Theodore Dwight Weld

Influential Anti-Enslavement Activist Often Overlooked By History

Engraved portrait of Theodore Dwight Weld
Theodore Dwight Weld. Library of Congress

Theodore Dwight Weld was one of the most effective organizers of the North American 19th-century anti-enslavement movement in the United States, though he was often overshadowed in his own time. And, partly due to his own aversion to publicity, he has often been overlooked by history.

For three decades Weld guided many efforts of the anti-enslavement activists. And a book he published in 1839, American Slavery As It Is, influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe as she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In the early 1830s Weld organized a highly influential series of debates at Lane Seminary in Ohio and trained anti-enslavement "agents" who would spread the word throughout the North. He later became involved on Capitol Hill in advising John Quincy Adams and others in promoting anti-enslavement action in the House of Representatives.

Weld married Angelina Grimké, a South Carolina native who had, along with her sister, become a devoted anti-enslavement activist. The couple was very well-known in anti-enslavement circles, yet Weld exhibited an aversion to public notice. He generally published his writings anonymously and preferred to exert his influence behind the scenes.

In the decades after the Civil War Weld avoided discussions of the proper place of the anti-enslavement movement in history. He outlived most of his contemporaries, and when he died at the age of 91 in 1895, he was nearly forgotten. Newspapers mentioned his death in passing, noting that he had known and worked with William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and other noted anti-enslavement activists.

Early Life

Theodore Dwight Weld was born on Nov. 23, 1803, in Hampton, Connecticut. His father was a minister, and the family was descended from a long line of clergymen. During Weld's childhood the family moved to western New York State.

In the 1820s the traveling evangelist Charles Grandison Finney passed through the countryside, and Weld became a devoted follower of his religious message. Weld entered the Oneida Institute to study to become a minister. He also became very involved in the temperance movement, which at the time was a burgeoning reform movement.

A reformist mentor of Weld, Charles Stuart, traveled to England and became involved with the British anti-enslavement movement. He wrote back to America, and brought Weld to the cause.

Organizing the Anti-Enslavement Activists

During this period Weld met Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy New York City merchants who were financing a number of reform movements, including the early anti-enslavem,ent movement. The Tappans were impressed with Weld's intellect and energy, and recruited him to work with them.

Weld influenced the Tappan brothers to get involved in the fight against enslavement. And in 1831 the philanthropist brothers founded the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The Tappan brothers, at Weld's urging, also financed the founding a seminary which would train ministers for settlements in the expanding American West. The new institution, Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, became the site of a highly influential gathering of anti-enslavement activists in February 1834.

In two weeks of seminars organized by Weld, activists debated the cause of ending enslavement. The meetings would resonate for years, as attendees came away deeply committed to the cause.

Weld embarked on a program of training anti-enslavement activists who could bring converts to the cause in the style of revivalist preachers. And when a campaign of sending anti-enslavement pamphlets into the South was thwarted, the Tappan Brothers began to see that Weld's idea of educating human agents who would carry the message.

On Capitol Hill

In the early 1840s, Weld became involved in the political system, which was not the usual course of action for anti-enslavement activists. William Lloyd Garrison, for instance, purposely avoided mainstream politics, as the United States Constitution allowed enslavement.

The strategy pursued by anti-enslavement activists was to use the right to petition in the Constitution to send petitions seeking the end of enslavement to the U.S. Congress. Working with former president John Quincy Adams, who was serving as a congressman from Massachusetts, Weld worked as a critical adviser during the petition campaign. 

By the mid-1840s, Weld had essentially withdrawn from an active role in the movement, yet he continued to write and advise. He had married Angelina Grimke in 1838, and they had three children. The couple taught at a school they founded in New Jersey.

Following the Civil War, when memoirs were written and the rightful place of the anti-enslavement activists in history was being debated, Weld chose to remain silent. When he died he was mentioned briefly in newspapers and was remembered as one of the great anti-enslavement activists.

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McNamara, Robert. "Theodore Dwight Weld." ThoughtCo, Nov. 14, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 14). Theodore Dwight Weld. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Theodore Dwight Weld." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).