The Hamilton of 1837 was a staid, Presbyterian institution. Yet that year, a decade after the liberation of the last slaves in New York State, 58 Hamilton students — more than 60 percent of the student body — signed and sent to Congress a strongly worded petition to ban slavery in the United States. Their action would anger state legislators, jeopardize College funding, and trigger a crackdown on student abolitionists. The signers were members of the Hamilton Anti-Slavery Society, an affiliate of William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. The opening line of their petition declares “slavery as it exists in America is a hainous (sic) sin against God, and a flagrant violation of the rights of man.”
Despite Hamilton’s location in “the Burned-Over District,” an epicenter of egalitarian reform during the Second Great Awakening, College officials clung to the hierarchy and puritanism of 18th-century New England. Even so, the College graduated several prominent abolitionists in the first half of the 19th century, the most famous being Gerrit Smith, Class of 1818. Smith used his massive wealth to support anti-slavery efforts including the Underground Railroad, the Liberty Party, and John Brown’s Raid of Harpers Ferry.
Asa Mahan, Class of 1824, was an abolitionist minister. As the first president of Oberlin College, he insisted that the school admit students of color. John Curtiss Underwood, Class of 1832, was a Virginia judge and carpetbagger, who gained notoriety for ordering the confiscation of slaveholder property. (One of his ordered confiscations was reversed by the Supreme Court in Bigelow v. Forrest.)
While Smith, Mahan, and Underwood made valuable contributions to the abolitionist movement, their alma mater disapproved of abolitionist activity on campus. An early instance of students’ action was their attendance at an 1835 meeting in Utica, which was attacked by a group of anti-abolitionists who beat one student unconscious. That same year, an ad stating the mission of the Hamilton College Anti-Slavery Society and listing its student leaders appeared in an edition of the New York Evangelical.
… [we] Do solemnly and importunately petition and implore your Honorable bodies, to take all measures within the scope of your constitutional powers, for the abatement and removal of this great evil ...
In 1837, when the New York State Legislature questioned the College about the student petition and threatened to withhold $3,000 intended for Hamilton, the administration clamped down on the Anti-Slavery Society. President Joseph Penney, in a letter to the legislature, expressed “surprise that a portion of the students … who have been habitually ingenious have acted at variance with the principles of the College government.” Penney explained that the signers “were misled by representations” from abolitionist societies and “acted without reflection.” The president and faculty framed the petition as a one-time act of rebellion by bright young men destined to become upstanding citizens.
While Penney certainly wished to retain state funding, other reasons for his denunciation of the Anti-Slavery Society are worth exploring. Hamilton was not the only northeastern, liberal arts college where abolitionist controversies had erupted. Disagreement over slavery revealed generational conflicts between students, who largely supported the emancipation of slaves, and administrators, who favored colonization of Africa by freed slaves.
At Colby College in 1833, tensions between abolitionist students and the president became so severe that the president resigned, citing the “extraordinary manner” in which “many of the students of the college have manifested dissatisfaction towards me.” Anti-slavery societies formed at Amherst and Union, who also sent anti-slavery petitions to Congress, were shut down by their presidents in 1834 and 1836, respectively.
Hamilton student abolitionists, it seems, fared no better. No record of the Hamilton College Anti-Slavery Society exists after 1837, suggesting that College officials were successful in shutting down organized anti-slavery activity on campus.
Jacob Altman-Desole ’19 contributed this piece to Hamilton magazine after conducting research on the College’s place in the history of abolitionism. The recipient of an Emerson Foundation grant, he worked with Doug Ambrose, the Carolyn C. and David M. Ellis ’38 Distinguished Teaching Professor of History.