Sunday, February 7, 2016

Black History Month: Moncure Conway

When a nonslaveholder said they hated slavery, it didn't necessarily mean they were an abolitionist, because very few southern whites worked to end slavery.

That wasn't true in the case of Moncure Conway, son of a Virginia planter and slaveholder. He hated slavery, and he devoted himself to ending it.

Moncure Conway was born on March 17, 1832, in Stafford County, Virginia.  The relatives of his father, county magistrate Walker Peyton Conway, included the families of James Madison and George Washington.  His mother, Margaret Daniel, was the granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  One of his uncles was a states' rights advocate.  And his great-uncle, Peter Vivan Daniel, was a member of the Supreme Court.  In 1857, Peter Daniel voted with the majority in the infamous Dred Scott decision, which stated that "the Negro has no rights which the white man was bound to respect" and included the ruling that African-Americans could never become U.S. citizens.

But Moncure Conway could not bring himself to follow in the thinking of his great-uncle. Conway's biographer, John d'Entremont, called him "the most radical white male who grew up in the antebellum South."

After earning an AB degree from Pennsylvania's Dickinson College, he became a Methodist minister. But not long afterwards, he began shifting towards being a Unitarian and an abolitionist.  It was mostly the women in his family that encouraged him in this direction.  By contrast, his father and uncle "threatened to have him drummed out of town."  Right around this time, he discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings, and started corresponding with him.  In 1853, he moved to eastern Massachusetts, where he met and developed his relationship with Emerson and also earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School.

During Conway's time at Harvard, a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns was arrested.  Abolitionists tried to free Burns through legal channels, and when that failed, they stormed the jail.  A deputy sheriff was killed in the chaos.  No doubt that influenced Conway to come out, in 1854, as an open abolitionist.  He spoke at the same Fourth of July rally where William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the US Constituion.  In his speech, Conway said that, "in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave."

The next year, 1855, Conway was ordained as a minister of the First Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He preached so fervently against slavery that he was fired in 1856.  Undaunted, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, became the minister of their First Unitarian Church, and married Ellen Davis Dana.  Gradually, he moved away from Unitarianism into "free thought", no longer believing in Christ's divinity or in miracles.

In July, 1862, Conway, upon hearing of fighting in the area in Virginia where he had lived, made up his mind to free his family's slaves.  After finding about thirty of them in Washington, D.C., and negotiating with railroad officials to take them to Ohio, they set out on a dangerous trip to Yellow Springs, Ohio.  When the slaves finally reached free territory, Conway "observed that every eye danced, every tongue was loosened, and, after some singing, they all dropped off to sleep.  It was not until the next day that I learned that the station which had wrought such a transfomation was the dividing line between the slave and the free states. . . . there the shadow of slavery ended."

The free people named their settlement along the Little Miami River "Conway's Colony".

In 1863, while in England, Conway--without permission from the US government--tried to bargain with the Confederate envoy to England, offering to support disunion if the Confederates would free their slaves.   Back home, Confederates relished in Conway's error, while fellow abolitionists protested.  Conway offered a meek apology to Secretary of State William Seward.

After the Civil War, Conway lived much of the rest of his life as an expatriate.  He served as the minister of London's South Place Chapel, a British free thought organization, and also wrote much on philosophy and religion.  While he was living in New York, he wrote biographies of figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Paine.

Not long after his wife died of cancer in 1897, Conway moved to Paris.  He continued to write and travel until his death on November 15, 1907.

In 1862, when Conway learned of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, he called it a poor compromise, because the Proclamation freed slaves only in some states and didn't address the issue of equal rights.

"What will we do in 1962?" he wrote.

He could not have known that, by 1962, the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam and moving full speed ahead.

Sources used:

Schools, Norman L. "Moncure Conway (1832-1907)". Encyclopedia Virginia 
"Moncure Conway, Southern Abolitionist," Renegade South: Histories of Unconventional Southerners, January19, 2010
Boorstein, Michelle. "From 1850s Virginia, an Abolitionist Hero Emerges." Washington Post, Sunday, August 22, 2004

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