28)

Webb, who eventually went from being a Quaker to Unitarian, clearly echoed private judgment in this passage and his particular opinions on nonviolence earned him an admirer in Foster (Temperley 210). Well aware of Webb's connections to members of the AASS and the esteem in which they held him. Foster knew the importance of getting someone like Webb fully on his side, but Webb was tentative in extolling Foster.

Foster's radical ideas and religious fervor was not uncharacteristic of the abolitionist movement but his specific views however were not widely accepted. He is less a representative figure of abolition because of this and is instead a symbol of the American reform spirit. American history began with militant reform; at the time, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were rebels, adamantly fighting for what they believed to be just, bringing them to the grandiose scale of revolution. And this attitude would be carried on long after the Revolution was over; it became a man's obligation to try and correct the wrongs he perceived existed. Their methods may have differed (some were more outlandish, louder or had greater numbers) but the overall spirit remained the same. There was no guarantee for success and the road to reform is littered with failures, including, in many ways, the crusades of Stephen Foster, but it is the fact that Foster and others kept on fighting until their death that is truly human and essentially American.


Works Cited


Duncan, Troy and Chris Dixon. "Denouncing the Brotherhood of Thieves: Stephen Symonds Foster's Critique of the Anti-Abolitionist Clergy." Civil War History. Vol. 47. Ed. William Blair. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001. 97-117.

Foster, Stephen S. The Brotherhood of Thieves; or A True Picture of the American Church, and Clergy. New Hampshire: Parker Pillsbury. 1886.

Garraty, John A. and Marc C. Garner ed. American National Biography. Vol. 8. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 307-8.

Harrold, Stanley. American Abolitionists. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.

Johnson, Allen and Dumas Malone. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931. 558-9.

Perry, Lewis. Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in AntislaveryThought. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Temperley, Howard. British Antislavery 1833-1870. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 1972.

Webb, Richard D. The National Anti-Slavery Societies in England the United States. Dublin: C. Hedgelong, 1852. Microfilming Corporation of America (1980): fiche 1, p. 28.

Wilson, James Grant and John Friske ed. Appleton's Encyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. II. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888. 514-5.

Stephen S. Foster to Richard D. Webb, Dublin

Worcester, Mass. Jun 8, 1858

My dear friend- Several weeks since I received from you through our mutual friend, S[amuel Joseph]. May Jr., a brief note commending the spirit of my reply to his defense of his report of my remarks at the last annual meeting of the Mass. A[nti] S. [lavery] Society.

A long & painful experience has taught me the folly of looking for commendation from any quarter, & I have at last learnt to be content with the inward consciousness of an honest, earnest effort to discharge my whole duty, regardless of the opinions even of my most cherished friends; nevertheless, in the midst of so much doubt, distrust & opposition an approving word like that of yours is like a bubbling spring in a burning desert. It is doubly greatful to me at this time, coming as it does from one in whose judgment, in all matters pertaining to the philosophy of reform, I have more confidence than in that of any other living man.

But while greatfully accepting this token of your confidence & esteem, permit me to say I should have been more highly gratified, had you given me your opinion of the intrinsic merits of the controversy in which, unhappily, I am now engaged, almost single-handedly, with the majority of our Society. From your cast of mind I feel almost certain that, were you here, you would be entirely & heartily with me-in my peculiar views. But at your distance from the scene of action possibly you may not fully comprehend the wants of our cause. If, however, you recollect that we are dealing with a people all of whom believe in the necessity of a government of force, & that we, in effect, require of them an utter abandonment of the political [franchise?], & at the same time disclaim the right to argue the safety, propriety & power of NonResistance as a substitute for force, you cannot fail, I think, to see at once the necessity of a change in our policy. By discarding political action as an anti-slavery agency we are virtually asking our people to disarm themselves in the very presence of the foe, & to present their naked bosoms unprotected to the brazen artillery of their antagonists. We take from them the only weapons of which they have any knowledge, & offer them no substitute. Had we assumed the right to advocate NonResistance, upon our platform, as the true remedy for slavery, the case would have been somewhat different. With this potent agency in our hands we could have made converts to our cause, though the numbers, probably, would have been small. As it is, every succeeding year only thins our ranks, & witnesses a gradual decline of our influence. We make scarcely a single new convert, while death & apostacy are noiselessly sweeping away many of those who have long been standard bearers in our cause.

I need not tell you that I am very sad in view of the aspect of things amongst us. Truly "the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light." Had our society the wisdom to make its platform broad enough to admit upon it all who are willing to fight the battles of freedom, leaving to each the choice of his own weapons, the day of our triumph would not be distant.

But with all our fidelity & devotion to principle, we are sadly wanting in sagacity & discrimination. Verily "blindness hath in part happened unto Israel." By the double folly, first of repudiating a genuine anti-slavery political party, &, second, of placing prominent Republican speakers upon our platform, at our anniversaries, thereby giving them our endorsement not only as genuine abolitionists, but as competent anti-slavery teachers, we are so far nullifying our legitimate influence as to accomplishing nothing, at present [by way of conversions?], except to swell the ranks of a party whose highest aim is to stop the further extension of slavery.

But under all these discouragements I am still hopeful. I feel that we cannot long be kept in our present powerless position. We shall yet have a platform on which all can stand, shoulder to shoulder, & make common cause against a common foe. In the mean time my own efforts will be mainly directed to this all important object. It is but little I can do, especially against such formidable opposition- formidable because honest as well as able- but that little will be as seed cast into fertile soil. The want of such a measure as that which I propose is beginning to be seriously felt & I shall not long be its sole advocate. I have assurances from several prominent Republicans of their hearty approval, & earnest desire for its success, though not yet prepared publicly to advocate it. Should the measure meet your approval, I need not tell you that your aid, in its advocacy, would be as acceptable as it is necessary. The most formidable obstacle to its success is the opposition of leading men of our Society, & with them your opinions have great weight. It would be truly refreshing to me to hear, in behalf of so cherished an object, a voice more potent & less familiar, than my own; & there are many others who would, doubtless, feel the same sense of relief, even though your arguments should be as unconvincing to them as mine.

You allude to our severe affliction in the illness of our only child. I am happy to say that, though disease is one of the most formidable known to the Medical Profession,-angular curvature of the spine,- & its progress, for a time, was so rapid & alarming as to leave us without hope, yet it is at length apparently yielding to Medical skill,- & we have now strong hopes of her recovery without any perceptible deformity.

It would give both Mrs. [Abigail Kelley] Foster & myself great pleasure to be able to accept your proffered hospitality; but so long as our nation land is the home of slaves, we can hope to find neither time nor means for the luxury of foreign travel. If we ever meet, it must be on American, [not?] British, soil. Here, not there, is, at present, the battleground of Freedom, & we are enlisted for the war; Besides, we both have a love of home & domestic life which nothing but a stern sense of duty would be able to overcome. But at that home, be assured, you would, at any-time, & for any length of time, be a most welcome guest. Though always separated by the broad waves of the Atlantic we still regard & cherish you as an old & intimate acquaintance, an honored member of our antislavery household, & your presence at our fireside would add another to the many hallowed [charmes?] with which it is-already surrounded. May we not hope that a mission of mercy, or of pleasure, may one day bring you to our shores?

Accept, both from Mrs. Foster & myself, the assurance of our distinguished regards,

And believe me, ever,

Your sincere friend,

S.S. Foster.