GOD’S CHORE BOY
SAMUEL JOSEPH MAY
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY
SYRACUSE, NEW YORK
[An Unpublished Manuscript Donated to May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society]
Used with authorization by his Daughter, Harriet Galpin Hughes
Prepared for the Internet, May 15, 2008, by Roger Hiemstra, Chair, History Committee, May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, Syracuse, New York.
(a) All rights are reserved by the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form – except for a brief quotation (not to exceed 1,000 words) in a review or professional work – without permission from Roger Hiemstra, some member of the History Committee, or some church officer.
(b) If citing material used from this manuscript, use normal citation protocols, including information directing readers to this web site.
(c) Below you can read the Preface through Chapter VIII in digital format, including active links to offsite supporting material. However, Chapters IX through Biographical Notes are separate but searchable PDF file links. After reading each chapter, return to this page and click on subsequent links as shown below. These chapters were typed on a manual typewriter, and then photocopied before being transformed into a PDF file, so the font, size, and varied brightness may impact on your ability to read all words clearly.
Chapter I As It Was In the Beginning
Chapter II The Brooklyn Pastorate
Chapter III The Road to Thermopylae
Chapter IV A Christian Soldier
Chapter V Pioneering for Peace
Chapter VI South Scituate
Chapter VII Political Action
Chapter VIII The Schoolmaster
Chapter IX Early Days at Syracuse
Chapter X Fugitives from Justice
Chapter XI The Impending Conflict
Chapter XII An Interlude
Chapter XIII The Crossroads
Chapter XIV The Civil War and Reconstruction
Chapter XV The Educator
Chapter XVI Wine and Women
Chapter XVII The Liberal Christian
Chapter XVIII The Family Album
Chapter XIX The Happy Warrior
Roger Hiemstra, Archivist, May Memorial
October 20, 2008
Some years ago while engaged in a study of organized peace efforts in the United States, my attention was directed toward Samuel Joseph May, one time Unitarian pastor in Syracuse, New York. The very modest though highly effective role he played in this movement elicited my interest and admiration. Later investigations in the Gerrit Smith papers and in the field of Central New York history led me to believe that a new appraisal of his life might be undertaken. Accordingly, I set myself to the task, the result of which is the present volume.
May's life centered about his family and church. Here he rendered his greatest services; here he built for himself an unseen monument of love and devotion. His broad equalitarian nature, however, led him into many humanitarian efforts, notably those incident to the antislavery and peace crusades. Recently, a school of historical writers has stressed the economic forces underlying these movements and has marshaled an imposing array of facts to endorse its conclusion. Others, probing as deeply into the past, have emphasized the religious and moral factors. Surely no one will question the statement that Garrison, Alcott, Phillips, or Weld had anything to gain in an economic sense by advocating abolition and peace. In the case of May, there was no possible profit motive. Financially, he lost much for his efforts and the fact that today he is almost a forgotten man indicates how little he cared for either worldly commendation on condemnation. These hardy pioneers, moreover, assumed the leadership in these undertakings, and without them it is difficult to believe that abolition would have become so vital an issue.
Although an ardent reformer in the fullest sense of the word, May was preeminently a man. Unlike his friend Gerrit Smith, May kept his feet on the ground and while he held his head high it was never lost in the clouds. Nor did his skilled pen and brilliant tongue ever lash forth bitter invectives as was true of Garrison and Phillips. He had opponents who frequently belittled his words and deeds. Abusive terms were hurled at him; an impassioned crowd mobbed him more than once; and in Syracuse he was burned in effigy. And yet when all was said and done, no thinking man could be his enemy. Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Gentile, black or white – all recognized his unflinching loyalty to truth. He was a Christian soldier ready to give battle for the Lord but a soldier who sought to gain his ends by spiritual and educational weapons.
I am under great obligations to the many librarians who most graciously assisted me in this undertaking. Dr. Odell Shepard made it possible for me to examine the Alcott papers, Reverend J. R. Wilson of Norwell placed at my disposal the church records of South Scituate, and Reverend W. W. W. Argow, one time Unitarian pastor at Syracuse, extended many favors in respect to May’s pastorate in that city. The late Mrs. Dora Hazard of Syracuse kindly allowed me the use of her father’s, Charles B. Sedgwick, papers. A timely grant-in-aid by the American Council of Learned Societies was of great help. I am also deeply grateful to Dr. Ralph V. Harlow for permission to use his life of Gerrit Smith while still in manuscript. And to Reverend Frederick May Eliot and his most obliging staff of the American Unitarian Association, I wish to express my thanks for their many thoughtful kindnesses. Dr. Charles Dewitt very graciously allowed me the use of his penetrating study of peace efforts in Onondaga County. Finally, I owe much to Miss Katherine May Wilkinson of New York City whose loan of her grandfather’s diary and letters was most helpful.
It will be noted that throughout this volume there appears no footnotes or formal bibliography. I have omitted these devices, so familiar to the student, so as not to distract the attention of the average reader. The bibliographical notes at the end of the volume should serve as a sufficient guide to the more important sources used for this study.
W. F. Galpin, Syracuse, NY
AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING
A carpenter once lived in Boston. Close friends called him Sam May; others, more formal, said, Samuel May. Almost everyone knew that he and his good wife, Abigail Williams of Roxbury, were simple and humble descendants of Puritan stock which had migrated from England to Massachusetts some one hundred years before. Then, Boston was little more than a hamlet facing a rock bound New England coast. Conditions, however, had changed by 1750 and Boston had become one of the largest and most enterprising cities in His Majesty's Colonies. Royal officers, revenue collectors, and arrogant "red-coats” rubbed shoulders with bargain driving merchants and traders. Each day, excepting Sunday when a. Sabbatical sanctity silenced the sound of the money changers, State Street was transformed into an exchange. Here merchants from Cornhill, "another comfortable street for trade," joined their fellows from State Street to discuss and transact financial undertakings. Not far distant was the harbor crowded with ships that sailed the high seas -- some to be guided by the skillful hands of Yankee navigators into the Pacific, while others crossed the broad Atlantic in search or silks and satins to appease the vanity of "My Lady.” Then there were the smaller craft that brought wheat and flour from Alexandria, Virginia, or casks of rich molasses from the Sugar Colonies. Molasses for baked beans! Molasses to be brewed into potent rum! Orthodox and law abiding Bostonians might not touch a drop – God forbid. But what of the ungodly and the heathen Indians? Well, that was different, and so a thriving rum industry brought prosperity to God's elect, and dotted Boston with many a stately and ornate church.
Boston was growing every day. Many public buildings were being erected, while new dwelling places for an expanding population sprang up in large numbers. In New or West Boston, neat and elegant houses of brick were constructed, with handsome entrances and door cases, and an impressive flight of steps. Old Boston, however, was a wooden affair of indifferent styles and shapes. Many of the homes were weather-boarded with shingled roofs, the tops of which were enclosed by an awkward railing. Within this area, reached by a narrow stairway that was little more than a ladder, the housewives of Boston were wont to dry their wash.
In one of these homes, a plain, square, two story house, located on what is now the corner of Washington and Davis streets, lived Samuel May and his wife. Here they reared a fairly good sized family, one of whom was honored by the name of Joseph. Mother and father were hard working parents who did the best they could on what little they had. Frills and luxuries were not to be found in this simple household. Bread, meat, good warm homespun clothing, and a snug bed were about all that could be offered in a material way. Beyond these basic essentials, the parents could not go, but when it came to things of the mind and spirit, there was nothing they would not do. Joseph must receive a good education, cost what it might in privation to others; their turn would come later. And so Joseph was placed under the guiding hand of Master Lovell of the Latin School. Religious instruction was provided by Reverend Mather Byles, pastor of the Hollis Street Society. His piety and learning were beyond reproach, though Samuel was often troubled about the former's political views. Byles we a stout defender of George III and his ultra Tory sermons finally disturbed Samuel. The latter could not stomach these and in due time he severed his connections with the Hollis Street Society. The Old South Church now became his home and Joseph's spiritual training was transferred to a more "patriotic" instructor.
Joseph was sixteen when American independence was proclaimed, old enough to be sent out into the world to make a living. During the next four years, therefore, he served as an apprentice to Mr. Stephen Salisbury of Worcester, after which he returned to Boston. Here he entered into a business partnership with a distant cousin, Thomas Patterson, of Baltimore; the Boston office being located at No.3 Long Wharf. The enterprise was most successful; prosperity rained upon the young man. Logically, the next step was matrimony, and on December 28, 1784, he took as his bride, Dorothy Sewell, daughter of Deacon Samuel Sewell of the Old South Church. For several years the couple resided on Milk Street, only a few blocks from the husband's place of business. Good fortune continued to court Joseph until 1798 when, due to a series of unfortunate investments by Mr. Patterson, the partnership crashed and May was left almost penniless. For a year or two, the family was in straightened conditions, but May's new position as Secretary of the Boston Marine Insurance Company restored his fortunes. It was during this depression that Joseph moved his family to No.1 Federal Court, where he continued to live until 1835
Joseph – or as he was also called, Colonel May, because of his interest and membership in the local military – was a man of unusual ability and talent. He was also active in humanitarian efforts and aided in the establishment of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Asylum for the Indians. Like his father, he became a devoted communicant of the Old South Church, and when this edifice was seized by the British troops during the Revolution, he, together with others of the congregation worshipped at King's Chapel. When the war was over, most of these people returned to their old meeting house, though Joseph and his family remained at the Chapel. A few years later, Joseph was one of a select committee that voted to alter the Liturgy. King's Chapel, by this action, separated itself from the Trinitarianism of the Episcopal Church. And, in 1787, he was one of a small number who, on their own authority, ordained Dr. James Freeman to be their minister. In addition to these services, Joseph May was Junior Warden of the Chapel from 1793 to 1795, and again from 1798 to 1826.
Shortly before the crash of the firm of Patterson and May, Mrs. Joseph May presented her husband with a boy. But for the untimely death of two earlier sons – Samuel and Joseph – this child would have been named James Freeman. As it was, this worthy divine christened the boy, Samuel Joseph, in honor of his dead brothers and those of his ancestry who had borne these names. Preceding his birth, there had been Catherine, the future Mrs. C. W. Winship of Roxbury; a son Charles, who lived until 1856; a daughter Louisa, who married Samuel Greele of Boston, and another son named Edward. Later, Elizabeth Sewell May was born, who married Benjamin Ellis of Portland, and Abigail, who became the wife of Bronson Alcott, the idealist and dreamer of Concord.
Little need be said of Samuel Joseph May’s infancy. Actually, there are few references to this period of his life. Those who are interested will find many happenings recollected by May in his autobiography. To what extent these are reliable is not known. One of these, however, seems to have the earmarks of truth and thus deserves mention. It relates to the mutual love that developed between him and his brother Edward. Fair-haired and blue-eyed Edward, who was but two years older than Samuel Joseph, became the idol of his brother’s heart. Together they romped over floor and yard the best or playmates. They ate together and slept in the same bed. One day they pretended to be chimney sweeps. With great glee, Edward grabbed a broken chair, leaned it against a fence, climbed the latter and soon was on top of a low barn. Here, with much gusto, he went through the antics and motions of cleaning a chimney, much to the delight of Samuel Joseph who stood watching from the ground. On retracing his steps, Edward's foot slipped and his body was thrown upon the splintered post of the old chair. The injury was fatal and in a few hours he bled to death.
Samuel Joseph's anguish was immense, nor could he be quieted until his strange request to be allowed to sleep beside his dead brother was granted. Night followed and, in the stillness thereof, a sobbing child showered kisses upon his dead brother, tugged at the closed eyelids and begged him to speak. Nature finally halted the scene and the little fellow cried himself to sleep. The ordeal of the funeral that followed opened the floodgates again, though the comforting words of his parents, who assured him that Edward had gone to a heavenly world, brought solace and a good night's rest. During this sleep, Samuel Joseph dreamed that the ceiling of his room opened, through which Edward and a group of angels appeared. Edward related the glories of heaven, and then, with a kiss and a cheerful message to parents, brothers, and sisters, returned to heaven with his celestial company. Similar visitations followed and Samuel Joseph's grief was lessened by the knowledge that Edward was in good and loving hands. New playmates, moreover, entered his life. "But I have never forgotten my Edward," so he wrote late in life, and "I believe,” in speaking of the event, "it had the greatest single influence in awakening and fixing in my soul the full faith I have in the continuance of life after death.”
When Samuel Joseph was seven years old, he was sent to live with his mother's brother, Chief Justice Sewell of Marblehead. Here he attended the local Academy where, on one occasion, he was soundly boxed for having broken a petty rule of an austere teacher. Small wonder that he preferred to scamper down to the docks and witness the arrival of some fishing smack, or to listen to the wild tales hardy sailors told. Later, he returned to Boston, where he experienced schooling in the "Ma'am Schools" conducted by Mrs. Cazeneau and Mrs. Wallcut. From these he went to a school presided over by a Mr. Cummings, located in the rear of the Federal Street Church. At this juncture his health declined and he was hastened to Stoughton, where Reverend Edward Richmond maintained a school which stressed physical development. Within a year, he was back home on Federal Court, and became a pupil of Mr. Elisha Clap, then reputed to be one of the best teachers in all Boston. Day after day, Samuel Joseph went to this school, which was but a single room within the First Church on Chauncey Place. Under the guiding hand of Mr. Clap, Samuel Joseph finished what might be called his high school training, and in September, 1813, entered Harvard College without conditions.
May's boyhood, however, was not entirely devoted to intellectual activity. His father saw to it that his spiritual development was cared for by much church going and with extensive readings from the Bible, morning and night. Federal Court, moreover, was but a step from Federal Street on which lived the great divine, Dr. William E. Channing. Even while but six or seven, May frequently visited Dr. Channing who always was willing to talk with the little fellow and entertain him with graphic pictures of biblical scenes. But May was too active a youngster to limit his life to school, church, and Dr. Channing’s office. Boston Common was but a few blocks away and here he often went to play with those of his age. One can picture him, minus shoes and stockings, wading in Frog Pond, or climbing Beacon Hill to look down upon the inlet, from which British soldiers went in search of munitions, located at Concord in 1775. Possibly, he stopped in his play to annoy and pester the cows which were pastured on the Common. And then, tired and hungry, he would vault the wooden fence that enclosed the Common, scamper over streets pitched with pebbles, and arrive breathless at home. In the evening, he must have often stood in front of his father's home and watched the lamplighter as he went about his work, or have pressed his nose against the window panes to see some passing lobster man, whose painted barrow, red within and blue without, was a familiar sight at that time. Possibly, he might in the morning follow an oysterman, whose shrill voice told many a good housewife that he had "Oise" for sale. As May grew older he most certainly must have wandered down to the docks, particularly during the War of 1812. Boston Harbor was usually crowded with ships and who knew but there might be some Federal Frigate then in port? Surely he could not have missed the arrival of the Constitution, under Captain Hull in 1812, and he must have stood on some street watching the parade which the City Fathers had arranged for this naval hero. At other times, he must have seen the "Sea-Fencibles," Boston's crack Home Guard, march back and forth over then Common.
But boyhood ended in the fall of 1813. Samuel Joseph was now a young man, ready to enter Harvard College. Possibly his father hitched up the buggy and drove his son to Cambridge; possibly the two went by stage. In either case they must have driven over the New Bridge which connected Boston and Cambridge. Built entirely of wood at the cost of over a hundred thousand dollars, this bridge had evoked considerable praise and commendation. Henry Wansey, a clothier of Warminster, England, saw it in 1794 and described it as "a most prodigious work . . . worthy of the Roman Empire.”
Although the War of 1812 was in progress, May found that he was a member of the largest entering class in the history of Harvard College. Not all of these students by any means graduated. Some of them, one may be certain, were unable to pass the required course of study offered by the hard and exacting faculty of day. Nor was much latitude allowed for individual electives.
Harvard knew, or thought it knew, precisely what was needed for a well-rounded education. Its curriculum was limited to but one course of study that was admirably arranged in a four year sequence. It was a Paradise for the Classicists. During the first year, May received instruction in Horace and Livy – all the five books if you please – as well as an intensive study of Dalzel's Collectanea Graeca Majora, Well’s Excerpta Latina, and Adam’s Roman Antiquities. Grotius’ DeVeritate Religiounis Christianae, Walke’s Rhetorica, and Lowth’s English Grammar were also read as well as various works in algebra and geometry. In addition, May was required to take part in the weekly exercises in Reading and Declamation.
Some of these subjects were continued during the Sophomore year to which were added, for good measure, Cicero’s Orations, Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric, Tyler’s History, Ancient and Modern, Lock’s Essays, and a formal course in Logic. Declamation and Composition were finished by the Junior Year, during which time May waded through the Iliad, Juvenal, Tacitus, and Perseus. Willard’s Hebrew Grammar and Whitney’s Hebrew Bible were studied as well as Palfrey’s Moral Philosophy, Enfield’s Natural Philosophy, and Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind. Analytic Geometry and Topography completed the offerings of the third year. Since May was not twenty-one, he was not allowed to elect French that year – a boon that Harvard grudgingly permitted upon request and approval of one's parents. During his Senior Year, May continued his studies in philosophy and was allowed to penetrate the deep mysteries of spherical geometry. Gorham's Chemistry was analyzed, and for a peek into Political Science he was exposed to the Federalist. A course in Political Economy was also taken.
A splendid Classical training for entrance into the ministry or polite society! Graduates of Harvard, whether they went into the banking or commercial houses of Boston, or embarked upon a legal or literary career, knew their Latin and Greek. Practically no instruction was offered in the fields or engineering, forestry, medicine and, law, while formal courses in journalism, education, and business administration were not thought of. Highly satisfactory indeed for the devotees of the Ancient World, but surely decidedly weak in the Social Sciences, and May's life was to center more about the latter than the former. However, May could not peer into the future, nor for that matter did he see any reason for taking a more liberal course, which indeed he could have had a hard time finding anywhere in America. In spite of apparent defects, May profited greatly from his studies. Constant information was gathered in large quantities. More lasting results, however, were gained from the close contacts which existed between student and teacher. These personal relations, after all, were worth far more than knowledge of Cicero or Horace. First and foremost among the faculty was Dr. John T. Kirkland, President of the College, whose generous and warm-hearted nature made him beloved by all. Then there was John Farrar, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, whose natural eloquence in lecturing made his classes especially interesting and stimulating. Levi Frisbie, Professor of Latin, also left his mark -- Frisbie who had the odd trick of covering his face in class with a handkerchief, possibly to protect his weak and sickly eyes. Finally, there was dear old Andrews Norton, the College librarian, whose home was open to May at all times.
In spite of these assets, May's freshman year could hardly be called a success. He disliked most of his subjects and thought the faculty erred in presenting so much useless material. Once again, youth questioned the wisdom of old age. As a result, he did little more than pass and had to be content with a low rating. Surely, his teachers had little reason to be proud of him. On the other hand, he elicited their highest commendation on achieving the honor of being one of four to win the annual Bowdoin Prize. No freshman had ever gained this distinction before and when his name was announced as one of the winners, his friends crowded about him with many heartfelt words of praise. During his sophomore year, his work improved. He liked his subjects better and his earlier opinion as to the value of the prescribed courses changed. He came to see and appreciate the merit in what Harvard had offered him during his first year, and he deeply regretted the opportunities he had neglected. Possibly, the close companionship which grew between him and his roommate, Cousin Samuel E. Sewell, had much to do with this change in attitude, as Sewell's influence seems ever to have been in the right direction. Early in his third year, May formed the determination to enter the Christian ministry, and from that time he pursued his studies with an earnestness that won considerable recognition from friends and faculty. It was during this year that he gave a Dialogue in English at the Spring Exhibition, and engaged in a Colloquial Discussion, “On the Influence of the Multiplication of Books upon the Interests of Literature and Science." Finally, at Commencement in July, 1817, he was associated with Samuel. A. Eliot of Boston in a, Colloquial on the “Moral Influence of the Christian Sabbath."
May's college career was typical for that age. It appears that he roomed in the College Dormitory and dined at the Commons. The meals furnished by the College were wholesome and generous, but this did not prevent May from paying for "extras" in the form of additional butter, bread, or sweets. Nor was he above playing pranks as college boys have from time immemorial. The Administration strictly frowned upon such activities and on occasions meted out punishments in the form of fines, suspension, or expulsion. Students at Harvard were to act like gentlemen; rowdies were not wanted. May never perpetrated an unpardonable offense though his name does appear in the records of the College as having paid fines. As a freshman, he was charged the enormous sum of thirty-four cents. Each year witnessed a slight increase, that in 1817 amounting to one dollar and sixty-one cents. Unfortunately, our sources do not list the cause for these assessments. Possibly, it might have been snowballing, or breaking a window, or he might have engaged in a "rough-house" that resulted in the breaking of crockery or furniture.
Far more profitable exercise was taken in the form of walks throughout the country -- organized athletics being not thought of. Lexington was but a few miles away and, while Concord was further, many students then and today have walked over the route taken by the British soldiers in their march to and retreat from Concord. During vacations, May frequently was invited to visit the homes of his classmates. One of these, Thomas R. Sullivan, seems to have found him a most genial companion and repeatedly asked him to spend a day or two at his father's home in Woburn. Here they sailed on the Middlesex Canal and Woburn Pond. On one of these occasions, Mr. John L. Sullivan, father of May's friend, had as his houseguest no less a man than the "great Daniel Webster." May was thrilled on being introduced to so great a lawyer and statesman, and together with the other members of the party, which included several ladies, chatted with Mr. Webster during the course of the sail. On stopping at a beautiful point on the Pond, one of the ladies expressed a strong desire for some lilies that fringed the shore but which could not be reached except by a small boat or raft. Gallant as always, Webster challenged the courage of the college boys by exclaiming, "Oh that I were as young as I was a few years ago! I would ransack the shores of the Pond, until I found some boat or boards by which to reach and gather these lilies” Young Sullivan and all his friends, excepting May, bounded off' to discover some means of reaching the lilies. May's continued presence on the boat became most conspicuous and embarrassing, and the repeated glances at him by the fair members of the party reddened his cheeks in shame. Whereupon May jumped into the water and, amid the applause of the company, waded out and collected a number of lilies. What a spectacle he presented! There he stood soaked with water from his waist down, bestowing lilies upon each of the women. “Lovely tempters" he called them. Webster never forgot the incident and always graciously recognized May whenever they met until the two parted over the slavery question in 1839.
Sullivan was only one of many close friends May had at Cambridge. Closest to his heart was Cousin Samuel E. Sewell; then came George B. Emerson. May thought so highly of Emerson that in later life he honored his friend by naming one of his boys after him. Others whom May enjoyed were Robert Schuyler, Benjamin Fessenden, John D. Wells, Samuel A. Eliot, Joseph Coolidge, Charles H. Warren, and Joseph H. Jones. Some of these, like Eliot and Fessenden, had determined to enter the ministry and matriculated at the Harvard Divinity School about the same time as did May. Before registering at this School, May spent several months at Hingham where he divided his time between studying for the ministry, under the direction of Reverend Henry Colman, and in assisting the latter in conducting a small classical school. The venture was happy enough insofar as personal contacts with Colman were concerned. Colman was most gracious and introduced the young student to many prominent persons, including the venerable John Adams. May also seems to have found time to visit Dr. Henry Ware's classes at Cambridge. But May disliked this division of labor. He was unable to apply himself to his studies because of his teaching load, and the latter suffered because of the former. Accordingly, in May, 1818, he left Hingham and returned to Cambridge to pursue his main objective.
While at the Divinity School, he lived for a time at the residence of Mr. Holmes, pastor of the Congregational Church at Cambridge and father of the future Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. To May's great delight, he found that Fessenden had also taken rooms at the same house, and the two had many happy hours together. As a close neighbor, these young men had their former teacher, Professor Andrews Norton. The Divinity School was then hardly organized. Dr. Henry Ware and Professors Frisbie and Norton gave general advice and instruction, but in the main the students were allowed to visit any of the regular classes of Harvard College and such lectures which the faculty gave from time to time. On occasion, Dr. Ware assigned special topics for study and discussion, such for example as one reported by May on the "Value of Prophesy as a Proof of Divine Revelation.” Dr. Channing of Boston also appears to have lectured and outlined a course of reading for the students. Although formal training was certainly meager, if not inadequate, May profited greatly from his studies and from the inspiration which his instructors afforded.
Most diligently did he scan the pages of the scriptures, digging deeply into the history and doctrine of this divine work. The writings of the early Church Fathers became common to him, and his mind was filled with the inherent strength and virility of the Christian faith. Like many a student, then as today, doubts arose -- doubts as to the miracles performed of old, like that of Joshua and the sun. Most of these he easily resolved for himself. However, one arose that caused him infinite worry -- one that went deep into the entire structure of accepted theology, namely the divine inspiration of the Bible. There was too much of human nature, so he thought, within this historic tome to indicate a divine nature and origin. Moreover, the more he sought to penetrate this problem, the other imponderable question appeared, of the divinity of Christ himself. As an undergraduate at Harvard College, he had heard of the heated discussions relative to Trinitarianism and the Virgin Birth of Christ that bad been engendered by Dr. Morse of Charleston in an issue of the Boston Panoplist. But he had given it no serious consideration. Dr. Colman may have referred to it during the winter of 1817-1818, though the absence of any mention of these discussions in May's writings would seem to indicate that his religious views were quite orthodox at the time. Orthodox to the extent that he accepted what he had heard from Drs. Channing and Freeman. It was, therefore, largely as a result of his own study and thought that he came to question what generally bad been accepted as eternal truths. To cast the latter overboard would require much independence in thinking. Possibly, so he reasoned, he was too young to grasp the inherent significance of orthodox faith. Older and more experienced minds than his must have grappled with the same problem and the fact that most of them remained loyal to well established opinions cautioned him against hasty action. And so he retraced his steps. The Bible was reexamined and each of his doubts were submitted to painstaking inquiry and objective criticism. But in the end he was no better off. His additional studying inevitably brought him closer to the position held by those of the Unitarian faith which sharply questioned formal doctrine and creed. His heart sank within him as his mind forced him along this path. The entire world of faith, in which he had been nurtured, seemed to be tumbling down; he was painfully distressed.
In fear and with great perturbation, he hastened to Dr. Ware, in whose study he unbosomed himself. Ware listened patiently and, when May had finished, complimented the latter upon having reached a point in his thinking where he no longer was willing to lean upon the opinions of others. This, Ware stated, was a signal achievement, and constituted indisputable evidence that May's education had not been in vain. Continue to grow, he added, and of necessity you will arrive at a correct and proper appreciation of essential truths. "But Sir," May replied, "what are the essential truths?" "All truth, came the answer, "is essential . . . If you sincerely desire and long for truth, the Father of your spirit will not permit you to remain satisfied in error. And if what you believe, at any time, leads you to reverence God and keep His commandments, to love your fellow beings and delight to do them good, it cannot be a dangerous error."
This was sound advice, and as May pondered over what Ware had said, his mind and heart became quieted. He was comforted and strengthened. From that day to the end of his life, May never forgot what his teacher had told him. More significantly, he translated that advice into action. Never did he hesitate to seek after truth, however much it might endanger his own cherished opinions or those of others. His spirit had been emancipated by this conversation with Dr. Ware, and he returned to his studies convinced that truth would keep his spirit free. It led him, quite naturally, to seek out the comradeship of others who felt and believed as he did, and soon his steps took him to that small band of devout men in Boston who were raising high the standards of American Unitarianism.
In the meantime, May's years at the Divinity School sped rapidly by, and before he knew it, 1820 came and with it the end of his ministerial training. Like the days spent at Harvard College, those at the Divinity School had been happy ones. He always cherished the friends he had made and his loyalty to Alma Mater brought him back to Cambridge on many occasions. As long as he remained in New England, he was frequently seen wandering about the yard at Commencement time. Living in Syracuse, of course, made these visits less often, but when he could, he returned to the scene of his college days. In 1847, the graduating class of the Divinity School honored him by inviting him to be their class speaker, an invitation which he gladly accepted and most fittingly fulfilled. Later, in 1861, he was present at the 41st reunion of his class. Cousin Samuel E. Sewell -- May's old roommate -- was on hand to greet him as were C. R. Miles, Dan Hatch, Silas Allen, and several others. What a glorious time these old "grads" must have had! The campus must have fairly echoed with their greetings and with the stories they told of bygone days. But the festivities had only begun. First, there was the matter of attending the graduating exercises of the Class of 1861. Here the alumni sat in silent judgment over the declamations and addresses. May was delighted at the skill and ability of the speakers, particularly Wendell P. Garrison, whose address was “on the whole the best." But what must have pleased May most was the presence, on the platform, of his old friend and companion, William Lloyd Garrison, whom Harvard honored that day. At the dinner that followed, more talks were given. "Old President Quincy - 90 years old," made an admirable address as did the dean of all orators, Edward Everett.
Six years later, May returned to Cambridge again, this time to attend his 50th anniversary. Twenty members of this class were present and the reunions, held at the Library and Revere House in Boston, were crowded with events May never forgot. The graduation exercises were better than ever, and the address by Ralph Waldo Emerson was "admirable." At the dinner, May sat next to President Hill, but before the affair was over, he had left the speaker's table and had seated himself at another reserved for the members of his class. The following day, after a night spent at Emerson's home, May attended a meeting of Phi Beta Kappa, of which he was then made a member "by a larger majority than anyone had been." The following year, 1869, May attended Commencement Exercises at both the College and Divinity School, and was honored by being elected President of the Alumni of the latter institution.
Probably, this was May's last visit to Cambridge, as bodily infirmities kept him at home during the remainder of his life. But his loyalty to Harvard did not lessen. Age only reaffirmed those convictions formed in 1817. Harvard was a noble institution! It had rendered valuable services to him, and he never ceased to praise and thank his Alma Mater for the privilege of having been a recipient of its many gifts and favors.
THE BROOKLYN PASTORATE
During the early summer of 1820, and while May was still at the Divinity College, Cambridge was visited by a severe epidemic of dysentery. Many of the students were quite ill. One of these was George B. Emerson who foolishly had left his bed to take part in the Commencement Exercises. May became thoroughly alarmed over his friend’s condition and hastened him to Boston, where May’s mother and sister nursed him back to health. When Emerson had recovered sufficiently to travel, May accompanied him to his home, in Kennebunk, Maine, where he remained for several weeks. On his return to Boston, he found an invitation awaiting him to go to Nahant, a favorite summer resort of wealthy Bostonians. These gentlemen wanted him to serve as a schoolmaster for their sons. The opportunity was too good to miss, and so May went to Nahant. On Sundays, he conducted religious services for the Colony. May enjoyed his work, particularly the experience he received in preaching, upon which the Unitarians put great stress. Frequently, his sermons were those of well-known divines. This delighted his congregation and afforded him an opportunity to develop skill and ease in speech. Once in a while he drafted discourses of his own and tried them out upon his listeners with evident success. Not all of his waking hours, however, were devoted to preaching and teaching. There were long walks to be taken and time to be spent upon the beach. May thoroughly enjoyed physical recreation, knowing full well that a sound body was as essential as an alert mind. And when in the fall he returned home, he felt and acted like a new man.
By this time May had decided to enter the ministry of the Unitarian church. Unitarianism was then in its infancy. It was a lusty infant, however, and, much to the disgust and fear of congregationalism, was manifesting signs of rapid development. Several of Boston’s most prominent churches had gone over to the new faith, while in others Unitarian clergy occupied the pulpits. In the case of the latter, considerable dispute arose between the Unitarians, who often were in a minority, and the Orthodox over property rights. A court decision finally settled the matter, it being decided that when a majority of the church congregation had seceded, because of religions differences and hostility to a pastor of the Unitarian faith, the minority which remained were the church and were legally possessed of all its property rights. Fortified by court actions, Unitarianism obtained an economic base which was of untold value.
Foremost among the Bostonian leaders of Unitarianism were Dr. James Freeman of King’s Chapel and Dr. William Ellery Channing, both of whom had been God-parents to May and whose influence must have steered him into Unitarianism. Freeman and Channing, as well as others, firmly believed that Unitarianism needed a structural organization if its mission was to succeed. Mere preaching was not enough. Some guiding body must be set up which should articulate the work of the clergy, provide for certification of young pastors, and outline a missionary program of expansion and growth. As a result, there was organized, May, 30, 1820, in the vestry of the Federal street church, the Berry Street Conference, which for the next five years acted as the governing board of the Unitarian church. In 1825, the Berry Street Conference gave way to the American Unitarianism Association which ever since has directed the fortunes of that faith.
It was, therefore, to the Berry Street Conference, that many applied for admission into the ministry. The Conference welcomed him most cordially, and assigned him the task of preparing a sermon based on the text, “Through Him we both have access by one spirit onto the Father.” Two weeks past, during which time May worked diligently upon his sermon. When all was ready, he called at Dr. Channing’s residence and before a group of examiners delivered his sermon. He was applauded for his efforts and was certified, in December, 1820, as an “approbated” minister. Shortly thereafter, he went to Springfield, weary occupied the pulpit of Reverend W. B. O. Peabody. From Springfield, May went to Cambridge where he soon received an invitation to preach at Brooklyn, Connecticut.
Brooklyn was, and still is, a small but picturesque New England Village, located in the northeastern part of Connecticut. Here, for a while, had lived Israel Putnam who, having served King George against the French and the Indians, fought against him in the war for American Independence. The general, were he alive in 1820, would hardly have recognized his home. What had been an attractive house had been converted into a print shop. Office of this building and standing today, on a triangular village green, was the Meeting House. Erected according to approved New England standards, this edifice constituted Brooklyn’s chief architectural gem until an untimely tropical hurricane, in 1938, toppled over its gorgeous spire and have leveled its surrounding maples—trees that May planted—two the ground. Not far away was a modest inn, where the Worcester stage stopped on its way to Hartford. Finally, there was a courthouse and a jail in which, at a later date, May’s very dear friend, Miss Prudence Crandall, was to be lodged for having a “nigger school” at Canterbury.
May had heard of Brooklyn through his Unitarian connections. His knowledge, however, was scanty and was chiefly limited to the trials and tribulations that had shaken the religious life of the community since 1817. At that time, the Rev. Luther Willson was pastor of the Brooklyn church. Willson had been reared in the orthodox faith of New England, but had not closed his ears to the religious renaissance precipitated in Boston by the founders of American Unitarianism. The more he examined the latter, the more he appreciated its broad humanitarian program. And, as he began to expound its merits to his flock, he came to realize how deeply congregationalism had entrenched itself in Brooklyn. Most of his parishioners were highly shocked by his sermons, and not a few hesitated to call him an heretic. Willson stood his ground and continued to stress Unitarianism. His opponents returned blow for blow and at a heated church meeting sharply reminded him that he had been hired two preach Trinitarianism and not radical Unitarians views. Willson was not surprised, though the blow stunned him for the moment. What was he to do? Resigned and leave the field open to the enemy? Courage prompted him to say “no,” but judgment convinced him that he would have to retire unless help was forthcoming from Boston. Boston heard his cry and speedily sent a committee to Brooklyn to survey the situation.
On this committee was the Rev. Henry Colman of Hingham, under whose direction May had studied for the ministry. And it was from Colman that May first heard of Brooklyn, of the committee’s inability to aid Willson, and of his ultimate retirement from that parish. Later, May heard that the seeds planted by Willson were bearing fruit, that the Unitarian element in Brooklyn had increased in numbers, and that they had been administered to by several young Unitarian pastors, notably Rev. Mr. Whitney. The Trinitarians, unable to check the “mechanizations” of “heretics,” finally seceded and erected a small but neat church of their own. This religious schism was at its height when May received his call to Brooklyn. One could hardly view the situation as very promising or inviting. And when viewed from the angle of the State, it was quite dismal, for Connecticut was the stronghold of the Orthodox who were certain to aid the Brooklyn Trinitarians in their fight against Unitarian heresy.
And yet May accepted the offer. He was a young man, much in need of parochial experience. The position, moreover, was not permanent; he had been asked to occupy the pulpit for only a few weeks. Little harm could come from going to Brooklyn for so short a time. Actually, he remained in Brooklyn for five weeks, and then announced he was returning to Boston. The local congregation expressed deep regret. You have gained our goodwill, they told him; the entire community respects you, and we wish you would remain longer. Why not stay for the remainder of the year, or better still, why not accept our offer to make Brooklyn your home for life? May’s heart was touched by the generous and spontaneous expression of admiration and love, but his judgment argued that he should seek the counsel of those in Boston. Here he encountered strong opposition. The Brooklyn pastorate, he was told, required a man much older and more experienced than he. Moreover, May’s entire future might be blasted by the almost certain failure that awaited him if he returned to Brooklyn. May recognized the soundness of this advice and accordingly informed his Brooklyn friends that while he appreciated their kindness, he felt they should seek an older and wiser head than his. And with this, he considered his Brooklyn days over.
For the next few weeks he continued his theological studies and did supply worked at Salem, Lynn, and Boston. In May, 1821, he occupied a New York City pulpit for a short time. A little later he visited friends and relatives at a Baltimore and Richmond. During the course of this trip, he preached for Jared Sparks at Washington and would have remained longer but for the arrival of his sister Louisa, who because of ill health had been advised to take a Southern trip. Some time was been spent in travel throughout Maryland and Virginia. The natural beauty of the country and the warm hospitality of its people pleased him. But why, he asked himself, should the latter spoil everything by tolerating a system of human bondage? May, however, did not wait for an answer nor did he give the matter much thought. His interests, for the time being, were otherwise. There were relatives to visit, notably Dr. Frederick May, a prominent physician of Washington. Time also was slipping by, and there were duties waiting him in New York. Early in July, 1821, therefore, he left Washington for New York. Here he said goodbye to his sister, who returned home, while he remained to occupy the pulpit of the New York Unitarian Church. After several busy weeks, he was back in Boston, where he served for three months as Dr. Channing’s assistant at the Federal Street Church. So highly did he value the experience of working under Dr. Channing that in September he declined a flattering offer to become pastor of the First Unitarian Church of New York City. May remained with Dr. Channing until the close of the year.
In January of the new year, he received an offer to become the permanent pastor of the Richmond Church. Dr. Sparks had nominated him for the position and urged May to accept the invitation. After much thought, May was ready to give his consent when suddenly and without warning the voice of Brooklyn was heard. May, it seems, was leaving the father’s home one morning in February, 1822, to post a letter to Sparks telling him that he would be in Richmond in the near future, when he was met at the door by Mr. John Parish and Mr. Herbert Williams of Brooklyn. May recognized them at once and invited them to come in, probably thinking that it was merely a social call. They soon disillusioned him. Their visit was purely one of business, namely that the Brooklyn Church had commissioned them to renew the offer of last year. Brooklyn, they insisted, needed May; his youth and temperament was precisely what was wanted; and if perchance he would not care to consider a permanent position, would he not try it for at least a year? Unitarianism, they continued, was sorely endangered by the attacks of the Trinitarians, and May and May alone could save the Brooklyn Society from extinction.
May was so impressed with the sincerity of these men that he could not say no. Still he could not say yes, not at least until he had given the matter careful thought. Could they wait in Boston for a day or two? Certainly, came the answer, and with this Williams and Parish left. The next forty-eight hours were busy ones for May. The advice and counsel of friends and relatives was eagerly sought, but as before, they urged May to give up all ideas of going to Brooklyn. His youth, the delicate situation at Brooklyn, the splendid future that awaited him at Richmond – these and many other arguments were advanced as they had been a year before. All of which May readily admitted, but when all was said and done, they stood speechless before his contention that the Brooklyn invitation was a call and summons from God! And where divine duty called, May always obeyed. Accordingly, he informed Parish and Williams of his decision to serve them for a year. Having done this, he then tore up the letter he had written to Sparks. In its place, there went another, excusing himself from the Richmond position.
Realizing that the Brooklyn Society had not enjoyed the regular administration of Christian ordinances since 1817, and that the Church would be seriously handicapped by having only an approbated minister, May applied to the Berry Street Conference for ordination. The officers of the Conference expressed deep satisfaction, and plans were made to make the rite a most impressive affair. Invitations were extended to the Unitarian clergy of Boston and nearby towns. Representatives from these churches met May in the vestry of historic Chauncey Place Church, March 14th, and granted him ordination. Immediately thereafter, the entire group filed into the Church where a goodly number of friends and relatives had gathered. May easily recognized his father and mother, whose faces must still have shown traces of the sorrow they recently had experienced in the death of their daughter, Elizabeth, the wife of Mr. Benjamin Willis of Portland. Indeed, May’s mother had returned from Portland on the 13th, and with a heavy, though brave, heart to throw herself into preparing for her son’s ordination and home leaving. The service proceeded in proper order. Reverend Nathaniel Frothingham, whose austerity of thought, so it is reported, prevented him from mentioning Beethoven’s sonatas in his sermons, gave the introductory prayer. Dr. James Freeman of King’s Chapel delivered the sermon. The Dr. John Porter of Roxbury, who less than three weeks before had officiated at the funeral of May’s great uncle, Joseph Williams, gave the solemn prayer of consecration. Finally, Dr. John T. Kirkland charged and admonished May never to waver from Christian duties and responsibilities. Assisting these gentlemen were two other friends, dear to May’s heart – Dr. Henry Ware, Jr., who extended the Right Hand of Fellowship, and Dr. John Pierpont, who delivered the closing prayer.
The following day May bade his parents and sisters farewell and set out for Brooklyn. He went first to Providence where he spent the night with friends. Late in the evening of the 16th, he reached his final destination and rested at the home of John Parish. Early the next morning he made ready for church. For his text, he had selected certain verses from the fourteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans – precisely what verses is not known, thought his diary would lead one to believe that he stressed those which read, “Let us not therefore judge one another anymore . . . Let not then your good be evil spoken of.” During this discourse, and not without visible effect, May spoke of the unhappy divisions existing in the town. He asked them to examine their own hearts and minds, and see if they had not offended Christian charity. If this should prove true, he urged them not to hunt for excuses but to admit their efforts like men. Such a procedure, he concluded, would lead to better relations with fellow Christians. Having finished his sermon, he then told them of his recent ordination and of his wish to serve them to the utmost of his ability. His arms and heart, so to s peak, were wide open. Would they entrust themselves to his care, or were there some who might have disliked his exhortations? Hardly had he finished, when the congregation crowded about him, congratulating him upon his ordination, and promising to labor with him for the glory and truth of God.
Equally encouraging were the comments May received from his friends. The Christian Register commented most favorably upon his ordination and wished him the best of success and happiness in Brooklyn. Sparks also sent him a letter, weighed down with expressions of good will and the hope that the Trinitarians would acquit themselves in an honorable manner. May was delighted. Writing to Sparks, he said, “My heart sunk within me when I received a from this people – but I could not turn a deaf ear and now I rejoice that I obeyed.” Nor, he continued, has any appreciable opposition shown itself among the Orthodox, though they were much in evidence. Their leaders, however, were weak and probably would not take an aggressive stand. As for his own congregation, most of them were young and could be relied upon if doctrinal sermons were not poured upon them. And this May determined not to do. He hoped to win their hearts to Unitarianism by educational and social devices rather than by sermons that echoed with denunciations of the Orthodox and the virtues of the elect. A small but selected library, furnished through the kindness of the New York Book Society, would constitute his first line of attack and defense. Here his flock would find proper religious reading which would direct their thoughts toward an appreciation and wholehearted espousal of Unitarianism. Supplementing this approach, he hoped to change their Sunday reading habits, which largely centered about the weekly newspaper which regularly was published in the village on Saturday. Not that there was any fault to be found with the political and social items that appeared in this paper. But why, asked May, should not editor issue this in addition on Tuesday, and then print a Saturday number that stressed Christian virtues and a proper religious life? Finally, as part of his educational program, May organized weekly social gatherings at the homes of his parishioners. Here, discussions of some suitable Christian topic preceded the serving of light refreshments and drink.
The Trinitarians were dumbfounded. They had expected a vituperative attack and were not a little bewildered by May’s serenity. What did he mean by displaying an olive branch? Did he intend to leave them alone? Religious wars had never been fought in such a manner! They had been ready to give battle, but they did not know how to treat one who refused to fight. Gradually the truth dawned upon them. In refusing to give battle, May actually was winning the victory. Here was no mean opponent, and his policy of peaceful penetration was bearing fruit. Accordingly, they resorted to much the same tactics. Openly, they posed as friends, but unlike May, they began to circulate in gross misrepresentations about the Unitarian faith. It was now May’s turn to worry. No amount of preaching could offset the effect of these criticisms, nor could he always be present when some idle time sought to create dissension among his people. Even had he been able to utilize the local newspaper—the editor not having accepted May’s suggestion – he could not have led a successful counter attack. Nor were his Sunday evening services at Hampton entirely successful. He had gone to this neighboring village at the request of thirty six of its citizens and for five weeks had administered to their religious needs. But, instead of strengthening his position at home, he found that his foes had utilized these visits as a means of weakening his control over his Society. Why, it was asked does May leave his own flock to go to Hampton? Is there not enough work for him at Brooklyn? Finally, by June, 1822, May became convinced that his former policy for the time would have to be dropped. Over to action was now needed. His new line of attack called for the publication of a paper of his own. It would be known as the Liberal Christian, and its columns would seek to defuse historical, religious, and doctrinal knowledge. In this manner, May hoped to retain his own flock and convince others that Unitarianism was essentially Christian and not heretical.
Such an undertaking required capital and May had little to spare. Two gain financial support as well as to announce his intentions, May issued a prospectus. The Liberal Christian was to appear fortnightly, to consist of eight octavo sheets, and to sell for a dollar a year. May expected no sudden deluge of subscribers, though he did expect enough to warrant publication. The reverse actually took place. He explained this by reasoning that the “cunning Connecticut people would not buy it until they knew the quality of the thing to be sold.” From a financial point of view, May should have hesitated before going forward with his plans. Policy, however, dictated that he should go forward, as a retreat at this point would be tantamount to defeat. Accordingly, he bent himself to the task. At times, he felt oppressed with “care and responsibility,” and the thought came to him more than once that his coming to Brooklyn might have been a mistake. But he would not think of yielding. “Providence,” he stated over and over again, “has placed me among this people, and I do not see how I can leave them with deserting the post of duty.” And so pursued his plans for the paper. Finally, on January 11, 1823, the first number appeared. It was well received in some quarters, the Christian Register, for example, spoke of it in glowing terms and urged its readers to support May’s endeavor. In Connecticut, however, the response was light; even Brooklyn failed to meet May’s expectations. By the spring of 1824, May's Financial Resources dried up, and publication ceased. Although quite disappointed over the outcome, he still believed the effort to have been worthwhile. The immediate occasion for the Liberal Christian had been to keep Unitarianism intact in Brooklyn. This had been accomplished and the blasts of the Trinitarians nullified.
During the course of this journalistic effort, May was called upon to iron out a dispute that had arisen between his people and their opponents, the Trinitarians. It was only a small matter in itself, but Brooklyn was a small town and its citizens were quite prone to make mountains out of molehills. What if the Trinitarians had possession of the communal vessels, formerly the property of the First Church? Let them keep this stolen property and we will find some way of meeting our own needs, so some one of broader vision might argue today. But Brooklyn of 1823 he looked upon the matter quite differently. Communion vessels cost money and where can funds be found to purchase another set? Surely, not among us? Moreover, why should we had admit the Trinitarians to be in the right? They had taken what did not belong to them and should be forced to return the same at once. May realized how deeply his people felt about the issue; he also knew that the Trinitarians were quite as touchy. Accordingly, he counseled moderation and suggested that, pending final settlement, both societies use the vessels in common. No! thundered the Trinitarians. We have and own these vessels; such a compromise is out of the question. And so the Unitarians had to be content with a silver tankard and some glass tumblers, which formerly had adorned the dining table of one of their members. Later, Colonel Joseph May, came to his son’s aid by presenting the church with four handsome plated cups, though the matter of a tankard remained unsolved. Finally, after further negotiation with the Trinitarians, it was agreed that the latter would pay the Unitarians the sum of twenty dollars, but retain possession of the vessels themselves. Not until the last day of 1824 was the final paid. Shortly thereafter, Reverend Charles Lowell of Boston presented the Brooklyn Society with two appropriate silver tankards.
In spite of these difficulties, May’s relations with the Society were very friendly. Their appreciation of his services had been shown on many an occasion, and long before his first year was over, they had urged him to settle at Brooklyn for life. At a full meeting of the society, October 3, 1823, it was unanimously voted to offer him a permanent post at a salary of $600 a year. May was delighted. He had come to love Brooklyn and was quite willing to remain there. Accordingly, he accepted the invitation and gladly cooperated with them in arranging for his installation. May’s father and several intimate friends questioned the wisdom of his decision, though among the Unitarian officials at Boston there was great rejoicing. The formal installation took place on November 5th. Dear old Dr. Freeman came from Boston to deliver the charge, bringing with him Francis Parkman, Colonel Joseph May, and Reverend J. Walker of Charleston. Dr. William B. O. Peabody of Springfield was also present as was Reverend Luther Willson, who had been driven from Brooklyn by the Trinitarians in 1817. The event was not only a personal triumph for May, but a decided victory for the Unitarians.
In the meantime, May’s heart had been fluttering. Lucretia Flagge Coffin, daughter of Peter and Anne (Martin) Coffin of Boston, was the sole cause for the trouble. Lucretia found May’s repeated visits to Boston a source of distinct pleasure, and what charming letters he wrote! May was not blind to the success of his courtship and was experiencing and in due time proposed marriage. Lucretia accepted and on June 1, 1825, she became Mrs. Samuel Joseph May. Shortly thereafter, she was introduced to Brooklyn. She adjusted herself splendidly to the life of the village and was a great source of help to her husband in his pastoral work. Up to this time, May had been living at the home of one of his parishioners; now, he and Mrs. May occupied an attractive house which faced the Village Green and was within the shadow of the Meeting House. May’s affection for his wife grew as the days lengthened into weeks and when she presented him, June 27, 1827, with a splendid baby boy, his joy and happiness seemed complete. The child was named Joseph, in honor of Grandfather May. May watched the growth of his son with evident pride and did not relish the thought of his leaving for Boston, with him mother, in the spring of 1823. Lucretia, however, was anxious to visit her parents and so May was forced to bid them Godspeed. A chaise was hired to drive them part of the way – possibly as far as Worcester where they transferred to the stage. The last half of the journey proved most uncomfortable, both mother and son being made ill by the bouncing they received from the fast traveling stage. When you come to Boston to get us “Mon Cher Ami,” so wrote Lucretia, by all means journey by a chaise, but in any event, “do come soon. When shall you come? I am almost homesick – can’t help it – for my life I am almost tempted to say, O, that I had the wings of a dove.” Nor could May stand the separation and in a short time was on his way to Boston.
Early in September, May made another flying visit to Boston, possibly because of the illness of his sister, Louisa. He found her in a more serious condition than he expected and it was with misgivings as to her recovery that he returned to Brooklyn. It was the last time he ever saw her alive, for early in November the postman brought news of her impending death. And, before May could arrange to leave Brooklyn, another letter came telling of her departure. Three years before, he had hastened to Boston just in time to be present at the bedside of his dying mother – a blow that wrenched May at the time. Realizing how depressed his father now was over Louisa’s death, May wrote he would be with him in December, at which time he was to preach in one of Boston’s churches. It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that he bade farewell to his wife and son, who was just beginning to talk, and left for Boston. As he entered his father’s home, he was deeply impressed by the sadness that enveloped the household. May’s stay in Boston was most gratifying to his father, and the consolation afforded by his son’s presence was deeply appreciated. But soon it came May’s turn to lean upon his father.
While in Boston with him mother, little Joseph had had an attack of croup from which it would seem he had recovered without any ill effects. Actually, he was left with a diseased throat, concerning which the parents had no realization. During the warm summer he grew in spite of the infection and was in good health when May left for Boston. Shortly thereafter, he caught cold and in a few hours was in bed under the doctor’s care. Lucretia wrote her husband in great haste:
Little Joseph has quite a serious return of the croup disorder . . . the Dr. says the symptoms are pretty bad . . . he has all that medicine and kindness can do and if the means are blessed by him who knows better than we do ourselves what is best he will yet be spared. You would hardly know his dear “bonnie face” – is so pale but you know how a child alters soon both for better and worse. I thought you ought to know the exact truth that though we hope much we fear much. You shall hear by next mail tho perhaps you had best come home soon. He has not been exposed, the Dr. says it is the course of the disorder – it has been sometime coming on and therefore it takes longer to decide what will be the event. May we be prepared for the worst and assigned to the worst if it can be called the worst that so pure a spirit should go unpolluted to its God and Father. 7 o’clock the darling is no better I fear – do come soon.
Yrs in love
L. F. May
Pray take care of yourself, the Dr. says he is no better – he is very very sick.
According to an entry in May’s diary, this letter, postmarked Brooklyn December 13th, must have reached Colonel May’s home on Monday, unless delivery was made on Sunday which does not seem likely. On that Sunday, however, while May was putting the finishing touches on the sermon he was to preach in the afternoon, news reached him of his son’s death. Probably some friend, coming to Boston, brought this information. May’s fine spirit and courage fled. He could hardly believe it and hurried home with a “brain almost bewildered.” He reached Brooklyn at eleven on Monday morning and found that Joseph had died on Friday. During the course of the next few days he seemed like a lost man. Every corner and nook of the house reminded him of his son, whose birth had quickened within the father a set of emotions and affections that were wholly new. Now, all of that new found joy had suddenly been wiped out. Joseph, he knew, had been removed to a “state of higher felicity,” but for what reason? “I do not entertain,” so he wrote in his diary, “a doubt that they are all directed by Infinite Wisdom and love, but the reasonableness of such dispensations is beyond our ken.” Lucretia, in the meantime, was prostrated and some time passed before she was able to assume direction of the home which now was so strangely silent.
In the meantime and before the loss of Joseph, May’s work at Brooklyn had been progressing with evident success. And that in spite of the bitter opposition of the Trinitarians. May did all that was humanly possible to soften their resentment and when their new pastor, Reverend Ambrose Edson, came to Brooklyn, he went out of his way to extend a helping and welcoming hand. Realizing that the Trinitarian Church could not accommodate the large number who would attend Edson’s installation, May very graciously offered the use of his Meeting House. This invitation, according to an entry in the parochial Journal, was refused, thought the Trinitarians did utilize the bells of the Unitarian Church to announce the hour of service. Many of May’s flock attended the installation, following which a dinner was given in honor of the new pastor. May was present at this dinner and was cordially received. But behind this social gesture lurked bitter discontent. May’s feelings toward Edson were cordial, though he knew that the latter’s arrival precluded all hopes of spiritual unity in the village. “I cannot bear the thought of considering this man my enemy. What course he means to pursue, I know not. I mean to treat him, if possible, with affectionate kindness. If he is an instrument for the promotion of religion in this place, I ought to rejoice; yes, if while he increases, I must decrease.”
It would be interesting to know how the two rivals acted toward one another. Surely they must have met at community gatherings, and if any coldness was evidenced, it most certainly did not come from May. Externally, it would seem, on the basis of limited data, no serious difficulties arose, though professional differences prevented the development of a friendship which May appears to have desired. May, however, had more important things to worry about than Reverend Edson. The financial position of his Society was in a deplorable state and May was at a loss to know what to do. Originally, the Brooklyn Church had depended upon outside sources for part of its support and while this did not amount to much it actually measured the distance between life and death. Thanks to May’s efforts, conditions had so improved that the Society undertook to handle its own affairs. For a time, everything went well, but soon a series of misfortunes arose that almost crushed May. The primary cause for this deplorable situation was the loss of a lawsuit that saddled the parish with a $900 debt. To meet this, additional assessments were imposed upon the parishioners, many of whom defaulted and withdrew from the Church. On top of this, May’s salary fell into arrears – $200 by the summer of 1827. Had he only himself to consider, he probably would not have thought of resigning, though in letters to the Association, he frankly admitted that his spirits were low and that if conditions did not brighten, he would have to leave.
Neither May nor the Society had any illusions as to the situation, and Brooklyn was agog with excitement over the prospect of May’s departure. The Society, thoroughly dismayed at the thought of losing May, appointed a committee to canvas the village in search of funds. If only $5,000 could be raised, then May’s salary, the debt, and current expenses could be met. In Brooklyn, subscriptions amounting to $3,400 were gained, and to raise the balance an appeal was sent to Boston. Nothing, however, was obtained in that city, news of which dampened the spirit of those at Brooklyn. By December, only a fraction of the amount subscribed had been paid. May was thoroughly discouraged and knew not where to turn. At this juncture, he was invited to establish a Unitarian church at Providence. May flirted with the idea and even went to Providence to survey the field. And had not the Brooklyn Society come forward with an adequate salary guarantee, May might have followed the advice of his friends and gone to Providence. The opportunities there, as stressed by his wife, were most attractive, but May loved Brooklyn and did not want to leave. Mrs. May, upon hearing of her husband’s decision quietly remarked to him, “I wish you could have been their minister. I do not wonder at their feelings of disappointment, but the greater the labor the greater the reward. This must be our consolation for the loss of worldly honors, and to a mind like yours nothing can give so much satisfaction as the honest approval of conscience.”
May’s visit to Providence had stimulated the Society to greater efforts. A committee, composed of John Parish and Benjamin Palmer, went to Boston and raised close to several hundred dollars. More significant was their interview with Colonel May, who made an offer the Society unanimously accepted. In return for a gift of $500, the Society agreed to erect an acceptable home and barn for their pastor and to meet his salary four times a year. These contributions plus what had been raised in the village placed the Society back on its feet. Within less than a year, house and barn were built, salary payments were promptly met, and May settled down to his work with renewed vigor and interest. Most of his Boston friends, with the possible exception of Alcott, felt that he should have left Brooklyn. The logic of their argument appealed to May and when he was with them he was almost won over. But, when he had returned to Brooklyn, these doubts vanished. “I love it here,” so he wrote to Ezra Gannett, and now that the “fund” was settled, he was content to remain, possibly for life.
The discomfiture of the Brooklyn Unitarians was not unnoticed by their Trinitarian foes. Idle tongues magnified the misfortunes of May’s people and led to fresh attacks. The Hartford Connecticut Observer, for example, published an inspired article condemning May for having established a Unitarian Auxiliary at Windham. May, it was stated, should confine his efforts to Brooklyn before attempting missionary work abroad. The Brooklyn Society “Just keeps its hold on life and would have sunk before this but for the support it received from Massachusetts.” May appears to have ignored this attack, probably because it contained much that was true. Financial aid from Massachusetts had saved the Society from extinction. During the course of the next two years, the Society managed to keep its head above water, but in 1831 more affliction was visited upon them. Once again, Parish and Palmer appealed to the Unitarian Association for help. By November, so they stated, the Church will be facing obligations to the amount of $1,100 of which some $320 can be met from interest due on the trust fund. Only by levying a tax of twenty three cents on a dollar on each communicant can we home to raise the balance. In addition, an assessment of nine cents on a dollar will have to be made if current expenses are to be met. Such levies are out of the question; our people are poor and, while willing to do all that they can, are unable to meet these charges. The Unitarian Association, therefore, must come to our assistance if the Society is to be continued.
The Executive Committee of the Association was quick to sense the seriousness of the situation and called upon some of the wealthier churches in Massachusetts to render aid. The response was most gratifying. Enough was contributed to tide the Society over its difficulties and to give it a new lease on life. And that in spite of continued attacks from the Trinitarians who took keen delight in the misfortunes of their rivals. Reverend G. J. Tillotson, Edson’s successor, vented his feelings by a caustic article that appeared in the Boston Recorder in April, 1833. Tillotson belittled the cause of Unitarianism and declared that its days at Brooklyn were numbered. Possibly, recent Trinitarian revival meetings, to which some of May’s own people and even May himself had gone, convinced Tillotson that Unitarianism was tottering and ready to fall. May was touched to the quick by this uncalled for attack and sent a lengthy reply to the editors of the Recorder. Because of its length, it was not printed, though a fairly complete summary was given. In this resume, May argued that the Brooklyn Society instead of declining had actually increased in size, wealth, and efficiency, and that within the last eighteen months had successfully undertaken missionary work in neighboring towns.
May’s life at Brooklyn centered about his parochial duties. The administration of church services and meetings, the missionary excursions to neighboring towns, the weekly social gatherings, and the cherished visits to the homes of his parishioners took much time and energy. But he loved these labors and responsibilities. Well might his friends wonder where he found time to live so strenuous a life. Some indeed thought he was doing too much, particularly as his widening interests took him into fields not directly related to the ministry. May never interpreted his profession so narrowly. He was more than the pastor of the Brooklyn Society. He was a citizen of that village, of Connecticut, and of the United States, and anything that concerned these civic responsibilities came within his scheme of things. Social, humanitarian, political, and economic matters were proper subjects for both mind and hand. He was minister of God and the world was his parish. If the children of Brooklyn needed improved educational opportunities, May was ready to lend interest and support. If his mind became inflamed over the evils of war, he would not rest until he had carried the gospel of the Prince of Peace throughout the lanes and roads of Brooklyn, Boston, and the broad avenues that led to the White House itself. And when William Lloyd Garrison called for help in the antislavery crusade, May consecrated himself to that reform.
It was while at Brooklyn that he first was attracted to the Temperance Movement. Early in life, May had not been ashamed to drink light wine, though he refused to touch hard liquor. In the Spring of 1826, however, he attended the Boston meeting of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance. The impact of this meeting and the conversations he had with clerical friends convinced him that it was his Christian duty to refrain from all intoxicating liquors and to counsel others to do likewise. Now and then his pulpit rang with bitter condemnation of those who garnered profit from the pockets of drunkards. Bit by bit he aroused local interests until at length he was ready to advise concerted action. Those who were like-minded agreed with him and on October 24, 1828, the Brooklyn Temperance Society was founded. In the meantime, other reformers had established similar groups in neighboring towns. May immediately suggested cooperation and early in the following spring delegates from eight associations gathered at Brooklyn and formed the Windham County Temperance Society. May was elected as a member of the Executive Committee.
Prior to the appearance of the Brooklyn Society, the American Temperance Society could boast of but thirty-five members in all of Windham County. Two years later, there were nearly three thousand, grouped in some nineteen auxiliaries of which the Brooklyn unit included one hundred and fifty. Although it would be an exaggeration to credit May with this astonishing outburst of interest, the fact remains that he was the county’s most active member. In all probability, therefore, it was May whom the officers of the Connecticut Temperance Society approached in 1829 with a view of making the county unit an auxiliary of the state organization. This arrangement was affected, and in 1832, May’s name appears on the State Board of Directors. By this time one quarter of the fifteen hundred people living in Brooklyn were members of the local society while one half of the village dram shops had been forced out of existence. Two years later, one half of the population over twelve years were pledged to temperance. May’s influence also was felt in neighboring towns to which he often went to deliver temperance addresses. At other times he attended the meetings of the County, State, and National Societies.
May’s interest in temperance never waned, though by 1832 he was devoting more attention to the antislavery movement. To aid in these undertakings, May thought of publishing another paper. He broached the idea to his Brooklyn friends and was encouraged to go forward. Matters progressed rapidly and May was on the point of issuing a prospectus when the editor of the Herald of Peace, published at New London, offered him space in that paper. May accepted the proposal but soon fund too many restrictions imposed upon him. Accordingly, he severed his connections and in March, 1832, announced publication of the Christian Monitor. The enterprise lasted for a little over a year when May was forced to suspend publication because of lack of funds. During its brief life many interesting and provocative editorials and letters were printed which won the approval of other religious and humanitarian papers. Most of these editorials were religious in nature, though space was given to temperance, peace, and the antislavery movement.
THE ROAD TO THERMOPYLAE
In the early fall of 1830, May journeyed to Boston. Here and there the stagecoach stopped, as at Concord, to pick up or discharge passengers. This was not his first visit to the village which today glories in its memories of an Emerson, a Thoreau, a Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott. As a boy, his father had brought him to this delightful New England town and, in all probability, had dined at Wright’s Tavern, the gathering place of Concord’s Minute Men during the Revolution. Surely he must have worshipped at the Meeting House, where the aged Dr. Ezra Ripley preached, and have strolled over the “rude bridge” where “embattled farmers” fought for freedom. Later, during the winter of 1816 and 1817, he became the local schoolmaster of Concord, holding classes in the same building in which Theodore Parker taught two years later. Possibly the two may have heard of one another, but it was not until a later date that they met and formed a lifelong friendship. How intimate this attachment was to become and how these men leaned upon each other for support and comfort when their political and religious views startled the respectability of a stern New England conscience! Both dearly loved Concord, which even in their youth was a hallowed spot in American history.
May’s mind must have pictured these early days as the stagecoach rumbled through the village, stopped for a few minutes, and then resumed its course to Boston. Here, after a tedious trip by the stage, he was warmly received by Colonel May, cousin Samuel Sewell and Bronson Alcott. There were many things to do – such as brushing up the sermon he was to preach Sunday at the Sumner Street Church. There were also many relatives and friends to see, and church matters to talk over with the Association officers. But that which made the deepest impression and delighted him the most, was his meeting William Lloyd Garrison – Boston’s foremost foe of slavery – of whom May had heard, though never seen.
Prior to this event, May's interest in slavery had been lukewarm. It is true that his inherent sense of justice had been touched during his tour of Virginia a few years before, when he first witnessed the degradation of the colored population. It is also true that Webster's Plymouth Rock Oration, with its fierce denunciation of the slave trade, had so affected him that it served as an incentive for a sermon. That was in 1820. No further interest appears to have been shown until 1825 when he chanced to read Reverend Rankin’s Letters. Greater stimulus was afforded, three years later, when Benjamin Lundy, staunch pioneer in the anti-slavery movement, visited Brooklyn and, at May's request, addressed a large congregation on the evils of slavery. A year later, the Windham County Colonization Society was founded at Brooklyn, of which May became an active member. This group was a branch of the Connecticut State Society which in turn was an auxiliary of the American Colonization Society.
The constitutions of these organizations aimed at the elimination of both slaves and free Negroes from America by transporting them to Liberia. Here was a humane and expedient way of ridding the country of a vexatious social and political problem; at least May and thousands of others believed that colonization was the sole solution to the slavery problem. Even Garrison applauded the efforts of the Colonization Society at the time, and it may be that May knew of the former's address in favor of colonization, delivered before the Massachusetts Colonization Society on Independence Day, 1828. It was, therefore, as a “colonization man” that May's attention was directed, shortly after his arrival in Boston in the fall of 1830, to an advertisement in a local paper announcing an address by Garrison on slavery. The speaker, so it was stated, would exhibit the sinfulness of slaveholding, expose the duplicity of the Colonization Society, and demand the immediate and unconditional emancipation of the slave. May’s mind was agitated by so fierce an uncompromising attack on what May believed to be a settled procedure. Could he be wrong? Could the Colonization Society be at fault and was it guilty of malicious dishonesty and deceit? Rumors of the latter had reached his ears, but he had rejected them as so much proslavery propaganda. But now it was Garrison, former friend of colonization, making the charge. Possibly there was some truth to what he had heard. Well, there was one way of finding out, and that was to hear Garrison. This May determined to do.
Julien Hall, Reverend Abner Kneeland’s church, was fairly well filled when Garrison arose to talk, Friday evening, October 15th. As he looked down upon his audience he doubtless recognized Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Hanover Congregational Church and outspoken critic of Unitarianism. There was also Ezra Gannett, who shortly was to follow Dr. Channing at the Federal Street Church, and John Tappan, a prosperous Boston merchant and brother of Arthur Tappan of New York City. But he probably did not recognize May, nor the latter’s companions, Alcott and Sewell. May was so visibly agitated by the dramatic appeal of the speaker that he hastened to the front immediately after Garrison had finished. After introducing himself and his friends, May greeted Garrison as a “providential man” and a “prophet” who would shake the nation to its “centre.” Several minutes of conversation followed during which May said, “Mr. Garrison, I am not sure that I can endorse all you have said this evening. Much of it requires careful consideration. But I am ready to embrace you. I am sure you are called upon to do a great work, and I mean to help you.” Sewell then promised aid, and Alcott expressed deep interest, so much so that the four locked arms, went to Alcott’s rooms, and continued their conversations and discussion until midnight. Early the next morning, May hurried to Garrison’s meager lodgings and conversed with him until two in the afternoon. He did not attend Garrison’s lecture that evening, nor those given later in the month at the Athenaeum Hall on Pearl Street. However, if one may trust the biographers of William Lloyd Garrison, this hall had been secured for Garrison by Sewell and May, “doubtless at their own expense.”
Years later May wrote relative to this midnight conversation, “That night my soul was baptized in his spirit, and ever since I have been a disciple and fellow-laborer of William Lloyd Garrison.”
In one sense this was true, but only after Garrison had convinced May of the imperative need for immediate action against slavery and the destruction of the Colonization Society. The enthusiasm and warmth of their meeting removed all doubts from May’s mind. Then and there he pledged himself to the antislavery cause. Garrison was delighted and urged his most recent convert to hold fast to truth and attack the enemy on all fronts.
An opportunity for action presented itself the Sunday following Garrison’s address, when May occupied the pulpit of Reverend Alexander Young, pastor of the Sumner Street Church. May’s opening remarks gave no indication of what he intended to say. He simply told his listeners that upon receiving Mr. Young’s invitation to preach he had carefully prepared a sermon on “Prejudice,” a sermon, he was happy to add, that would appear shortly as a Unitarian tract. Here was a topic which might enlist their interest. And so his congregation settled down to hear what this young minister had to say, though some may have tilted their heads backward in anticipation of a half hour’s nap – for why listen to what one could read at a later date. But May gave their eyelids no time to grow heavy. Yes, he had drafted a discourse on “Prejudice,” but that was before he had heard Garrison! Heads now leaned forward and Reverend Young moved uncomfortably in his chair. He would still adhere to his text, but as a result of Garrison’s speech, he would point his remarks to that crying evil of the day – slavery. In a bold and decisive manner, he then proceeded to challenge this system of human bondage. It violated God’s commandments; hence it was sinful. It prejudiced human rights; hence it was illegal. Slavery, therefore, must be abolished – the sooner the better. Immediate emancipation of the colored man must be the goal of every true Christian and American. Justice demanded freedom for all, and to gain that end, he was willing to witness the utter destruction of the American Republic. “It cannot stand, it ought not to stand, it will not stand, on the necks of millions of men.” And with that, his sermon came to an end.
Still facing his disturbed listeners, May called upon them to pray, following which he invited them to sing with him that inspiring song, “Awake my Soul, Stretch Every Nerve.” The climax came when he pronounced the benediction. “Everyone present,” he declared, “must be conscious that the closing remarks of my sermon have caused an unusual emotion throughout the church. I am glad. Would to God that a deeper emotion could be sent throughout the land . . . I have been prompted to speak thus by the words I have heard during the past week from a young man hitherto unknown, but who is, I believe, called of God to do a greater work for the good of our country than has been done by anyone since the Revolution. I mean William Lloyd Garrison. He is going to repeat his lectures the coming week. I advise, I exhort, I entreat – would that I could compel – you to go and hear him.”
Hardly had the service ended, before Reverend Young hastened to May’s side and sharply reproved him for his sermon. Never again, Mr. Young declared, would May have an opportunity of violating the propriety of this pulpit. And as for the congregation, the great majority roundly condemned a visiting pastor for having voiced such seditious and questionable views. Nor did their ill-will stop here. The very next day some of them called upon Colonel May and pled with him to influence his son to abandon a “mad career.” May’s father thought as they did and he admonished his son lest he lose standing in the ministry. Through all of this, May remained steadfast. He refused to alter his position; he would fight slavery to the end. When he handed his sermon, however, to Reverend Henry Ware Jr., editor of the Unitarian Tracts, he was told that it would not be printed unless the remarks relative to slavery had been erased. Whether it was because Ware’s official position overawed May or because he was impressed by the prospect of having one of his sermons published, no one knows, but in the end he gave his consent and the address was printed minus the remarks on slavery. Later in life, May expressed deep regret over his action.
May returned to Brooklyn bubbling over with interest and made slavery the topic of conversation wherever he went. So keen was the reaction of his friends that they urged him to invite Garrison to address them, but Garrison pled stress of work, and May talked in his place. In the meantime, Garrison had sent his friend copies of the Liberator, which began publication in January, 1831. May read these with great interest, but it was not like listening and talking with Garrison. Distance, moreover, did not lend enchantment and as May meditated about slavery and read the fiery editorials in the Liberator, amid the quietness of his Brooklyn study, he began to question some of Garrison’s conclusions. Garrison’s unbridled tongue annoyed him. Why, he asked himself, should a man of such ability and so much promise resort to such language? Why not adopt a more subtle method? Surely a rapier was preferable to a bludgeon. Garrison’s dogged determination to destroy the Colonization Society also troubled May. It will be recalled that May was a member of that society when he met Garrison, and had actually remonstrated with the latter against an attack on this organization. Garrison’s enthusiasm and logic, however, had overcome May’s objections. But now in Brooklyn, the old doubts reappeared. Finally, late in March, he unburdened his mind in a lengthy letter to Garrison. Let us admit, he wrote, that the Colonization Society is not perfect and that it will never succeed in ridding America of its colored population; but is that any reason for damning it? The society had done splendid work; it had educated the public to an appreciation of the evils of slavery, and is influencing opinion in the right direction. Garrison’s bitter attacks and censures, therefore, were uncalled for; his language was too severe and caustic; and he had “already injured greatly the cause of slavery.” It would be far better for Garrison to “tell of the criminality of holding men in bondage,” for then “your words of power will be echoed throughout the land.” “Above all, address the Blacks themselves, fervent expostulations to exert themselves – to seek knowledge, to bear injury with a Christian spirit, and exercise every virtue and peace which can adorn the human character – then will they become dear to their oppressors and truly more respectable than they.”
May’s views had no effect. Garrison graciously thanked him for his interest but refused to change his tactics. Each succeeding number of the Liberator attacked the Colonization Society in no uncertain terms. Chancing to be in Boston, May determined to make a personal appeal. Accordingly one day he called at his friend’s office where he found him hard at work preparing copy for his paper. May asked for a little of his time, and suggested that they might combine business with pleasure by a quiet walk. Garrison accepted the invitation and as the two wended their way through the streets, May asked for a more temperate tone and tolerant attitude toward the Colonizationists. Your epithets, he stated, are too severe, and the cause of the slave is endangered by actions that are unbecoming. Garrison accepted May’s criticisms with good grace, and appreciated how deep May’s friendship must be to plead with him as he did. He would not, however, admit that he was in the wrong, and showered May with arguments to prove that his tactics and judgments were sound. May was deeply impressed. Late in life, when recalling this incident, May stated that Garrison had completely won him over. Strong language alone could melt the mountains of ice that encompassed the slavery question. “From that hour to this,” so May wrote, “I have never said a word to Mr. Garrison in complaint of his style. I am more than half satisfied now that he was right then and we who objected were mistaken.” But memory sometimes plays queer tricks.
Hardly had he returned to Brooklyn than he began to reason as before. Garrison was too severe. Although May disapproved of the latter’s language and tactics, his love and admiration for the man did not lessen. Nor would he part company with a friend simply because he could not see eye to eye with him. In the meantime, he went about his pastoral duties, and devoted much time and effort to other reforms such as peace, education and temperance. Quietly, however, within his own study he was hard at work on an antislavery sermon he planned to give at Boston in May, 1831. The annual meeting of the Unitarian Association was to be held at that time, and Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson had kindly offered May the use of his pulpit for Sunday, the twenty-ninth. Garrison heard of May’s coming and immediately publicized the event. “We trust,” he stated, “that not a vacant seat will be left . . . that the aisles and galleries will be blocked with a solid mass. His address . . . will be all alive with pathos, truth and power.” This, from a man whom May had censured but a few months before! And yet there are writers who even today characterize Garrison as being totally lacking in kindness and charity.
The Hanover Street Church was well filled, and the congregation seemed to have been pleased with the discourse which the youthful pastor from Brooklyn had given them. The Liberator and the Christian Register spoke of the address in warm terms. May was pleased to know that his first public speech, dedicated solely to slavery, had been so favorably received. It encouraged him to go forward, and no sooner had he reached home than he began to redraft the sermon for future use. His congregation heard it in the form of an address on Independence Day; later he delivered it before an appreciative audience at Providence. Garrison was so delighted with its contents that he urged May to publish the same, which was finally done in Boston in 1832. As printed, it bore the title, A Discourse on Slavery in the United States. Before it appeared, however, several events transpired which profoundly affected May’s opinions and which caused him to modify his address in an important manner.
Less than a month after May had spoken at the Hanover Church, Garrison published An Address Before Free People of Color. A complimentary copy was sent to May who read the same with the greatest of interest. Much, May concluded, could be said in praise of this tract; more, however, could be said against it. He refused, in short, to allow his judgment to be clouded by his admiration for the author. Nor did he hesitate to tell Garrison what he thought, particularly in respect to the latter’s sharp invectives relative to colonization. The leaders of this movement, he wrote, “may be – they probably are – in error, but they do not deserve the unsparing vituperation which you are continually pouring out upon them.” Continue in this manner, if you wish, but it will only create dissension among the friends of the slave, whose aim like yours and mine is to free the slave. Your policies, however, divert attention from ends to means. Admit that the Colonization Society has and is doing good; do not scold them. “I do not oppose the Colonization Society – far from it – I am a member, but always speak of it publicly and privately as based upon a plan which is obviously narrow and never can accomplish what we owe to our colored brethren. I continuously point to something better which we must do . . . I fear I shall not convince you, for with all your good qualities you are as pertinacious of your opinions as I am.” And had May wished he might have cited his procedure at a recent meeting of the Windham County Colonization Society.
At this gathering, May dared to oppose the opinion of everyone present. The Society’s Annual Report, it seems, contained a statement which declared that the practicability of removing slavery by colonization had been amply shown. May denied this and suggested by way of amendment a clause which would define the objects of the Society as being educational in nature. Whereupon A.T. Judson, prominent citizen of Canterbury, thundered forth in great indignation. Yes, he ironically shouted, let us vote for the amendment with the understanding that May’s proposal condemns the Garrisonians as violators of the Federal Constitution and disturbers of the peace. Be not disillusioned by the pastor’s fine talk! He is not a colonizationist; he is a rank antislavery advocate and intends to use the Society as a device to educate the slave to espouse the antislavery movement. And what did May reply? We do not know, though it appears that Judson, rather than May, carried the field that day. May’s remarks had been couched in careful terms. He had not sought to destroy the colonization movement; he had only tried to save it from self-destruction. His opponents grossly misunderstood his motive, but how could they think otherwise in the light of May’s recent visits to Garrison’s office, and his oft repeated assertion in favor of immediate emancipation? Garrison was a damned man in their eyes, and whoever associated himself with this radical was also damned. The incident, however, is chiefly important in that May had learned a valuable lesson, namely that he must make up his mind – and that right soon – as to whether he would remain within the ranks of the respectable or join those of the disrespectable.
In the meantime, Garrison had ignored May’s lengthy letter. Garrison’s silence and the sharp slap Judson had administered ruffled May’s peace of mind. He was in the depths of a dilemma. He had not convinced his friend of the error of his ways, nor had he been able to direct the policy of his local colonization associates. What was he to do? Withdraw and leave them both alone? This he could not do and retain his own self-respect. Either he had to part company with Garrison or the Colonization Society, and between the two his better judgment argued against deserting the former. Exactly when he came to this decision is not known. The only clue is to be found in the Discourse, the final draft of which he placed in Garrison’s hands sometime after the meeting of the Windham County Society. Comparing the printed address with the news comments on his Boston address, there appears to be a marked change in the author’s mind toward colonization. Had he attacked the latter in Boston, it seems most likely that Garrison would have mentioned it in the Liberator. Garrison was sorely in need of friends at the time and a convert like May most certainly would have been noted. On the other hand, Garrison applauded the printed address because of its denunciation of colonization. It is evident, therefore, that May must have left the colonization ranks shortly after his unfortunate experience with Judson.
In the Discourse, May openly questioned the practicability of transferring slaves to Liberia and declared that the Colonization Society could never obtain funds sufficient for this purpose. “These United States,” he added, “are the native country of most of the colored, as much as of the white population. If they prefer to abide here, they have as good a right so to do as we have, and it is our burden and duty to make this a pleasant home for them.” Colonization, therefore, was not only impracticable but it violated the inherent rights of the blacks to the land of their birth. “May the Colonization Society,” he continued, “be speedily extinguished if indeed it be founded upon the wish to get rid of our black population.” The colored man “must be liberated from bondage,” and by that the author meant immediate emancipation. “They must be educated as we are, and, as soon as may be, constituted free citizens of these United States.”
Surely May had cut himself off from the comradeship of men like Judson. And friendship was a precious thing in May’s life. More important was truth. Truth!, which he would never betray, cost what it might in caste or public esteem. Moreover, his espousal of immediate emancipation forced him, in the Discourse, to inquire into the legal status of slavery. The Constitution, May asserted, did not recognize the right of property in slaves, hence slavery was a violation of that document. Every clause of that organic law, cited in defense of slavery, condemned slavery; every honorable and humane consideration bound one to accept but one interpretation, namely that the Fathers of the Country believed emphatically in the freedom of the individual, and the SLAVE was FREE. He admitted, however, that thousands of Southerners had vested interests in slaves, and was willing to compensate them for losses sustained through emancipation. Finally, May dealt with the charge that abolition would provoke civil war. He denied that this would follow, but if it did he would face the consequences. “If it be necessary, let the very foundations of our civil fabric be broken up, and if this rock of offense cannot be taken from under it, let the whole superstructure fall. If our republic cannot stand but upon the necks of two millions of my fellow beings, let it fall, though I be crushed beneath it.”
May’s staunch pacifism buckled before his abolitionist views. Pacifism was a virtue; slavery, a grievous sin, and to eradicate the latter he would forgo the former even if it meant war. But he was not of the opinion that the issue had to be settled by force of arms. Emancipation could be gained by educational processes and through compensation. Did May think that the Southerner – slave owner and devotee of States Rights – would submit to his proposal? Yes, but what did he actually know about the Southerner? Well, he had most certainly read widely and had conversed with many who had spent some time in the South; beyond that he knew very little. Outside of a brief excursion into Virginia, a few years back, he had no first-hand information. Nor did he ever visit the South – unless Virginia can be called the heart of the South – in years to come. He saw no reason for doing so. And what gaps might exist in his knowledge, he readily filled in with moral considerations. Possibly, so he may have reasoned, conditions are not as bad as they are pictured, but good as they may be they are damnable in the eyes of God, and must be corrected at once.
Since the Government was not required by the Constitution to protect slavery, emancipation was lawful. Had Harvard only given him one good course in American Constitutional History, instead of so many in the Classics, he would not have made so gross an error. As it was, he rested his entire thesis upon the text of the Constitution, and interpreted every reference to slavery in the light of the phrase “all men are created free and equal.” May knew that this idea appeared in the Declaration of Independence and not in the Constitution, but argued that it was the corner-stone upon which the latter rested. Students of law might well have questioned this assumption and have asked him why he had limited his investigation to the document itself? What, in other words, did the Fathers mean when they referred to slavery in the Constitution? May thought he knew in 1832. He was of the same opinion in 1836 when he reproduced his views in the Antislavery Magazine. Later, upon appearance of the Madison Papers, in which the minutes, debates and resolutions of the Convention were given, he changed his mind. No longer did he argue as he had, though, in lieu of his former thesis, he substituted another which amply justified his views concerning the unconstitutionality of slavery. The Constitution, he said, “might be whatever the people pleased to make it.” His retreat, however, in no wise detracts from the significance of his earlier opinions. He was probably one of the first to prove that slavery was not protected by the Constitution, and when William Goodell published his Slavery and Anti-Slavery in 1852, May was cited first in a list of those who had argued against the constitutionality of slavery.
The Discourse was generally well received within antislavery quarters. A few, according to May’s correspondence, misunderstood his attitude toward emancipation, holding that he favored gradual emancipation. This was not the case. May’s conversion to abolition was complete. Never again did he court favor by advocating colonization; never again did he argue for any halfway measure. Garrison’s cause had become his. Abolition and nothing but abolition became the goal toward which he labored in season and out of season. Like the crusaders of old, he cried “It is the will of God.”
It is not surprising, therefore, to find him on Sunday evening, November 13, 1831, at Cousin Sewell’s Boston office, discussing with Garrison and a dozen others as to the wisdom of founding an antislavery society. All agreed that a society should be established, but some doubted the wisdom of declaring in favor of immediate emancipation. Would not many earnest friends of the slave be frightened by this idea? Would it not be better to educate these to this end by arguing for gradual abolition? Such a procedure would ultimately draw thousands into the movement, and these in due time would accept the notion of immediate emancipation. Garrison was strongly opposed to this position. It would create, he said, a spineless organization, void of meaning and utterly lacking in influence. A major operation and only a major one could save America from the curse of slavery. Finally, after others had expressed themselves, a show of hands revealed that nine out of the fifteen present supported Garrison. No society could be forced on such a division. May had voted with Garrison and was bitterly disappointed that an “apostolic number of twelve” had not been won over to Garrison’s views. After the meeting had adjourned, May made plans for returning to Brooklyn which in a few weeks was snow-bound. Winter conditions plus poor roads prevented him from being at another meeting held in December when a committee was appointed to draft a constitution, for by that time Garrison’s views had been accepted. Nor was May on hand, January 6, 1832, when the constitution was adopted and the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded with immediate emancipation as its main objective. May, however, did affix his signature to the constitution on his next visit to Boston.
During 1832, May devoted space to antislavery in his paper, the Christian Monitor, and attended the spring gathering of the New England Society. At the January, 1833 meeting, he was elected a vice-president. Beyond these activities there is little to show that May’s role in the crusade was outstanding. Late in the next month, however, he was drawn into a bitter conflict that had arisen in the neighboring village of Canterbury.
Here, two years before, Prudence Crandall had opened a Female Boarding School at the request of the community. Miss Crandall was a daughter of a prominent Quaker of Canterbury and had gained considerable reputation as a teacher in the nearby town of Plainfield. Canterbury was proud of its new “schoolmam” and showered much praise upon her. Suddenly one day it was rumored that Sara Harris, daughter of a colored farmer, was attending Miss Crandall’s school. Andrew T. Judson, whose property adjoined the school building, investigated and found the report true. Immediately, the entire village was agog with excitement, and several of the leading citizens, whose children were students in the school, tried to persuade Miss Crandall to dismiss Sarah. And when Miss Crandall courageously refused, they threatened to withdraw their daughters and support. Others in the village soon expressed similar sentiments. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, she called on Garrison in Boston and was encouraged by him to fight. Shortly after her return home, she received a strong letter of commendation from May who had heard of her troubles. May promised to help with all his power.
Bolstered by the attitude of Garrison and May, Miss Crandall announced, early in March, that her school would be open to “young ladies and little misses of color.” Canterbury was thrown into an uproar and Miss Crandall was told by the “respectable” element that she must dismiss such notions or forfeit the good will of the village. Then let the school “sink” came the spirited reply, but until it does, colored girls will be admitted! Worried by this attack, she wrote to May, who immediately hastened to Canterbury. On entering the village, he was stopped by some of the citizens and politely told to keep out of their affair or else he might encounter personal danger. May was astonished; he had no realization of the seriousness of the situation. But he would not turn back. Thanking his informers, he hurried on to the school where he found Miss Crandall much calmer than he expected. He was surprised, however, to hear that the opposition had called a town meeting to discuss the affair and that Miss Crandall had been unable to find a single person who would defend her. May immediately offered his services and, after outlining a mode of procedure, left for Brooklyn.
On the appointed day, May appeared in Canterbury where to his great delight he found Arnold Buffum, agent for the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and Calvin Philleo, Miss Crandall’s future husband, ready to lend aid. After some discussion, Miss Crandall named Buffum and May as her attorneys and commissioned them to inform the town authorities that the school would be moved to the outskirts of the village, provided her opponents would purchase the present building. On arriving at the Town Hall, May was startled to find it crowded to its fullest capacity. Practically every seat was taken and scores of people were standing in the aisles. Evidently the entire adult population had turned out to witness what was expected to be a grand show. Elbowing their way through the throng, May and Buffum found seats near the Moderator.
After the customary “warning” had been read, the Moderator recognized a Mr. Rufus Adams who introduced a series of resolutions condemning Miss Crandall and calling for the appointment of a committee to persuade her to abandon her school. Hardly had he finished before Andrew T. Judson, May’s old colonization foe, sprang to his feet in support of the resolutions. Judson was a power in the local community, was a staunch Democrat and later became a Federal District Judge. He loudly protested against a “school of niggers” so near his residence; Liberia was as close as he wanted them. Canterbury, he declared, had been insulted; stout-hearted citizens should not allow their daughters to be contaminated by colored companions; and the sooner the school was closed the better. Turning toward May and Buffum, he screamed defiance. Their presence was odious and Canterbury would not tolerate their interference. The tone of his voice and choice of his words betrayed anger and resentment. And when May presented Miss Crandall’s letter empowering Buffum and him to act as her attorneys, Judson raised his voice higher than before. By what right, he bellowed, have these men – rank outsiders – to be here? Send them home and let them mind their own business! Others joined in the uproar. Some crowded about May and Buffum, thrust their fists into the latter’s face, and threatened legal and physical harm if they so much as spoke a word.
In the face of this hostile demonstration, May and Buffum sat in silence until the Moderator cried, “This meeting is adjourned.” Whereupon May stood up on his seat and in a loud voice cried “Men of Canterbury. I have a word for you. Hear me!” And some did, while he tried to correct the misrepresentations that Judson had made. But the Town authorities brought this to an abrupt end by ordering the building cleared. The scene then shifted to the village green where May and Buffum spoke to a small group who had remained to listen. But the hour was getting late and May knew that Lucretia was already peering through the windows down the road looking for their familiar horse and buggy. Accordingly, after bidding Miss Crandall goodbye and promising further assistance, he hurried home. On the way he meditated over the day’s happenings. His own course of action, he decided, was above reproach. He had done all he could, but what of Miss Crandall? Actually, he had accomplished nothing and he feared what might happen to her. Garrison, who had predicted that May would shame his opponents into a hasty retreat, was as astonished as May at the strength of the opposition.
May’s misgivings were increased when Judson called on him a few days later. At first, Judson was calm and self-restrained. He begged May’s pardon for his recent invectives and expressed sorrow over the treatment Canterbury had given him. At the same time, he wanted May to know that his village would never tolerate a nigger school. Public opinion was kindly disposed toward the blacks and he, as May well knew, was an active member of the Colonization Society. But a school, open to blacks and whites, was out of the question. Such an institution, he continued, would inevitably tend to decrease land values and in this way produce an unfortunate effect upon the economic life of the village. May seized upon this latter point as a way out. Miss Crandall, he stated, appreciated the significance of this fact and was quite ready to retire to the edge of the village. Had you but allowed me to speak at the meeting, he continued, this would have been made clear and all hard feeling would have vanished. Judson, however, waived this to one side and with considerable emphasis declared, “We are not merely opposed to the establishment of that school in Canterbury; we mean there shall not be such a school set up anywhere in our state.”
“How can you prevent it legally,” May asked, “How but by lynch law, by violence, which surely you will not countenance?”
“We can expel her pupils from abroad,” came the reply, “under the provisions of our old pauper and vagrant laws.”
“But we will guard against that by giving your town ample bonds,” May answered.
“Then we will get a law passed by our Legislature, now in session, forbidding the institution of such a school as Miss Crandall proposes in any part of Connecticut.”
“It would be an unconstitutional law,” May retorted, “and I will contend against it as such to the last. If you, sir, pursue the course you have now indicated, I will dispute every step you take, from the lowest court in Canterbury to the highest court of the United States.”
“You talk big,” Judson replied and with that left for home.
In the meantime, Miss Crandall’s advertisements of her school had attracted attention in other quarters. By April, a dozen or more colored girls from Providence, Philadelphia and New York had enrolled, only to be greeted by insults from Judson and his group. Merchants were persuaded to close their doors to Miss Crandall; her home was besmeared with filth; her well filled with refuse; and the windows of the school were broken. Physical punishment, moreover, was threatened. Later, an obedient state legislature enacted a “Black Law” which forbade the establishment of any colored school except as approved by the voters of a school district. Judson and his friends were in high glee, and the church bells of Canterbury rang in celebration of the victory.
May’s feeling, already shown in an open letter to Judson which Garrison gladly published, was intense. Keep the school open he advised Miss Crandall. She did and was immediately arrested. Judson and his friends expected May to step forward and provide bail, but this he refused to do, thus throwing the odium of imprisoning a woman upon her persecutors. Public opinion frowned upon Judson who, hoping to recapture lost ground, had Miss Crandall transferred to the county jail at Brooklyn. Believing that he had gained a march on Judson, May now furnished the required bail and Miss Crandall returned to Canterbury to continue her teaching. He also bombarded Judson through the local press. Judson met the attack by intimidating the editors who most obediently closed their columns to May. Severe as this blow was, May was more concerned over the financial aspects of the affair. A trial of the type he intended to hold was an expensive affair. Where could he raise the necessary funds? His own purse would not stand it, nor could he count upon any appreciable aid from his own people. Suddenly and without any solicitation, he received a letter from Arthur Tappan of New York who, having heard of the incident, commended May for his conduct and promised to honor any draft that May might draw. “Consider me your banker. Spare no expense. Command the services of the ablest lawyers.” Later, he visited Brooklyn, applauded what May was doing, and made the necessary arrangements for the establishment of a local paper open to antislavery news. In July, the Unionist, under the editorship of Charles C. Burleigh, appeared.
Miss Crandall was brought to trial in August, 1833, her attorneys being Calvin Goddard, W.W. Ellsworth, and Henry Strong, prominent members of the State Bar. After considerable discussion and after the jury had been instructed three times to bring in a verdict, the case was dismissed. Disagreement among the members of the jury accounts for this action, and Miss Crandall was released. Believing that no further action would take place before the December session of the Court, May went to Boston. To his great surprise he suddenly heard that Miss Crandall had been arrested again and would stand trial in September. May was unable to arrange his plans so as to be present and was deeply shocked to hear that the jury had found her guilty. Before execution of sentence was pronounced, however, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Errors, which reviewed the evidence. The Court refused to pass upon the constitutionality of the “Black Law,” but dismissed the case because of errors that appeared in the brief presented by the State’s Attorney.
Meanwhile, Canterbury had vented its feelings by assaulting Miss Crandall’s school, and almost succeeded in burning it to the ground. The colored girls became fearful of their lives. May, Miss Crandall, Garrison and others tried in vain to find a solution to the problem. They had won their case before the courts; but how could they meet these local attacks? Brute force compelled a retreat; the school would have to be abandoned. Accordingly, May visited Canterbury and explained to the students the situation that confronted them. “The words almost blistered my lips. My bosom glowed with indignation. I felt ashamed of Canterbury, ashamed of Connecticut, ashamed of my country, ashamed of my color. Thus ended the generous, disinterested, philanthropic, Christian enterprise of Prudence Crandall.”
A CHRISTIAN SOLDIER
May’s stature and reputation in antislavery circles grew as a result of the Crandall affair. Outside of Garrison and a few others he was far better known than most abolitionists. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Mrs. Lydia Child, a staunch Garrisonian, dedicating her Appeal in favor of that class of Americans called Africans to May. Anson Phelps,ArthurTappan
, and many other friends of the slave became regular correspondents of his. As a public speaker, his services were in great demand, though parochial duties definitely limited these activities. As it was, he found time to open a frontal attack against the Colonization Society at Providence and Hingham in the fall of 1833, as well as to address the Quarterly Meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. This gathering met without its leader, Garrison, whose absence was appreciable felt by all present.
Garrison, it seems, had gone to England in June, 1833 to arouse interest in and to obtain financial aid for the American crusade against slavery. Britain had been a hunting ground for American reformers before this, notably by the Colonization Society whose grandiose scheme for the abolition of slavery in the United States had won the confidence of many philanthropists on that island. Garrison and the New England Anti-Slavery Society viewed these efforts with much concern. He knew, as did May and others, that the avowed objective of the Colonization Society was impracticable, and that many of its strongest supporters were recruited from Southern slaveholders. The Colonization Society, in short, labored to perpetuate slavery, though needless to say this aspect was cleverly disguised by humane and charitable arguments. English reformers were led to believe that the Colonization Society was intended and adapted to exterminate slavery in the Unites States. At least these were the views held by the Garrisonians. It was, therefore, for the purpose of disillusioning the abolitionists of Great Britain that Garrison was sent to England. And if he could transfer their support and financial aid to the true cause of abolition -- to much the better. Success crowned his efforts.
Upon this return to Boston in October of the same year, Garrison resumed the direction of antislavery activities in that city. His friends noted with genuine pleasure that his enthusiasm and spirit had been greatly enhanced by his English experience, and eagerly followed where he led. Particularly was this true when he broached the idea of a national organization. In Britain, he reported, the abolitionists were gaining ground primarily because their efforts were national in scope. Significant as had been the work of the New England organization, it could not rally nationwide support. Abolitionists in New England must join hands with those in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere if they could achieve success.
Others were of the same opinion, notably a handful of New York City gentlemen who had grouped themselves around Arthur Tappan. Tappan had already made a name for himself in humanitarian and philanthropic undertakings. He had rescued Garrison from a Baltimore jail in 1830, and had aided Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn’s project for a colored school at New Haven [Jocelyn was later involved with the Amistad revolt]. Moreover, he had followed the activities of the Colonization Society and had greatly admired the efficiency of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Unified action in England had produced concrete results; scattered and disunited efforts in America showed few positive gains. Accordingly, in June, 1831, Tappan began to stimulate interest in a national society. After two years of careful work, he believed that the time had come for action. Circulars and letters, therefore, were sent to interested parties asking them to meet a Philadelphia in December, 1833. The replies were generally favorable except from the abolitionists of Philadelphia who felt, in view of local opposition, that the gathering should be postponed. Tappan accepted the suggestion.
Garrison, fresh from his English tour and burning with enthusiasm to promote a national society, had endorsed Tappan’s call for the Philadelphia convention. On hearing that the meeting had been postponed, he was disappointed. He could see no valid reason why an abolitionist meeting should not be held at once, and that in spite of the riots that had swept New York City a few weeks before, incident to the establishment of the New York City Anti-Slavery Society. May questioned Garrison’s judgment, but the latter was determined to have his way. Letter after letter was mailed to the friends of the slave throughout the East, urging immediate action. Slowly, but most certainly, he beat down the opposition and late in October another circular was issued announcing a convention at Philadelphia, December 4, 1833. There can be no question as to who was responsible for this action. Garrison and Garrison alone had made it possible. His cold logic had finally triumphed over the cautious gentlemen at New York. And yet it would be quite unfair to them to insist that they blindly and without deliberation followed Garrison’s leadership. One of them, Elizur Wright, took great pains to make this clear in a letter to Theodore Weld, one of the younger but most energetic of the abolitionists. “The most cool and collected friends of the cause here,” he wrote, had willingly endorsed Garrison’s proposal for immediate action. Garrison was delighted with the change he had effected. His pen drafted many letters to men like Benson of Providence, Whittier of Haverhill, and May of Brooklyn, urging them to be present. May lost no time in arranging affairs. Such a call came but once, and the cause of the slave could not be ignored. Obtaining leave from his pastoral duties, he set out for Philadelphia. He travelled directly to New York City where he met Garrison, Benson, Whittier and a number of other delegates. What a gathering of reformers! May had never met so many before. Anxiously did he solicit their opinion, catching “most thirstily every word that dropped from their lips.” Then there was the trip by water to Philadelphia, and more time for spiritual communion with those whom he thought “were ready to die, if need be, in the pass of Thermopylae.”
News that a band of abolitionists were to meet in Philadelphia had not passed unnoticed by the local element opposed to the antislavery movement. Fearing hostile demonstrations, the police of that city had informed the Committee on Arrangements that no protection could be offered if evening meetings were held. For this reason, the sessions were held during the day. An informal gathering, however, took place on the evening of December 3rd at the home of Evan Lewis. Here the question was raised as to who would be president of the convention. Would it not be tactful, someone suggested, to obtain a prominent Philadelphian whose presence might lend sanctity and respectability to the gathering? Surely, we do not want our efforts to be nullified by any proslavery agitations or riots that might sweep our convention into oblivion. Why not disarm our opponents by having a distinguished philanthropist of the city as our presiding officer? The suggestion was immediately adopted and a committee, of which May was a member, called at once upon Robert Vaux, a wealthy and highly honored Quaker. Comfortably seated in the latter’s handsomely furnished parlor, the committee modestly presented its request and when their host showed signs of declining the invitation, the members resorted to argument. This only made matters worse, and Vaux broke up the meeting by giving them a positive “no” for an answer. Touched to the quick and mortified by this unhappy experience, the committee disbanded for the night, uncertain as to what might happen in the morning.
A boisterous and insulting crowd greeted the delegates as they passed through a police cordon into Adelphi Hall. In such a manner did Philadelphia, a city of Brotherly Love, welcome those whose objective was to implement the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming the freedom of the slaves. But no disgraceful riots took place and all of the delegates entered the hall in safety. As soon as it appeared that most of them had arrived -- there were representatives from ten states -- the convention organized. Beriah Green, stout protagonist of abolition from up-state New York and President of the Oneida Institute, was chosen president; Lewis Tappan, well-known in New York City business and humanitarian efforts, and John G. Whittier, “one of Liberty’s choicest poets,” were elected secretaries. Having effected an organization, Beriah Green threw the meeting open to general discussion. Considerable oratory followed; members vying with each other in an attempt to paint slavery in vivid colors. Having vent their spleens in condemnation of slaveholders, they resorted to a glorification of themselves and their lofty ideals. This love feast, however, was rudely interrupted by the pangs of hunger, for it was noon before the members knew it. The situation was saved and the genial atmosphere continued by the timely suggestion that the inner man might be satisfied by crackers and cold water. The idea was too good to be ignored, and the flow of words, mingled with cracker crumbs, went on into the afternoon.
During the course of the latter session, attention was given to the suggestion that the proposed society should adopt a constitution. This in turn raised the question as to whether an accompanying document -- a declaration of sentiments -- ought not to be drafted. The public in general, so it was argued, will not react favorably to a stereotype recitation of structure, governing boards, field agents, officers and dues. Something more vital and dynamic in nature was needed; otherwise the society would be classed as just another reforming organization. Accordingly, a committee was appointed to draft such a document and May, along with others, including Garrison, Elizur Wright, Jocelyn and Whittier, was placed on this body. As soon as the convention had adjourned, the committee retired to the home of its chairman, Edwin P. Atlee, where for over an hour it discussed the task allotted to it. Finally, it was agreed that May, Garrison and Whittier should outline a prospective statement and report to the full committee in the morning. These gentlemen then repaired to Garrison’s room and after further discussion delegated the chore of drafting the document to Garrison. May and Whittier then retired to their lodgings for the night. Garrison, however, had no thought of sleep, and when May and Whittier called on him in the morning, they found him still writing “with the shutters drawn and the lamps burning.” After several minor changes had been made in the draft, the sub-committee reported its findings to the committee. Some questions were raised as to terminology, all of which Garrison graciously accepted. He was reluctant, however, to omit that part that condemned the Colonization Society and only yielded after May had used all of his persuasive powers. Shortly thereafter, the draft was presented to the convention by Dr. Atlee. “Never in my life,” so May stated, “have I seen a deeper impression made by words than was made by that admirable document . . . After the voice of the reader had ceased, there was profound silence for several minutes . . . We felt that the word had just been uttered which would be mighty, through God, to the pulling down of the strongholds of slavery.”
By the time Dr. Atlee had finished, it was late afternoon. Remembering what the local guardians of life and liberty had said about evening sessions, the delegates wisely adjourned. The next morning it became May’s privilege to read the declaration for the last time prior to adoption. There was no real need for this. Everyone was well informed of its contents and ready to register approval, but parliamentary procedure must be observed. Nothing irregular was to be allowed in so important a matter. May’s powers of speech never rose to greater heights. “His sweet, persuasive voice faltered with the intensity of his emotions as he repeated” the pledges. When he had finished, one delegate after another arose to express his sentiments in favor of the declaration. Everyone who wanted to speak was listened to by a most appreciative audience. Some expressions in the document were questioned, but only a word here or there was altered -- a splendid testimonial to its author, William Lloyd Garrison. Night already was casting its darkness upon the assembly, when all had finished speaking. Whereupon, the delegates, proud of their achievements, placed their signatures to the Declaration of Sentiments, the Magna Charta of the American Anti-Slavery Society. And then, having adopted a constitution, the convention adjourned its historic sessions.
In selecting officers for the new society, May was chosen Vice-President, a duty that entailed no serious work or responsibility. It was, however, a recognition of the services he had rendered at the convention. The Executive Committee thought highly of May and had no intention of losing the services of so valuable a worker. Accordingly, within a few weeks, they offered him an agency, a post May was most anxious to fill. But what of his pastoral duties; could he obtain leave from his congregation; and could a suitable substitute be secured during his absence? None of these problems were easily solved, and May was compelled to decline the invitation. There was nothing, however, to prevent his “fighting the good fight” as he had before. Numerous addresses, therefore, were delivered in neighboring towns and in the vicinity of Boston. Moreover, he attended the February, 1834 meeting of the New England Society and was chosen one of its Vice-Presidents. Three months later he was chairman of the spring session of the American Society. During the course of this meeting, he challenged the religious opinion of the slaveholding states by calling upon it to support immediate abolition. God, he declared, had given his people a clear mandate, and no Christian could ignore the voice of God. And as for man’s law, as expressed in the Constitution of the United States, there was no authority sanctioning slavery. But what of the Union? Is that not of greater importance than the abolition of slavery? NO! Answered May. There is nothing, he declared, that transcends the “approbation of God.” And then, not realizing what the future had in store for himself and for the country in general, he solemnly protested against the use of force to gain abolition. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. Palsied be the arm that would unsheathe the sword of violence.”
May returned to Brooklyn considerably refreshed and invigorated by the inspiration of the national meeting. Eagerly did he throw himself into the task of contacting abolitionist opinion in America and abroad. Nor did he hesitate to accept invitations to speak. Providence, Roxbury, Danvers and Salem heard him shortly before he attended the spring meeting of the New England Society in 1834. Nearly two hundred persons were present at this gathering which honored May be selecting him as chairman. Early in June, he was at Pawtucket. A few days later he talked at Ipswich and Newburyport and completed his circuit by addressing a “quiet and packed” audience at Haverhill. Later, in the same month, he preached twice at Portland, Maine. Finally, on Independence Day, he spoke “unusually long” at Attleboro. In the meantime, he had founded the Windham County Anti-Slavery Society, and had been instrumental in forming the Brooklyn Female Anti-Slavery Society. Although the New York Courier called him a fanatic, charged him with neglecting his parish, and urged him to “go to Georgia” if he was sincere, May’s reputation among abolitionists grew steadily. Once again, therefore, the Executive Committee of the American Society offered him an agency. Garrison begged him to accept. Brooklyn, he said, was too small a place for May to bury his talents. But the old problem of finding a substitute arose and as the Committee ultimately decided it could not assume the expense of the proposed agency, the matter was dropped.
During this period, May tried to convert the leading members of the Unitarian clergy to abolition. Several of them, notably Drs. Channing, Ware, and Follen, had expressed interest in the antislavery movement, but the greater share of the clergy soft pedaled the issue whenever it arose. Continually in their business meetings, the question was staved off, and when resolutions were offered in support of the movement, verbal difficulties as to terminology always prevented their passage. May could not understand such actions. The organic principles of the Unitarian Church had proclaimed the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. What better authority could Unitarians want? May realized the futility of gaining official sanction of abolition, but hoped he could persuade some of the leaders to join in this holy crusade. Letters were addressed to and conversations held with men like Channing, Gannett, Follen and Palfrey. Garrison also furnished help. And when all was said and done, May found to his great sorrow that only Charles, whose influence was none too significant, had been converted. Channing, it is true, flirted with the idea by publicly denouncing the right of property in human beings. Privately, Dr. Henry Ware expressed deep interest, though he lacked the courage of his convictions to speak out openly against so pernicious and evil. And as for Dr. John G. Palfrey, he would have no communion with abolitionists. Had they not, time after time, shown themselves to be a band of fanatical radicals, bent upon undermining religion and loyalty to the United States? May disliked Palfrey’s assertions and was astonished for find the Christian Register giving space to the same. A year before, F. W. P. Greenwood, one of the editors, had offered to print an address by May, but had been forced to withdraw the invitation by the vote of the other editors. Now, the editors were allowing the opponents of the antislavery cause to publicize their views. May wondered why this change in policy. Had the Christian Register become the organ of the proslavery group? May refused to believe it, and trusting in the editors' sense of fair play, sent them a carefully worded statement of abolitionist views. To his surprise and great annoyance, the manuscript was returned.
Here was the handwriting on the wall: respectable papers would not print dangerous or radical articles! But there was one that would, and that was the Liberator. Through the medium of this paper, May published his article, in which he expressed profound regret that any religious press had seen fit to print the unwarranted statements of Dr. Palfrey. The editors of the Christian Register should have investigated the record of the abolitionists before condemning them. Such a procedure would have revealed how Christ like the latter were. Some, to be sure, talked and acted beyond reason, but the great majority practiced moderation in speech and conduct. Nor could the abolitionists be charged with interfering with government or private interests, because there was no law in heaven or on earth that recognized property in human beings. Evidently, the tone of May’s letter partially convinced the editors that they had acted unwisely for they hastened to commend the eloquence and good spirit of May's utterances to all reader's of the Christian Register.
It is refreshing, at this point, to pause and note how May's friendship with Garrison was strengthened by the latter's repeated visits to Brooklyn. Garrison treasured these excursions not merely because it afforded an opportunity of conversing with May; but also because it promoted his acquaintance with George Benson, formerly a prominent merchant of Providence. Benson, moreover, had a daughter, Helen by name, who soon became Garrison's chief reason for visiting Brooklyn. An intimate relationship developed between the two which happily culminated in their marriage, May being the officiating clergy. Garrison took his bride to Roxbury, from there he extended an invitation to Mr. and Mrs. May to visit them. This they did in late September, 1834. Here, they found another guest, George Thompson, Member of Parliament and lately arrived from England. Thompson, one of the most active of the English abolitionists, had come to America to aid Garrison in his fight for emancipation. May was delighted to meet him and, together with Garrison, persuaded him to go with them to Groton where a county abolitionist meeting was to be held. Later, they attended the October gathering of the New England Society. May also was present at the meeting of the Middlesex County Antislavery Society and would have continued lecturing in Massachusetts but for his duties at Brooklyn. Garrison regretted May's leaving, claiming that when May was absent the main stay of the abolitionist movement was gone. There were others, however, who felt differently, notably that group of Unitarian clergy whom they had sought to convert. Thoroughly impressed by the rapidly growing vitality of the Garrisonian party, this clerical element tried to save the day by advocating a conservative antislavery movement. Not that they endorsed Colonization, nor that they would compromise with slavery itself. No, the slavery question could only be solved by a frontal attack upon that inhumane institution. But Why, they asked, should that attack be captained by fanatics who rend the air with vituperative language and incite disrespect for law, order, and religion? Common sense and ordinary decency required that saner minds should be in charge, and by that they meant themselves. The center of this opposition was at Cambridge where, in the summer of 1834, there was formed a local antislavery society which declared itself independent of the New England organization. Hoping to weaken Garrison's domination, Henry Ware, Jr. approached his friend and Unitarian brother, Samuel J. May. Ware knew quite well that May disliked the extreme language used by Garrison. Working on this assumption, Ware asked May whether he would endorse the appointment of a committee, of which May would be a member, to examine all articles intended for the Liberator and thus prevent publication of what they disapproved. May flatly refused to be a party to such a move and countered by appealing to Ware, Channing, and others to join forces and sweep slavery out of existence. Channing’s answer came in the form of a sermon which, in some quarters, was viewed as radical as anything Garrison had said or written. On the surface, it looked as though Channing had been converted to Garrisonianism. May thought otherwise. Had Channing merely condemned slavery in the abstract? Had he really become an avowed abolitionist! Possibly, May reasoned, but he refused to be convinced until he saw the dean of Unitarianism march forth and sign his name to the constitution of the New England Anti-slavery Society. And this Channing would not do. "These great men are not the ones," May declared, “to whom we must look for hearty cooperation."
In the meantime, the Executive Committee of the American Society was once more considering May for a New England agency. There was much to commend him; indeed, he probably ranked among the best. His oratory was calm, persuasive, and appealing; his writings direct and logical, and his mode of attack was not particularly irritating. He was well known in New England and could visit anywhere as a friend and not a stranger. On the other hand, he was a Garrisonian, and the New York group frowned upon this association. Would he not, in spite of his assets, cause more harm than good; would he not alienate opinion in the orthodox churches in which Elizur Wright believed the salvation of the cause rested? Wright also questioned May's business ability, namely that while he might gain converts, he would not stimulate financial aid, and money was as essential as converts. A greater sense of confidence existed among the New England abolitionists. They had witnessed his skill in debate, had admired his toleration, and had seen positive results follow from his lecture tours. Anxious to promote their cause, they offered him, January 14, 1835, an agency for the New England Society. May was delighted. Conditions at Brooklyn, he informed his Boston friends, were none too happy, thanks to the efforts of the Trinitarians who had stirred up discord in his parish. So successful were these efforts, that there was some talk among his congregation about excluding antislavery meetings in the church. Although May did not expect defeat, he realized that his presence was a source of annoyance. Possibly it would be wise for him to take an extended leave, as he would like to have done the previous summer when the Essex County and the American Societies had made him an offer. Had either of these been accompanied by an adequate salary, May would have accepted. A thousand dollars a year plus expenses, May stated, would permit him to move his family to Boston and devote his entire time to the cause.
The Boston abolitionists assured May that he was welcome to assume the agency on his own terms. An agreement, therefore, was drafted providing that May was to become their General Agent, with offices at Boston. His salary was to be a thousand dollars plus expenses, and if perchance this amount was not raised by contributions and subsidy from the Society, the remainder would be met by those signing the agreement. To convince May that their promise was binding, they underwrote his salary to the amount of $500. May's mind was relieved of all financial worries, but could he find a suitable man to take his place at Brooklyn. He thought of Reverend Mr. Wilson, recently returned to Boston from Petersham, who was without a charge. May interviewed Wilson and found him willing to accept the Brooklyn pastorate for a year. Accordingly, on Washington's Birthday, he asked his congregation for a year's leave. Within ten days the arrangements were made. May's decision was a turning point in his entire career. He had all but burned his bridges behind him and had done so against the urgent advice of many close friends and relatives. Uncle Samuel Sewell, so Bronson Alcott stated, was much grieved to hear that his nephew had become an "itinerant fanatic."
May moved to Boston late in March; his family followed much later. Immediately, he threw himself into his agency, official recognition of which was voted by the Society, April 8, 1835. Within a week, he had given talks at Fall River, Taunton, and New Bedford. Similar addresses followed elsewhere during the remainder of his agency. In most places, he was well received and is reported as having done splendid service. At times, he encountered bitter opposition and often met hostile demonstrations. At Haverhill, a meeting was interrupted and broken up by a barrage of stones and heavy missiles. A more deplorable event occurred at Montpelier, Vermont. He had been warned not to speak there, and upon his arrival had been urged by certain gentlemen of property and standing to leave the town at once. May was anything but a coward and went ahead with the meeting he had planned. He had hardly uttered a word before one Timothy Hubbard arose and commanded him to stop speaking. "Is this the respect paid to the liberty of speech by free people of Vermont," May replied and then continued with his address. As he did, Hubbard and many like him cried out, "Down with him," "Throw him out," "Choke him." While this was in progress, Chauncey L. Knapp elbowed his way to the platform and begged the audience not to disgrace themselves and Vermont by such riotous actions. His words were drowned by the opposition which made a mad rush toward May, rending the air with vituperations and wildly shaking their fists. At this crisis, Colonel Miller, well known for his liberal views, planted himself squarely in front of Hubbard and yelled, "Mr. Hubbard, if you do not stop this outrage now, I will knock you down." The rioters hemmed and hawed, not knowing what to do. In the meantime, many timid souls had left the building, and May was left with no audience. Hence there was no reason to continue, and May left Montpelier without having delivered his address. All in all, according to one source, he was "mobbed five times," during the course of his agency.
In addition to speaking, May attended the meetings of the New England and American Anti-Slavery Societies. At the latter gathering, he was elected to the Board of Managers and was honored by a statement in the annual report as to the valuable services he had rendered as an agent of the society. Evidently, though he never held an official agency, he was considered as having served in that respect.
Fresh from the inspiration of this meeting, May met Ralph R. Gurley, Secretary of the Colonization Society, in debate at Julien Hall. According to Henry C. Wright, a staunch Non-Resister and Garrisonian, May spoke with clarity and force, and seemed to have the better of the argument. A few days later, he was the principal speaker at a memorial service held by the New England Society in celebration of the passing of the British Act abolishing slavery. Alcott, who beard this address, records that May spoke in a most appropriate manner and challenged America to follow the lead taken by Britain. This constant round of addresses and travel proved too strenuous and in September he was forced to take a much earned rest. Within a short time, however, he was back in the harness as before. In commenting on May's illness and recovery, Garrison remarked that it was an occasion for condolence and congratulation. Although scorned and even mobbed, Garrison declared that May was "contemplated by angels with admiration." Later in the same year, he had the good fortune to meet Miss Harriet Martineau who was so impressed by his indomitable courage as to single him out for special commendation in her Society in America.
During the remainder of his agency, May divided his time between travel and speaking on the one hand and in attending the meetings of the New England and American Societies. In reviewing his work, one is impressed by the hundreds of miles traveled and the number of people addressed. Take for example, this itinerary: from February 2 to 4, 1836, he was at Providence, speaking before the state antislavery convention; between February 23rd and March 2nd, he was at Uxbridge and Brooklyn; on March 26th he spoke at Lowell; on April 3rd he was at Weymouth; three days later he was at Leicester; on the 16th and 17th he talked at Scituate and Marshfield; on the 19th, he was at Hanover, and between the 20th and 24th he addressed groups at South Scituate, Weymouth, and Scituate. Not a barren record. Moreover, it compares quite favorably with the services rendered by Theodore Weld, as agent of the American Society, and about whom a recent writer had written in glowing colors. Without detracting from the valuable work done by Weld, it is clear that others also labored as hard, if not harder. May's itinerary in March had been broken by an event that demanded his presence in Boston. In his annual address to the Legislature of Massachusetts in January, 1836, Governor Everett condemned the abolitionists and charged them with repeated violations of the law. Both houses of the Legislature took this section of his address under consideration and it was rumored that some legislation against the abolitionists was pending. The Board of Managers of the New England Society immediately held a special meeting at which it was decided that May, Garrison, and Loring were to present their case before the Legislature. Permission to appear being granted, May opened by outlining abolitionist principles, the methods employed, and the objects to be obtained. He argued that the antislavery crusade was predicated upon moral considerations and bolstered his contention by distributing a number of tracts as well as the constitution and rules of the antislavery societies. Dr. Follen, Loring, Samuel E. Sewell, and William Goodell also spoke. But when Garrison started, the Legislature stopped further discussion. Although May had spoken with telling effect, he and his friends were by no means certain that the day had been won. They did better, however, than they had expected, as no hostile legislation was enacted. By this time, May's agency was drawing to a close. His friends, and they were many in number, hoped to retain his services and dreaded the thought of his leaving. Nor did May relish the thought of returning to Brooklyn, knowing only too well that his heart and soul were bound up with the antislavery movement, and that his flock was none too favorably disposed toward his pronounced views. At the same time, he was aware that some dissatisfaction existed in Boston as to the way he had managed the financial side of the agency. Not that he had been dishonest or careless with funds, but rather because he had not been a good collector. J. A. Woodbury of Acton found fault in this wise, “if an agent cannot collect $1,000 in one year, I think it is queer. He does not understand this business, I guess." Actually, because the agency was extended to June, 1837, May received $1200 plus $572.68 for expenses. Against this sum, he showed collections amounting to $1572.68. There seems, therefore, some ground for the criticism that had arisen over the finances of the agency. And, in the face of this, any renewa1 of his services was, for the time at least, out of the question.
Accordingly, May made plans to return to Brooklyn. He gave a farewell talk before the Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society of Boston on June 8th, in which he recounted his early meeting and experiences with Boston in 1832. The following day, he and his family took the stage and arrived in Brooklyn on the evening of the 10th, evidently stopping off some place on the way. Possibly, they spent the night with the Benson's in Providence. If so, it must have been a welcome break for Lucretia who usually became nauseated by the rolling motion of the stage. Nor did the children care much for such a conveyance. Usually, the stages were stuffy and the conduct of some of the passengers quite annoying. On one trip, Charlotte, May's oldest girl, sat beside an old man who "availed himself largely of the Yankee privilege of dispensing saliva on the road" through an open window. The little girl thought his manners quite disgusting and the mother might have chided him had she dared. Instead, she had to be satisfied by telling her tale of woe to "Dear Father." "Dickens," she said, "did his duty when he castigated Americans for this odious habit." The "Dear Father" realized the feelings of his family and would have been more than willing to have traveled by chaise had it not been too expensive. As it was, May returned to Brooklyn with but little cash to spare.
During the course of the past seven years, busily filled with antislavery activities, May's domestic life had become more complicated. In. 1829, John Edward had been born; another child, Charlotte, four years later. Both of these youngsters, under the patient hand of Lucretia, grew in mind and stature. Not that. May shirked his parental duties, for he was always willing to assume his share of responsibilities, but he was not a Bronson Alcott, who at times washed, scrubbed, and dressed the "Little women." May loved his children and though they often bothered him by intruding into the sanctities of his study he had to admit that he enjoyed these interruptions. And when duty called him to Providence, New York, or Boston, he missed their noise, prattle, and laughter. But Lucretia saw to it that he heard of their doings when he was away. "Little 'budge about’ John Edward is Pretty well. He has visited your den this evening; kissed your coat, and said 'dark, dark'; does not incline to make very long visits now; is a true dog in his affections, attached to persons not to places," so she wrote one day. On another occasion she commented, "John E. has been pretty good, but not a day yet without 'bats', but seems anxious to have one day pass without them for he says ‘my father hates them.' I suspect he misses you very much and he longs for your return. Sister is pretty well, 'cries' after father and I guess will be rejoiced to see you as we all shall.”
During his repeated absences, no one missed him more than Lucretia. Her letters reveal a love and devotion that must have brought smiles of happiness and tears of joy. "My dearest," "Dear Father," "Mon Cher Ami," and "My Beloved" were the greetings he first saw in her letters. And while he enjoyed hearing of the doings of the Williams' and Parish's, who faithfully called on Mrs. May during her husband's absences, his heart must have throbbed as he read, "All has been well with us, nothing has been wanting but your presence which is more precious to me than anything else, and no inveterate miser parts with his gold half so reluctantly as I part with you. But, I shall try to learn to live and think alone and hope to get my lesson perfect too. I am always alone if you are not here, even if all the rest or the world should be by." Such expressions crowded her messages. Her last thoughts before retiring were of him "It is growing late dear 'Father' and I must say good night . . . I have counted the days and shall soon begin to count the hours till your longed for return; don’t disappoint us, but come, come speedily to warm hearts if not wise heads."
Although Mrs. May appreciated the noble motives that led him to plead the cause or the slave at Salem, Montpelier, and Worcester, she was jealous of the time he devoted to this cause. She worried about his health and was constantly urging him to be careful about his food and to be certain he had plenty of sleep and rest. Let Garrison and the others wear themselves out, if they will, but not you who are dearer to me than the slave -- yes dearer than life itself. And if you must devote time and energy to the cause of freedom pray be more faithful in writing home. Great is my sorrow and disappointment to receive a cold "no" from the postmaster instead of the "wished for letter." Time seems dreadfully long when you are away and it increases in a twofold proportion when you say you have postponed the period of your return. "But I am amazed by your saying you would come back at any moment if I said so, just as if I should, certainly not. No, this time I have tried hard not to say a word about your going and I do hope you will stay till you are entirely satisfied with being away and then come home contented to remain here and return to your duties as a minister; the only pleasing part of your many cares, to my mind. From earliest childhood there was always something delightful to me in a clergyman . . . time has not destroyed any of the hallowed beauties which to my imagination then seemed to cluster around them. I love the calling, wicked as I am, I dearly love it and I deeply lament that you should have considered it your duty to give your attention to such other subjects, and yet I had not said a word had you made them secondary to this. But I will say no more. I am a little of a predestinarian and I suppose it was to be so.”
If May winced under the chiding his devoted wife gave him in 1834, he must have been floored by a letter received in the spring of the following year. "You have been gone four weeks tomorrow and perhaps are beginning to be weaned from us. I should not be at all surprised if you were, you must have so much more peace and quietness and comfort than when subjected to the 'thousand and one' disquietudes and interruptions caused by wife and children. But my greater wonder is that we ever marry at all, especially those who tend to be world reformers and pass their time at a distance from their families. It would seem to me more wise and more judicious as well as more kind to avoid such entanglements and such burdens altogether."
Precisely how May reacted to these sentiments is not known. Surely they must have touched him to the quick. That he had neglected "dark-eyed” Lucretia, "budge about" John Emerson, and the "wonderful doll," Charlotte, is quite evident. But he had no intentions of neglecting them for he loved them more than any others on earth. A queer way of showing love, Lucretia might have added. All, however, was forgotten and forgiven as she snuggled close to him in the stage as they journeyed toward Brooklyn in June, 1837. Possibly she leaned her head out of the window to catch the first glimpse of the Village Green, the Meeting House, and the beloved HOME. Her own home! A home in which she could shower love and affection upon husband and children. Numerous as were the plaudits of his listeners at some antislave or nonresistant meeting, pleasing as were the words of sincere gratitude that fell from the lips of some escaped slave, none of these could possibly sound so sweet as the cheery greeting of "Farda" from his children or "beloved" from Lucretia -- his "little spouse.”
“The first great Christian reform that I ever embraced,” May stated late in life, was the cause of peace. The genesis of the peace movement in America may be traced to a number of different factors. Some of these were native to the New World while others were distinctly European in origin. Classical and biblical sources have many references to the peace ideals. Homer, Plutarch, Ovid and Seneca argued for peace, and the Old and New Testaments abound with anti-war utterances. Zeus, Jupiter and Jehovah, however, betrayed their human qualities by taking keen delight in battle and murder. Small wonder was it, since Gods talked of war, that man found just cause for combat and strife. During the Classical age, peace remained a stereotype – a pious wish. Greater progress was made during the medieval and early modern ages, thanks to the efforts of men like Pierre Dubois, Sully, Cruce, and the Abbe de Saint Pierre. Others contributed, but it is significant to note that the Christian Church did little more than render lip service to the peace gospel of its Master. War was not condemned on religious grounds except by the so-called heretical groups. Popes and kings were mightily concerned with personal, political and economic squabbles. The tramp, tramp, tramp of the military echoed through the palaces of Westminster, Paris, and Rome. Luther to be sure opposed war on Christian principles, but it remained for the Mennonites and somewhat later the Friends to teach peace and non-resistance.
This in brief was the historical heritage of the New World from the Old. Further stimulus was yet to come, but amid a virgin environment and separated by miles of blue water, the American added much that was original and of decided merit. The religious pacifism of the Friends, the impact of English rationalism and the force of French liberalism paved the way for a renaissance in America. Added to these forces was the humanitarianism of the Unitarian Church, and the fundamental distaste for war whose horrors Americans had seen in Europe for over a decade and which in 1812 reached the New World.
May’s introduction to the peace crusade began at an early date. His deep religious nature and his preparation for the ministry must have quickened his mind to the vital significance of Christ – the Prince of Peace. Further stimulus must have come when he heard of Reverend W. E. Channing’s Discourse delivered in Boston at the Solemn Festivalin Commemoration of the Goodness of God in delivering the world from the despotism of Bonaparte. Nor could he have been ignorant of the establishment of the Massachusetts Peace Society in December, 1815. His father most certainly knew of these events and must have chatted with his son about the same. During the course of the following year, Colonel May became a member of this peace organization, but as yet his son did no more than to express general interest and approbation. May, it will be remembered, was then a student at Harvard, busily engaged in acquiring an education, though now and then he would leave the quietness of his study and classroom to visit relatives or friends at Boston or elsewhere.
One of these excursions took him to the home of his college friend, Gorham Parsons, of Brighton. Nearby lived the venerable Reverend Noah Worcester, whose interest in peace had been quickened for more than a decade. In 1812, shortly after the outbreak of war with England, Worcester had published an antiwar sermon, entitled Abraham and Lot. Two years later he printed, under an assumed name, one of the most memorable of all peace tracts – The Solemn Review of the Custom of War. A copy of this pamphlet had been shown to May. He read the same with great interest and was much impressed by the views of the author. And hearing of Worcester living in Brighton, May lost no time in gaining an introduction. May never forgot this meeting or the inspiration that Worcester grafted into his soul. He returned to Cambridge burning with enthusiasm. Most diligently did he thumb the Bible for references to peace, and most eagerly did he wait for each issue of Worcester’s magazine, the Friend of Peace. He drank deeply from these sources and became an ardent disciple of peace. Late in life, he recorded that his friendship with Worcester was “one of the blessings of my life.” “He was the most holy man I ever knew and the first great Christian reform that I ever embraced was thus one inaugurated by him.”
Peace became dear to May, and he made it the subject of many of his early sermons and addresses. Particularly was this true after his arrival at Brooklyn. Here he found the aged George Benson, one time prominent merchant of Providence, quietly spreading the gospel of peace. Benson welcomed the young Unitarian pastor with open arms; invited him to his friendly home; and became a frequent worshipper at the Unitarian Church. Soon, the two discovered how much they had in common relative to temperance, education, and war, and from Benson May gained a clear insight into the peace philosophy of the Friends. Joint effort on the part of these two gentlemen gained converts. So successful were they that they were encouraged to initiate a movement that resulted in the establishment, in August, 1816, of the Windham County Peace Society. Benson became Vice-President, while May accepted the more difficult post of Corresponding Secretary. Some criticism arose over May’s activities, for the Columbian Register of Boston in reporting these peace efforts remarked, “this is a very innocent amusement for men who have nothing else to do.” May was not disturbed by this, as he knew, even if his critics did not, that he was doing “His Father’s business.” He publicly registered the depth of his convictions by politely declining the office of chaplain in the local militia, and by publishing his first tract, the Exposition of the Sentiments and Purposes of the Windham County Peace Society.
In his pamphlet, one readily notes how moderate its author was. He was not a radical; he wrote modestly and without passion in behalf of the society which invited all who believed in the general principles of peace to become members. With the single exception of a small initiation fee – fifty cents – the only other restriction was adherence to the constitution which condemned offensive wars. National defense was not denounced, and the society pledged itself to pattern its policy in conformity with established governments and churches. It did not seek to challenge approved political and religious behaviors. As a result, it enlisted the support of many, regardless of creed or rank. It harbored non-resisters and gained help from those prominent in local military circles. Probably Benson and May would have been happier if defensive wars had been outlawed by the society. Had they insisted upon this, the Windham Society might never have been formed. Not a single group in America had taken this high ground, not even the Rhode Island Society which was dominated by Friends. It was far more expedient, May reasoned, to enlist the aid of all and to hope that a stronger position might be taken at some future date.
May did not spare himself in promoting the cause of peace. Contacts were established with the London and Massachusetts Peace Societies, and their tracts as well as those of the Windham group were scattered throughout the county. Moreover, he was punctual in his attendance of the latter’s meetings. Beyond the score or more who were present at these gatherings, little attention seems to have been paid to the peace advocates. Most people viewed them as dreamers, though now and then a voice was raised in condemnation. Early in 1828, for example, the Times and Hartford Advertiser ran the following letter from one of its contributors, “Why gentlemen, a British reviewer goes into sadulations (Sic) because the Yankees trust their babies with nature’s musical rattle, a Rattle Snake’s tail. How would his eyes expand with wonder over such abominations,” advocated by the Windham Society? “Alack,” he adds, “no snake that wags tails upon our Continent carries half the poison . . . engendered by those malicious ‘wooden swords.’”
May ignored this ridicule. Rather would he meet the enemy by fighting the good fight, thoroughly convinced that victory would ultimately bless the standards of peace. His position was greatly strengthened in the summer of 1827 when William Ladd, the “Apostle of Peace,” visited Brooklyn to enlist May’s help in forming a national peace organization. Ladd was May’s guest for a week. Talks and conversations were followed by lectures in the village, and on Sunday they shared the pulpit of the Unitarian Church. Ladd was thoroughly impressed by May’s views on war and praised the work of the county society. And when old age caused Worcester to retire as editor of the Friend of Peace,Ladd urged May to accept this important post. Difficulties, however, must have arisen to prevent May’s taking this task, as Worcester’s successor was Ladd himself.
In January, 1828, Ladd returned to Brooklyn while on his way to Hartford where he addressed a recently formed peace society. A little later, at the request of these two groups as well as the societies at Boston and Portsmouth, Ladd canvassed the situation at New York and Philadelphia. Although he was disappointed over his reception in these cities, which were cool to the idea of a national organization, his heart was cheered by an enthusiastic welcome at Hartford, on his way home. Over a hundred persons signed his draft of the proposed American Peace Society. When the Windham group heard of what had happened at Hartford, they proceeded to announce publicly the birth of the national society. Actually, the new organization was not launched until the spring of that year at New York. May was not present at this gathering but warmly endorsed the undertaking and was instrumental in having the Windham group become one of the first auxiliaries of the national society.
The constitution of the American Peace Society condemned only offensive wars, but agreed that the time was not ripe for so bold a stand. May’s opinion, in this matter, was based upon his contacts with Benson and Ladd, and his analysis of Christ’s teachings. Correspondence with Thomas Grimke of South Carolina, an extreme pacifist, strengthened his convictions. In the meantime, he continued as an officer of the Windham Society, regularly attended its meetings, aided in the distribution of tracts, and used the Christian Monitor to further the cause. Thanks to the generosity of an unnamed friend – possibly George Benson – May indicated the trend of his thoughts by publishing an edition of Jonathan’s Essay on the Principles of Morality and Grimke’s Principles of Peace. Radical and dangerous writings, his friends might say, but May found good fruit in these works. By 1833, he was ready to condemn war in all forms and was clearly flirting with non-resistance. He wished the American Peace Society to announce publicly its condemnation of defensive wars and begged Ladd to affect this end. Privately, Ladd was willing, but he expressed great fear as to the consequences of an official statement. He made this clear to Henry E. Benson, a resident of Providence and son of George Benson of Brooklyn. Benson forwarded this information to May. Ladd, Benson wrote, wanted to pursue a course that would alarm no one, a position Benson thought quite unsound. “Had Mr. Ladd pursued the course that you have pursued (in respect to slavery and war) when he first commenced his course, his cause would have worn a different aspect. The militia system (which, by the way, is just about as much the handmaid of war as Colonization is that of slavery) would have been where Colonization is shortly to be.”
May pondered these things over in his mind. He heartily endorsed the educational program of the peace societies and gladly cooperated in sponsoring petitions to Congress favoring a World Court and the principle of arbitration. May’s influence, locally and nationally, was in the ascent and he gloried in the work he was doing. At the same time he realized, as did many others, that the movement was not gaining the support and recognition it deserved. Possibly, he argued, this was because the societies refused to take a higher stand. Scores of people might attend their meetings, and lip service to peace might be rendered without end, but forward-looking action and financial support was always lacking. Dark as the future seemed, May hoped for the best and eagerly grasped every opportunity to enlarge the scope and thought of the peace movement. Joining hands with those of like opinion, May silently bored from with the society. Gradually an infiltration of more advanced views permeated the inner circle of the national organization. It opened the columns of its journal, the Harbinger of Peace, later renamed the Calumet, to a discussion of defensive war and non-resistance.
Grimke’s views, as well as those of Dymond, were printed, as were sharp rejoinders from the pen of William Allen of Bowdoin College and Dr. Palfrey of the Massachusetts Peace Society. Thus the controversy, which had been smoldering within the peace organizations from their inception, was brought out into the open. Anxious to promote a free inquiry, the officers of the Massachusetts Society, in the spring of 1835, sponsored a series of public meetings on all phases of peace and war. May attended some of these gatherings, and joined with Ladd and Amasa Walker, prominent banker and economist of Boston, in advocating a more liberal position. The question also penetrated into the councils of the “New England Anti-Slavery Society. Would the slaves, it was asked, be justified in using force to gain their freedom? May held that if the patriots of 1776 had a just cause, so did the slaves. But he hastened to add, lest he be misunderstood, that Christ’s teachings clearly forbade the use of violence at all times. Imbue the minds of the slave, he argued “with pacific principles and conjure them not to return evil for evil.” In the face of this decided drift toward a wider appreciation of the question of war and peace, the Massachusetts Peace Society in 1836 preferred to follow the conservative leadership of Palfrey and George Beckwith, and voted down a motion to condemn war.
Ladd’s conversion to a more liberal position rested upon his own convictions and associations with younger men like May. More significant, was the influence of Reverend Henry C. Wright. Wright had won a name for himself as a fearless speaker and staunch humanitarian. He had attended the 1833 meeting of the American Peace Society, and had been visibly agitated by the vital import of the peace movement as well as by the apathy of its members. Their refusal to outlaw all war was the source of their weakness. Attempts to force Ladd and Channing to take this high ground failed but by 1835 he had won converts, notably Amasa Walker. Walker was so impressed by the logic of Wright’s thesis that he invited the latter to lead a discussion group at his home. May was present at one of these gatherings and while nothing is recorded as to his participation in debate, one can hardly picture him as a mere auditor. Wright’s determined attack bore fruit, for in the spring of 1836 the Executive Committee of the American Peace Society appointed a small group to look into the constitution with a view of revision. In July, Wright was honored by being appointed agent of the society and before the year was over he had carried his extreme views into Central New York. Reports of Wright’s violent non-resistance speeches soon reached Boston, and Ladd hastened to warn him not to express them in an official capacity. Wright ignored this instruction, and on his return to Boston in the fall was removed from his agency. He remained, however, a member of the society, and pled with Ladd to advance more rapidly, and even suggested that the latter found a non-resistance organization. Probably Ladd expressed interest, but he was too tactful to endorse what he believed public opinion frowned upon.
In the meantime, the American Peace Society had gathered for its annual meeting. At this gathering, the Executive Committee carried through an amendment to the constitution, condemning both defensive and offensive war. But it refused to take any stand as to civil war and non-resistance. When May heard of this action, he was living at South Scituate. He had come to this little village in the fall of 1836 after having been driven from Brooklyn because of his views on peace and slavery. In his new home he had sought to further these activities and was able, before the close of the year, to establish a local peace society. Frequent visits to Boston, where he conversed with leaders of both groups, kept him in close contact with the drift of events. He was not surprised, therefore, to learn that the national peace society had outlawed international war. He wondered, however, why it had avoided the problem of non-resistance; could it be that its leaders lacked the courage of their convictions? May was anxious to have this question settled and sought to hasten action. Others stoutly resisted and threatened to withdraw if non-resistance became an accepted principle of the society. In the face of this opposition and in view of the resignations that had been received because of the society’s denunciation of defensive war, the Executive Committee became panicky, and voted to review its entire official position. At the same time, they arranged for a series of public meetings to be held at Boston during the winter of 1836 and 1837. May was asked to talk and he accepted.
During the course of this agitation, the American Peace Society had been attacked by Garrison. Although this is not the place to recount Garrison’s earlier life, a word or two about his connections with the peace movement is necessary. As editor of the Journal of the Times, he had noted the peace efforts in Vermont and had given them his warm endorsement. Later, at Boston, his interest was stimulated by meeting Ladd and May. By 1837 he was a confirmed pacifist and used the Liberator to spread his views. It was in that year he met John Humphrey Noyes. Now Noyes was from Poultney, Vermont, where he had startled respectable opinion by propounding strange and heretical views as to salvation and the second coming of Christ. According to him, Christ’s second coming had taken place in 70 A.D. Since then, the Kingdom of God – a spiritual monarchy – was on earth and to it all nations and peoples owed homage and obedience. Earthly governments were to be supported provided they were in tune with God’s commands. And when the Federal Government violated the latter in its dealings with the Indians, Noyes fell “into a deadly quarrel with the United States.” Forthwith he drafted and signed a declaration of independence, severing all connection with the “powers that be.” Jesus Christ, he declared was the ruler of America, and should immediately be recognized as the President of the United States. Noyes’ “no government” views influenced Garrison profoundly and transformed his pacifism into non-resistance. He determined to lighten the darkness of the peace advocates, and if they refused his guidance he would serve them as “I have the Colonization Societies.” He joined forces with Henry C. Wright, found May a most interested party, and belabored the “noble Ladd” to lead the peace movement along approved Christian lines.
Naturally, he made enemies as readily as friends. Elizur Wright, prominent in the antislavery movement, begged him to let non-resistance alone, and when Garrison bluntly refused, Wright parted company with him. At this juncture, both the peace and antislavery societies were rocked to their foundations by the affair at Alton, Illinois. Here, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an abolitionist suffered death in resisting a band of rioters who were seeking to destroy his print shop. Lovejoy, it was claimed by some, was a Christian, and when he violated the Master’s command of “Resist not evil,” he had died in defiance of the injunction “Thou shalt not kill.” So spoke May, Garrison and the entire band of non-resisters. Nonsense, the conservative peace and antislavery group replied! Christ never intended man to die without exercising his God given right of self-defense. And so it came about that the national antislavery society ignored its non-resistance members when it merely passed a resolution deploring Lovejoy’s death. May was dumbfounded by this action and insisted that the society had been established upon the principle of non-resistance. Moreover, he publicly censured the officers of the society for not having condemned Lovejoy’s use of force.
Such was the troubled background, which faced May, Channing and others when they opened the peace talks at the Odeon in January, 1838. Listeners were perplexed by the conflicting views presented relative to non-resistance, offensive and defensive war, and “no government.” What, they asked, was the official position of the national peace society on these matters? But no direct answer was forthcoming because the Executive Committee did not know itself. Beckwith, it is true, tried to act as a moderator and outlined the society’s position, in the Advocate of Peace, on the basis of the constitution. He knew well, however, as did others that May, Garrison and Wright interpreted this organic law differently, and feared their avowed intention of forcing their views upon the society. By the spring of 1838 a crisis was reached. May and his group had forged so far ahead and had been spreading non-resistance so effectively that the Executive Committee was forced to take action. Either it would have to accept non-resistance or face a serious secessionist movement on the part of the Garrisonian faction. On the other hand, an endorsement of so radical a doctrine would lead to heavy withdrawals from the conservative ranks.
The Executive Committee decided to refer the entire matter to the society when it assembled in Boston for its annual meeting, May 30, 1838. The regular sessions of this gathering were peaceful enough, but at an adjourned meeting the storm burst. Beckwith, hoping to steer a middle course, introduced an amendment to the constitution that would eliminate any reference to either defensive or offensive war. Let us return, he argued, to the original purpose of the American Peace Society; let us adhere to a program that will allow every sincere peace advocate to remain within our ranks. Poor misguided Beckwith, did he not see that by erasing existing differences inherent in the constitution he was actually making these distinctions sharper? Did he not see that in seeking to avoid discussion on non-resistance – for that was the motive behind his proposal – he had raised the question of non-resistance? Ladd caught the sinister implication in Beckwith’s amendment, and became thoroughly alarmed. Like Beckwith, he did not want this issue raised, but now that it had been he would do what he could to prevent any discussion. Accordingly, he spoke against the amendment in general terms hoping, thereby, to bring about its defeat on such a basis rather than upon the mooted question of non-resistance. The cat, however, was out of the bag, and what he feared might happen did happen. For hardly had he finished speaking than Garrison was on his feet hammering away at Beckwith for having side stepped the doctrine of non-resistance. And when he was through, there were May and Wright to take up the fight. Further discussion was cut off by a call for the question, which, being put, was defeated.
With Beckwith’s proposal eliminated, one of the conservative members moved the adoption of a resolution confirming the constitution as it stood, and this motion was carried. Ladd, and even Beckwith, must have heaved a sigh of relief, for with the passage of this resolution any debate on non-resistance was for the moment out of the question. Moreover, it looked, after the session had adjourned, as though it would be killed at least for another year.
Wright, May, and Garrison had no intention of being so easily silenced. And, as the members of the peace society began to arise preparatory to leaving the building, Wright gained their attention and invited them to remain and hold another meeting. This was agreed to and May was placed in charge. The annual gathering of the American Peace Society was over; those now present constituted nothing more than an informal gathering of the friends of peace. Wright then proceeded to outline his views and closed by moving that a peace convention be held in the near future to discuss the question of peace in all of its ramifications. He realized that in a meeting crowded with moderates and conservatives any non-resistant resolves would be voted down; that explains why he and the Garrisonians had not forced the issue at the earlier meeting. It was good generalship to argue for a gathering of peace loving abolitionists and avowed non-resisters might be in the majority. It would be a peace convention and not a session of the national peace society, and Wright was confident that he could pack the former with his friends. Wright’s motion was accepted, and a committee was chosen to make the necessary arrangements. May accepted a place on this committee, though Ladd and Beckwith declined as they did not care to have the national society connected with the movement. Those who did serve were friendly to non-resistance. Within a few days, the committee issued the call for the proposed convention, naming Boston as the place of meeting, and September 18th as the time for gathering.
Widespread publicity was given to the projected convention. Signed notices in behalf of the committee appeared in several Boston and out-of-town papers. Circulars were also sent to friends in neighboring states. Both men and women were invited and complete freedom of speech was promised. In the meantime, Ladd and Beckwith had issued a call for all members of the national peace society to attend this convention. To have ignored the latter would have been to surrender the field to an aggressive rival. It was wise to support the affair, for were it to turn out along approved lines, the national peace society might step in and reap the credit. The Garrisonians sensed this and feared what might happen if too many conservatives attended the convention. Accordingly, they pledged themselves to defeat the designs of Ladd and Beckwith.
May was most active, dashing in from South Scituate to talk over matters of procedure with Wright, Garrison, and Edmund Quincy. May became alarmed, however, over the activities of Wright and Garrison. He asked them to adopt a more moderate tone in their speeches. Rally as many men and women as you can to the convention, but emphasize peace and not non-resistance. Your present tactics will intimidate timid souls. Stop “broaching our ultra doctrines in the beginning.” Once you have gathered true friends of peace into the meeting, then lead them along “through the preliminaries, getting them to concede certain fundamental truths.” When this is accomplished, you will be able to surprise them into an acknowledgment of a fact from which at first they would revolt.” Wise counsel, and had Garrison not been Garrison, such a course might have been followed; but Garrison was Garrison, and he refused to change his tactics or bridle his tongue.
May also showed great interest as to how the convention should be directed. Anxious to gain the ends he had in mind, he outlined to his friends a procedure that might be followed. Arrange in advance, he advised, the creation of an innocent looking committee – let it be called a committee on sundry affairs – and on this body place certain “sub rosa” members who would come with prepared reports. Wright, Garrison, Quincy, and May might act in this capacity, ready to spring upon the committee a “Declaration of Sentiments and Constitution . . . including the emphatic annunciation of this great principle . . . Inviolability of Human Life!” Having been accepted by the committee, and May was confident that he and his friends could handle that, the convention would endorse these proposals without question. Actually, May’s plans were not carried out in full, as both of these documents were drafted by Garrison while the convention was in session. In the meantime, May delivered several peace talks in New England and wound up with a final address at Marlboro Chapel, the evening preceding the convention.
Late the following morning, September 18th, May called the convention to order. Amasa Walker and Oliver Johnson were named chairman and secretary respectively. These men were kindly disposed toward the non-resistance philosophy. Thus, at the outset, the schemes of the moderate peace men, who had aspired to these offices, were defeated. Wright’s recent tours throughout New England had filled the convention with radical peace advocates. Johnson then proceeded to prepare a roll call, and while that was in progress, Garrison upset the Beckwith group by suggesting “that as mistakes often occur . . . each individual should write his or her name on a slip of paper.” This was so much poison to Beckwith who had, on previous occasions, stoutly denied the right of women to participate in politics or the affairs of a reforming society. Beckwith, in other words, thought women should leave such things to men and limit their activities to the home. May and Garrison held contrary views; women being considered man’s equal in all such undertakings. Garrison’s modest suggestion, therefore, was exceedingly important. It introduced the “vexed woman question at the very outset,” and if carried would most certainly tend to drive Beckwith and his followers from the convention. And this is precisely what happened, for once the convention had endorsed Garrison’s proposal, Beckwith and a half a dozen individuals, including Baron Stowe of Boston, left the meeting. Counting these, however, the roll call showed 163 persons present, of whom fifty-one were from Boston.
After Beckwith’s retirement, Wright introduced a ringing resolution declaring that Christ forbade “man to take the life of man in any case, as a penalty for crime, or in defense of property, liberty, life or religion; - and that consequently to threaten or endanger human life, or make preparations for its destruction is a sin against God and detrimental to the best interests of individuals and nations.” This set the convention into a great turmoil, and during the entire session that day and to noon of the following, debate was continued with much feeling and spirit. When all was said and done., and after the great majority of the members had left for home, Wright won the victory. Actually, but twenty eight persons accepted the resolution and the constitution, proposed by Garrison, against fifteen who opposed it. The Declaration of Sentiments was accepted by a vote of twenty-six to five. Upon such a small majority did the fortunes of the New England Non-resistance Society rest.
During the course of these hectic sessions, May had remained strangely quiet. He refused, moreover, to vote for either Constitution or Declaration. Nor did he elect to register his disapproval as did his friends Phillips and Ladd. And why? Had he become confused as arguments pro and con were showered upon him? Had he become frightened at the full implications of non-resistance as expounded by Wright and Garrison? No one knows, though Garrison charged him with being confused and frightened; and Garrison may have been right. Quincy, who also had disappointed Garrison, hastened to console with May after the meeting had ended. Locking their hearts and minds, these two gentlemen diligently studied the organic law of the new society. Possibly on a second or third reading they might discover some formula that would permit their acceptance of the Declaration for both were anxious to identify themselves with the new movement. But after all was said and done, they were of the opinion that the Declaration “renounced suits at law on the ground that they were processes created by human governments and therefore vicious.” In other words, a non-resister could not recognize human government. A non-resister, moreover, could not register a deed, hold a mortgage, assume political office or even vote. Such a position seemed absurd and if carried to its logical conclusion would have forced one to have refused the postal services of the Federal Government. Adin Ballou, stout non-resister from Mendon, insisted that these were valid restrictions. The sacred principle of non-resistance, he urged, admitted no alternative. Human life was inviolable at all times and under all circumstances and if government used force in any way to gain its ends then that government should be repudiated. Moreover, one’s own personal life should always be tuned to the teaching of Christ. Capital punishment, imprisonment, hard labor and other sanctions were all condemned, as the administration of physical discipline to children. “Spare the rod” and one will not spoil the child!
Upon these and many other hair splitting questions, unanimity of opinion could not be obtained. Non-resisters themselves vehemently disagreed as to where the line should be drawn between the use and non-use of force or to what extent one should recognize an authority that relied upon carnal weapons for its existence. Some, for example, argued that it would be a sin to prevent a child from placing a bare hand upon a hot kitchen stove. One should carefully explain the nature of heat and the consequences of direct contact, but in the last analysis no force should be employed to restrict the action of a heedless child. If the Fathers of the Non-Resistance Society could not accept all of these fantastic notions, was May to blame for not subscribing to them?
Garrison emphatically said, yes, for to him it was a vital matter. Accept the fundamental tenets, he said, and forget the non-essentials. May was willing to overlook the latter but was reluctant to endorse fundamentals that were liable to such wild and unheard of interpretations. But these, Garrison urged, can be altered so as to meet your objections and when that was done he invited May to join the holy brotherhood. Quincy, in the meantime, had yielded, and now together with Garrison tried to persuade May that the voice of non-resistance was the voice of God. Quincy’s endorsement of radical peace doctrine forced May to reconsider his own position. During these days of doubt and uncertainty, first Wright and then Oliver Johnson tried their powers of persuasion upon May, but the year closed with May still undecided. By the spring of 1839, however, he showed signs of wavering. Quincy quick to sense the change in May’s attitude, begged him to join and remarked, “I have been much happier since I have attained to the high and sound ground of Non-Resistance.” Ultimately, by the summer, he was won over and never during the remainder of his life did he hesitate to preach non-resistance. At the annual meeting of the society in the fall of the same year, he took an active part, serving on the business committee. Alcott, who attended this meeting, described it as a “band of valiant souls . . . gathering for conflict with the hosts of ancient and honorable errors and sins.” What better company could May possibly have? May was not present at the 1840 gathering, though he was one of the principal speakers the year following. In 1842, he became a member of the Executive Committee and was active in the regular and special sessions of the society in 1844.
By this time, the fortunes of the New England Non-Resistance Society had declined to a point where it was evident, even to its friends, that its days were numbered. The predictions of its opponents were realized. “Religious Jacobinism Run Mad,” so the New York Observer had described the Society, while the National Aegis had proclaimed that “not until the Society of the Garden of Eden shall be established on Earth . . . can such principles be safely made the rule of action.” Ladd, who was sympathetically disposed, called it “the forlorn hope of the peace cause.” It never had had a large following and outside of its own publications attracted little attention. Internal squabbles over policy and hair splitting questions vitiated its energies and repelled men like Garrit Smith, of Peterboro, New York, who at one time gave financial aid to the organization.
May, however, never relinquished his faith in extreme pacifism, though there were times when he questioned its expediency in respect to slavery. Loyalty to non-resistance, moreover, did not prevent him from retaining his membership in the American Peace Society. His influence in that society remained strong in spite of his affiliation with the Garrisonian faction, and in 1845 he was an active member of the Executive Committee of the national peace society.
May’s rise in humanitarian circles had been meteoric. The modest and God-fearing pastor of Brooklyn had become, within a dozen years, a national figure in the antislavery movement and the crusade for peace. In temperance and educational circles he also had made a name for himself. These activities widened the scope of his influence, enriched his mental vigor, and caused him to travel far and wide throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic States. Brooklyn became well known for the outstanding work of its leading citizen. It was not merely Reverend Samuel J. May whose name appeared in print, rather it was the Reverend Samuel J. May of Brooklyn, Connecticut. But, like the prophet of old, his honor and reputation was not local. His enthusiastic endorsement of Garrisonian doctrines, his denunciation of the Colonization Society, his heroic defense of Prudence Crandall had caused misgivings among his fellow townsmen and even among his parishioners. Murmurs of discontent arose. What business had May, so it was openly stated, to meddle in affairs of government? Why should he, a minister of the Gospel, stir up trouble and dissension? Why should he neglect his pastoral duties by repeated duties to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia? May’s ears had heard these complaints – even Lucretia had chided him for his prolonged and numerous absences – and they troubled him sorely. Nor did it do him much good to remind his critics that a Christian minister should be about “His Master’s” business. Their interpretation of ministerial duties did not coincide with his. Finally, there was the constant snipping by his old friends, the Trinitarians.
May was conscious that he had lost caste at Brooklyn and he speculated upon what course of action he should follow. By the opening of 1833, his mind was made up; he would look elsewhere for employment and in February of that year he sold his Brooklyn home and lot. Clearly, as his sister Abby Alcott stated, his tie to Brooklyn was loosening. All of his hard work seemed to have been for naught. Brooklyn could tolerate his Unitarianism, but not his antislavery, non-resistance and women’s rights attitudes. May was discouraged, but knew not where to turn. His friends in Boston urged him to resign. You are wearing yourself out at Brooklyn; you need a larger and wider field of action. Sound advice, but where was there an opening? And until he could find definite employment, so as to provide for the needs of his growing family, he could not leave Brooklyn. An opportunity did present itself in the form of an invitation to undertake an agency for the American Anti-Slavery Society. It was only a temporary appointment, the very nature of which was bound to antagonize local opinion more than ever. And yet he was eager to accept the post because of his deep interest in the slavery cause; and who knew, it might lead to a permanent position of decided advantage. But a suitable substitute would have to be secured, and although May scoured the field he found no one to whom he dared to entrust the destiny of the Brooklyn Church. Nor was he able to accept a similar offer which his friend Whittier had made in behalf of the Essex County Anti-Slavery Society. Had these invitations been accompanied by an adequate salary, May might have left Brooklyn and taken the chance of finding employment when the agencies had expired. As it was, he remained at Brooklyn, a discontented and unhappy man.
Late in 1834, his spirits were revived by the prospect of a position at a Providence Unitarian Church, and his good friends, the Bensons, pushed his candidacy with much enthusiasm. Those who directed affairs, however, at Providence altered their plans and by Christmas, May still found himself at Brooklyn, facing a belligerent hostile opinion even among his own people. Thoroughly opposed to his use of the pulpit and church for antislavery meetings and sermons, the Society unanimously voted that no further gatherings of this type were to be held without the consent of “all the society’s committee.” May deplored this action, viewing it as an interference with his legitimate work. Long and emotionally styled letters to his Boston associates related his misfortunes and difficulties. In the meantime, these friends had decided to establish an antislavery agency for the New England Society. And May was just the man they were seeking. Accordingly in January, 1835, they made him an offer which he could and did accept, and in the spring of that year he left Brooklyn on a year’s leave of absence.
During this interval, May was in Brooklyn once or twice. Here he braved his critics by holding several antislavery meetings in the Church. His action, of course, clearly violated the wishes of his people, even though the Executive Committee of the Society had given its consent to these gatherings. May’s challenge was immediately answered. Public opinion refused to tolerate such happenings and the Committee was forced to adopt a resolution which closed the church doors to all antislavery talks except upon the unanimous vote of the entire Society. The colored members of the village, whom May had befriended and allowed to sit in the nave of the church, were relegated to the wall pews at the east end of the gallery. Finally, it was voted to permit no more antislavery preaching on Sunday. Injurious as these actions were to May’s influence in Brooklyn, more drastic steps were taken. One of these was the announcement, on the part of a prominent and wealthy member of the Church, that he would resign if May were allowed to return. Not wishing to alienate the financial support of this member, the Society prohibited the preaching of antislavery sermons for the ensuing year. Hence if May did return, it would be on the basis of this action.
And what were May’s reactions to these happenings? We do not know as he left no definite record of his feelings. One may be certain, however, that he viewed the future with great apprehension. For how could he be true to his convictions and yet retain his pastorate, and yet this is exactly what his wife wished him to do? Fortunately, there was no need for immediate action. His agency would not expire for several months and during this interval much might happen. Some provision would be made in due time. He determined to cross no bridges until necessary and to continue to combat slavery and war with all his might. This he did in a manner that astonished his most intimate friends. Such courage and determination had seldom been seen before; and May gloried in the battles fought and won. Occasionally, much to the delight of his wife and children, he would take a few days’ rest amid the charm of his father’s home or that of his sister’s at Concord. Here he was always graciously received. Bronson, the perfect host, would listen most attentively to May’s recounting of his antislavery experiences, and then pour forth his own views, much to May’s great pleasure. Alcott described these visits as making the “perfect circle” complete. How these intellectual giants must have talked over the destiny and purpose of man, when the noise of the day was over and the “Little Women” were asleep in their beds! It was his loving hand, moreover, that baptized these girls in the spring of 1836.
But soon May’s agency was over, and as there was no prospect of it being renewed, he had to return to Brooklyn. His heart was heavy; he dreaded the situation that faced him. Some of his closest associates at Brooklyn had moved away; others had died. The Society, moreover, was enfeebled by internal dissensions brought on by his social and political activities as well as by the attacks of the Trinitarians. What the future had in store no one knew, though May felt that his pastorate was rapidly approaching an end. By the middle of July, he informed Garrison of his intention to leave. Garrison urged him to come to Boston and undertake another agency or seek similar work with the American Anti-Slavery Society. Nothing would have pleased May more, but funds were limited and these opportunities vanished. It was during this year that Joseph, May’s third child was born. [Note: Joseph became a Unitarian minister and preached the sermon for the dedication of the James Street church in Syracuse.]
It was then that he heard of the vacancy existing at the Unitarian Church at South Scituate. Letters passed back and forth between the two as well as between them and the Association at Boston. Finally, in September, 1837, the parish made him a definite offer which he did not hesitate to accept. The next step was to inform the Brooklyn Society of his decision and this he did by letter. “Various circumstances,” he wrote, “have brought me reluctantly to the conclusion that it is best for yourselves and best for me that my pastoral relation to you be dissolved. I, therefore, respectfully and affectionately request from you a dismissal as soon as your earliest convenience will permit.” The Society granted the request and within a month the Brooklyn pastorate was over. Before leaving, May entered in the parochial Journal of the parish his reasons for leaving. First, Brooklyn was altogether too small a village to support so many churches – there were four – especially since the local tax rate was so high. Second, the Society generally disapproved of his antislavery activities. Third, several families had moved to Indiana, and fourth, the Society was unable to meet his salary. Nevertheless, May disliked leaving Brooklyn. Providence, he stated, had brought him to this village. Here he had labored for more than a decade amid conditions that would have daunted many. Trials and tribulations had beset him from the first. All this he had borne patiently. The exactions and rewards, moreover, had brought rewards. And now the decision to leave Brooklyn meant the severing of many deep-rooted affections that tied him to his flock. His last entry in the parochial Journal, dated October 16, 1837, speaks volumes as to his feelings and pent up emotions. “Today, I have taken leave of my Society.” Truly it had been his Society. All that it was rested upon his labors; all that it was to be was built upon his efforts.
May never harbored any ill will toward the Brooklyn Society. He always remembered his life there as having been most happy, and that in spite of the many disappointments he had experienced. Never did he hesitate to say a good word for the Society and often went out of his way to encourage the Unitarian Association to support this struggling parish. At various times he returned to visit his old friends who never forgot the services he had rendered them. He kept in touch with them and conditions at Brooklyn throughout the remainder of his life and, on several occasions, entertained these associates in his Syracuse home.
May and his family arrived at South Scituate late in October. In marked contrast to his former charge, conditions remained relatively peaceful during this ministry. No outspoken criticism was raised as to his antislavery, temperance or peace views which he freely discussed and which often took him to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. His administration of the church services were acceptable and his congregation willingly endorsed certain changes which he instituted in the ritual. Some of these centered about the Lord’s Supper. May disliked the custom of having Communion after the usual morning service. Such a procedure not only interfered with the exercises of the Sunday School, but created, as he said, “an air of mystery.” Nor did he approve of the use of wine. His recommendation was in favor of the use of unfermented grape syrup and this, as well as the hour of Communion, which became the only service on the second Sunday of each month, was accepted. His temperance views won general approval. Gathering the children of his parish into “Cold Water” groups, he often paraded through the village streets demonstrating against the sale and use of liquor. Several of the local dram shops were forced to shut down as a result of these activities. His interest in this movement led him to Boston, in the spring of 1838, where he attended the State Temperance Convention, of which he was made Vice-President. During the course of the next four years he frequently attended similar meetings and, in 1841, was elected a delegate to the National Temperance Convention held at Saratoga Springs, New York.
One incident, however, did mar his ministry, though it never became a matter of great moment. Shortly after his arrival, Bronson Alcott made him a visit. At first, May welcomed his brother-in-law and allowed him the use of his pulpit. Alcott, who always loved to talk, poured forth his philosophies and opinions in no uncertain terms. Similar statements were made at the weekly social gatherings of the congregation and soon tongues were wagging about his extreme notions and transcendental views. Those who have read that delightful book, Pedler’s Progress, will possibly understand why these simple people found fault with the Concord dreamer. For himself, May was not disturbed; his tolerance and sense of fair play was such that would lead him to silence no man. At the same time, he disliked the controversies that Alcott had engendered within his flock. May spoke to Alcott about the trouble he was causing and how idle gossip had labeled him as an enemy to Christianity. Alcott took no offense, but believed May was oversensitive about other people’s feelings. “Good man,” Alcott wrote in his journal, “He is a Christian spirit and honors his Master by his life and temper. But like most professors, his knowledge of Christianity is grounded in traditions, not in the Soul. He can scarce look with complacency on one who is not a professed follower of the Nazarene.” Think and act as I do, so Alcott held, and your judgments will be as sound as they are eternal. May, however, could not endorse Alcott’s self-appraisal and while the latter remained under his roof continued to treat him both as a friend and a brother. Nevertheless, May must have said a silent prayer of thanks when Alcott finally left South Scituate.
May’s parochial duties occupied more of his time than at Brooklyn. Not that there was more to do, but rather because he devoted less time and energy to the crusade against slavery. His interest in that cause was as keen as ever, but at no time did he undertake an extensive tour or agency. On the other hand, he gladly lectured and preached on slavery at a number of New England towns and did much to promote the work of the Old Colony Anti-Slavery Society, of which he was an officer. His services in these and other capacities partly explain his repeated re-election to the Vice-Presidency of the New England Society. He was also named a member of the Board of Managers of the American Society when it met in the spring of 1837. May did not attend this gathering; probably because he found it impossible to be in two places at once. Or may it have been because he recalled Lucretia’s comments about his duty to her, his “domestic slave”? Or could it have been on account of Garrison’s quarrel with the National Executive Committee?
In a recent volume of decided merit, Dr. Gilbert Barnes has amply sustained the thesis that the American Anti-Slavery officers frequently found fault with Garrison’s views and tactics. Not that its leaders underestimated Garrison’s abilities or differed with him as to the imperative need of immediate emancipation. But they did dislike – some thoroughly detested – his methods and abusive language. Repeatedly did they advise him to adopt a more temperate policy. Court, rather than alienate, those who agree with us in principle. Make allies out of them and not enemies. Slavery is a sin. Many Christians publicly say so even though organized religion is unready to take so bold a stand. But the Christian Churches must be made to see it is a sin. Let us seek, they urged, to gain that end, and when the victory is won slavery will be abolished once and for all. Your fanatical devotion to every ‘ism hangs like an anchor around our necks as well as those of the colored man. As you now conduct yourself, you are the slave’s worst enemy. Listen to your sharp tongue; read your biting editorials! Is this the best way of gaining converts? Why irritate opinion that otherwise would be friendly to the cause by harping on the virtues of non-resistance? Why astonish people by subscribing to such a foolish notion of “no government” and publicizing Noyes’ “Holiness” doctrines? And why outrage men – yes even women – by explosive utterances relative to women’s rights? Adhere to these views if you will, but please in the interests of our cause do not drag them into the anti-slavery movement.
View the situation as a realist, the argument continued, and what outstanding cleric in the entire nation is an abolitionist? Beriah Green? Yes, to be sure, but Green is buried in a small village in upstate New York. May? No more loyal minister exists, but what standing does he have among his fellow clerics? And as for Dr. Charles Follen, your own comments on his leadership strengthens our contention. Why have Drs. William E. Channing and Lyman Beecher remained so cold toward abolition? Garrisonism and Garrisonism alone supplies the answer. Gain the support of these great leaders and their influence will bring tens of thousands into the fold. As it is, they refuse to identify themselves in a cause chiefly because of your tactics.
The evidence, furnished by historical research, reveals general support for this condemnation. May frankly admitted it at the time and did not see fit to alter his views when, in 1869, he published his Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict. On the other hand, it should be noted that most of the Protestant clergy of the North, and even some of the South, ultimately became active participants in the antislavery movement and that in spite of Garrison’s dogged refusal to alter his attitudes or tactics. Why? The defenders of Tappan, Weld, and Staunton would have us believe that it was these gentlemen who deserve credit for gaining these converts and in leading them into the Liberty and later the Republican Party. That there is truth in this contention, no one would deny. On the other hand, those supporting Garrison boldly claim that emancipation would have come sooner had the abolitionists followed the standards of New England. Probably no definitive answer can be given. Both factions most certainly made positive contributions, and both were equally guilty of promoting internal dissension. One conclusion, however, may be chanced, namely, that Garrison’s repeated blows, direct from the shoulder, shook opinion in both North and South, and forced the issue out into the open.
The basic differences between the National Executive Committee and Garrison were vividly revealed by their attitudes toward the commotion raised by Reverend Lyman Beecher. Now the latter was a power to be reckoned with among New England Congregationalists. At an early date, he had become an outspoken critic of Garrison and counted his followers by the thousands. He hated slavery as much as Garrison, but despised the latter’s attacks upon the Colonization Society and his espousal of women’s rights. Unable to soften Garrison’s vitriolic editorials and addresses, Beecher influenced the General Associations of Connecticut and Massachusetts to close their doors to abolitionist speakers. In their famous “Pastoral Letter,” these associations claimed that the intrusion of abolitionists into their pulpits, often without their consent, was a violation of the sacred and important rights of the ministry. Greater attention, however, was paid to the dangers that confronted society through Garrison’s advocacy of women’s rights. “The power of women,” so it was stated, “is in her dependency, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection, and which keeps her in those departments of life that form the character of individuals and of the nation . . . But when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defense against her; she yields the power which God had given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural.” Paraphrased into language of today, this statement implied that woman’s place was in the kitchen and nursery.
The National Executive Committee viewed the “Pastoral Letter” as a major catastrophe. It demonstrated beyond all question that Garrison, by advocating women’s rights, was wrecking the antislavery movement. It was not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with Garrison as to woman’s status or privilege. Most men and women believed as Beecher did and when Garrison proclaimed that women should attend antislavery meetings, hold office and even vote, he was guilty of interjecting into the abolition movement an issue that was entirely out of place. What irritated the Committee most of all, however, was Garrison’s determination to weed out of the antislavery groups all those who would not accept his notions about women’s rights. Garrison’s influence they knew was strong, but Beecher’s was stronger. For this reason, the Committee hastened to check the impact of the “Pastoral Letter.” Of course, it might have drawn Beecher and his followers into the National Society; of this, however, there was some question. On the other hand, it most certainly would have resulted in a secession of the Garrisonians and the antislavery movement would have been split into two rival factions. Much as they deplored Garrisonism, they could not afford to lose the support and power of the New England group. It was Beecher and not Garrison, therefore, that must be attacked.
Accordingly, speakers were hurried into New England to counteract the effect of the “Pastoral Letter.” In New Hampshire, a decided victory was scored; elsewhere in New England only partial victories were reported. In Boston, the Congregational Churches refused to open their doors to the January, 1837 meeting of the New England Society and the latter was forced to assemble in the loft of the stable attached to the Marlboro Hotel. May was present at this gathering and “poured out his soul” in condemnation of the Congregational pastors. Particularly did he dislike the action of Reverend Joseph Towne, who although an agent of the National Society had supported Beecher from the first.
Towne’s name in the antislavery movement will always be remembered for his participation in the “Clerical Appeal.” In this open letter, published in the New England Spectator,Towne, assisted by several other devines, attacked Garrison for his abusive editorials, highhanded procedures and his condemnation of all Christians who did not unite with his peculiar brand of abolition. They called upon all friends of the slave to desert Garrison, identify themselves with less radical abolitionists and to drive the Liberator into complete oblivion. Garrison saw red and demanded that the National Society should repudiate this attack and condemn its authors. The Executive Committee politely refused. Towne, it stated, represented such a small minority that, if left alone, would soon hang itself. The “Clerical Appeal” was a hasty and injudicious affair, one that the “signers would soon regret.” At the same time, Garrison was told that his past conduct had most certainly given Towne “cause of complaint.” Your allusions have not always been right; your discussions have not been wise, and the “spirit exhibited . . . by yourself has not been sufficiently kind and Christ like.” Garrison answered with a scorching editorial in the liberator, which generally won the continued disfavor of his opponents, but the praise of his followers.
Although May did not approve of his friend’s biting language he supported him wholeheartedly. He considered Garrison’s replies to Towne “complete, exhaustive and unanswerable.” The “Clerical Appeal, “he held, was only a sectarian affair and he hoped the Congregational clergy would silence its authors. May was not alone in this matter. During November, 1837, for example Sarah and Angelina Grimke visited South Scituate and expressed similar attitudes. These hardy sisters had other grievances against the Congregationalists, notably the latter’s constant attacks on women’s rights. May, who always had argued for the equality of women, and about which more will be said presently, rallied to the defense of these women.
Close upon the heels of the “Clerical Appeal” came the Alton affair. Garrison deplored Lovejoy’s death but strongly condemned his use of force to defend himself. He did not, however, inflict his views upon the Massachusetts Society, whose resolutions declared that Lovejoy was justified in using force. The principles enunciated in the Declaration of Sentiments of the Society were cited by way of proof. How far one might resort to self-defense, the Society did not state, though it did declare that if the “doctrine of non-resistance had been practically carried out” by Lovejoy, a better result would have followed. His position, in short, would have been impregnable.
May thoroughly endorsed these resolutions. Their weakness, if any, consisted in not being more emphatic. Massachusetts had spoken, but what would the National Society say? He had his doubts, though he hoped they would be dispelled. Patiently did he scan the papers. Soon he read of the great mass meeting that had been held at the New York Tabernacle Church, under the auspices of the Executive Committee. Prayers and eulogies, notably by Beriah Green, were offered, but where, May asked, was there a single word condemning Lovejoy’s use of force. And as for the resolutions of the Executive Committee, which had declared Lovejoy had died “in defending his property and rights in a manner justified by the laws of the nation and all other civilized countries,” May shoved them to one side. They were weak; they were pitiable. More important, they constituted an open violation of the principles of the National Society.
Forthwith he mailed a sharp protest to Beriah Green with the request that it be printed in the Emancipator. A similar letter was sent to Garrison for use in the Liberator. In these communications, May asserted that the Alton Crime had rocked the antislavery cause to its foundations and that the action of the Executive Committee was highly reprehensible. First, because Lovejoy’s action violated God’s commandment, “Thou shalt do no murder,” and second, because the Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society clearly repudiated the right of any member, or any individual for that matter, to use force to gain desired ends. Nobel as were the aims and objectives of the Society, these could and should not be advanced by physical action. He urged Green to take a bold stand and condemn Lovejoy’s use of carnal weapons; otherwise the cause would suffer unmeasured harm. Green published May’s letter; Garrison did not. The latter held that his friend had grievously misunderstood the terminology of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Sentiments. Neither of these documents supported May’s interpretation; neither forbade the use of force. The society neither affirmed or disaffirmed the right of self-defense. Individual members might practice non-resistance, but the Society at no time had endorsed such a principle. Hence the Executive Committee could not be censured for what it had done.
May was not moved by Garrison’s reasoning though he wondered how a thorough-going non-resister could come to such an unwarranted conclusion. Surely his friend recalled the initial meeting of the Society in 1833 at which time a non-resistant group had drafted both the Constitution and Declaration. In any event, the founder of the New England Non-Resistance Society should interpret the organic law as he had. Dr. Channing, no particular friend of Garrison, was of the same opinion and challenged the latter in an open “Letter to the Abolitionists.” Channing blamed the abolitionists for not having condemned Lovejoy’s use of force. “It may be laid down,” he asserted, “as a rule hardly admitting an exception that an enterprise of Christian philanthropy is not to be carried on by force; that it is time for philanthropy to stop when it can only advance by wading through blood.” Garrison’s reply, which questioned Channing’s thesis on every point, was a bitter disappointment to May, who lost not time in telling his friend of his feelings. He knew that Garrison adhered to non-resistant views and that as an individual he deplored Lovejoy’s action. He could not, therefore, understand his friend’s position. He agreed wholeheartedly with Channing’s view – abolitionists must cling to pacific principles, otherwise the antislavery movement would lose its evangelical character. Moreover, all who truly loved the cause of the slave were heavily indebted to Channing for his timely admonition.
May was given an opportunity to express his sentiments when the Old Colony Anti-Slavery Society assembled in January, 1838. At this gathering, he sponsored a resolution condemning Lovejoy. But when asked as to whether the Federal Government was entitled to call upon abolitionists to maintain order by force, he stoutly maintained that the question was beside the point. Of course, he knew that the Government had the constitutional authority to call upon all citizens to maintain order, though this did not imply that individuals had to obey. Each citizen must settle this question according to his own conscience. Although May’s friends realized the reason why he had not replied to this pointed question, many wondered whether his silence was not an admission of weakness on his part. Was May beating a retreat? Was he afraid to face the facts? No!! Quite true, his critics might have replied, but we still are of the opinion that May must clarify his position. This he did at the spring meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
As Chairman of the Business Committee of this Society, May was in a favored position to advance his views. Accordingly he planned a line of attack which he thought might compel Green, Tappan and others to alter their policy in respect to the use of force. Very adroitly, therefore, he asked for the endorsement of a resolution which read, “We consider the Declaration of Sentiments made by the Convention at Philadelphia, December 4, 1833, a declaration of the American Anti-Slavery Society.” Whereupon Joshua Leavitt, editor of the Emancipator, sprang to his feet asking for the meaning of such a resolution. Who, he inquired, ever questioned the fact? The Declaration was and always had been an integral part of the Society’s organic law and principles. Why then introduce such a meaningless resolution? Leavitt had spied a “n…..” [the “n” word] in May’s innocent looking wood pile and was determined to drive him out. May’s rejoinder proved his undoing for he immediately admitted the existence of a “n…..” [the “n” word] Some one less naïve or honest than May would have laughed at Leavitt’s fears. Do not be alarmed, he might have said, have you never heard of people renewing their vows of loyalty and patriotism? That is all I have in mind. Surely there can be no harm in our reaffirming our faith in the principles of the Society. And having lightened the darkness in this manner, the resolution in all probability would have been passed. This is precisely what May had hoped for and having achieved this end he then planned to introduce another resolution which he believed could not be rejected after the first had been adopted.
May, however, was altogether too honest to stoop to such tactics. There was nothing unethical in outsmarting one’s opponent by clever maneuvering of one’s arguments. It was, however, unchristian to give the lie to Leavitt’s question. As a result, he disclosed his entire hand by frankly admitting that he had another resolution in mind, relative to Lovejoy’s death and the action of the Executive Committee thereto, which he would introduce after the first one had been accepted. Now the cat was truly out of the bag. May’s attitudes were well-known and everyone realized that he intended to force the Society to accept his interpretation of the Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments – namely, that the Society was a non-resistant organization and that Lovejoy’s use of force must be condemned. May’s dogged determination to force the issue was the signal for a heated and prolonged debate. The battle continued into the late afternoon and was renewed with greater feeling in the evening session. Precisely what was said is not known, though one may be certain that both sides discussed the pros and cons as to the actual meaning of the Society’s organic law. Moreover, in all probability, much must have been said as to the propriety of introducing pacifism or any “ism” into the antislavery crusade.
Finally, after all was said and done, the Society rejected May’s resolution by a large majority. May was dumbfounded. Whittier, who was as startled as May was by the turn of events, rushed forward saying, “This is an alarming result.” The entire aspect and character of the Society, so he thought, had been changed. “Let us,” he urged, “at least procure from the meeting an avowal of pacific principles and a recommendation to the agents similar to what has been given before.” By all means, answered May. Where upon Whittier hastily presented his views in a resolution which advocated a policy of non-resistance on the part of the Society’s agents. The conservative members flatly refused and voted down the resolution by a vote of 44 to 19. And what of Garrison, Henry C. Wright and Gerrit Smith, who individually had endorsed May’s pacific principles? Where were they, and how did they vote? They appear to have been present during the afternoon session though there is no evidence of their having taken part in the debate to any great extent. And in the evening, when the fatal voted was taken, they were absent, attending a local peace meeting.
May’s position in respect to this entire affair rested upon his interpretation of the Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments. He argued that in 1833 these documents had been accepted as a denial of the right of self-defense. In support of this thesis, he quoted the third article of the Constitution which read, “This Society will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by physical force.” And the Declaration, which May declared had been drafted for the sole purpose of implementing the Constitution, read, “Ours forbid the doing of evil that good may come, and lead us to reject, and entreat the oppressed to reject, the use of any carnal weapons for the deliverance from bondage; relying . . . upon those which are spiritual and ‘mighty through God’ to the pulling down of strongholds.”
Here, according to May, was indisputable evidence that the Society in 1833 had championed the principle of “Resist not evil by force.” Not until the Lovejoy incident, he asserted, had this truth been questioned. Not until the Alton Crime had he heard it said that these pacific principles represented only the opinions of the signers of these documents. “Until the Declaration was held and generally accepted as the Magna Carta of the immediate abolitionists.” And he might have added for good measure, what he sincerely believed, that membership in the National Society connoted acceptance of both Declaration and Constitution. Force, he added, had been outlawed by those who founded the Society and that included Beriah Green, Joshua Leavitt, William Lloyd Garrison and all others who then or later became members of the organization. Had not Beriah Green exhorted us at that historic Philadelphia Convention to cherish pacific principles? Had he not warned us that our labor would bring shame, ridicule and abuse upon us, and that our property and lives might be endangered? And finally, had he not told us not to “hurt a hair on the head of our oppressors, whom we ought to regard in pity more than in anger?”
May’s case bears the earmarks of truth. His sincerity and honesty cannot be questioned. His record as an abolitionist and pacifist should convince any doubting Thomas that he was firmly of the opinion that the National Society was pledged to non-resistance. And he was not alone in this opinion. Whittier and a dozen more had registered their acceptance of his position at the 1839 meeting of the Society. Others also agreed with May. Writing to Theodore Weld, Sarah Grimke stated, “My heart sinks within me when I remember the fearful scenes at Alton. Will God continue to bless an enterprise which is baptized with blood? I read with sorrow the resolutions of the A.A.S.S., not even a regret expressed that violence had been resorted to. Surely to be consistent, abolitionists should go South and help the slaves to obtain freedom at the point of the bayonet. I believe the death of Brother L. has given a deadly wound to abolition as a Christian enterprise; it is an hour of darkness and gloominess to me. And the religious exercises in N.Y. seemed almost impious to me, as if we intended to sanction and sanctify the crime of murder in self-defense.”
Had the Executive Committee ever approved of self-defense prior to the Alton Affair? Had it ever expressed its disapproval? May’s reasoning and citation of Green’s impassioned exhortation, delivered in 1833, seems most convincing. But, in a technical sense, the Executive Committee had never condoned or condemned the right of self-defense. Whittier’s resolution conveys the impression that the Committee in years past had instructed its agents to adopt a pacific attitude, and an honest reading of its instructions could lead to this conclusion. Actions, however, speak louder than words and compel one to believe that another interpretation was possible. For, when these agents returned blow for blow and actually defended themselves, in some instances, against violence, the Committee uttered no word of reproach; rather did it remain silent. Moreover, when Garrison boldly championed pacific principles and almost turned the Massachusetts Society into a non-resistant organization, the Committee begged him to leave such an “ism” out of the slavery controversy. Although the members of the Committee endorsed the peace movement as founded by Worcester and Ladd, and other humanitarian reforms, none of them had surrendered themselves to the “holiness” appeal of Noyes, or to the radical pacifism of May, Garrison and Wright. In the face of this evidence, how could May argue as to the intentions of the founders of the American Society? Had there been a James Madison present at the 1833 meeting to record the speeches and comments then made, one might affirm that May was entirely correct. But no such record exists; all that does exist consists of the brittle minutes of the secretary, the Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments, scattering notices in the press and an occasional remark by May. In the face of this evidence, one must conclude that May and others believed in 1838 that a denial of the right of self-defense had been subscribed to five years before and that such a denial was still an integral part of the Society’s principles and law. It is equally clear that others, by their actions between these two dates, had held to a different interpretation. And the fact that the latter group did not raise the issue until the Lovejoy murder cannot be advanced as evidence that they thought otherwise before. Probably, the truth of the matter is simply this, unless we are to believe May’s point that the Committee deliberately reversed its position, that there were two conflicting opinions about self-defense from the very inception of the Society. Neither of these opinions were vocal or had any reason to be vocal until the Alton Affair. And that when the issue was raised, the Executive Committee was able to have its interpretation endorsed by the Society.
Of course, May was bitterly disappointed over the outcome of the meeting. He believed, as did others, that the cause had suffered great harm. He did not, however, retire to his study and sulk because he had not had his way. Rather did he continue to labor for the freedom of the slave as he had been doing ever since his moving to South Scituate. He attended the sessions of the Massachusetts Society and served on its Board of Managers. He was in a position, therefore, to know of the inner activities of this organization and to appreciate the yawning gap which divided it from the National Society. He deplored the situation and hoped that internal dissension might cease, and to gain this end he was ever willing to lend a helping hand.
The accumulative effect of the “Pastoral Letter” and the “Clerical Appeal” hampered antislavery activities in more ways than one. In New England orthodox opinion, as expressed by most of the churches, was far less cordial than before. Agents of both the American and New England Antislavery Societies found their activities and labors were gaining fewer converts and, what was more disturbing, fewer contributions. Equally depressing to the friends of the slave was the fact that Beecher’s attack had exposed and laid bare to the public the divergence that existed between the National and the New England Societies. Individuals whose sympathies were disposed toward abolition were shocked and repelled by what they heard and saw. It may, of course, be argued that a cleavage between the two organizations would have come about regardless of Beecher and Towne, though this hardly counteracts the view that hostile ecclesiastical opinion was chiefly responsible for the break itself. Certainly, clerical opposition, based upon a repugnance to Garrisonian tactics, was a factor of great importance. It revealed what students of this movement have stated so many times, namely that internal dissensions among the reformers largely accounts for the slow and faltering progress of the antislavery crusade.
No one was more conscious of this patent fact than May. And in seeking to place responsibility one must admit that he was one of the guilty parties. His repeated endorsements of women’s rights and non-resistance had alienated many individuals. Nor had the Canterbury affair done much to increase the prestige of the antislavery movement. His determination, moreover, to force his pacific views upon the antislavery societies certainly added much to internal dissension. Of course, he thought he was doing what was right; but so did Towne, Beecher, and the Executive Committee of the National Society. Many of the influential members of this Committee as well as of the Society were residents of New York. Their aims and ends, as has been shown, were identical with those of the Garrisonian group. They differed, however, as to the means of gaining these objectives. They refused to resort to abusive language; they would not allow non-resistance and women’s rights to clog their minds or dissipate their efforts. Garrison, May, Wright, and Whittier had advocated such wild notions and had brought the antislavery movement into ridicule and disrespect. Radical abolition has much to explain.
On the other hand, the New York group was not Simon-pure. If the kettle was black, so was the pot. Some of its critics styled it an ultra-conservative organization – “parlor” abolitionists one would say today – which was more interested in maintaining a respectable attitude than in promoting the cause of the slave. Such a charge was as unfair as the accusation made against May and Garrison, namely that they were attempting to dress antislavery in non-resistant skirts. If the latter, however, were guilty of abusive language and steam-hammer blows, the former might be censured for feeding the public a milk-toast type of literature and of withholding its punches. If the Garrisonian faction is to be blamed for stressing its pet methods of gaining immediate emancipation, the New York group had what it considered the one and only way – namely direct political action. At first, these gentlemen advocated voting for candidates, for political office, those who seemingly had endorsed the general principles of the antislavery cause. By such a device, they hoped ultimately to capture the major political party and, when this was gained, to force their program through Congress. This was a long-time policy and, while some seats and offices were won in national and state governments, complete success was buried in the distant and unknown future. Soon, some of the proponents of political action began to talk about forming a party of their own, pledged to immediate abolition. By 1838, many converts had been won in New York and the Middle West, and a definite inroad had taken place among New England abolitionists. Garrison was solidly opposed to direct political action, and so was May. Identify abolition with party politics, they argued, and antislavery will become but a football for politicians to play with.
To the numerous “isms” advocated by the New England abolitionists was now added that of direction political action. The effect of these discordant and conflicting opinions split national and states societies wide open. In Massachusetts things were at sixes and sevens. The seeds of discord scattered by Beecher, cultivated by Towne, were soon to be harvested by Garrison’s old time friend and co-worker, Reverend Anson A. Phelps. Now Phelps was General Secretary of the Massachusetts Society, but ever since Garrison’s espousal of peace and women’s rights, plus Towne’s “Clerical Appeal,” he had become highly critical of Garrison’s leadership and tactics. On December 20, 1838, he resigned his office and went over to the enemy’s camp in New York.
The Garrisonian group was not surprised. Indeed, they had talked of relieving Phelps of his office and in November had sounded May as to whether he would accept the position. May was flattered by the offer and would have been delighted to have had the chance of devoting his entire time to the cause, but felt constrained to refuse. “The same reasons,” he wrote, “that compelled me to leave the agency in Massachusetts Society forbid me at present to return to it or to any other office that would take me so much away from my family.” Lucretia May’s influence, in brief, was a factor of prime importance, and one may well imagine how she reminded him, upon his receipt of this offer, of her feelings when he was gone in 1836. And so May, a proper “house-bound,” informed his Boston associates that husbands as well as wives were bound by domestic ties. Otherwise, he would have rushed to the defense of Garrison against the onslaughts of Phelps whose hands had been strengthened by the activities of Charles C. Torrey, a prominent abolitionist of Massachusetts. Torrey disliked Garrison for the same general reasons that had led Phelps to join the New York group. For a time he tried to cripple Garrison by stimulating interest in a rival paper to the Liberator, and actually invited May’s support in this undertaking. May spurned the offer. Torrey’s plot, however, was much deeper, as he planned to destroy Garrison’s power at the next meeting of the Massachusetts Society. He believed his influence was strong enough to convince a majority of the members that Garrison must be removed from the councils of that organization. Like Cato of old, he kept saying over and over again, “Garrison delenda est.” He hoped to stack the meeting with individuals hostile to Garrison, elect a new Board of Managers, minus Garrison and his ilk, and lead the Society along approved lines. In this manner, the antislavery movement in New England would be rid, once and for all, of the various “isms” that a vituperative tongue had championed.
The essential weakness in Torrey’s scheme was the publicity he gave to his intentions. Right and left he scattered seeds of discord and openly announced the impending fall of Garrison. The Garrisonians, therefore, were well-informed in advance of his plans; they knew what to expect, and immediately girded themselves for the attack. Every public statement of Torrey or his friends was challenged, and pointed letters were addressed to wavering and uncertain members. Garrison pulled every wire he could so as to have a majority at the forthcoming meeting. In spite of all these efforts, Garrison feared the worst. Torrey’s plan, he admitted, was cleverly laid and was being executed with much precision. He knew that Torrey was a more able foe than Towne and that the coup d’état was be “managed much more ingeniously than was the ‘Clerical Appeal’ affair.”
Loud and repeated echoes of the strife reached May at South Scituate. His gentle and peace-loving nature recoiled against this blaring of trumpets and marshaling of forces. What has happened, he asked himself, to cause abolitionists to quarrel among themselves? Why have the pacific principles outlined in 1833 been abandoned? These and many other questions arose in his mind as he pondered and mediated about the impending conflict. Possibly something might be done to soften the hearts of both factions before they came to blows. So, on January, 1839, he addressed a long letter to Garrison with the request that it be published in the Liberator. In this communication, which bore the title, “To the Abolitionists of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society,” May argued for an immediate and peaceful settlement of existing differences. While not approving of Garrison’s bitter invectives, May tried to prove that these had been precipitated, naturally and unavoidably, from the spirited discussions relative to women’s rights and non-resistance. Honest differences of opinion have and always would exist among the opponents of slavery. The issue itself was so complicated that different views were bound to arise. Nevertheless, there was not valid reason why all could not unite upon the basic issue, namely a frontal attack against slavery. Love, he argued, had made their cause strong, the lack of it now had produced dissension and threatened to wreck the abolitionist movement.
May’s pleas and arguments were stillborn. Biased minds were shut. He had asked Torrey and his followers to forget their grievances, but had said little about what concessions the Garrisonians would have to make. All that he could offer in this respect was a veiled and guarded statement which seemed to imply that he might be able to lead Garrison along more moderate lines. From past experience May should have known that this would be difficult if not an impossible task. Garrison never had bridled his tongue. Moreover, May had said nothing about relinquishing the pet notions – non-resistance and women’s rights – of the Garrisonians, and these fine spun theories were poison to the opposition. Purge yourself of these “isms,” Torrey might have replied, and we will consider your overtures of peace. This, May would never do.
Possibly May’s letter reached Garrison too late for immediate publication, though it appeared in the Liberator for January 25, 1839, altogether too late to affect any reconciliation. For by this time, the Massachusetts Society had gathered for its annual meeting, May being placed on the Business Committee. “It was the largest anti-slavery gathering ever witnessed in Massachusetts.” It was also the most turbulent, but in spite of all Torrey and his followers could do, the Garrisonians remained in control. May would have been disappointed with any other result. At the same time, he believed that the meetings had done more harm than good. He deplored internecine conflicts and had deliberately refrained from taking part in the taunts and insinuations that characterized the gathering. He returned home in a dejected spirit. The appearance in early February of a rival paper, the Abolitionist, edited by Henry B. Stanton, Torrey’s right–hand man, only added to May’s discomfort.
In the meantime, the American Anti-Slavery Society had launched an attack against the Massachusetts organization. Ever since the appearance of the National Society, a number of irritating differences had arisen between the two. Some of these concerned the latter’s advocacy of non-resistance and women’s rights; others were related to questions of finance and jurisdiction. Neither organization had clearly defined its field of activity, though the Massachusetts Society more or less viewed New England as its own. The arrival of agents from the National Society, for the purpose of gaining converts and collections, caused no end of trouble. Town after town was canvassed, therefore, by agents from both organizations. To the average layman, this procedure seemed quite confusing and altogether too expensive. Common sense dictated that one or the other should retire or at least reduce its campaign for funds to a minimum. Similar conditions existed elsewhere throughout the nation.
By 1838 the situation had become intolerable and, at the annual meeting of the National Society, it was agreed that the latter’s agents would not interfere with the work of the regional or state organizations. In return, each regional or state society promised to make annual payments to the central organization which, in the case of Massachusetts, amounted to $10,000. Financial difficulties, however, forced the Massachusetts unit to withhold its November installment. Whereupon the National Society sharply requested permission to send agents to serve as collectors in Massachusetts. The Garrisonians protested on the ground that such an arrangement would revive the old difficulties. Moreover, the action taken by the American Anti-Slavery Society was uncalled for. The Massachusetts unit was solvent and in a short time would remit the promised payment. The Executive Committee of the national Society ignored this protest and in February, 1839, notified the Massachusetts group that the arrangement entered into the year previous was at an end. Agents of the American Society, therefore, would canvas the New England field.
Viewing the controversy from an impartial point of view, one must conclude that the National Society had been most precipitous in its action. Certainly, ordinary courtesy would have counseled another procedure. It might graciously have inquired into the cause for the delay in payment and might well have granted an extension of time before imposing punishment. Those in control, however, allowed their dislike for Garrison to cloud their vision. They hoped to be able to settle old scores once and for all. Believing the victory all but won, they encouraged Stanton to continue the Abolitionist, and urged him to seek the establishment of a new organization, void of “isms” and pledged to direct political action. It seems clear, therefore, that the question of finances was but an excuse for a frontal attack against Garrison.
Garrison refused to be intimidated and addressed a circular to the members of the Massachusetts unit inviting them to be present at the next quarterly meeting when the challenge of the American Society would be met. May’s heart sank when he heard the news. Was the abolition movement to be swept away by another internal storm, and, if so, could it possibly survive? May realized that it was the Executive Committee, not Garrison, who had thrown down the gauntlet. He also knew what motives actuated these gentlemen. Nevertheless, he did not exonerate Garrison, whose sharp tongue had annoyed him on previous occasions. Garrison’s circular, moreover, was couched in terms that inevitably would aggravate the situation, and he feared for what his friend would say before the Massachusetts Society. Evidently, he must have expressed his sentiments to Miss Chapman, one of Garrison’s inner circle, in a manner that led her to believe that May was inclined to support the Executive Committee. For, in a letter to Deborah Watson, Maria W. Chapman remarked, “May is in town – Shilly Shally [procrastination]. I wish he could believe men will sometimes lie.”
May’s conversation with Miss Chapman must have convinced him of the futility of checking Garrison or of attending the meeting. And he proceeded to tell Garrison why. First he pled unusual parochial duties and the writing of a sermon, but then he stated his position in bold terms. It was a great mistake, he wrote, to have brought the affair before the Society in so “imposing” a fashion. Better to have allowed the Executive Committee to pursue its own course until the matter could be thrashed out at the next annual meeting of the National Society. In any event, the “palpable failure” of the Massachusetts Board “to fulfill their pledge must have subjected the Committee to great inconvenience and given them ground of complaint,” knowing that if the latter had been allowed they could easily have raised the amount themselves. Surely Miss Chapman’s remarks contained some truth. But let May speak for himself.
By consenting to the arrangement proposed by the Board, they the Executive Committee had been crippled and embarrassed. There was cause then for the Committee to be disaffected. So soon as the Board found that it was not only impossible for them to make the payment, which had become due, but highly improbable that they should be able to provide for future installments, it seems to me that they should have been the first to propose that the Executive Committee should take the course which might seem to them best to raise the specified sum. On the other hand, the Executive Committee, knowing that several things had conspired to prevent the Board from fulfilling their engagement ought, so to seems to me, in all courtesy and kindness to have directed their agents to come into Massachusetts and as formerly to act with the advice of the Board and to credit all they might raise to the State Society unless indeed there are Societies in the state which are not auxiliaries of the State Society, or individual abolitionists who prefer to do what they do for the slave through the instrumentality of the American Society. It seems to me there has been a mutual distrust, not to say jealousy between the parties and this has prevented the amicable settlement of the difficulty. You know from an early period there has been an interference between national and state societies. This has been in some measure unavoidable. We have made several attempts to devise some plan upon which the two could operate harmoniously. We have not yet hit upon such a plan, and the one proposed has only incurred our mutual embarrassment. But let it not alienate us from each other. Let us cherish that Christian spirit which thinketh no evil and is not easily provoked. The collision between the Board and the Committee has been perhaps to favor the design of the new paper party, but I do not believe the Committee has intended so to do. If however a rupture takes place between the Board and the Committee, it is very probable the latter will throw themselves into the arms of the new party.
For these reasons May did not attend the Quarterly Meeting which he believed would end in a quarrel like the January gathering. If his presence could possibly have prevented a rupture, he would have been on hand. As it was, he saw nothing but trouble ahead. “Tomorrow,” he wrote, “I apprehend will be a day of rejoicing to the enemies of impartial liberty, and a day of sorrow and shame to its friends.” May was right. The Quarterly Meeting degenerated into a bitter and personal conflict. Stanton, Phelps, Lewis Tappan, and James G. Birney, publicly endorsed the appearance of the Abolitionist and lent their strength to the establishment of a new society. In spite of these men, Garrison, ably assisted by Wendell Phillips, gained the passage of a resolution approving of the Board’s action by a vote of 142 to 23. Finally, the Massachusetts Society voted to meet its back obligation to the National Society. Actually, the debt was paid in April.
In the meantime, May had been appointed to represent the Massachusetts Society at the spring gathering of the national organization. He knew that meeting might turn out to be a cat and dog fight and, after much thought, decided not to attend. He stated his reasons in a letter to Garrison which reads in part as follows:
I now think I shall not go to New York next week. In the first place I cannot afford the expense … But I confess, I do not lament my inability to go so much as I should do, if the prospect of an agreeable meeting was fairer. I am apprehensive that it will not be so much an anti-slavery as an anti-Garrison and anti-Phelps meeting, or an anti-Board of Managers and an anti-Executive Committee meeting. Division has done its work, I fear, effectually. The two parties seem to me to misunderstand, and therefore, sadly misrepresent on another. I am not satisfied with the course you and your partisans have pursued. It appears to me not consistent with the non-resistant, patient, longsuffering spirit of the Gospel. And I do not believe that either the cause of the slave, or the cause of peace and righteousness, has been advanced. I hope and pray that the result of the meeting at New York may be better than I fear.
In another letter to his friend Henry C. Wright, May stressed his position in respect to political action, a policy the Garrisonians opposed and which the New York group favored. A part of this letter follows:
The reason that you urge for my attendance does not weigh with me. If the American Society sees fit to vote that those of us who cannot go to the polls are not qualified to be members, let it. Such a vote will not deaden my sympathy with the slaves. It will not change my opinion or alter my course. I joined the Society not with any thought of making it the conscience or the guide of my actions, but in the belief that those of us who thought alike on this momentous subject, might effect more by our joint than by individual effort. I supposed the platform if the Society to be broad enough to sustain all, as fellow-laborers, who believe in the sinfulness of slaveholding and the duty of immediate emancipation, and who are disposed to labor in the use of moral means, to enforce upon slaveholders the duty of giving liberty to their captives without delay. I never dreamt that the Constitution was intended to enforce upon all members of the Society any particular kind of action (excepting only moral action) but that it left everyone to contribute his aid to the common cause in the way he believed to be best. If I have been mistaken, all I have to do is to labor as I may single-handed, or to look about me for those who are willing to unite with me, and cooperate on some broad principle that will not require any one to violate his individual convictions of right.
“The flower of Massachusetts abolitionism went to New York as delegates to the anniversary meeting,” so records the authors of William Lloyd Garrison. But there was one flower missing, namely Samuel Joseph May, and without him no New England bouquet was complete. His absence was noted, and in recognition of his past services to the society, he was elected to the Board of Managers. Had he been present at this meeting, he would have been agreeably surprised as the sessions were “unexpectedly harmonious.” Much of the credit for this happy gathering should go to Gerrit Smith who, as chairman, acted wisely and moderately in dealing with the opposing factions. The Society voted to allow women to vote and serve on its committees and recommended that the Executive Committee refrain from sending its agents into any state for the cause or to raise funds without the approval of the state organization. Finally, in respect to direct political action, the Garrisonian group won a compromise when it was voted that abolitionists had a duty to go to the polls but were not to be condemned if they did not.
May was delighted with the outcome of the meeting and renewed his contacts with the Boston group. One of the latter reported that he had seen and talked with May and that he had wiped the “mist off his eyes.” Later in the month, he attended the New England Convention held at Boston. Here his heart was gladdened by the action of that body in admitting women as members. He also approved of the resolution which left the matter of direct political action to individuals themselves. However, he was quite disappointed over Phelps’ sharp denunciation of another resolution that condemned the establishment of a new State Anti-Slavery Society. Phelps, it seems, still clung to the notion of rival organization, the creation of which would most certainly weaken the cause of abolition in New England. Abolition, he declared, had already been seriously injured by the numerous “isms” advocated by the Garrisonians. Let the latter drop these side issues and unanimity of thought and action would follow. But, since the Garrisonians had reaffirmed their faith in these irritating notions, why should they seek to destroy those who differed with them? Would it not be wiser and better to work for a common understanding and through such lay the basis for a healing of the present schism? Phelps’ appeal had merit and he had little difficulty in gaining the adoption of a motion calling for an immediate settlement of existing disputes. His success, however, was practically nullified by the passage of a resolution, offered by Garrison, which opposed the creation of a committee to confer with the new organization. Such an organization was affected in late May, with Elizur Wright, Torrey, and Phelps as its chief leaders.
During the remainder of the year, May stayed most of the time at home, though he did attend the July meeting of the Old Colony Anti-Slavery Society, of which he was made a director. At this gathering he secured the passage of a resolution endorsing Garrison’s work. He did not, however, go to the Albany meeting of abolitionists, where Stanton did his best to promote the idea of direct political action. Every abolitionist, so it was finally decided, who has the right to vote was entreated to go to the polls. May’s position on this issue was not fundamentally different. “We have never denied the right of going to the polls,” so he wrote to his friend Francis Jackson, “far otherwise, we have urged it as a duty upon all who have not conscientious scruples against that mode of action … It is not reasonable to expect that all members of the Anti-Slavery body in our country should think alike upon this point.” May, in brief, favored political action by abolitionists who believed in this form of attack. Moreover, he was not opposed to a program that would stimulate individuals to vote for candidates who had espoused anti-slavery principles. On the other hand, he flatly refused to accept the notion current among the abolitionists that those who for conscientious reasons abstained from voting should be condemned. Garrison’s advocacy of emancipation should not be called into question merely because he rejected political activity. Stanton thought differently and viewed non-voting abolitionists as traitors to the cause. Stanton, moreover, wanted the establishment of a political party founded on the principle of abolition. May rejected this philosophy. He might or might not vote, but if he did not, that was his affair and not Stanton’s. Nor should Stanton call non-voting abolitionists traitors. Who was Stanton that he could set himself up as a judge of other people’s motives and actions? Mud-slinging of this type would injure the cause far more than non-voting. And for the notion of an abolitionist party, May would have none of it. He agreed with Garrison that the Christian character of the anti-slavery crusade would be lost if left in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.
Stanton ignored May’s thesis. Slavery could only be destroyed by a frontal attack through party action. Others, notably Goodell, Gerrit Smith, and James G. Birney, were of the same opinion and publicly agitated for the establishment of an independent party. Success crowned these efforts for at a convention held at Albany in April, James G. Birney and Thomas were nominated for the office of President and Vice-President respectively. The Liberty Party had come into existence! But outside of upstate New York, very little interest was shown by most abolitionists. Abolitionists as a group were not ready to endorse the idea of political action. Evidence of this fact was demonstrated at the spring meeting of the American Society. Here it was resolved that the Constitution of the Society did not state, affirmatively or negatively, what was the duty of members as to voting. Of greater significance was the passage of another resolution declaring the formation of the new party at Albany ill-advised and that “we cannot advise our friends to waste their energies in futile efforts.”
May was present at this spring gathering and probably voted with the majority, although none of the sources state so definitely. Indeed, there is little evidence to show that he played an active role at this meeting or those he attended in Massachusetts. Probably he deplored the dissension that had spread throughout the abolitionist movement and, being unable to prevent further trouble, stood by with folded hands. His sympathies, nevertheless, were with Garrison and at a meeting of the Old Colony Society gained the passage of another resolution endorsing his friend and the work of the Massachusetts unit. During 1841 and 1842, he continued to absent himself from active work, though he attended most of the meetings of the Massachusetts and Old Colony Societies. The fact that he devoted more attention and time during these years to non-resistance partly explains his coolness toward the abolition crusade. Basically, since Lucretia’s influence kept him from accepting an agency, May’s inactivity rested upon his opposition to Phelps, Torrey, and Stanton, and to a lesser degree upon his criticism of the tactics advocated and followed by Garrison. And, since he could not, in fairness to himself, join with either faction, he elected to play a lone hand.
No one questioned his devotion to the cause of freedom, and his reluctance to fight with Garrison against the New York group did not weaken the strong ties of friendship which existed between Garrison and himself. Garrison repeatedly expressed admiration for May and was instrumental, in June, 1842, in having the Massachusetts Society offer him an agency. May, however, declined the invitation. Lucretia, in should be noted, put no obstacles in his way. She frankly told her husband to do what he wished, but May knew quite well that her disappointment would be great if he accepted the offer. But there were other reasons operating against such a move. Financially, he could not accept the position. His income was low and he did not believe that an agency could provide enough to care for the wants of his growing family. Moreover, he had been compelled to give aid to his sister, Mrs. Alcott. Writing to Henry C. Wright in July, 1842, May expressed deep regret that he could only purchase a limited number of his friend’s tracts on non-resistance. His heart was more than willing, but his purse could not stand it. Every dollar he could spare, so he informed Wright, was going to Concord. Why Bronson Alcott did not assume these obligations and responsibilities, May never did understand, though he generously excused him on the ground that Bronson was “shiftless” about money matters. May’s father was well aware of the financial difficulties that both his son and daughter were experiencing and at odd times sent them small gifts of money. To Lucretia, it was a God-send. “I can hardly find words to thank you,” so she wrote on one occasion, “for your bountiful gift and your kind remembrance of me. I accept gratefully and value it as adding another to the many, many proofs of kindness you have manifested for me, a kindness and affection far more valuable to my heart than any money can be.”
Early in 1842, both Lucretia and her husband became quite alarmed over his father’s failing health. Joseph May’s grip on life had been severely shaken in 1825 when his wife had died. Both father and son had been felled by the blow and in months that immediately followed, Joseph seems to have lost interest in life. From a physical point of view, there was nothing wrong with the father; his trouble was entirely mental. Thanks, however, to the unfailing kindness of Abby, who then was unmarried, Colonel May slowly regained health and took a new lease on life. Had he been a sick man, he would hardly have taken the step he did in October, 1826, when he married Mary A. Cary, the widow of the late Reverend Samuel Cary. For the next few years, they continued to live in Federal Court, though in 1835 they moved to a more modern home on the corner of Washington and Otis Streets. Four years later, Mrs. Mary Cary May died. Once more Colonel May was in the depths of despair. Fortunately, Mrs. May’s daughter, whom Colonel May had adopted, Mrs. George W. Bird, assumed his care, and saw to it that his needs and comforts were well provided for. Joseph was nearly eighty years old at the time, and it was evident to all, especially to his son, that his days were numbered. Finally, on February 28, 1842, he died. May was present at his father’s deathbed. Almost up to the last minute, Colonel May remained conscious. He chatted with his son about bygone days and seemed not a bit concerned about himself and approaching death. Indeed, when the end finally came, he said, “And now you must let the old man go.” May was touched to the quick, but in his own inimitable way, stifled his emotions, placed his arms about his father and said, “Father, you shall.” A flickering of the eyes followed and Colonel May was gone.
May’s sojourn at South Scituate was not a hectic round of anti-slavery and non-resistance meetings. When he had moved to this little village, now known as Norwell, he was a married man with three growing youngsters, John Edward, Joseph, and Charlotte Coffin. The care of these children, as well as his devotion to Lucretia, were responsibilities not to be taken lightly. Domestic ties were precious and most binding. His wife’s timely admonishments and influence had transformed the Brooklyn pilgrim into a husband who preferred home to travel. Accordingly, his friends found him devoting many hours each day to his home. There was a garden to cultivate, shrubs to be trimmed, and grass to cut. May took a keen delight in these chores and was proud of the physical appearance of his home and lot, particularly the trees he had planted about his humble cottage. Definite traces of his handiwork exist today. The saplings have grown into mighty trees under whose spacious branches quietly nestles the house in which the Mays lived. Ask any resident of Norwell where the “elms” is, and you will be directed to the May homestead. May thoroughly enjoyed this form of manual labor. From his garden, in the afternoon, he could look down the road that led to the village school. Soon he would see the familiar forms of his children on their way home and, when they were close enough, hearty greetings were exchanged. Often in the evening, he would gather them into his study and questions them about their school work, and on occasions he would tutor them in their lessons.
As a young man, he had taught school at Concord, Beverly, and Nahant, and during the winter of 1813 and 1814 had attended a mathematical school kept in Boston by the Reverend, formerly of France. Father Brosius fascinated May not only because he utilized a “Black Board” – a thing May had never heard of before – but because of his analytical and inductive methods of teaching. Brosius’ benevolence and sparkling humor made a great impression and set a pattern May sought to follow in years to come. He learned to forget that foolish old stanza which as a child he had so often sung:
On going to Brooklyn, May had interested himself in educational affairs. His appointment to the village school board afforded the opportunity for further growth. And, as he carefully surveyed the local schools, he became convinced that the Brooklyn educational system was in a most deplorable condition. All of the buildings were sadly in need of repair; the textbooks were hopelessly out of date and inadequate; but above all, the quality of the teaching was miserably poor. Salaries – wages would be more appropriate – averaged $12.00 a month. May knew of some teachers who got as low as $6.00 plus a “boarding around,” which meant that one went from house to house for food and lodging.
May called the Board’s attention to these matters and obtained permission to institute necessary reforms. First of all he tackled the problem of the teaching staff. The existing personnel were carefully scrutinized as to preparation and ability, and those who failed to gain his approval were not reemployed at the end of their term of service. Every new applicant was investigated as to training and character. No candidate would be considered who did not have an understanding of the three R’s, grammar, and geography; at least this is what May strove for. Actually, he found it necessary to engage some who practically knew nothing of grammar and geography. “I will remember,” he said in 1855, “that one winter … we rejected six out of 15 applicants because they did not understand notation and numeration; could not write correctly simple sentences of good English; and knew no more of the geography of the earth than of the Mecanique Celeste; and yet they had come to us well-recommended as having taught schools acceptably in other towns one, two, and three winters.” A good teacher, May insisted, must know what and how to teach, but above all he must be endowed with a pleasing personality and have a character that was above reproach. As a result, the quality of the Brooklyn teachers gradually improved. Of course, criticism arose. May had his favorites, it was said, and sought to advance them and his newfangled notions to the detriment of others. He was charged with being “mighty strict” – a remark that May immediately hailed as a well-deserved compliment.
Pleased as he was with an improved corps of teachers, the newly renovated buildings and the modern textbooks, he believed that the level of the Brooklyn schools could not be raised without similar action by the Boards of other towns and cities and by the State itself. The problem was too vast and complicated for local administration. State supervision and assistance was imperative. Accordingly, in the spring of 1827, he persuaded the Brooklyn School Board to issue a call for a state educational convention to meet at Brooklyn. Years later, Henry Barnard, whose name will always be associated with education in Connecticut, told May that in his “research into the history of popular education, he had failed to discover any convention of the people on the subject,” prior to this gathering in 1827.
A notice of this meeting was sent to every town in the state. With it went a circular, prepared by May, asking for a frank investigation of local educational problems and needs. Definite questions were submitted by May which, if carefully answered, would produce a school census of Connecticut. How many pupils, how many teachers, what experience have the latter had, what is the condition of your physical equipment, what are your expenses … these and other questions were asked, the answers to which May believed it would reveal the need for drastic improvement. The circular appears to have attracted some attention, though by no means as much as its author expected. Nevertheless, he cordially welcomed those who would come from Windham and other neighboring towns and proceeded to open Connecticut’s first school convention.
Anxious to promote a free and frank discussion, May began by a heartless expose of conditions at Brooklyn. As he hoped, his remarks prompted others to depict the hopeless situation surrounding their own efforts. The replies were highly informative – Connecticut was weighed down by an ancient and worn out educational system. Teachers, who knew scarcely more than the pupils and who received wages lower than that of a common laborer, ruled as petty tyrants over some 30 or 40 children in a schoolhouse that had been built to accommodate half that number. A tall “Ichabod Crane” type teacher found his head within a few inches of the ceiling while a dozen steps would carry him from one end of the building to the other. And, as for the pupils – they were jammed together on long and narrow benches that extended across the 9 feet width of the building.
It was an intolerable situation. Something must be done and that right soon to improve conditions. None of the delegates believed that any great help could be expected from their own communities. But what about the State, May Asked, is it not a responsibility the Legislature should meet? Their affirmative replies afforded him the opportunity, for which he had summoned the convention, to propose a resolution calling upon the people of Connecticut to increase the school funds so as to augment the physical equipment of the schools and the quality of the teachers. The resolution was unanimously adopted and with that the meeting adjourned. Shortly thereafter, copies of this resolution were sent to all the School Boards of the state and to certain prominent citizens. Little actually was accomplished as the Legislature appears to have taken no action. Insofar as Windham County was concerned, the replies were most gratifying. Letters also reached him from other parts of the State commending him for his timely action.
One of these was from Bronson Alcott, a young schoolteacher at Cheshire, Connecticut. May first heard of Alcott through Dr. William A. Alcott, who conducted a small school at Wolcott Hill. Dr. Alcott, in the course of his letter to May, mentioned the good work being done by his cousin at Cheshire. May was so impressed that he hastened to write Bronson Alcott, asking him to give a “detailed statement of his principles and methods.” Bronson’s reply electrified May. Here was an educator after May’s own heart – a teacher whose vision, understanding, and insight marked him as a man worth knowing. “And so I wrote him,” May records in his autobiography, “inviting him urgently to visit me.” Alcott came and spent the better part of a week at May’s home. “I have never,” so May tells us, “been so immediately taken possession of by any man I have ever met in life. He seemed to me like a born sage and saint.” Alcott, in turn, acquired a high regard for May and the two spent many an interesting hour discussing the subjects of “education, mental and moral culture.”
But it was not the courageous Unitarian pastor that caught Alcott’s eye. Rather was it the trim figure and pleasing personality of May’s sister, Abigail, who was then living with her brother. Alcott had come to visit May, but he had not been there long before he began to notice Abigail, who, together with Lucretia, wisely elected to stay in the background. But what a background, thought Alcott, and the more he gazed upon it, the more attractive it became. Gradually dark-eyed Lucretia disappeared – all that remained was Abigail. And as the two conversed at add times, Abigail unfolded a pathetic story. Federal Court, the scene of a happy childhood, had recently been shattered by the death of her mother. Colonel May, though almost crushed by the blow, had done all he could to heal the scars the tragedy had wrought on his daughter’s heart and mind. It was all for naught; she could not be comforted. Possibly a change might do her good? And so she had come to brother Sam’s home, but she was still lonely – oh so lonely!
Alcott was also lonely, and when two lost souls meet they are quite apt to find the desired consolation. Hence, on his return to Cheshire, Alcott wrote to Abigail from time to time. Her answers quickened his interest and he wondered whether he should move to Boston and open a school of his own. She had advised such a move, saying that Boston had so much more to offer than a small Connecticut village. Cheshire was all of that and Alcott itched for the opportunity to try his hand in a larger, prosperous, and more intellectual center. Finally, he decided to cross the Rubicon and late in April, 1828, he left Cheshire for Boston by the way of Hartford and Brooklyn. Two glorious days were spent at May’s home and then on to Boston bolstered by a happy smile from Abigail and a promise from Samuel that he would try to obtain a place for him in Boston. Samuel’s aid was most helpful, for in a few weeks, he was invited to open an Infant School. About the same time Lucretia, accompanied by her infant son and Abigail, arrived at Federal Court. A letter was immediately posted to Brooklyn.
“My dear brother,” so Abigail wrote, “we are here – alive and well – Hope you get on to your heart’s content, wifeless, childless, sisterless, and noiseless.” And then after two short lines relative to affairs at Federal Court, she proceeded to fill the balance of her letter with remarks about “Mr. Alcott.” “Louise tells me Mr. Alcott is all the ‘rage’ – the Cabots are head over heels enamored with his system . . . he is constantly with some of the grandees . . . I have not seen him. Do write to him.” Surely her heart was fluttering and that in spite of a call from a Mr. Cole who, according to Lucretia, “seemed very glad to see us.” But not a sign of Alcott. Possibly he was so “taken with his new friends here” that he had no time for a call. “I am afraid,” Lucretia wrote, “the poor rustics will be quite eclipsed.” Of course Alcott appeared in due time and was with Abigail on several occasions. Lucretia, however, noticed that notwithstanding these visits Abigail was unhappy. Federal Court with all its old associations was too much for her. She was homesick for Brooklyn. Homesick? Yes, in one sense. Actually, she disliked being idle – there was so little to do at Federal Court. Everything was done for her. Possibly Alcott might help and so she applied for the position of assistant to his Infant School on Salem Street.
Alcott was kindness itself and probably would have accepted her application had he not other plans in mind. In the near future, he told her, I hope to open another school and here I will need your valuable services. And so Abigail was forced to return to a life of idleness. Her prospects for the future were quite uncertain and when her brother arrived, in early summer, she sought his advice and counsel. In the end she elected to remain with her father. Who can doubt that Boston with Alcott was preferable to Brooklyn without Alcott?
During May’s visit to Boston, the Connecticut Parson called on Alcott and inspected his educational workshop. May was delighted with what he saw and prevailed upon the editors of the Christian Register to print his opinions about the splendid work being done at the Salem Infant School. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Brooklyn, accompanied by his wife and baby – Abigail remaining in Boston. Stimulated by his Boston trip, May labored hard to promote educational activities in the village. In this he was aided by Josiah Holbrook of Connecticut who, in seeking to advance the idea of adult education, was touring the State on behalf of the “American Lyceum.” May thought well of this venture and was instrumental in the founding of a local Lyceum. Before this body, as well as others in nearby towns, May delivered several addresses. One of these, “Common Errors in Education,” was printed in the Brooklyn Advertiser. Later, it was published in the Journal of Education and afterward appeared in pamphlet form. Alcott received a copy of this address and complimented May upon his deserving effort.
Early in September, May was in Providence where he addressed the Unitarian Society on the occasion of the ordination of Reverend Frederick Farley. From Providence he went to Boston where he conversed with his father, in a probability, about Abigail’s future. Seated comfortably in the oblong parlor, smoking his “heaviest cigar,” Colonel May possibly told of his daughter’s wish to become an assistant at Alcott’s Elementary School for Boys which was opened in October. Neither father nor son questioned the sincerity of her desire to be doing something, though both realized that it was her heart rather than her mind that dictated the selection of this post. Nothing definite was arrived at, and nothing was said to either Abigail or Bronson, both of whom May saw while in Boston. Shortly after his return home, however, he received a searching letter from his sister asking for his advice about the position Bronson had offered. May must have pondered long before answering, knowing all too well what it would mean to her. Finally he replied, “The circumstances of our acquaintance with Mr. Alcott, and his having gone to Boston at my suggestion and with my recommendation, would lead a censorious world to ascribe selfish views both to myself and you, if you were not to unite with him in his school. For this reason, and for this alone, I decidedly advise you to relinquish the plan altogether.
Abigail followed his advice and retired to her Uncle Sewell’s home in Brookline. Here she frequently received Alcott, who by this time was madly in love. As for Abigail, she had been smitten long before. Alcott pressed his suit with great ardor. And, when in 1829, she made Brooklyn her home once again, he found time to visit her there, too. Soon it became common knowledge in the May clan that the two were to be married. Finally, in April, 1830, she said goodbye to Brooklyn and, on May 23, was married to Alcott in King’s Chapel. May was present at the ceremony; the nuptials being pronounced by Reverent Francis W. P. Greenwood. Lucretia was not at hand; domestic duties and a slim purse prevented her attendance.
When Abba hands you this we shall be mourning our loss and it will be to us a loss that world can ill supply. She as long shared our joys and participated in our sorrows and has become so identified with ourselves that it is like plucking out an eye to part with her, and I doubt not that many who know her less intimately and cannot well estimate the excellent qualities of her mind and heart will share in our grief. But she goes to a good home and a good husband. May she live long in the enjoyment of these and have returned to her a thousand, thousand fold the unnumbered kindnesses she has rendered to me and mine.
During the remainder of the Brooklyn Pastorate, May continued to evidence considerable interest in education matters. He was present at most of the annual County School Conventions and sponsored every effort that might tend to improve the standards of the schools. Particularly was he interested in the welfare of the Brooklyn Academy. In all probability he attended the meeting of the Connecticut Branch of the American Education Society when it gathered at Brooklyn in June, 1833. That the officers of this association should have selected Brooklyn as the place for this meeting, would indicate the high esteem they had for the work being done in this little village. It was also a tribute to the splendid leadership of Samuel J. May. Shortly after this gathering, May took his family to Saybrook, leaving his parish in the hands of Reverent F. T. Grey. Prolonged and disturbing colds among his children had prompted this temporary change of residence. Later in the same year, he visited Boston and was swept, as we have seen, into the abolition movement. His extensive labors in behalf of the slave may help to explain a lessening of effort in educational affairs.
On moving to South Situate, May renewed his interest in education. He frequently visited the local schools and used his influence to promote higher standards. Through his efforts several young women were encouraged to enter the Normal School at Lexington, recently established by Horace Mann and under the immediate direction of Mr. Cyrus Pierce. As Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann had done much to improve the educational facilities of the State, and singlehanded had waged a fight that resulted in the founding of the Normal School. May thoroughly endorsed these efforts and at various times visited Lexington and addressed the students of that school. And when in February, 1842, he heard that application for funds to sustain this institution was to be made to the State Legislature, he wrote Mann commending him for his undertakings. “There is no project,” he stated, “which the legislators of a free people should be more careful to encourage than one for the better education of the whole people . . . I have heard of good done by the Normal Schools at Lexington and Barre, but I have seen the good effects of our own school at Bridgewater.” Mann must have been pleased by these remarks, coming as they did from one who reputation as an experienced educator was well-established.
In the summer of the same year, Pierce’s health forced his resignation, and, in look for a successor, Mann thought of May. But could he induce the latter to leave his pulpit? Mann did not know, though he saw no reason for not trying. Accordingly, he wrote May asking him if he would consider the post at Lexington. May replied, “Nothing prevents my saying at once that I will accept the appointment, if the Board sees fit to make it, but the consciousness of my inability to perform well all the duties of the station. I do not know of any other place of usefulness into which I should so rejoice to be put, if I were competent to fill it as it ought to be filled.”
Neither Mann nor Pierce questioned May’s ability; his record as an educator was beyond reproach. It was true that May had had little actual experience as a teacher, but his knowledge of training school methods seemed to offset this discrepancy. What, however, of his abolitionist views? Would he seek to transform the schoolroom into an antislavery meeting? And would he allow his opinions on this controversial issue to dominate so as to violate academic freedom? Now Mann was all but a radical abolitionist himself and yet had never permitted his personal beliefs to interfere with or injure the cause of education. If he could do this, why could he not expect the same from one whose sense of judgment and propriety had been demonstrated on many an occasion? He knew that some would criticize the appointment of a Garrisonian – indeed Reverend Samuel Ripley of Waltham was particularly severe and satirical when the offer was announced – but he was convinced from his knowledge of May that the latter would be a teacher and not a proselyter. And so he invited May to inspect the school at Lexington with the view of becoming its next principal.
Pierce received May most cordially and was so optimistic over the outcome that he all but introduced him to the students as their new instructor. May was delighted and informed Mann that he would accept if a definite offer were made, but please do so at once, May begged, as “I have a surgical operation to go through in separating myself from my people at South Scituate which cannot be dispatched in a day.” Finally, in late August, 1842, Mann proffered the position and May accepted. He immediately informed his people of his decision and gained from them a letter of dismissal. May disliked leaving South Scituate and did so with many misgivings. Loyalty was a more prominent characteristic in his life. The South Scituate pastorate had been a godsend after the stormy days at Brooklyn, and he felt deeply obligated to the former for this and many other favors. At the same time, he was convinced that Lexington offered much and that he would most certainly accept the latter if an invitation were extended. It was not that he loved South Scituate less, however, that prompted his final decision. In bidding farewell to his parish, he remarked that he “would ever bear . . . feelings of sincere friendship for you personally and of a lively interest in your welfare.” About the same time, he entered the following in his diary, “Pierce and Mann have not indeed persuaded me that I am competent to the place, but they have induced me to attempt to do the duties that are incumbent upon the Principal of the School. I pray God for wisdom to direct me and for strength to sustain.”
Why did May give up his active ministry? Surely, it would not be because he found pastoral duties irksome or that he had encountered hostile criticism as at Brooklyn. His associations at South Scituate had been most happy, and not a word of complaint was raised against him. As a pastor, he had never sacrificed his social convictions for the sake of the church. Freely had he spoken from the pulpit and the lecture-stand on war, slavery, temperance, and other humanitarian subjects. No, all things considered, conditions at South Scituate were quite pleasing, and fully warranted his remaining there. No one realized this more than May, who also was fully aware that his actions and opinions would have to be restricted as a school teacher. The license of a classroom always has been narrower than that of the pulpit. May’s change of profession, therefore, cannot be explained on the ground that teaching offered greater personal freedom of conduct and speech. Possibly, financial considerations were the deciding factors. His income at Lexington was to be several hundred dollars more each year. And this was not to be ignored with three growing children in his family. Lexington, moreover, offered an opening that might lead to more rapid promotion than the ministry. Finally, it should be remembered that May’s interest in education was not a passing fancy, that he believed in it as a calling, and that he had and could do much for mankind by becoming a teacher. Mann’s compliments and praises, thought they flattered May, would not have been convincing were it not for the interest May had evidenced in education before.
May tackled his work at Lexington with much enthusiasm and for a short time all went well. Difficulties, however, arose that he had not expected. First of all, he found that his duties were too confining. The constant regularity of the classroom was too much for his nature. As a pastor, he had experienced an easier life, and he had been master of his own time on all occasions. Then, he had not been able to find a suitable home for his family, and until he did he was departed from them; they still lived in South Scituate. Finally, there was the fear that his abolitionist views might lead to a conflict with the State Board. What, he asked himself, might be their attitude in case a colored girl applied for admission? His own mind was decided; he would admit such a candidate, but would the Board sustain him? May was not certain that it would, and so, not wanting to face such an issue, he notified Mann in late September – barely a month after he had come to Lexington – that he was going to visit South Scituate for a weekend, and might not return except to prepare the way for his successor. Should he find, however, suitable accommodations in Lexington for his family, he might undertake a longer trial.
Mann was dismayed. Why should the question of incompetency be raised? Did May suppose that he and Pierce had not settled that long ago? As for the colored girl question, why cross bridges in advance? It was a shame that May was separated from his family, but surely that difficulty could be solved. May was impressed by this type of reasoning, that shortly thereafter reached him from Mann, and returned to Lexington. In a short time, he found a comfortable home for his family and with that vexed problem cleared, he entered upon his duties with renewed courage and determination. “I have passed the Rubicon,” he wrote Mann in early November, “and burnt up by boats. I went last Saturday to Scituate, took a final leave of my Society, demolished my home, removed my furniture, and come back to Lexington, resolved to give myself, body and soul, to the cause of education. You can have little idea of the struggle it cost me. But now it is over, I feel relieved, calm, resolved, and cheerful. I dread nothing save the question, between myself and the Board, respecting the admission of a colored girl. That, however, may never arise. I think it will not arise. If it should, I hope I shall be directed into the right course.”
Mann was not disturbed over the possible intrusion of the “colored” question, for like May he doubted if the issue would arise. If it should, however, he believed that May’s good judgment could be relied upon. And when Miss Mary E. Miles, a colored girl, applied for admission, May was able to gain the approval of the Board without much friction. Of course, some criticism was raised, but May weathered this without difficulty. Oddly enough, it was his own abolitionist friends who caused most of the trouble. Hearing that Miss Miles might have to leave Lexington through lack of funds and fearing the Board might not admit others in the future, they proceeded to agitate the matter. One of these friends, Miss Potter of Pawtucket, canvassed for funds in behalf of Miss Miles and informed those whom she solicited that while she had absolute confidence in May, she had none in the Board. Talk of this type embarrassed May, who must have been greatly relieved when Miss Miles left Lexington to become a teacher in the Boston primary schools.
Close upon the heels of this episode came the affair at Waltham. Here, in December, 1842, was to be an abolitionist meeting to which May had been invited by the Reverend Samuel Ripley. Ripley, it will be recalled, had protected against May’s appointment on the ground of the latter’s anti-slavery views. Recently, he had become a convert to abolition, and May was desirous of seeing how Ripley would “look, and act, and speak, under the inspiration of his new born zeal in the cause of freedom.” Moreover, as the meeting was scheduled for a Saturday, when the Normal School would be closed, and as May felt the need for relaxation, he decided to go. He asked his two assistants, already abolitionists, to accompany him. Soon the entire school heard of what was happening and May was besieged with requests to take others with him. The weather was ideal for sleighing and the prospect of a night’s ride through the country was most appealing. Accordingly, two large sleighs were rented, and May, accompanied by some twenty of his pupils, were soon on their way to Waltham. Possibly, they had been misinformed about the time of the meeting, for when they arrived they found the exercises under way. Looking around for vacant seats, it was discovered that none were available except at the extreme front. So up the main aisle, May led his little band. People stared in amazement and not a few audibly commented, “There comes Mr. May with his Normal School.” May thought nothing of it, nor did he decline an invitation to address the gathering, though the incident itself was charged with dynamite.
Waltham bubbled with excitement the next morning, and many voices were raised in condemnation of his actions. Teachers, so it was said, should not meddle in such affairs. Greater consternation existed, however, because of the presence of his pupils. Was May deliberately indoctrinating his students? Had he not transcended academic freedom? And, if he does this, why, what must he be doing in the classroom? Many believed that May had erred and reported the entire episode to Mann when he chanced to visit Waltham in January, 1843. Mann belittled the episode, viewing it as but a tempest in a very small teapot. And yet, he was not blind to the consequences. Particularly did he dislike hearing that certain individuals were seriously considering sending their daughters to some other institution. Any decline in enrollment at Lexington was bound to injure the cause of normal schools throughout the state. Although Mann favored the antislavery crusade, he questioned the wisdom of it being dragged into educational activities.
And so, after several weeks of thought, he addressed a letter to May. Mann did not heap condemnation upon his friend, though he very tactfully reminded him that one could not dissociate consequences from actions. Your work at Lexington, he stated, has been most gratifying, and it would be a shame to mar that record by an overt act which might alienate those who have supported the State Normal School idea and program.
Mann’s letter was the occasion for some correspondence between himself and May, during the course of which Mann criticized May for having promised to speak at Boston on the subject of slavery. Mann held that May had agreed not to engage in direct abolitionist propaganda except during vacation periods. The visit to Waltham as well as the proposed lecture was an infraction of this agreement. May would not admit that the Waltham affair, coming as it did on a Saturday, was a violation of his promise. Moreover, the presence of the students at this gathering was an innocent and impromptu affair. Nor had he sought to make abolitionists out of students as had Pierce. As for the proposed lecture, he had withdrawn his name the minute he heard that the date conflicted with his school duties. Mann was greatly relieved to hear that the lecture had been canceled. At the same time, he deplored hearing about Pierce’s antislavery activities. If Pierce did what you report, he should be rebuked. We want good teachers, not propagandists. That is what the State is paying for, and no instructor has the liberty or right to introduce personal views and opinions into the classroom.
May practically admitted the justice of Mann’s position, and stated that at no time had he infringed upon academic freedom of expression. Nor would he depart from this principle in the future. Outside of the classroom, however, he was master of his own time. And he reminded Mann that before accepting the principalship he had stated he would retain his membership and offices in the American and State Anti-Slavery Societies, that he would give more generously than before to their support, and that he would aid their cause whenever it did not interfere with school duties. This had been his procedure in the past, this would be his policy in the future. “But if you and other supporters of the school are to be made unhappy, and filled with alarm, whenever I do or say anything that shows how deeply I am interested in the redemption of our country from the curse of slavery, it will certainly be better for me quietly to withdraw, on the plea of incompetency and leave the institution in better hands.”
Mann refused to consider such a proposition. He was thoroughly satisfied with May’s direction of the Normal School and repeatedly complimented him upon the progress that had been made. Moreover, as there was no repetition of the “colored girl” question, and as another Waltham episode never arose, the relations between the two gentlemen steadily improved. At the same time, May frankly disliked the situation. He was pledged to conduct the life of the school and he would do this to the best of his ability. What, however, of his antislavery interests? Would he sacrifice these if they conflicted with teaching duties? Not for one minute, and het he dreaded parting with Mann over such an issue. Fortunately no conflict was precipitated, for when May heard, in July, 1844, that Pierce had recovered his health, he hastened to tender his resignation, to take effect in the fall. Mann accepted the resignation, and on September 1st, Pierce resumed his work at Lexington.
Reviewing the years spent at Lexington, it is clear that May’s going to Lexington, was, in some respects, a mistake. May’s interest in education was real and genuine, and, had he elected to become an educator, success would have crowned these activities. Education appealed to him primarily because of its humanitarian aspects. The acquisition of knowledge or the development of skill in teaching never, in themselves, challenged May. They were but tools by means of which mankind might become better citizens, and better citizenship meant the fulfillment of God’s purpose on earth. As a minister of God, May sought to promote this divine end. Church and pulpit, however, presented too narrow a field for a man of his temperament.
Basically, he was a reformer. Early in life he had tried to save man through religious appeals. Later, he had added another string to his bow when he espoused the cause of peace. Others were added in time, such as education, temperance, and women’s rights. And then, in the 1830’s, he championed the cause of the slave. So enmeshed had these various strings become by 1840, that when he pulled one, he invariably pulled the others. As long as he stuck to his job of being pastor, no great harm followed; a minister is expected to be a man of many parts. Christ, the carpenter, was a great evangelist whose words reflect decided opinions on political, social, and economic affairs. But Christ never forsook the role of a Messiah to become a professor of political science or economics. This May did, when he accepted the post at Lexington. It was an unnatural situation from the first. May could not dissociate himself as a teacher from the other reforms that were dear to his heart. Sooner or later, he would have to turn his back upon Lexington and return to the Church. This he did in the fall of 1844.
It would be quite unfair, however, to argue that because May was not fitted to become a schoolteacher his career at Lexington was a failure. During his principalship, the Normal School had grown in size from thirty-one to sixty pupils, of whom about one-half were in the freshman class. The efficiency and reputation of the school was greatly enhanced, as is attested by the numerous complements bestowed upon May by Mann, Pierce, and others. And while it may be true that his interest in abolition slightly impaired the growth of the school, it at no time checked its work or development. Mann never regretted May’s appointment, nor did May, for that matter. He realized his limitations and effects better than Mann; indeed, he was forever discounting his abilities and achievements. Moreover, he appreciated that he was not equipped to be a teacher, and that with him pronounced abolitionist views he never could have made a success as an educator. Unhappy as the Lexington experience was in some respects, it was by no means a failure.
The years spent at the Normal School were highly profitable. From a financial point of view, he had increased his earnings. More significant were the returns in the educational field. Heretofore, his knowledge of teaching had been limited and was largely based upon theoretical assumptions. Many of these were sound, but the hours spent in preparation for teaching as well as the rigors of the classroom leadership and instruction have him practical experience of great value. His vision was broadened and he came to appreciate that theories and practice should complement, as well as supplement, each other. He realized that teacher training did not necessarily insure good teaching, and that some of his students should never had registered at Lexington. At the same time, he believed that guidance was vital to prospective teachers, and pointed with pride that during his term of office fifty-four students had successfully completed the required work, of whom forty-nine had become able teachers. He felt that better results might have been achieved if the school term had been lengthened, and suggested this change be made.
As a teacher, he always insisted upon neatness and accuracy. Possibly he was not as hard a master as he should have been; Pierce having once commented that May did not “agonize” the students as much as was good for their souls. But May’s approach was quite different. He admonished and corrected, but never in an offensive manner. He sought to stimulate interest and achievement by advocating a quiet, unassuming, and sympathetic procedure. The first duty of the teacher, he held, was to lead pupils to think, to observe, and to reflect on what they observe. Content knowledge and skills in teaching were vital. Teachers, moreover, should promote good citizenship and by careful suggestion lead their students to a proper appreciation of present-day social minds. There must be no dictation, no forcing of opinion upon their young minds. No, the pupil must think for him or herself, subject only to Christ like guidance. “What child, not corrupted by this education, would not decide instantly,” that slavery, intemperance, and war were sinful?
Fundamentally, however, he argued that “teachers should go into their schools in the spirit of Christ, meaning to seek and to save them that are lost . . . Evil must be overcome with good in schools no less than elsewhere.” Scriptural instruction from the Bible was not necessary in the schools. “if the teacher has the spirit of Christ in his heart, he will carry with him, into the school, the best of all that is good in the Bible, although the book be left out; but that, in a school, whose teacher is not possessed of the spirit of Christ, the Bible, though it should be read every day, will become little else than a dead letter.”
Modern educators may smile at May’s theories and methods, but surely these smiles must be at the letter of his ideas and not the spirit. Moreover, they most certainly would admit that May’s pupils seemed to thrive upon such a treatment, and that the cause of teacher training was not crippled by his work at Lexington.
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