Samuel M. Janney Letter to James Miller McKim

Reverend James Miller McKim (1810-1874) image Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society

James Miller McKim (1810-1874) was a Presbyterian minister and strong, nationally known abolitionist. He claimed to have been influenced at an early age by William Lloyd Garrison’s radical anti-slavery writings. Among many efforts, McKim helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society and lectured widely on the topic of abolitionism.  Based in Philadelphia, McKim for several years edited the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper.

James Miller McKim was involved in one of the nation’s most famous and extraordinary slavery escapes: in March 1849 he received, by shipment, Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man who had mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office of the Penn. Anti-Slavery Society. It was McKim who opened the compact wooden box, thereby releasing Henry Brown into freedom.  

Loudoun County anti-slavery Quakers had to balance on an ideological high-wire; any false step could lead to spiritual and personal conflict. One question was how closely to align themselves with non-Quaker abolitionists, such as Reverend McKim. Was it contrary to Quakers’ pacifist principles to support abolitionism? Was it a good deed – even a spiritual requirement – to help escaping enslaved men and women, when those actions might end in violence against fellow citizens? Was it ethical to break existing federal and state laws if one was serving a higher, moral law? A scanned copy of the handwritten letter is here. Transcript of the letter is below:

Springdale, Loudoun, Va

                                                                                                            12th Mo 1st 1843

J M McKim

            Esteemed friend

                                                Thy letter was rec. [received] in Baltimore together with the papers, books and pamphlets sent to me. It being Yearly Meeting time when they came I called together a number of friends from different quarters of the Y.M. and distributed a good many of them, some I left with John Needles for distribution & the rest I brought home which we have been circulating as opportunity affords. The two no.s [numbers] of the Intelligencer containing Gurneys letter & [William Ellery] Channing’s review are just the thing to circulate here, all Channing’s writings are on that subject admirable as far as I have seen them.

I delivered the Portrait of L. [Lucretia] Mott to Mary Wilbains as directed together with some no.s of the Intelligencer. She was delighted with it, for it is a striking likeness & a fine engraving. Please accept my thanks for the copy sent to and which I value much. I have made further enquiry for Strouds Slave laws but have as yet found but one copy which I have borrowed & am now using as thou will see by the Saturday [?] I suppose. There were 10 copies sent into this neighborhood & I think I shall be able to find some body who will part with one for thy use. The 4 No.s of the Penna [Pennsylvania] Freeman sent by mail have been recv [received] & I have read the greater part of them with much interest. Whenever you publish anything that will do to circulate here it would be better to send me to the care of John Needles Balt. a dozen or two copies and one or two copies by mail. Such articles, for instance, as those by Channings. Several of J.L. Adam’s letters & speeches would do here for he has many admirers in this state. Our friend Geo. Truman has prepared his West Indian notes which I hope will be published soon & will be suited for circulation here.

I have suggested to him that the publication of them in the American Intelligencer would perhaps be the cheapest & best form – I want a good many of them for distribution. Several of my friends here wish to see the A.I. Standard & we have subscribed for a copy but it comes very irregularly I do not see it for several weeks after publication.

            I have placed myself in a situation where I must become the advocate or at least the apologist of “Northern Abolitionists” who are in very low estimation in these parts. I think their motives & conduct have been misunderstood & misrepresented tho perhaps not always entirely far from blame. – I want some information which perhaps thou canst supply –

1st What is the difference between the ground taken by them & by the old abolition Society of which so many friends were members. Is the difference in the principles advocated or the measures adopted for promoting the cause.

2nd. Is there any ground for the charge that the lecturers & others engaged in the work pursued it as a matter of procuring profit.

3rd How far do the clergy cooperate in it, & has it been made instrumental to their aggrandizement or otherwise.

4th What is the ground of difference between the Am A. S. Society & the Liberty Party & what [are] their relative numbers.

5th Has our testimony against war been promoted by the abolitionist movements.

These queries thou canst answer by letter if convenient & agreeable to thyself or thou mayst send me such documents as will throw light upon them. The information is wanted as much for others as for myself. – I have understood that at a later convention in Boston an address to the Slaves advising them to run away was produced & passed which appears to me to be a very singular measure to say the least of it. Very few of the slaves can ever get to see it  & if they saw it they cannot read it, – they generally require no prompting to run away when not restrained by family ties & local attachments, but they cannot escape without great risk of their lives & such advice given to them by abolitionists will have no other effect than to cause them to be watched more closely if possible.

It appears to me that the people of the Northern States ought to wash their hands from all participation in slavery & endeavor to have an understanding with the South that you are not to be called on in any way to “protect them in their property” as they call it. It appears to me that they cannot stand out against the sentiments of the whole civilized world & against their own consciences, & we who feel called upon to advocate the cause of the oppressed ought to be very careful to have our “feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.”

                                                                                    Thy affect. Friend,

                                                                                                S. M. Janney

Samuel M. Janney was unlike most of America’s anti-slavery activists: he lived in the South and had to reckon with Southern laws and culture. He spent a lifetime walking a fine line, his “feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” Yet Janney always headed straight toward the goal of ridding his nation of the evil of slavery.

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