The Anti-Slavery Society
The Anti-Slavery Society formed by the students of Colby College (then Waterville College) is one of strangest accounts of student activism causing hostile relations between students and administrators in the school’s history. In 1824, the Literary Fraternity was organized and incorporated according to the laws of Maine in 1828. It was a society created for the purpose of debating and the pursuit of knowledge. Topics for debate were generally the topics of the day, and issues regarding slavery appeared during 1833 in questions like “Ought the Government of the United States to use force to compel South Carolina to submit to its laws, provided all other means prove ineffectual?” and “Ought Congress to interfere in the abolition of Slavery?” (Both questions were decided in the affirmative.)
At the time, the school had a summer session and when, in June of 1833, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison lectured in Waterville, most of the student body was present and became impassioned with the anti-slavery movement.
As July 4 neared, students decided that Independence Day should mark the beginning of their cause of freedom. A mass meeting was organized, at which a constitution was drafted. The gathering, though, was perhaps too enthusiastic. Their shouting and cheers could be heard by President Chaplin across campus. Chaplin suspected the students’ meeting had been accentuated by New England rum, a serious violation at an instition headed by a Baptist minister, in which many of the men were training to be ministers. Even if they were sober, though, Chaplin felt such a disturbance of the peace could not be tolerated in a scholarly community.
In the chapel the next morning, President Chaplin addressed the student body in no uncertain terms, stating vehemently his disapproval of their actions. While his speech was not recorded, it was noted that the whole student body arose in indignation and demanded Chaplin retract his statements. Chaplin refused, and the students left the chapel in anger.
Chaplin immediately called a faculty meeting, at which he called for the suspension of several known leaders of the July 4 episode. With some reservation, the faculty agreed. A week passed, in which classes were affected, raising the concern of the faculty. They decided unanimously that Chaplin should deliver a speech, approved upon by the faculty, to the students.
On July 10, Chaplin addressed the students in the chapel. He retracted his accusation of drunkeness, but also made clear his stance on the manner in which Independence Day should be celebrated. He stated the holiday should be treated like the Sabbath. “It is a day of joy,” he said, “but a joy that ought to always be sober and chastened. We should resort to no amusements, partake of no entertainments, and engage in no exercises which have a tendency to unfit the mind for the holy intercourse with God.” Chaplin then made the statement that most incensed students, saying “…young men who are obtaining a college education may justly be expected to have a taste somewhat more elevated than that of the common herd of mankind. Can you be surprised, then, that after all the pains we have taken to refine and elevate your feelings, some of you have a taste so low and boorish, that you can be pleased with noises which resemble the yells of a savage or the braying of an ass? For you to pride yourselves on doing that which a boor, a savage or a brute may do as well as you is truly contemptible.” Chaplin concluded by stating two organizers of the meeting had been expelled, which six others were given long suspensions.
So angered were the students that on July 17 a letter was sent to faculty demanding that the slander of their character be retracted. Fifty-seven students signed the letter, including some of the most religious and well-respected members of the school. While the faculty was sympathetic, Chaplin would not back down.
At the July 30, 1833, meeting of the Trustees, President Chaplin submitted his letter of resignation. The Anti-Slavery Society, not in principle but in practice, tore an insurmountable rift between Chaplin and the students.
As for the future of the Society, the constitution drafted on July 4 was unsuccessfully submitted to the Trustee meeting in which Chaplin’s successor, Rufus Babcock, was elected. The Trustees were, as with many colleges in the North at the time, very conservative and would not support such a liberal organization. The next fall, a collection of students tried a more conservative approach, submitting a proposal for a Colonization Society. At the time, establishing a colony of former slaves in Africa was an often heard idea that involved freedom but not cohabitation with whites, and was supported for some time by Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, due to the financial quagmire the school was in at the time, the necessary funds could not be raised, and the Society wasn’t approved. In fact, it was not until 1858 that the Colby faculty finally permitted the official formation of the Anti-Slavery Society.
Chaplin photo and constitution courtesy of Colby Special Collections.