Tappan Brothers

Arthur and Lewis Tappan Financed and Guided Abolitionist Activities

Engraved portrait of Lewis Tappan
Merchant and abolitionist Lewis Tappan. Getty Images

The Tappan brothers were a pair of wealthy New York City businessmen who used their fortunes to assist the abolitionist movement from the 1830s through the 1850s. The philanthropic efforts of Arthur and Lewis Tappan were instrumental in the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as other reform movements and educational endeavors.

The brothers became prominent enough that a mob sacked Lewis's house in lower Manhattan during the abolitionist riots of July 1834. And a year later a mob in Charleston, South Carolina, burned Arthur in effigy because he had financed a program to mail abolitionist pamphlets from New York City to the South.

The brothers remained undaunted, and continued to assist the anti-slavery movement. They set an example that others followed, such as the Secret Six, the men who secretly funded the abolitionist fanatic John Brown before his fateful raid on Harpers Ferry.

Business Background of the Tappan Brothers

The Tappan brothers were born in Northampton, Massachusetts, into a family of 11 children. Arthur was born in 1786, and Lewis was born in 1788. Their father was a goldsmith and merchant and their mother was deeply religious. Both Arthur and Lewis showed early aptitude in business and became merchants operating in Boston as well as Canada.

Arthur Tappan was operating a successful business in Canada until the War of 1812, when he relocated to New York City. He became very successful as a merchant in silks and other goods, and garnered a reputation as a very honest and ethical businessman.

Lewis Tappan was successful working for a dry goods importing firm in Boston during the 1820s, and considered opening his own business. However, he decided to move to New York and join his brother's business. Working together, the two brothers became even more successful, and the profits they made in the silk trade and other enterprises allowed them to pursue philanthropic interests.

The American Anti-Slavery Society

Inspired by the British Anti-Slavery Society, Arthur Tappan helped to found the American Anti-Slavery Society and served as its first president from 1833 to 1840. During his leadership the society became prominent for publishing a large number of abolitionist pamphlets and almanacs.

The printed material from the society, which was produced in a modern printing facility on Nassau Street in New York City, showed a fairly sophisticated approach to influencing public opinion. The organization's pamphlets and broadsides often carried woodcut illustrations of the mistreatment of slaves, making them easily understandable to people, most importantly slaves, who could not read.

Resentment Toward the Tappan Brothers

Arthur and Lewis Tappan occupied a peculiar position, as they were very successful in New York City's business community. Yet the businessmen of the city were often aligned with the slave states, as much of the American economy before the Civil War depended on the trade in products produced by slaves, primarily cotton and sugar.

Denunciations of the Tappan brothers became commonplace in the early 1830s. And in 1834, during days of mayhem that became known as the Abolitionist Riots, the house of Lewis Tappan was attacked by a mob. Lewis and his family had already fled, but most of their furniture was piled up in the middle of the street and burned.

During the Anti-Slavery Society's pamphlet campaign of 1835 the Tappan brothers were widely denounced by pro-slavery advocates in the South. A mob seized abolitionist pamphlets in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1835 and burned them in a huge bonfire. And an effigy of Arthur Tappan was hoisted high and set on fire, along with an effigy of abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison.

Legacy of the Tappan Brothers

Throughout the 1840s the Tappan brothers continued to help the abolitionist cause, though Arthur slowly withdrew from active involvement. By the 1850s there was less need for their involvement and financial support. Thanks in large part to the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin,  abolitionist thought was delivered into American living rooms.

The formation of the Republican Party, which was created to oppose the spread of slavery to new territories, brought the anti-slavery point of view into the mainstream of American electoral politics.

Arthur Tappan died on July 23, 1865. He had lived to see the end of slavery in America. His brother Lewis wrote a biography of Arthur which was published in 1870. Not long after, Arthur suffered a stroke which left him incapacitated. He died at his home in Brooklyn, New York, on June 21, 1873.