Anti-Slavery at Colby, 1833

A movement started by students created significant drama — and prompted questions about the administration’s motives.

The narrative surrounding the formation of Colby’s Anti-Slavery Society — especially President Jeremiah Chaplins’ subsequent departure — invites a healthy dose of skepticism with regard to Chaplin and his motives. In Ernest Cummings Marriner’s History of Colby College, Marriner is quick to point out that it should not “be assumed for a moment that Chaplin was pro-slavery or that he objected to abolition societies” (Marriner 71); it occurs to the critical reader that this portrayal is almost certainly a rosy one. While it is indeed true that Chaplin is not recorded as having said anything explicitly anti-abolitionist, and therefore any assumptions made might be hasty, it is intellectually dishonest not to pursue that path of inquiry.

The whole incident reminds one of a much more recent event in the College’s history. It’s one that will not have the lasting impact of the Anti-Slavery Society, but the lessons learned and the campus dynamics bear some significant similarities. The event in question is the 2013 takeover of President Bro Adams’ speech at the Bicentennial celebration in Lorimer Chapel by the “Reclaim Colby” Movement. The movement caused a stir on campus in many ways (indeed, the diversity of its mission, much like the Occupy movement, lost Reclaim Colby some of its credibility in the public eye). However, their big moment, and the instant that will define the moment for the future, was students interrupting Adams’ speech that February night.

The loudest opposition to the students’ protest came from Professor Joseph Reisert, who wrote a memorable op-ed in the Echo in the immediate wake of the incident. The ire of Reisert and Jeremiah Chaplin in the wake of conspicuous student political organization was very similar. Reisert said of the incident,

“The foregoing considerations suggest to me that the disruption Wednesday evening would have been inappropriate and offensive at any college lecture. But the Bicentennial Convocation had a special character, which I think you have also failed to appreciate. The purpose of Wednesday’s convocation was to honor and to give thanks for the contributions of all those who have contributed to the construction of this institution.”

Chaplin, similarly, said the following in a speech to the students:

“The anniversary of our independence ought to be celebrated by appropriate religious services. It is a season when we ought to call to mind the goodness of God in enabling our Fathers to shake off the yoke of oppression and assume the attitude of a free and independent nation…. We ought to spend the day in much the same way that we spend the Sabbath….” (Marriner 72)

There is an almost sickening irony in Chaplin’s invocation of “[shaking] off the yoke of oppression” to explicitly silence an abolitionist moment. That Chaplin and Reisert both took umbrage with the manner in which the message was brought to the fore, in both cases more than with the actual content of the message (ostensibly, at least) brings about some important questions. How could a major catastrophe of the human experience like slavery take a backseat to mundane pleas for religious and institutional decorum? That Chaplin was so immediately and radically offended by his students’ unruliness on the fourth of July when they were fighting for such a worthwhile cause robs Marriner of much credibility in the defense of the former President’s slavery politics. Reisert, too, was incensed that the students’ pleas for social change came in a manner inconvenient to his preferred celebration of an important event, and let the students know about it; thus begins another moment of comparison between the events.

The students of 1833, in response to Chaplin’s furor, took great offense at the language he used. So did the students of 2013, to Reisert’s op-ed. Chaplin’s students were “boorish” and “resembling the yells of a savage or the braying of an ass” (Marriner 73). Reisert’s letter, directed specifically at one student, dripped with condescension, including lines such as, “he has known this unhappy truth since before you were in diapers.” The tension between the students and the faculty/administrators, in both cases, was palpable.

The larger cultural implications of Chaplin’s protests (and eventual resignations) point to a rapidly changing moment in the history of slavery. While we must, as Marriner warned, refrain from outright assumptions of Chaplin’s political motives, the dramas of 1833 signify a nuanced political environment. Those located in the liberal forefront of political movements, as Chaplin was at an educational institution in a free state, but who do not necessarily align themselves on the cutting edge, as Chaplin may not have, occasionally must find crafty ways of avoiding the latter truth. Chaplin diverted his anger toward impropriety in a fourth of July celebration, and while we must believe that he truly felt that anger, its obvious departure from the real matter at hand tells of a man living in a conflicted political climate.