Gag Rule


There are American heroes we read about in our study from adolescence to adulthood. I know you can name them out loud—for example, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and so on. However, today I will share a story of a man I don't think many of you have ever heard of; his name is Theodore Dwight Weld. Does his name ring any bells?

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to describe how this man came to be and his immense impact on ending slavery in the United States. Like all stories, his is a circuitous route to prominence in the history of freeing men, women, and children from bondage.

Theodore grew up in a farming community in the early 1800s. By the age of 14, he took over 100 acres of his father's land near Hartford, Connecticut, to earn money to study at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. 

Weld was successful and attended for two years before receiving a diagnosis that his eyesight was failing. As a result, Weld decided to create an itinerant lecture series on mnemonics, traveling for three years throughout the United States, including the South, where he saw slavery first-hand.   


He moved to Clinton, Oneida County, New York after his traveling lectures found their conclusion. While studying at Hamilton College, he met the famous evangelist Charles Finney and immediately became a student. 

Theodore studied under Finney for several years and became a preacher in 1827. He entered the Oneida Institute of Science and Industry in Whitesboro, New York, after first staying at the farmhouse of founder George Washington Gale in Western New York, working in exchange for instruction. At the Oneida Institute, he first met men of color as fellow classmates. The Institute was the first school in the history of the U.S. to allow white and black men to study equally.

May I have Your Attention

Weld would develop his public speaking by traveling for two weeks at a time. Furthermore, he spoke on the virtues of manual labor, temperance, and moral reform. Theodore had the stamina and charisma to hold listeners spellbound for three hours straight. Consequently, he was able to captivate his audience with insights and examples of great interest. 

Weld was described thus by James Fairchild, who knew him from when they were students together at Oberlin (of which Fairchild would later be President):

Among these students was Theodore D. Weld, a young man with surpassing eloquence and logical powers and a personal influence that was even more fascinating than his eloquence. I state my impression of him as a boy, which may seem extravagant, but I have seen crowds of bearded men held spellbound by his power for hours together and for twenty evenings in succession.

Agent X

As a result of his lectures, Weld's reputation for speaking gained the attention of philanthropists Lewis and Arthur Tappan (a Wealthy and influential abolitionist in New York). The two brothers created the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions to hire him as its "general agent" and sent him on a factfinding and speaking tour. Hence, a 100-page report on his activities, accompanied by 20 letters received from interviewees, was delivered a year later on January 10, 1833. 

During his year as a manual labor agent for the Teppan family, Weld scouted the land, found the location, and recruited the faculty for the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. He enrolled there as a student in 1833, although he was informally the school's director. Theodore had this power because, on his recommendation, the Tappans' grants would continue or go elsewhere (as they soon did to Oberlin).

Throughout his travels, Weld was exposed to much of the South. What he saw there, together with studying the book Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), turned him into a committed abolitionist. Consequently, Weld created a series of public debates, over 18 evenings in February 1834, on abolition versus colonization. Theodore presented the horrors of American slavery with an exposé of the inadequacy of the American Colonization Society's project of helping free blacks migrate to Africa and its intent to preserve, rather than eliminate, slavery. In the end, the audience's views highly supported immediate abolition. 

Free Speech? 

Many citizens in Cincinnati were excited about a free and equal society. However, many were not. Given the pro-slavery sentiment in Cincinnati, many found his behavior unacceptable. After rumored threats of violence against the seminary, the trustees passed rules abolishing the seminary's colonization and abolition societies and banned any further discussion of slavery.

The resulting action was a massive resignation of staff and students from Lane Seminary. The students enrolled at the new Oberlin Collegiate Institute. Insisting as conditions of their enrollment that they be free to discuss any topic, that Oberlin accept blacks on the same basis as whites, and that the trustees not be able to fire faculty for any or no reason.

Beginning in 1834, Weld was an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, and Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave), recruiting and training people to work for the cause, making converts of James G. Birney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher. Weld became one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, working with the Tappan brothers, New York philanthropists James G. Birney and Gamaliel Bailey, and the Grimké sisters.

In other Words

In four years, Theodore would marry Angelina Grimké and retire from the arduous speaking tour to a farm in Belleview, New Jersey. As a result of his newfound time, he, his wife, and her sister co-wrote the very influential 1839 book American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The work resulted from Weld purchasing thousands of newspaper back issues from the New Your Stock Exchange and his personal experiences traveling through the Southern U.S. The book invites those interested in calling the office of the publisher, the American Anti-Slavery Society, to verify its sources.  

I wrote a separate blog on Harriet Beecher Stowe describing how she used American Slavery as It Is as the direct inspiration for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which also became very influential in the movement to end slavery. Weld's book would sell 100,000 copies in the first year. It served as a vital combination of testimony from those affected by slavery and advertisements published by slavers themselves. Consequently, this strategy proved effective at gaining support for abolitionism since enslavers could not dispute their own words.

Let's Talk

As the fight continued for anti-slavery, leaders of the movement included women's rights. In 1840 Weld, the Tappan brothers, and other abolitionists, formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS) and entered politics through the anti-slavery Liberty Party (forerunner of the Republican Party).  

During the next three years, Weld would move to D.C. to direct the national campaign for sending anti-slavery petitions to Congress. He assisted John Quincy Adams when Congress tried him for reading petitions violating the gag rule, which stated that slavery could not be discussed in Congress. In other words, Weld created the first and most successful lobby regarding anti-slavery. It would take another 18 years before the North and South would go to war over this topic. However, most believe this was the start. 

Soon after his time in Washington, Theodore returned to New Jersey and created several schools with his wife. First was the school of the Raritan Bay Union at Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The school accepted students of all races and sexes. In 1864 he moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, where he helped open another school in Lexington, Massachusetts, dedicated to the same principles. Here, Weld had charge of Conversation, Composition, and English Literature.

The Difference 

Many historians regard Weld as the most influential figure in the abolitionist movement, surpassing even Garrison, but his passion for anonymity made him an unknown figure in American history.

I hope you are now closer to understanding how influential one person can be and how necessary it is to have the support of others. 


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