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Maria Weston Chapman and the Weston Sisters

Maria Weston ChapmanMaria Weston Chapman (July 25, 1806-July 12, 1885) was described by Lydia Maria Child as "One of the most remarkable women of the age." Chapman and three of her five younger sisters played vital roles in the antislavery movement. Even the smaller Weston girls were pressed into service for the cause that dominated the lives of this family. Chapman, best-known of the group, was a "mainspring" and "lieutenant" of the movement, but her sisters worked closely with her in support of William Lloyd Garrison. They founded an organization, circulated petitions, raised money, wrote and edited numerous publications, and left behind a remarkable correspondence.

Maria Weston was the eldest of six daughters and two sons born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to Warren and Nancy Bates Weston, descendants of the Pilgrims. Maria's birth was followed by those of Caroline in 1808, Anne in 1812, Deborah in 1814, Hervey Eliphaz in 1817, Richard Warren in 1819, Lucia in 1822, and Emma in 1825. The children grew up on the family farm and went to local schools.

Joshua Bates, an uncle and prosperous London banker, invited Maria to England to complete her education. Upon her return to Boston in 1828, she became principal of Ebenezer Bailey's Young Ladies' High School. In 1830 she married Henry Grafton Chapman, son of Henry Chapman, a wealthy Boston merchant. The Chapmans were members of Federal Street Church, where William Ellery Channing was minister. Unlike most businessmen and most fellow Unitarians, Maria's father-in-law refused to participate in the lucrative cotton trade and supported Garrison's radical call for immediate abolition of slavery.

Maria was the only Weston sister to marry. Caroline and Anne were teachers in Boston. Deborah, though she preferred to stay in Weymouth, taught for a time in New Bedford. All four sisters were drawn into the antislavery movement. They were talented, articulate, witty, energetic, and good-looking, outstanding individually and formidable as a group.

In 1834 Maria, Caroline, Anne, Deborah and eight other women formed the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, "believing slavery to be the direct violation of the laws of God, and productive of a vast amount of misery and crime, and convinced that its abolition can only be effected by an acknowledgment of the justice and necessity of immediate emancipation."

When the impeccably gowned and coiffed Mrs. Chapman first appeared at anti-slavery meetings, other women workers suspected her of being a spy. It seemed impossible that this socialite could be sympathetic with the slaves. They soon learned that nothing stood in the way of her dedication and organizational ability. She swept all before her, with her sisters behind her in close formation.

A famous incident related to the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was described by Deborah Weston as "the day when 5,000 men mobbed 45 women." In 1835 English abolitionist George Thompson was touring New England, arousing the anger of those whose livelihood depended upon the cotton industry. Thompson was thought to be attending a meeting of BFASS at the Liberator office. An angry mob converged on the building. Despite the uproar, the women calmly began their meeting with scripture reading and prayer. Fearing for the women's safety, the mayor asked them to leave the building. "If this is the last bulwark of freedom," said Maria, "we may as well die here as anywhere." After being escorted to safety through the crowd of hissing men, the women continued their meeting at the Chapman house nearby. A few days after the mob scene, Maria and Deborah were hissed by three men as they stood on the Chapman doorstep. It became impossible for Maria to walk down the street alone without hearing "odious epithets" shouted after her by shop clerks.

Years later Maria wrote that "the members of Dr. Channing's congregation were the mob." No doubt the mob included others besides Unitarians, but influential members of Federal Street Church were unsympathetic with the Chapmans and Westons. Channing himself was only moderately supportive of the anti-slavery movement. Though he denied the right of property in slaves and had, Maria wrote, "benevolent intentions," he showed "neither insight, courage, nor firmness." He opposed immediate emancipation and deplored the formation of anti-slavery associations. "Above all," she added, Channing "deprecated the admission of the coloured race to our ranks." Concerning her minister's opposition to associations, Maria simply responded, "You know I never consider Dr. Channing an authority."

The sisters regularly attended various Boston churches and exchanged information as to whether the ministers preached against slavery. Here is Deborah on a Sunday in July, 1835: "I was completely exhausted, listening to his [Rev. Mr. Francis Parkman's] villainy. Went in the afternoon to the free church, heard Mr. [Theodore] Parker. He preached very well, speaking extempore." A year later she reported on Maria's success in getting Henry Ware, Jr., guest minister at Federal Street, to announce a forthcoming BFASS meeting. The incident caused "great excitement." "One man said." Deborah wrote, "no one but Mrs. Chapman would have the impudence to do this. Another said, if Mrs. Chapman will insult the congregation, she must expect to be insulted herself."

Such comments from fellow church members led to Maria's disaffection with churches in general. She was nevertheless Unitarian, heart and soul, as seems clear from a Sunday morning conversation with her daughter Elizabeth, who was considering Episcopalianism. "A being who was everywhere and knew all our thoughts," Maria maintained, "must be better pleased with us for doing good to others, than going over 'hair splitting' like heathens and Episcopalians." Sewing the hooks and eyes onto Elizabeth's gown she thought "more acceptable as a work of maternal piety to a benevolent and wise being, than if I had passed time at any church in town: more especially as they had all lost sight of what they were formed for."

By 1840 Chapmans and Westons had stopped attending Federal Street Church. Maria turned to abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, and her sisters to John Pierpont, who preached anti-slavery at Hollis Street. Maria's spiritual life did not depend upon church attendance. "Eternity and infinity come in like a flood whenever I open the gates," she wrote, "although God and immortality never were much to me."

No Unitarian ministers were among the conservative clergymen who published a pastoral letter in 1837 scolding women abolitionists who departed from their traditional "spheres." In response to this letter Maria published a satirical poem, "The Times that Try Men's Souls," attributing authorship to the "The Lords of Creation." "Confusion has seized us, and all things go wrong,/ The women have leaped from 'their spheres,'/ And instead of fixed stars, shoot as comets along,/And are setting the world by the ears!/ . . . So freely they move in their chosen elipse,/ The 'Lords of Creation'/ do fear an eclipse."

The pastoral letter increased a developing split between Garrison with his anti-government motto, "no union with slaveholders," and other abolitionists who insisted upon political engagement. A new anti-slavery organization and a new newspaper, the Abolitionist, were established in competition with Garrisonian institutions. Conflict arose in BFASS as well. Some opposed Anne Weston's proposal that the organization continue to subscribe to Garrison's Liberator. An 1840 vote favored the "new organization" members against the Garrisonians, but in compliance with their pastors, the conservative women gradually dispersed. Maria Chapman, her sisters and friends carried on as the only women's group actively supporting Garrison.

Their support was vital. Beginning in 1834 and continuing for many years, the Anti-Slavery Fair and the annual publication, Liberty Bell, raised thousands of dollars. Maria and Anne were chief organizers of the fairs, popular Boston social events. Fom 1839-1846 and intermittently thereafter, the Liberty Bell appeared, modelled on the fashionable gift books of the time. As editor, Maria wrote many pieces herself and pressed her sisters into the work as well as soliciting contributions from such notables as Lydia Maria Child, Eliza Cabot Follen, Wendell Phillips, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Harriet Martineau.

The Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Convention of 1838 was the only occasion on which Maria Weston Chapman spoke in public. She introduced Angelina Grimke over the howling of a mob which later burned to the ground the building where the inter-racial meeting was held. From 1839-1842, Maria edited the Non-Resistant, another Garrison publication. In 1840 she was elected, along with Lydia Maria Child and Lucretia Mott, to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society and was appointed a Massachusetts delegate to the world convention in London, although she did not attend. In 1844 she served as co-editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard published in New York. She also edited the Liberator in Garrison's absences. Her lively BFASS reports, Right and Wrong in Boston, appeared from 1836-1844 expressing a view of events not always shared by other members. When "an apparently irreconcilable difference of opinion" arose, Maria stated her intention not to suppress her own views. "I shall never submit to any creation of any society that interferes with my righteous freedom."

Throughout their public life, the Weston sisters continued their teaching careers, and Maria managed a family and household which became a center of activity in the anti-slavery movement. The Chapmans frequently entertained the abolitionist circle, including "coloured" guests, and housed out-of-town delegates to meetings. Three daughters and a son were born to the Chapmans between 1831 and 1840. The youngest daughter died of tuberculosis, which also afflicted her father. A trip to the West Indies failed to restore his health. He died in 1842. Nothing assuaged Maria's grief but renewed immersion in anti-slavery work.

After Henry Chapman's death, Wendell Phillips was guardian of the Chapman children. In 1848 Maria took them out of the emotional and political hotbed of Boston to complete their education in Europe. She planned to continue her antislavery work abroad, and Caroline Weston joined her. They stopped briefly in England to visit Garrison's supporters there. In the fall son Henry was settled at school in Heidelberg and his sisters in Paris, where Maria and Caroline made their home an outpost of the American anti-slavery movement. Despite the turmoil of the revolution overthrowing Louis Napoleon, Maria quickly found sympathizers for her cause and recruited many French contributors to the Liberty Bell. She and Caroline shopped for items to ship to Anne in Boston for the anti-slavery fairs. During visits to England Maria renewed her friendship with British writer Harriet Martineau, whom she had met in Boston in 1835. Struck by Maria's "rare intellectual accomplishment," her courage, beauty, and clear, sparkling voice, Martineau made this American friend editor of her memoirs, published in 1877 as The Autobiography of Harriet Martineau with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman.

By the time Henry had completed his education, his sister Elizabeth had married a French abolitionist, and the other Weston sisters had joined the Paris group. In 1855 Maria returned to Weymouth, where she lived for the rest of her life. She made extended visits to her son in New York City and worked in his brokerage office. Her grandson, John Jay Chapman, long remembered the creative games she invented for her grandchildren. When the Civil War began, her sisters joined her in Weymouth. With emancipation in 1863, Maria agreed with Garrison that it was time to close down the anti-slavery organizations. She devoted herself to education for the former slaves. Maria Weston Chapman died of heart disease at 78. By 1890 all the sisters were buried in the Weymouth family plot.

The Weston Sisters Papers are in the Anti-Slavery Collection at the Boston Public Library. More correspondence of Maria Weston Chapman can be found at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. A number of these letters are printed in Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists (1974). In addition to the works mentioned in the article, Chapman wrote Ten Years of Experience (1832); a pamphlet, How Can I Help to Abolish Slavery (1855); antislavery stories; and a novel, Pindar, A True Tale (1840). Many of her poems and hymns were published in the Liberator and in Songs of the Free and Hymns of Christian Freedom (1836).

Among the biographical treatments of Maria Weston Chapman and her sisters are Clare Taylor, Women of the Anti-Slavery Movement: The Weston Sisters (1995) and two articles by Margaret Munsterberg, "The Weston Sisters and the 'Boston Mob,'" The Boston Public Library Quarterly 9 (October 1957) and "The Weston Sisters and 'The Boston Controversy,'" The Boston Public Library Quarterly 10 (January 1958). Short biographical articles on Chapman include David Johnson, "Biographaphical Sketch of Maria Weston Chapman," in Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, ed. by Dorothy May Emerson (2000); Alma Lutz, "Maria Weston Chapman." in Notable American Women, ed. by Edward T. James et al. (1971); and Gerald Sorin, "Maria Weston Chapman," in American National Biography (1999). See also Debra Gold Hansen, Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (1993) and Phyllis Cole, "Woman Questions: Emerson, Fuller, and New England Reform" presented at the Massachusetts Historical Society conference, "Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and its Contexts," 1997.

Article by Joan Goodwin - posted April 27, 2001


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