Current affairs remind us that the United States has, from its inception, been a nation divided by the idea of freedom. We can, and must, learn from our history. 1850’s America was dangerous and pivotal, setting the stage for Civil War, 1861-1865. Southern states, holding tight to the economic benefits of slavery, passed the point of reconciliation. In the North and the South, rhetorical bridges were burned.
One bridge burner was John C. Underwood, a New York lawyer and abolitionist. As a young man, he taught in Virginia, then returned to settle in the state after marrying Maria Jackson, a former pupil. (Maria was a cousin of Thomas Jackson, future Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson.) Though Maria was from a slave-owning family, she soon became an ardent abolitionist as well.
John Underwood and his family ran dairy farms in Fauquier and Clarke counties, both counties neighboring Loudoun County, in northern Virginia. The Underwood farms relied on waged laborers, rather than enslaved workers. It is possible that Underwood had read and been influenced by Quaker Samuel Janney’s series of essays on the benefit of paying laborers rather than enslaving them; the essays had been published in 1845. John Underwood’s letter to Samuel Janney makes it clear he knew of Janney’s anti-slavery efforts, including his arrest in 1849, to which Underwood refers in his letter.
John Underwood was politically active and ambitious; he joined the Republican party, formed in 1854. By the time of his correspondence with Janney, Underwood was becoming known on the national political scene. His openly abolitionist convictions and radical politics didn’t set well with his Virginia neighbors. Underwood’s wife later wrote that in spite of her increasing fears, her husband was dismissive or even oblivious to threats directed at him by pro-slavery Southerners.
However, Underwood’s support for the Republican party brought Underwood favorable notice as well: by January 1864, President Lincoln would appoint John C. Underwood as a federal judge, a position he held until his death. It was his federal court, at war’s end, that sought to prosecute Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis for treason. And it was Judge Underwood who, as president of Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1867-1868, brought Virginia back into the Union. In 1868, he gave a speech advocating voting rights for women. His unpopular and unrepentant anti-Confederacy views made him one of the most infamous and despised men in Virginia. It is puzzling that his bold life is not better known and studied.
A quick biography of Underwood is here. A more thorough biography, written by historian Patricia Hickin, and can be accessed here. It is hard to imagine a man more unlike Samuel M. Janney in temperament or public willingness to stir controversy. But both men lived – “in the lion’s mouth”* – and shared a lifelong committment and passion to end the horror of slavery. That passionate goal brought many disparate people together, even as it tore the nation apart.
Underwood wrote a letter to Samuel McPherson Janney in August 1856; it is apparent the two men were unacquainted, but Underwood admired Janney and seemed to want to connect with him. The original letter can be seen here. I haven’t found a Janney letter responding to Underwood, though it is likely Janney did write him back; if for no other reason, Janney would have responded to the query about Springdale school as a possible school for Underwood’s six-year-old daughter, Alice, as well as his request for Janney to be an elector for future Presidential candidate, John Fremont. Here is John C. Underwood’s letter:
Astor House N. Y. City Aug 9th 1856.
I have long know & admired your name & character although I have not had the pleasure of meeting you in person. A few years ago when you were persecuted for a good word in behalf of freedom published in the Leesburg Washingtonian I resolved to go to Leesburg to attend your trial, but providence prevented & you were happily delivered from the foes of liberty. I have been for several years a quiet farmer on the Potomac in Clarke Co near Berrys Ferry not having attended an election or taken any part in politics for several years, but I felt constrained by my love of freedom to attend the late Philadelphia Convention & while there to say a word for God & Humanity for which (as you may possibly have learned) my slave holding neighbors have determined that I shall not live any longer on my farm or in the state & I am therefore a wanderer stopping temporarily at this place. I have left my farm & property in the charge of my son only 13 years old but my wife is about to return to assist him.
I wish to learn from you whether you still have a school under your charge to which I could send a daughter & I also desire to know whether you would be willing to allow the use of your name as one of the Fremont Residential Electors. Our friends at Wheeling have resolved to have a state ticket in the field & they desire also to start a paper to advocate the cause of freedom.
I believe we are at the commencement of a Revolution destined to be more magnificent in its progress, more glorious in its results than the Revolution of 1776 A revolution effected by the peaceful ballot not by the bloody bayonet — a revolution more beneficent in its Effects upon the south than upon the north — filling our valleys with arts & manufactures & doubling the value of our lands — causing the music of the spindle to [drown] the noise of our hitherto undisturbed waterfalls — making our hillsides smile with plenteous beauty & our deserts blossom like the rose — Converting our grog shops into school houses & temples for the worship of the Almighty God where anthems of liberty shall rise like incense to the great Father & bring down blessings innumerable upon our redeemed & regenerated land.
Hoping to receive a letter from you at this place I take the liberty to subscribe myself,
John C. UnderwoodSamuel M. Janney papers RG5/183, Courtesy Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
*Thanks to historian Deborah Lee for uncovering the “lion’s mouth” quote. Deborah A. Lee’s research helps us appreciate the difficulty of working against slavery in a slaveholding region. Lee noted Pennsylvania Quaker abolitionist Lydia Wierman who, after a visit to Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1845, published a letter in an anti-slavery newspaper, the Pennsylvania Freeman, about her experiences. Wierman wrote: “We of the north know not what it is to live in the lion’s mouth,” adding that antislavery work was challenging enough for “we [who] live in reach of its paws.”