In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Lowells of Massachusetts faced the same overriding question that Americans face today: what kind of nation world we want all Americans — friends, family, and strangers — to live in? The question in the 1840s and 1850s centered around the issue of slavery, the buying and selling of human beings for the purpose of putting them to hard labor.
The Lowell family divided on the question of slavery, and the division can be traced to the same divisions we see today as we deliberate questions of race, gender, and sexuality: how we define the community — the “America” to which we belong, determines whom we feel it is our obligation to protect and promote.
Most of the members of the Lowell family were against slavery in theory but still they split on the question of how and when to bring about the end of slavery. The wealthier side of the family, whose wealth came from manufacturing mills dependent upon southern cotton, took the stance that slavery was an institution that was fated to die out. There was not need to rush its demise. Education as to its evils, limiting it to within the bounds of the south (and sending funds and settlers to western territories to ensure they would become free states), and slowly working to shift labor sources would lead to the end of slavery eventually. These Lowells did not include black slaves in the community — in the “America” — to which they owed any kind of duty or obligation.
The poorer side of the family, however, did include blacks within the community they cared about and to whom they owed a duty. Reverend Charles Lowell of Boston provides a wonderful example of such a Lowell.
Reverend Charles led the West Church in Boston, congregation of some of the region’s wealthiest families. But Rev Lowell opened his church to parishioners of all races and class, and extended his ministry of care into some of the worst neighborhoods in Boston. He had traveled in the south and seen the horrors of slavery, and from his pulpit he railed against the institution. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, he was asked to speak at a rally with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglas.
Under the Fugitive Slave Law, slavers in search of runaways could now come to any northern state and seize black men and women off the streets to carry them back to slavery. A kind of kangaroo court of determination was set up in the northern states to accept proof that the seized man or woman was indeed a runaway slave; and northern law officers were required to assist southern slavers in capturing and processing runaways. Black Bostonians began to flee the city in droves, and Reverend Lowell understood why: they would go as far north as they had to go to remain free. Reverend Lowell believed that the migration would hurt the community of his city, both literally and figuratively. Boston had been the cradle of freedom in the 1700s — and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it, the cradle needed to be rocked once more.
At the rally against the Fugitive Slave Law, Reverend Lowell spoke to the standing-room only crowd, and began the evening with a prayer, “May the time shortly come when this whole nation shall feel the injustice of making merchandise of human beings…God of mercy, who hath made of one blood all nations, incline the hearts of all men, everywhere, to kindness and brotherly love; hasten the time when, …every yoke shall be broken and the oppressed go free…”
Reverend Lowell was joined in his fight against slavery by his children, including his daughter, Mary Lowell Putnam. From her house on Beacon street in Boston, she organized meetings of abolitionists, and wrote poems and a novel exposing slavery in all its evils. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabinis the novel we all know now, in the 1850s Mary’s writings were among the most widely-read — and influential in New England. Mary was by her father’s side at the Faneuil Hall Rally and would continue to agitate for abolition through Lincoln’s election to the presidency.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the divided sides of the Lowell family joined together again, unified in their desire to save the Union. The sacrifices made by the Lowell family during the Civil War were many. Mary’s only son Willy was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff early in the war, and five more Lowell sons would never make it back home. These boys had defined their community — their America — to include black slaves in the south, to whom they owed a duty and for whom they paid the ultimate price.