The Missing Link: Conservative Abolitionists, Slavery, and Yale

tags: slavery, Yale, abolition

Eric Herschthal is completing his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University while currently on a dissertation fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His work explores the role science played in the early Anglo-American abolitionist movement, between 1770 and 1830. His scholarship has appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic and Early American Studies (forthcoming, Spring 2017). Follow him on Twitter @EricHerschthal.

We’re living in one of those moments that doesn’t happen often: elite universities are suddenly interested in their slave-related pasts. Or at least they’re pretending to be—heaven knows the public relations disaster they’d find themselves in if they ignored student-driven demands for a public reckoning. Whatever the motivations, the trend is unmistakable. Earlier this month, Harvard held a high-profile conference on the university’s links to slavery. In February, Columbia unveiled a website detailing the school’s ties to slavery, at roughly the same time that Yale agreed to remove the name of John C. Calhoun, of slavery as “positive good” fame, from one its residential colleges. Georgetown’s efforts have been most impressive: in the fall, they announced the creation of a center for the study of slavery and that they would offer admissions’ preference to the descendants of the 272 slaves the university owned and sold to finance its debt. These efforts of course build off earlier work, from Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons’ pioneering effort in 2003 to get her university to investigate its ties to slavery, to Craig Steven Wilder’s remarkable recent history, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Despite the importance of all this work, I worry that the focus on slaveholders and slave traders misses an important link tying universities to slavery: antislavery supporters, particularly northern white advocates of colonization, or the idea that former slaves should be voluntarily resettled once free. For decades, historians dismissed colonizationists as slavery’s apologists. But increasingly, scholars are beginning to understand them, or at least colonization’s northern white supporters, as what I call conservative abolitionistsRadical black and whiteabolitionists famously denounced the colonization movement in the 1820s and 1830s, giving rise to the much-studied Garrisonian movement. But to see radical abolitionism as the only authentic antislavery position is to miss a critical point: what made the radical movement radical was not so much that it wanted to end slavery, but, at least in part, that it envisioned blacks living alongside whites in a slave-free republic. By contrast, northern colonizationists accepted emancipation but rejected integration. It was not a fringe position. William Lloyd himself started out as a colonizationist, and among northern intellectuals, colonization remained far more respectable than radical abolitionism until the Civil War. Lincoln even toyed with the idea until emancipation.1

Benjamin Silliman, appointed Yale’s first chemistry professor in 1802 and a prominent northern colonizationist, provides a perfect case study, demonstrating the way conservative abolitionists secured elite universities’ ties to slavery. Silliman played a central role building up Yale’s scientific institutions, from expanding its science curriculum, to helping found its medical school and natural history museum. And many of the Yale alumni he relied upon for financial support were prominent slaveholders, including John C. Calhoun. Studying Silliman’s letters, memoirs, and Yale’s treasury records not only shows how conservative abolitionists tied slaveholders to Yale’s financial fortunes: it also reveals how slave money helped build up Yale’s science programs in particular. If scholars are to continue researching slavery’s ties to universities, which they must, they need to pay closer attention not only to which universities profited from slavery, but what particular branches of knowledge within those universities gained from it.

Born in 1779, Silliman grew up in the heyday of gradual abolitionism. Like many of his scientific heroes, he believed slavery should end gradually, first by ending the slave trade, then by encouraging states to enact gradual emancipation laws. But like many of the early white abolitionist elite, he was ambivalent, if not outright opposed, to free blacks’ equal place within the nation: “It is obviously wrong to urge, much more to coerce, them to leave it,” Silliman said in defense of voluntary colonization, in 1832. Better to “convince them [African Americans] that it is for their interest and happiness, and they will [look] forward to emigrate.”

Silliman’s antislavery conservativism was in part shaped by his reliance on slaveholders to fund Yale’s scientific program. As Yale’s first chemistry professor, Silliman made it his mission to establish the school as a leading institution for science education. Central to that effort was his effort to acquire what was called the Gibbs Cabinet. A collection of nearly 10,000 exotic minerals, the cabinet formed the basis of what is today’s Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, and quickly became a major marketing tool for the university. “This cabinet doubtless exerted its influence upon the public mind in attracting students to the College,” Silliman wrote in his journal. ...

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