Wilmington had anti-slavery newspaper

By Neil Snarr - For The News Journal

There was a Wilmington, Ohio anti-slavery newspaper published locally from 1851-1855 — its name was The Herald of Freedom and its editor was John W. Chaffin.

The paper passed through several hands before it ceased publication in 1855. Below the title of the newspaper on the front page appeared the phrase, “Allegiance to God and Alliance to Universal Humanity.” In another place the newspaper says that, “The HERALD OF FREEDOM will be an Anti-Slavery, Political, Moral and Literary Newspaper.” The paper was published weekly on Fridays.

The newspaper contained more than just the issues mentioned above. It was a local newspaper. It contained legal notices, obituaries, advertisements, news about new stores opening and new opportunities, railroad schedules, weather, etc. It was only four pages long, but incorporated a great deal of material in that space.

In perusing the pages of the newspaper l found some interesting themes emerging. “Free Soil” was a hot topic at that time, but it was a short-lived (third) political party during the 1848-1852 presidential election. “Its main purpose was to oppose the expansion of slavery into the western territories, arguing that free men on free soil comprised a morally and economically superior system to slavery.”

Thus, it was consistent with the overall commitment of the newspaper.

Another “address” I found interesting and consistent with the commitment of the paper is an article by a Quaker which started, “To all who profess to desire the abolition of Slavery, wherever located, and particularly to the members of the Society of Friends, on the subject of abstinence from the use of articles produced by the labor of slaves.”

These ideas come directly from the pen of 18th-century Quaker John Woolman, who spent his life trying to abolish slavery. A major focus of this argument was to discourage people from purchasing goods produced by slaves. In his case, it was to keep people from purchasing clothing prepared with dyes which were produced by slaves. Thus, purchase and wear clothing made of unbleached muslin!

Such efforts to pressure governments and groups to change their policies and habits by using nonviolent means has a long history. It was such efforts that brought down the South African apartheid regime via refusal to do business with them, especially to divest – “From 1985 to 1990, over 200 companies cut all ties with South Africa, resulted in a loss of $1 billion in direct investments. South Africa was ravaged by capital flight as businesses, investors and money left the country.”

A similar effort is being undertaken today in Occupied Palestine to keep occupying Israelis from producing goods there contrary to international law and selling them to the rest of the world. Countries and groups are divesting in a variety of ways and Israel is beginning to suffer because of their apartheid-like ways.

Letters to the editor do not necessarily agree with the position of the paper. “Mr. Editor: I discover you are editing a paper that you call the Herald of Freedom the first number of which is before the public, a perusal of which has raised a suspicion in my mind, that you are one of those reckless agents who are striving to render the citizens disaffected toward their government, in relation to the fugitive law, and such other wholesome legislation as may be demanded, to secure our southern brethren in the peacable possession of their property…“

The letter is signed in Latin, Vox Populi Vox Dei, i.e., the Voice of the People – the Voice of God! Many of the letters to the editor go unsigned.

The “wholesome legislation” the writer refers to is the Fugitive Slave Laws which legitimated the return of runaway slaves to their masters. “The law stripped runaway slaves of such basic legal rights as the right to a jury trial and the right to testify in one’s own defense.”

The law required US citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives and to refusal to do so or to fail to assist in an arrest was subject to a heavy fine and imprisonment. It passed the US Congress in 1850.

A final letter to the editor begins “Esteemed Sir: Allow me although a stranger, to hail you as a reformer, to welcome you to the editorial chair. – Yes, if you are the man your prospectus mirrors, you are thrice welcome. – The number of whole souled Reformers are not so numerous I think, but that it may give you pleasure to hear from an obscure woman like myself… The one [idea] that pleases me best is this, ‘neutral on nothing that involves the interests of Humanity.’”

To overlook the issue of Temperance so common in this newspaper and in the world of that day would be a mistake. It is a theme with a common attitude and a consistent message. This is a call from the editor of the paper under the heading “TEMPERANCE: We expect to commence soon the discussion of the

Temperance Question; and in so doing, we shall endeavor to maintain the position that Civil Government has the right, and is under obligation to suppress the manufacture and sale of ardent spirits as a beverage. We think that duty to the rising generation; to the inebriate, to the rum seller, and to ourselves demands that the citizens of Wilmington and vicinity, should call a general meeting and devise and put in immediate and vigorous execution, some means by which the sale of ardent spirits may be suppressed in aur town.”

It seems quite clear to me that the emergence of a local newspaper focusing on the issue of slavery made a great deal of sense. It was a time when a presidential election was taking place and a third party dedicated to abolition was in play – this was part of the Free-Soil debate.

Also, there was the issue of the Fugitive Slave Law which would possibly extend slavery to other states and employ individuals in non-slave states as well as southerners whose slaves had escaped, in their capture and return. Both issues were serious challenges to the institution of slavery.

Regrettably, it took a war and hundreds of thousands of deaths to deal with the roots of this issue, that has not yet been satisfactorily solved.


By Neil Snarr

For The News Journal