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Fri, 11.17.1809

Stephen S. Foster, Abolitionist born

Stephen S. Foster

*Stephen Foster was born on this date in 1809.  He was a white-American abolitionist.  

Stephen Symonds Foster was born in Canterbury, New Hampshire. His parents, Sarah and Asa Foster, had twelve children; Stephen was the ninth. The family attended the local Congregational church and participated in Canterbury's anti-slavery society.  

Foster apprenticed to a carpenter but left at age 22 to study to become a missionary. He went to Dartmouth College, where his brother Asa had graduated and studied the classics, including Greek and Latin. Foster embraced abolitionism at this time and, in his third year, invited Angela Grimke to speak to the Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society.  During his senior year, Foster was arrested and imprisoned for not paying a debt of $12.14 to a local clockmaker; Foster was shocked to find that debtors were locked up with violent criminals and thieves in typical cells swarming with rats, lice, and fleas.

From prison, Foster wrote a letter of protest published in a local paper. His friends raised bail, but Foster's letter aroused indignation among citizens who later cleaned the jail and passed a law banning imprisonment for debt.  Foster redoubled his efforts in school, especially his rhetoric and public speaking courses, and graduated in 1838, third in his class.  Foster enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There, he was forbidden by the faculty to host an anti-slavery meeting he had scheduled. He was offered a scholarship if he quit speaking of abolition, but Foster rejected this, saying he "could not be bought to hold his peace."  

In the spring of 1839, he left New York to take a position as a traveling lecturer for the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society.  Foster was known to interrupt church services to denounce organized religion's complicity in slavery. In 1841, he was expelled from his Congregationalist church in Hanover, New Hampshire.  In 1842, Foster was wounded in a riot outside a meetinghouse in Portland, Maine. Pro-slavery supporters wished to prevent Foster and the radical abolitionist John Murray Spear from speaking. When the mob attacked, Foster took twenty blows to the head and had his coat torn in half. He was pulled from the crowd by women of the Portland Anti-Slavery Society, who helped him escape through a back window. Spear was beaten nearly to death on the front steps of the meeting house. Local abolitionists took the men in and tended to their recuperation.   

In 1843, he wrote the book The Brotherhood of Thieves, or A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy: A Letter to Nathaniel Barney of Nantucket. In 1844, Foster's fellow abolitionist, Parker Pillsbury, published it through the Boston Anti-Slavery Office. The book went through twenty editions.  In 1844, Foster appeared before the New England Antislavery Convention, holding an iron collar in one hand and iron manacles in the other. He said, "Behold here a specimen of the religion of this land, the handiwork of the American church and clergy."   At the eclectic Free Convention in Rutland, Vermont, in June 1858, Foster spoke after Pillsbury to say "any law, constitution, court, or government, any church, priesthood, creed, or Bible, and Christ, or any God, that, by silence or otherwise, authorizes man to enslave man, merits the scorn and contempt of mankind."  

 In 1845, after a four-year courtship, Foster married Abby Kelley, a more famous social activist and a dynamic speaker who had occasionally joined him on the abolitionist lecture circuit. They continued to travel and lecture together until the Civil War started in 1861. In early 1847, anticipating a family, the two bought a farm in Worcester, Massachusetts, and called it Liberty Farm; they lived until Foster died in 1881. The Fosters used the farm to shelter escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.   

On May 19, 1847, Paulina Wright "Alla" Foster was born at Liberty Farm; she was the only child the couple would have.  In May 1850, his wife visited Boston to participate in an annual Anti-Slavery Society meeting. Afterward, Abby met with Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriot Kezia Hunt, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, and Lucy Stone to help plan for women's rights near Liberty Farm in Worcester that October.  Foster and his wife were speakers at the first National Women's Rights Convention and the annual convention in Cleveland in 1853 and New York in 1856.  

The intersectionality and conflict between feminism and racism in the 19th century came to public view in 1869.  Foster spoke out at a national meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) to accuse Elizabeth Cady Stanton of advocating "Educated Suffrage," the right of upper-class white women to vote. Foster implied strongly that Stanton should step down as president of AERA.  Frederick Douglass widened the gap when he started his position against Stanton's use of the negative term 'Sambo' in her address. The words of Foster and Douglass served to define a significant split that separated women's rights activists who felt that educated women deserved the right to vote before or at the same time as uneducated men and those who felt that the political situation called for a drive to achieve suffrage for the black man, followed by a new focus on suffrage for women of all races.  

1874 Worcester city officials put Liberty Farm up for auction to pay back taxes. Like prior protests by women's rights activists such as Lucy Stone, the Fosters refused to pay taxes on the 65-acre farm because Abby Kelley Foster was not given the right to vote and was thus subject to "taxation without representation." A sympathetic neighbor bid on the property and allowed Foster to buy it back. This became a yearly event, as the Fosters never paid their taxes directly.  His marriage to Abby Kelley brought his energetic activism to bear on women's rights.

He spoke out for temperance and agitated against any government, including his own, that would condone slavery.  Known for his dramatic and aggressive public speaking style and his stance against those in the church who failed to fight slavery, Stephen S. Foster died at Liberty Farm on September 12, 1881.  A memorial service was held at the Worcester Horticultural Hall with Reverend Samuel May, Jr. of Leicester, Massachusetts. Lucy Stone, Wendell Phillips, Reverend Henry T. Cheever, and Parker Pillsbury spoke about Foster's life and works.  

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