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“Virtually all New Englanders” were anti-slavery by the 1820’s-1830’s, the speaker said, providing background information on John Quincy Adams’s anti-slavery petitions on the House of Representatives floor, eventually culminating in his stand against the Gag Rule. Widespread access to video and sound via the internet has allowed much more access to events than had been possible previously, and I had the talk on in the background on Thursday as I worked in my home office. This assertion made me stop in surprise. I think often of how successful the North was in its campaign to present itself as the all-abolitionist, always-slavery-free region during and after the Civil War, and to me this claim is a good example. Not only is it inaccurate, but it recasts actions like John Quincy Adams’s, and those of many much less famous Northerners, as being ho-hum: Of course John Quincy Adams presented anti-slavery petitions because everybody where he was from was anti-slavery; of course other individuals took stands against slavery because everyone was doing it. I thought, for example, of the mob that attacked and could have killed William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and the mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia after it had been open for just three days because anti-slavery speeches were being given at it by Angelina Grimké Weld and others. (Here is Angelina’s speech, given as a mob gathered outside, heckling her through the walls.) I thought, also, of the petitions from small groups of women to the Massachusetts legislature asking to secede in the lead-up to the Civil War, hoping that by removing their anti-slavery selves from the United States they could help stave off the war.

The night before I listened to that talk, I had attended Harvard Law School’s historian Daniel Coquillette’s talk on the first hundred years of the Law School at Royall House. The administration of Harvard Law School had actively recruited from the South, and because of this, they had a much higher percentage of Southerners than other Northern law schools before the Civil War, leading to many of their alumni being officers in the Confederacy, with West Point being the only other Northern school that graduated about the same amount of future Confederate leaders. Coquillette estimated in his talk that in the 1840’s 35% of the students at the school were from the Deep South. He explained that there were three main groups at the school:

  • Deep Southerners who were “very pro-slavery”
  • Cotton Whig Northerners, who were sympathetic to the Deep Southerners
  • Conscience Whig Northerners, who weren’t really pro-slavery but saw the best strategy as trying to contain slavery to its current locations (leading to such events as Bloody Kansas)

To put it mildly, this paints a different picture of Northerners than an assertion that all of them were anti-slavery. And while of course people at a law school are a tiny portion of the overall populace, many of them went on to become leaders who had regional or national influence. According to Coquillette, Charles Sumner had originally been considered the top person at the school to replace its head, but was told that his abolition wasn’t welcome there, and rerouted himself into politics instead.

In 1859 a newspaper editor, Charles B. Flood, and a US Marshal, Matthew Johnson, were using the Cleveland newspaper Daily National Democrat as their own bully pulpit to level political accusations outside of courtrooms. When John Brown was captured after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a letter addressed to Cleveland resident Mrs. Isaac Sturtevant was found on him, and the Daily National Democrat published the claim that she had known about and helped to fund the raid. Mrs. Sturtevant wrote a lengthy letter to the Democrat‘s competitor the Plain Dealer in response, which I reproduce partially below (my own transcription of a printed letter, including a few quirks of printing):

… In reply to the charge against me of having incendiary letters sent to my care, I would say if the editor of the Democrat knows any such letters to be incendiary, he knows more about their contents than I do. … As to the charge of being a working woman I acknowledge myself such, especially in the cause of human-freedom, and while my strength remains I shall aid it by such means as I may command. …

While I have thus deigned to notice these charges against me, and this shameful and unjust attempt on the part of a public officer and a hireling editor, to bring reproach upon myself and husband, I wish to utter my protest against any and every effort of the kind. I deny the right of Marshal Johnson or editor Flood to pry into and bring before the public, the private doings of any of our citizens. If we have violated the laws of the land, the Government has pointed out a way and established tribunals whose especial business it is to investigate such violation. No honorable man would seek to prejudice the public against the accused. And it has guaranteed to every citizen, even to negroes and women, the privilege of a fair trial. But pray what chance has any one for an impartial investigation when the public mind is filled with false rumors and statements, as it has been of late by those two most unworthy officials, who have thus departed from their legitimate functions and have arrogated to themselves duties which in no manner belong to them. …

Am I amenable for such acts to the government at Washington and its petty officials stationed here? Or to the laws of Virginia, or its crazy executive, or its blood thirsty judiciary? who in their zeal to convict a person, as in the case of Mr. Brown make him guilty of twice murdering the same man ! Or to either of the political parties who in their strife for power ignore all the rights of individuals and seem to forget and wholly repudiate the plainest and dearest immunities which belong to us as private citizens, the right of private judgment and the liberty to act in harmony therewith. There is a system of espionage being established here which exceeds in servility the worst days of Democratic France. Slavery and the darkest features of the infamous system have obtained such a foothold here, that it would seem that we are not standing erect in the dignity of free men and women of Ohio but are cowering at the feet of the insolent slave power.

Men seem to forget to inquire what are the laws of Ohio–what does her Constitution guarantee to her citizens; but, what says the slave power? What does the Fugitive Bill demand? What of liberty is left us by the Dred Scott decision?

Now, for one, I utterly repudiate and abhor the requisitions of those laws. I would add, if indeed they are laws, I would disregard them. Any law, enactment, or custom which forbids me to aid suffering humanity wherever found, I utterly reject and despise. And I would thus publicly give notice to all the friends of oppression in every form, that I shall treat all such laws as a nullity, and if a grand jury can be found who will indict me for such disobedience, they are perfectly welcome so to do. I shall neither “flee to Canada” nor cease to do all that lies in my power to break down this unrighteous system of oppression, which is even here at the North, stifling every noble feeling or impulse of the human heart. …

[Plain Dealer issue of Saturday, 5 November 1859, page 2]

I can’t imagine anyone reading the above letter and still thinking that all Northerners were unified on the subject. But to say that there was unity is to erase the bravery of acts such as the publication of this letter.

I understand that generalizations are to some degree necessary when discussing wider history. However, I plead for people to be careful that generalizations do not wipe out the complexity of history nor the individual stories of individual people leading individual lives, be it in this era or any other.

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My great-great-grandmother, Adelia Sturtevant, went by “Addie.” Addie’s life started out fairly typical for her time and place. Born in 1844, she was the daughter of Isaac and Harriet (Bell) Sturtevant, two of the large number of transplants from New England to northern Ohio. Addie’s mother Harriet died when Addie was fairly young, and Isaac remarried to an Ohio-born woman named Hortensia. But Addie’s father and stepmother went on to do something that was quite unusual at the time – they sent their daughter Addie to college.

They chose a college near their home of Cleveland – Oberlin College, the first college in the world to admit both men and women. As a student at Oberlin in the early 1860’s, Addie went to school with students that were both men and women, and both white and African-American. Addie was also in one of the most abolitionist college environments in this period around the start of the US Civil War, with many of the staff at Oberlin having left Ohio State University for Oberlin because they were unhappy with Ohio State’s stance on slavery. Addie was likely at Oberlin when the first African-American woman to attain a college degree, Mary Jane Patterson, did so there in 1862. Oberlin’s strong stand on abolition may have been part of the appeal for Addie’s New-England-born father Isaac.

Addie at college

Addie (on left) with an unknown friend at college. Undated on back but from the early 1860’s. This is an 1800’s copy of the original photo; based on my research of the photographer, the original was very likely a daguerreotype and the copy may have been done by the same photographer, who advertised the ability to make copies for customers. The edges are clipped (most obvious with the cut-off edge of the “O” in Ohio), but it is not clear whether this happened when the original copy was made or at some later date.

Historically, I can discern much of what Addie’s college environment would have been like – and how unusual she would have been as a woman who attended college at all – but not what she thought of it, nor how it affected the rest of her life. It’s likely that she was influenced by being in an environment that was so diverse for the time period, and quite possible that she was anti-slavery, but I have no direct evidence for this to date, only speculation. Regardless of this, her father and stepmother’s choice – and her opportunity – were extraordinary for the time period.

While Addie was at college, a young man named Charles C. Burnett enlisted in the Union Army in Indiana. Charles had been born in a rural area near Cleveland, Ohio, but his family had moved to Indiana while he was growing up. Like Addie, Charles watched his mother die while he was young, and his father remarried. Charles’s stepmother was a teacher before marriage, but the strong emphasis on education that she brought to the family was one that the younger family members would reap, not Charles. Charles was honorably discharged partway through the Civil War, and at some point he moved on his own back to his home state of Ohio, settling in the city of Cleveland and leaving his family behind in Indiana.

Charles in US Civil War uniform

Charles C. Burnett donned his Union uniform from the US Civil War for this photo much later in his life. The original copy of this photo has a large crease in it, which was very kindly digitally removed from my scan by fellow researcher Nina.

I do not yet know how or when, but somehow Charles and Addie met in the large city where they lived. They married in Cleveland’s county, Cuyahoga County, on Valentine’s Day 1867 in a double wedding with one of Addie’s siblings. Many other Union veterans of the Civil War were marrying around this same time.

Addie and Charles - marriage record

The record for the double marriage of Addie and her groom Charles, and Addie’s brother Charles and his bride Hattie, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on Valentine’s Day 1867. Scan from FamilySearch’s Ohio County Marriages collection.

Women’s education was growing rapidly in 19th century America. The century started with many girls in many regions expected only to go to primary/elementary school, if any formal schooling at all, though some regions (especially many areas of New England) had been placing an emphasis on basic education for all children for a long time. But then secondary schools for girls started to open in more and more locations, and then women began attending colleges, especially colleges beyond female seminary schools. Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most popular women’s magazine of 19th century America, and when Sarah Josepha Hale took over as the editor in 1836, she increasingly used the magazine as a platform to spread her belief that American housewives should be well-educated. The following year, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) was founded. It was important as it was the first American all-women’s college to have rigorous entrance requirements and an endowment.

Portrait of Addie as a young woman

Addie in an undated portrait; it is possible this was her wedding portrait.

Many modern historians talk about “presentism” – roughly defined as judging the past by today’s mores, thinking, and standards – and often criticize others for supposedly viewing the past through it. Personally I have long thought that the reverse is more likely to occur; to assume that people in the past weren’t like people today, to assume that things were so drastically different that we can never even theorize as to motivations, actions, thinking of the past. Many people are surprised to discover that a woman in my tree attended college that far in the past. The assumption is in a way the opposite of presentism; it’s an assumption that nobody in the early to mid-1800’s had the motivation and ability to provide a lengthy education for women.

From the records that have survived which I have viewed so far, I do not know what Isaac and his second wife’s motivations were for sending Addie to college, nor whether they had any particular expectations for what her life would be like after she finished. I also don’t know what Addie herself might have wanted from her life, nor whether she felt constrained by the gender roles of the time or felt comfortable in them or somewhere in between the two, nor whether she supported women’s suffrage as a number of prominent American women, including some Oberlin alumnae, already did at that time. Many women who were abolitionists came to believe that the same arguments that were typically used against slavery supported universal suffrage.  I also have no idea from the surviving records that I have viewed as to what her would-be husband Charles thought of having a wife who was better educated than he was, nor can I even be certain that he knew she was, though I certainly hope for both their sakes that she felt comfortable enough in their relationship to tell him.

Whatever Addie privately believed and hoped, she publicly married and became a housewife and mother, as the majority of the college-educated American women at that time and for decades to come would do. The indication I have to date that Addie’s love of learning and knowledge would last a lifetime is the third and final photo I inherited of her, taken decades later in her life.

Older Addie reading

Addie appears to be content as she reads a book in this photo taken much later in her life than the other two. Date unknown.

Charles died in 1898, only 55 years old. The paper trail indicates that after this Addie moved from state to state as she rotated between the locations of her widely scattered adult children. She applied for a widow’s pension based on Charles’s service in the Union in the Civil War, but was initially rejected because at the time they was only for widows whose Union-serving husbands had died during the Civil War or been declared disabled due to something that happened to them during the War. She reapplied when the law was widened to any widow and this time her application was accepted. She died in 1916 at the house of the daughter and son-in-law that were living in Cincinnati, Ohio. A family story indicates that this son-in-law, a professor, did not believe there was any use to educating women, as he is said to have told his daughter that educating dogs and women was equally pointless. I sometimes hope Addie had some strong opinions of her own to give him on that subject. Addie’s body was shipped back to Cleveland, where she was buried beside her husband Charles in the lot where her mother, father, and stepmother had also been buried in Lake View Cemetery.

I had initially intended to finish and post this draft on Election Day here in the States, which I obviously didn’t do as it is nearly a month later now. The reason is because when I, as a woman, go into that booth to fill out my ballot, I do so consciously remembering all the women before me – in my own tree around the world, and all the others – who did/do not have that option, and by speaking my voice I am honoring them. I do not know whether Addie would have voted if she’d had the opportunity, but I do know that she never got the chance.

“Women of Philadelphia! allow me as a Southern woman, with much attachment to the land of my birth, to entreat you to come up to this work. Especially let me urge you to petition. Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box, but you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature. It is therefore peculiarly your duty to petition. Do you say, ‘It does no good?’ The South already turns pale at the number sent.”

– Angelina Grimké, noted abolitionist & universal suffragist who was from a slaveholding family, in a mobbed public speech given in 1838

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For anyone interested in public education (not colleges) in the U. S., I suggest The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870 by Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981). While it has a lot of statistical analysis, it breaks literacy and school attendance down into regions, age groups, sex, etc., in a way that few if any other books do. While as an historical researcher I don’t agree with all of their conclusions, they provide enough of the raw data on which they base them for the reader to at least somewhat judge for themselves.

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