Figuring out the racial views of white southerners who opposed the Confederacy can be difficult. It is tempting, for example, to interpret white nonslaveholders’ economic resentment of slaveholders as evidence that they opposed slavery itself, but the two sentiments often did not coincide. And, even when nonslaveholders did express hatred of slavery, one must be careful not to equate that hatred with abolitionism, since relatively few southern whites actively worked to bring about its end. Certainly, deserting the Confederacy and/or joining the Union Army only rarely indicated that a Southern soldier embraced abolitionism.
No such ambiguity, however, clouds our understanding of Moncure Conway (1832-1907), who both detested slavery and worked to bring about its end. I have been thinking a lot about Conway, one of the South’s best-known abolitionists, ever since administrators of the Moncure Conway Foundation invited me to give a talk there this coming March on Southern women and the Civil War.*
Speaking on behalf of the Conway Foundaton in Fredericksburg, Virginia, seems a perfect setting for the presentation since my topic includes the antislavery Wesleyan Methodist community located in the heart of North Carolina’s Quaker Belt (the Randolph-Montgomery County area). Despite differences of class and religion, Moncure Conway and North Carolina’s Wesleyan Methodists both exemplify southern dissent against the Confederacy.
They also demonstrate dissent’s various forms. Unlike my subjects, Conway was neither a yeoman farmer nor a Wesleyan Methodist (although he was raised a Methodist). Rather, he was the son of a prominent Virginia slaveholder and a deeply religious mother. Influenced by his mother’s humanitarian views, Conway was drawn to the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism before the age of twenty. He attended Harvard, and during the 1850s joined the Northern abolitionist movement, meeting reformers such as Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Wendell Phillips.
Conway, a Unitarian minister, joined these religious radicals in rejecting contemplative intellectualism in favor of social activism and moral reform. He considered slavery to be the nation’s greatest sin, and, in 1856, he publicly denounced the institution from his Washington D.C. pulpit. As a result, he was ousted from his church, but soon found a new position in an Cincinnati ministry dedicated to abolition.
After moving to Ohio, Moncure married Ellen Davis Dana, a Unitarian abolitionist and woman’s suffragist who shared his vision of society. Many members of his family, with the exception of his mother, were incensed by his increasingly militant views and broke ties with him. Yet, despite the profound influence of Northern intellectuals, his Harvard education, and rejection by family and friends, Conway’s Southern roots made him sensitive to the plight of the South during the Civil War. A pacifist, he initially opposed war as a means to ending slavery, but convinced himself that a “holy war” against slavery would be a just war. In his 1861 work, The Rejected Stone, he pronounced the Civil War a “revolution,” one in which God would fulfill his vision of humankind.
Torn between his belief that slavery was inhumane and equally strong belief that war degraded all humankind, Conway soon became disenchanted with the Unionist cause. His concern for Southern society, black and white, fueled frustration with President Lincoln’s conservative half-measures in regard to emancipation, as well as with many abolitionists’ willingness to support a war that did not promise freedom to all African Americans. In late 1862, in a work entitled The Golden Hour, Conway warned that the Administration’s foot- dragging on emancipation of all slaves threatened to destroy the North’s credibility in an increasingly brutal and savage war.
Before war’s end, Conway’s disenchantment with the Union cause was complete, as he came to believe that even Northern abolitionists were more interested in conquering the South than achieving liberty for slaves. “I for one wash my hands of it forever!” he wrote to his wife from England. Although the Conways lived for short periods of time in New York City, after the war, England (and less so, France) became their new home.
In London, Conway became the minister of South Place Chapel, founded in 1793 as a dissenting Universalist church. Although Unitarian in name, the church embraced humanitarian free thought under Conway’s leadership. I am reminded here of Jasper Collins of the Free State of Jones, who helped to found a Universalist Church in the middle of the Mississippi piney woods. Unlike Moncure, Jasper never gave up on remaining in the society that produced him, despite his opposition to secession and the Confederacy. But he did continue to seek alternatives to conventional political and religious structures, choosing the People’s Party over the Democratic Party, and the Universalist Church over the Baptist Church.
The postwar lives of Jasper Collins and Moncure Conway, both of whom lived into the twentieth century, remind us that the Civil War’s impact on the behavior of Southern dissenters reached far beyond the war itself.
NOTE: For an excellent overview of Moncure Conway’s life, including a bibliography of sources, see Charles A. Howe’s “Moncure Conway,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.
*On Sunday, 2 p.m., March 21, 2010, I will present “Defying Convention: Women, Race, and Class in the Civil War South,” at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, Fredericksburg, VA, a neighboring site of the Moncure Conway House (event hosted by the Moncure Conway Foundation).