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Radical Mainers: The Founders of Maine’s Early Anti-Slavery Organizations

by Andy O’Brien

On August 16, 1834, Maine abolitionists put out the call to anti-slavery activists across the state to come to Augusta on the third Wednesday of  October to “unite in fervent prayer to  Almighty God to direct and bless our efforts to abolish slavery throughout the land.” During the nearly two years since William Lloyd Garrison’s historic visit to Maine, abolitionists had begun forming their own auxiliary anti-slavery societies and they had finally garnered enough momentum to launch a statewide chapter.

Several of Maine’s abolitionist leaders were wealthy and prominent men in their communities, even though they were probably considered eccentric in their views. They were entrepreneurs, merchants, land speculators, clergy, physicians, lawyers, and newspaper editors. Founding members of the Portland Antislavery Society included its President Prentiss Mellen (1764-1840), the first Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, attorney and politician Samuel Fessenden (1784-1869), successful businessman Nathan Winslow (1785-1861),  journalist and nationally renowned humorist Seba Smith, Methodist minister Gershom F. Cox (1766-1849) and printer Daniel C. Colesworthy (1810-1893).

Colesworthy ran a bookstore on Exchange Street and edited a series of youth and literary newspapers including The Youth’s Monitor, the Portland Tribune. He notably published the Portland City Directory and African American writer Robert Benjamin Lewis’s groundbreaking Black historiography Light and Truth (see Radical Mainers, 9/22).

Nathan Winslow and his wife Comfort were two of the most prominent abolitionists in the city. As an artisan, merchant and inventor, Nathan embodied the transition from independent craftsman to industrialist that characterized the emerging industrial revolution. An inventor of one of the earliest cookstoves and innovator of food processing technology, Winslow founded the first wood stove foundry in Maine and the first corn-canning operation in the United States. Winslows were devout Quakers who not only opposed slavery, but were also active anti-slavery organizers and opened their home to traveling abolitionist speakers and fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.

The writer and activist John Neal recalled Nathan Winslow as a “desperate unrelent­ing Quaker-abolitionist.” He recalled an incident when Winslow refused Neal’s assistance in the face of a hostile anti-abolitionist mob outside an abolitionist meeting in Portland. The mob “pitched” Winslow “head­ long into the gutter” and rolled him over in the mud before letting him escape. Comfort hosted meetings of the Portland Female Anti-slavery Society in their home. At its annual meeting in 1834, an unnamed five-year old Black girl recited a long poem about the condition of African Americans “with great propriety and fine effect.” The white women resolved to meet regularly to instruct the “female colored population in knitting, mending, and various kinds of needle work.” In typical paternalistic fashion for the time, the women pledged to “elevate the character of an unjustly degraded race.”

Nathan Winslow, his brother Issac, Rev. David Thurston of Winthrop (1779-1865), 25-year old attorney and journalist James Frederick Otis (1808-1867) of Portland and Quaker businessman Joseph Southwick of Vassalboro were among the sixty delegates from New England, Ohio, New York and New Jersey to the first convention of the National Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in December, 1833. Shortly after, Southwick and his wife Thankful, who hailed from an affluent Quaker family in Portland, moved to Boston where she became a powerful voice for women’s rights and abolition, alongside such luminaries as writer and sometime-Mainer Lydia Maria Child.

Two years after signing the American Slavery Society’s declaration of sentiments, James F. Otis, who hailed from an affluent and well-respected Boston family, became a pariah in the movement after he publicly denied he was an abolitionist and renounced his membership in the Society. In a letter to the Richmond Enquirer in September, 1835, Otis, who once compared William Lloyd Garrison to Jesus Christ, claimed that the society’s leaders deceived him about their radical intentions. While staying in the White Sulfur Hot Springs of Virginia nursing his “very violent, acute rheumatism,” Otis claimed he shut his mouth about slavery as soon as he saw “the entire South in a flame of excitement upon the bare mention of it” He argued that Northern abolitionists were only adding “fuel to the flame” and that their demands would hinder efforts to end slavery.

The fervently anti-abolitionist Portland Argus had a different take.It claimed Otis had been in Virginia trying to stir up trouble and was exposed as anti-slavery zealot. When he was arrested and brought before the local Magistrate, the Argus claimed Otis “set up such piteous begging and well-feigned protestations of innocence, disavowing all connexion” with the abolitionists.  It further claimed that the Magistrate let him off and  Otis swiftly “out-ran the mail itself, and escaped the humble honor of ‘tar and cotton’” with an angry local judge in hot pursuit. From then on, Otis was known as “Benedict A. Otis” in the movement.

Rev. David Thurston (1779-1865) was an anti-slavery Congregational minister at a time when the Congregationalist Church leadership was fervently opposed to the abolitionists. Instead, the church supported their mortal enemies, the American Colonization Society. Between 1833 and 1834, Thurston embarked on a lecture tour to set the Maine countryside afire with his searing abolitionist sermons. While the audiences were small, he undoubtedly won over a few souls. As he once wrote:

“[God] has made it our duty always to act from religious principle. We are not authorized to act from a principle of selfishness or party interest today, and of benevolence tomorrow. We are to be holy always in all we do. We are required to be as holy, that is to have a pure desire to honor God and to promote the welfare of men, at one time, as at another, on the second and third days of the week, as on the first.”

Like Hallowell, Winthrop became a a bastion of abolitionist sentiment in Maine. Thurston was an enthusiastic organizer and when he helped found the Winthrop Anti-Slavery Society in May of 1834, he was also elected as its first president. In addition to the male-run society, he also helped launch female and juvenile chapters in town. Thurston tried to pull his parishioners into the movement and held a monthly concert of prayer for enslaved people at the church. However, his radicalism caused a “division” among his congregants that eventually led to his dismissal from the church. 

The second anti-slavery society in Maine was founded by merchant Ebenezer “Deacon” Dole (1776–1847) and his brother Daniel at his Hallowell home, which still stands today on Second and Lincoln Streets. Dole was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, having once helped bail him out of jail in 1830 and hosted him in his home during his 1832 visit to Hallowell. Dole was also likely to have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In November, 1835, an enslaver named Ambrose Crane of St. Marks Florida accused Dole of “stealing” his wife’s “property” by providing asylum to a young African American girl who served as the family’s nanny while they were visiting Hallowell the previous August. 

“Now Sir I have only one word to say (at present) on the subject that is, to return my property to me without delay or expense,” wrote an angry Crane wrote to Dole,  “or I pledge you my word it shall cost you 3 times the value of the girl, besides I will advertise you & your compatriots in this nefarious transaction in every state in the union & offer such a reward as will probably give me the pleasure of seeing you here when I could get more for exhibiting you a month than you have made all your lifetime…” 

Little else is known about the girl or if she ever made it to freedom, but it doesn’t appear the threat worked. Deacon Dole’s nephew Daniel would go on to become a missionary in Hawaii. In 1893, Daniel’s son Sanford Dole backed an American-led coup d’état that overthrew the indigenous monarchy of the islands and installed him as president of the new Hawaiian Republic. Another one of Deacon Dole’s nephews, Charles Fletcher Dole, became a radical Unitarian minister, anti-imperialist and outspoken proponent of racial and gender equality. Charles’ son James Drummond Dole, on the other hand, went to Hawaii to join his cousin Sanford in 1899 to establish the massive Dole pineapple empire that made him fabulously rich.

The same month that the Maine Anti-Slavery Society Convention call went out, a large crowd of anti-abolitionists packed a meeting in Portland to condemn the rabble rousers. They expressed fear that abolitionists would “excite the passions of the slaves and to make free persons of color not only dissatisfied with the condition in which they were placed by the established orders of society, but to make them repine and murmur at the order of Providence which by an indelible character has marked them and will forever mark them as a peculiar people.”

As historian Ronald Banks writes, the committee resolved that although slavery was morally wrong, “its immediate eradication would produce evils which cannot be contemplated without dismay.” Instead, the committee put its trust in “the generous and chivalrous South” to gradually rid itself of slavery overtime. The group appointed a representative from each church parish in the city to formally request that their churches forbid anyone from lecturing in their meeting houses about the abolition of slavery.

Like reactionary conservatives today, the Portland anti-abolitionists blamed the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the city on outside agitators —  “itinerant, intermeddling foreigners, impertinently obtruding themselves upon our people ” and seeking to stoke a slave insurrection and civil war. When it was announced that the keynote speaker of the upcoming Anti-Slavery Convention was none other than famed British abolitionist George Thompson, the opponents of abolition had the perfect villain for their xenophobic conspiracies.


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