The Tappan Brothers: New York’s Purveyors of Silk and Abolitionism

The Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, were wealthy New York merchants who used their fortune to finance abolitionist activities in the 1830s and 1940s, in a city where the business community had close ties with the slave South and profited heavily from trade with slaveholders and products produced by slaves. Despite being vilified by pro-slavery media, almost financially ruined through boycotts, attacked by rioters, burned in effigy, and generous bounties for their assassination were offered, they did not back down and played a crucial role in turning anti-slavery into a national movement. In addition to bankrolling it, the Tappans also actively participated in the fight for abolition and the Underground Railroad, and they funded several other philanthropic causes. Arthur Tappan was the first president of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Lewis Tappan the leader of the Amistad Committee.

The Tappan brothers were born in Northampton, Massachusetts, into a middle-class family of 11 children, to a merchant father and deeply religious mother – Arthur on May 22, 1786, and Lewis on May 23, 1788. Their religious upbringing was the driving force of their abolitionism and philanthropy. Both followed their father’s footsteps and became merchants and established independently several successful businesses (with some setbacks).

In 1826, Lewis joined his brother’s silk trading company in New York City. Arthur dealt with finances and Lewis with operations and management, and together they built a highly profitable business. They broke with the common practice of high prices, easy credit, and high interest rates and instead established an ethical business model based on low cash prices, fairness, and honesty which became one of America’s richest business companies in the early 1830s.

In 1827, they started to publish The New York Journal of Commerce, a business newspaper free of advertisements of “immoral” businesses.

Both brothers, especially Arthur had started early to donate money to and volunteer for charitable causes: Missionary societies, churches, libraries, organizations promoting temperance, education (primarily of black youth), the Magdalen Society to uplift prostitutes, Native Americans, the Phoenix Society, the Seaman’s Friend Society to aid elderly sailors, the Asylums, Hospitals, poor people in the US and overseas. Arthur Tappan (who was the wealthier of them for most of their lives) was extremely frugal and spent almost nothing for himself giving away about $50,000 dollars annually (equivalent to half a billion today). He also funded housing and meeting rooms for young apprentices coming to the city to keep them away from the streets and gave money to former employees to establish their own businesses.

The Tappan brothers were crucial contributors and leaders in the development of a network of charitable organizations to battle America’s problems, especially lack of education and literacy by creating Sunday schools and free schools. They also helped to decrease the extremely high rate of alcohol consumption and all resulting issues by funding temperance programs.

Both in business and abolitionist and philanthropic work, the brothers played different roles. Arthur was a visionary, rather withdrawn and hard to approach and handled all financial matters and management behind the scene. Lewis – a lot more social and extrovert, was the organizer and dealt with leadership responsibilities, people, writing, and public speaking.

Arthur was originally a supporter of the American Colonialization Society and their campaign to expatriate free blacks to Africa (Libera) but left after learning that other sponsors planned to sell alcohol and guns to the settlers of the colony of Liberia. In 1830, the brothers met abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and started to devote their money and work to the fight against slavery and for immediate abolition. In 1831 they cofounded the New York Antislavery Society and in 1833, the national American Anti-Slavery Society with Garrison and started the abolitionist newspaper, The Emancipator. Arthur served as the first president of the AASS until 1840.

The Tappans paid anti-slavery speakers and literature to spread the abolitionist cause throughout the nation, legal defenses of abolitionists, financed progressive, integrated colleges like the Oneida Institute, Lane Theological Seminary, and Oberlin Collegiate Institute, anti-slavery organizations, and abolitionist newspapers.

Their activity was met with outrage of NYC businessmen and newspaper editors supporting the South who incited a mob of racists and white workers fearing competition on the job market by free blacks. During the anti-abolitionist riots in July 1834, a violent mob attacked first Chatham Chapel, where the Tappans had organized an abolitionist meeting, then Lewis’ home, burning his belongings on the street, and Arthur’s store – however, the rioters retreated when they heard that he was inside the building with armed men, ready to shoot (with the instruction to aim low, at the attackers’ legs). They then vandalized homes, churches, and businesses of white and black abolitionists for days until the riot was quelled by militia.

The denunciation and attacks did not stay local but escalated on a national level. Encouraged by President Jackson rioters broke into US postal offices and burned anti-slavery pamphlets paid by the Tappans as part of a massive mailing campaign in 1835. Arthur was burned in effigy by the mob in Charleston and huge rewards were offered in the Southern States for their dead bodies.

The next step racist and pro-slavery businessmen, politicians, and journalists took, was to target and ruin the brothers economically by accusing them of promoting racial intermarriage, black political rights, and slave uprisings, driving away customers and calling for boycotting their business. On top of this their business fell victim to the great fire of 1835 which destroyed most of lower Manhattan on December 16. Most of their assets, including $500,000 were lost in the fire. Two years later, in the economic crisis, the Panic of 1837, Tappan & Co. went bankrupt. They recovered and rebuilt their business, but Arthur never regained his former financial status and could only contribute on a much smaller scale than in the past. Lewis established the first commercial credit rating service, the Mercantile Agency, now Dun & Bradstreet.

In 1839, Lewis Tappan founded and led the Amistad Committee to finance and organize the defense against murder and piracy charges of the kidnapped Africans who revolted on the slave ship La Amistad. Aside from hiring a legal team including former President John Quincy Adams as well as interpreters, he ensured extensive media coverage and used the case to raise national awareness and opposition to slavery. It took two years until the U.S. Supreme Court set the Africans finally free.

Meanwhile, the Tappans and Garrison grew further and further apart in their views, priorities and approaches, and in 1840, Lewis Tappan walked out of a meeting with his supporters and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. There were several issues of disagreement and motives for Tappanites to split from Garrisonians. The Tappans wanted to focus on slavery and not other topics such as women’s rights, they did agree with Garrison’s non-resistant, anti-clerical, and above all no involvement in politics stance – they wanted to achieve abolition by using the political process and government involvement and not alienate potential supporters with Garrison’s increasing radicalism. Most of the black abolitionists as well as the old society’s Executive Committee followed the Tappans.

Although Arthur stepped more and more back from both business and reform activities due to health issues (he had suffered from headaches and a generally not strong constitution throughout his life) both brothers stayed committed to the anti-slavery cause. They supported the new anti-slavery Liberty Party, Lewis co-sponsored Lysander Spooner‘s influential 1845 book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery with Upstate’s Gerrit Smith, co-founder of and presidential candidate for the Liberty Party. In 1846 he helped found the American Missionary Association, and in 1852, the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper that later, in 1851 and 1852, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He also worked with the New York Vigilance Committee to help fugitive slaves and protect free black people from being kidnapped and sold to slavery.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, like other abolitionists, the Tappans supported the Underground Railroad. New York City was a major hub for escaped slaves from the South on their way to safety in New England, Upstate NY and Canada. Arthur Tappan owned a horse in Pennsylvania to carry fugitives from his Underground Railroad agent in Maryland and provided shelter and money to them before sending them off. They financed illegal Underground Railroad activities and lawyers to fight back legally. Their office of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the American Missionary Association turned into a temporary safehold and dispatch point for fugitive slaves, usually sent from Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

Arthur Tappan died on July 23, 1865, living long enough to witness the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment earlier that year. Lewis wrote his brothers’s biography which was published in 1870 and died on June 21, 1873.

Sources & Further Reading

Also check out the Resources page for more (online and offline resources)!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *