Theodore Dwight Weld (November 23, 1803 in Hampton, Connecticut – February 3, 1895 in Hyde Park, Massachusetts) was one of the architects of the American abolitionist movement during its formative years from 1830 through 1844, playing a role as writer, editor, speaker, and organizer.
He is best known for his co-authorship of the authoritative compendium American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, published in 1839.
Harriet Beecher Stowe partly based Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Weld’s text and it is regarded as second only to that work in its influence on the antislavery movement. Weld remained dedicated to the abolitionist movement until slavery was ended by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.
Born in Hampton, Connecticut, the son and grandson of Congregational ministers, at age 14 Weld took over his father’s 100-acre farm near Hartford, Connecticut to earn money to study at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, attending from 1820 to 1822 until failing eyesight caused him to leave.
After a doctor urged him to travel, he started an itinerant lecture series on mnemonics, traveling for three years throughout the United States, including the South where he saw slavery first-hand. In 1825 Weld moved with his family to Pompey, New York in upstate New York.
Weld then studied at Hamilton College in Clinton, Oneida County, New York, where he became a disciple of the famous evangelist Charles Finney, spending several years working as a member of his “holy band” before deciding to become a preacher and entering the Oneida Manual Labor Institute in Oneida, New York.
While there, he would spend two weeks at a time traveling about lecturing on the virtues of manual labor, temperance, and moral reform.
At age 28 he was hired by moral reform philanthropists Lewis Tappan and Arthur Tappan as the general agent for the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions. Weld’s report to the Tappans as a manual labor agent reveals he “traveled 4,575 miles; 2,630 miles by boat and stagecoach; 1800 miles on horseback, 145 miles on foot. En route, he made 236 public addresses.”
During his time as a manual labor agent, Weld scouted land and found the location for, recruited the faculty for, then became a student at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1833.
There he became the leader of the so-called “Lane Rebels,” a group of students who determined to engage in free discussion, including the topic of slavery, holding a series of slavery debates over 18 days in 1834, resulting in a decision to support abolitionism. The group also pledged to help the 1500 free blacks in Cincinnati.
When the school’s board of directors, including president Lyman Beecher prohibited them from discussing slavery, about 80% of the students left, most of them enrolling at the new Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later renamed Oberlin College).
Weld however, left his studies in 1834 to become an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, recruiting and training people to work for the cause, making converts of James G. Birney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher. Weld became one of the leaders of the antislavery movement, working with the Tappan brothers, New York philanthropists James G. Birney and Gamaliel Bailey, and the Grimké sisters.
Weld was influenced to join the abolitionist movement by retired British army officer Charles Stuart at Western Reserve College.
In 1836 Weld discontinued lecturing when he lost his voice, and was appointed editor of its books and pamphlets by the American Anti-slavery Society. In 1836-1840 Weld worked as the editor of The Emancipator.
In 1838 Weld married Angelina Grimké, a strong abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, and retired to a farm in Belleville, New Jersey, where in 1839 he and the Grimké sisters co-wrote and published the pivotal book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.
In June 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London denied seats to Lucretia Mott and other women, mobilizing them to fight for women’s rights, causing the U.S. abolitionist movement to split between nonviolent (but wanting it now, not gradually) “moral suasion” William Lloyd Garrison and his American Anti-Slavery Society, which linked abolition with women’s rights, and Weld, the Tappan brothers and other “pragmatic” (gradualist) abolitionists, who formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS) and entered politics through the anti-slavery Liberty Party (ancestor of the Free-Soil Party and Republican Party), founded by James Birney, their U.S. presidential candidate this year and 1844, who also founded the National Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1841-1843 Weld traveled to Washington, D.C. to direct the national campaign for sending antislavery petitions to Congress, and assisted John Quincy Adams when Congress tried him for reading petitions in violation of the gag rule, which stated that slavery could not be discussed in Congress.
Having demonstrated the value of an antislavery lobby in Washington, Weld returned to private life, where he and his wife spent the remainder of their lives directing schools and teaching in New Jersey and Massachusetts. As Weld used pen names for all of his writings, he is not as well known as many other 19th century abolitionists.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia:
Many historians regard Weld as the most important figure in the abolitionist movement, surpassing even Garrison, but his passion for anonymity long made him an unknown figure in American history.
In 1854 Weld established a school of the Raritan Bay Union at Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The school accepted students of all races and sexes. In 1864 he moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts, where he helped open another school in Lexington, Massachusetts dedicated to the same principles. Here, Weld had “charge of Conversation, Composition, and English Literature.”
Weld was the son of Ludovicus Weld and Elizabeth Clark Weld. His brother Ezra Greenleaf Weld, a famous daguerreotype photographer was also involved with the abolitionist movement.
A member of the Weld Family of New England, Weld shares a common ancestry with William Weld, Tuesday Weld, and others. This branch of the family never achieved the wealth of their Boston-based kin.