When Prudence Crandall announced her plan to open a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, in March 1833, few of her neighbors approved of her plans. Two years earlier, abolitionists had decided to establish a manual labor school for black boys in New Haven, and this had also met with vigorous opposition. While many white Protestant New Englanders supported black education in theory, especially if those educated in local schools were to be sent to Liberia as evangels of Christianity and civilization, the schools proposed by radical abolitionists at New Haven and Cornwall were different. What would these radicals be teaching their students? Would they learn to hate whites? A sabbath school book on the Colonization Society had (perhaps unintentionally) raised this question in the early 1830s: “if it be true that knowledge is power,” one character realized, “the moment they are enlightened they would be likely to exert it” (Sarah Tuttle, Claims of the Africans). Or would the abolitionists teach blacks that they were equal to whites and deserving of full citizenship? As an article in the Norwich Republican on April 24, 1833, put it: “if they have their seminaries of instruction, why shall they be barred from the ballot-box? The next step in the progress of fanaticism will be, that we shall be a parti-colored race, ranging from the purest white down to utter darkness.”
Andrew Judson led the opposition to Prudence Crandall’s Canterbury school, and, to the radical abolitionists’ delight, he was also the local representative to Windham County’s chapter of the American Colonization Society. For radical abolitionists on the lookout for chances to point out the hypocrisy of the Colonization Society, Judson’s refusal to accept a school meant to “elevate” young women of color was a gift. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and other sympathetic newspapers had a field day with the Colonization Society’s discomfort: as benevolent Christians, they supported educational efforts for black Americans, but they rallied against this school and this benevolent lady, Prudence Crandall. The abolitionists’ cries only grew louder in June when Crandall was arrested after being found in violation of a new law prohibiting the education of black people from out of state.
As abolitionists gleefully pointed out the “savagery” and “barbarity” of the white republican (?) Christians (?) of this New England village (abolitionists used question marks or sarcastic italics), the churchgoers who supported African colonization and missionary work squirmed. They scrambled to find a way to justify their disapproval of the school without also hurting their own claims to be benevolent men with an interest in the education and improvement of blacks.
In the course of examining how colonizationists responded to the abolitionist onslaught, I came across the following delightfully colorful letter that was published in multiple New England newspapers. This particular one is cut from the New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, July 10, 1833.
Was the letter-writer (G.T.) a person of color? Unknown. I suspect that this wasn’t really the point. The letter provided concrete evidence in support of the colonizationists’ case against radical abolitionism. The letter showed how the well-heeled radicals in Boston and Providence stirred up ignorant vigilantes, and it didn’t hurt that this particular one was from the wilds of Pittsburgh. It also worked to deflect the abolitionists’ charges that the white men in Canterbury who had put Crandall in prison were “savages.” Here, Judson and Adams appeared as defenders of civilization and social order against the rowdy mob and men who somehow could muster together the enormous sum of $500 to pay an Irishman to beat up the “dastardly puppies” who were Canterbury’s selectmen.
In the course of conducting research on this for a conference paper, I’ve run across a couple of other interesting letters related to the Crandall affair that are reprinted in numerous papers, and each time, I wonder if they were real or hoaxes. My newfound skepticism comes in part from my recent experiences researching the miscegenation hoax in 1864: it absolutely would have benefited the radical abolitionists if a “friend of the Colonization cause” penned a series of letters opposing the school (as did happen), and, similarly, the school’s opponents benefited from having this kind of evidence that the abolitionists’ fanaticism did indeed lead to threats of violence.
I would like to be able to find out if these letters were real, but I also think that they can be useful even if their provenance remains unknown. For one, they generate reactions that are real. A number of different papers ran editorials and printed responses (including Crandall’s own response) to the series of letters from “a friend of the Colonization cause.” I could be wrong, but the fact that the pseudonymous writer continued to write letters suggests to me that this was a real person, not a dreamed up character. Moreover, the arguments that “a friend” made against the school and for African colonization did not stray far from the ACS’s party line, even if it did give the abolitionists’ plenty of ammunition. The Pittsburgh letter, though, seems more suspect; yet it is also quite revealing. It was (allegedly) addressed to the postmaster of Canterbury, and it would have remained private except for the fact that Judson and his colleagues chose to release it in order to defend their cause. Real or fake, the Pittsburgh letter shows the hand of the Canterbury selectmen as they tried to maintain the uneasy balance of being benevolent Christian gentlemen while also adamantly opposing the benevolent efforts of a young woman toward free people of color.