Though many individuals in the antebellum United States felt slavery was an abomination, few felt so strongly about it that they would risk their livelihood or wellbeing to fight for abolition. Those who sought change most avidly often drew inspiration from personal life-changing experiences or their engrained beliefs. Anti-slavery operations such as the Underground Railroad could not have functioned on such a large scale without the financial and organizational support given by wealthy citizens such as Levi Coffin. Others who had experienced slavery firsthand, like Harriet Tubman, felt that it was their duty to risk all the freedom they had won to help their enslaved family and comrades. In addition to freeing slaves and fighting to end slavery, these individuals became symbols of bravery and fortitude, giving inspiration to other abolitionists and sympathizers. Tubman and Coffin worked primarily in different time periods and geographical locations, but both were motivated to break slavery laws by their religious beliefs and their childhood experiences with the horrors of slavery.
Even after the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, there was something within these two that kept them fighting for equality and justice. Levi Coffin grew up in the heart of slave-owning America, on a farm in New Garden, North Carolina. He was born on October 28, 1798 into a devout Quaker family, who believed that slavery conflicted with the teachings of their religion. Clearly his parents’ teachings and the influence of the Quaker community had a lasting effect on Levi, since he knew from a very young age that he was morally opposed to slavery, claiming “I date my conversion to Abolitionism from an incident which occurred when I was about seven years old.” Working on his father’s farm with no assistance from slave labor, he developed an appreciation for hard work and often found himself interacting with local slaves. He received very little formal education, which is astonishing, given the degree of business success he would experience later in life. Through his teenage years he helped his parents by caring for escaping slaves who had sought refuge on their farm.
Unfortunately, the toughening enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act led to public disdain for the Quakers, who defied the government’s laws to pursue what they perceived to be the morally righteous path. To avoid increasing persecution from slaveholders who suspected them of aiding runaways, the majority of Quakers in the Coffins’ community packed up their things and moved northwest to Indiana, in a similar fashion to their relatives who had emigrated from England years ago. Indiana was a part of the Northwest Territory, where slavery had been made illegal with the passing of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Therefore, the Coffins could resume their abolitionist work in relative safety. The religious persecution experienced by Levi and his forefathers must have served as a strong reminder of the society’s tendencies to mistreat groups of people and individuals who look, think, or act differently.
Levi Coffin gained inspiration from Quaker teachings and used his family’s substantial resources to help those whom he felt could not help themselves, whereas Harriet Tubman drew courage and strength from her experiences as a slave to aid her family and friends. Born into slavery around 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Araminta Harriet Ross would eventually become one of the most famous female abolitionists of all time. Since her mother had duties to attend to in the plantation house of her owner Mary Pattison Brodess and her father was owned by another family, she was often the only one around to look after her younger siblings. She was also sent to work for both her parents’ owners’ families and other local families from time to time.
She was put to work in the woods and fields, where she became strong and acquired valuable skills she would utilize later in life. She experienced many unjust and unwarranted beatings at the hands of her owners that would scar her physically and emotionally. Probably the gravest of Tubman’s injuries came in the form of a skull-fracturing blow she received at the age of fifteen from a two-pound metal weight, which had originally been aimed at another fleeing slave. She was slow to recover from this injury, and once she was fit to work again she still experienced seizures, random bouts of sleep, and vivid dreams and visions for the rest of her life. The difficult life she led and the painful memories she carried fueled her desire to never stop fighting for equality for her people.
While Tubman and Coffin were born over 20 years apart, they were both subjected to life changing circumstances in their early years that would shape their outlook on society and foster their determination to help others. The Quakers were well known as forerunners in the fight against all forms of bondage and enslavement, both in the United States and Europe, though not every Quaker chose to actively aid escaping slaves. According to H. J. Cadbury, the “Society of Friends … would surely if slowly become a pioneer moral force in abolishing the accepted and time honored institution of slavery.”
For Levi Coffin though, there was no excuse to not help all those that he could. Even as a young boy he realized how terrible it would be to be torn away from his family and forced to work for nothing, just as the slaves he interacted with in his community had been. While Tubman was not a Quaker, her mother told her stories from the Bible as a child, and she quickly developed an unwavering faith in God without the conventions of any particular religious institution. Her abolitionist activities were neither limited by laws of a guiding religious body nor motivated by any incentive besides her own desire to see a world without slavery.
Not long after his family and neighbors in North Carolina moved to Indiana to escape persecution for their unlawful acts, Coffin chose to join them. In 1826, two years after marrying his wife Catherine, they settled down in Newport, Indiana with their firstborn son. He farmed a small plot of land and opened a rather successful general store within his first year of living there. He soon learned that there was a community of free African Americans near Newport, which was unfortunately a well-known stopping point for escaped slaves making their way northward along the Underground Railroad. He did not hesitate to approach the black community to let them know that he would gladly harbor these runaways, since his property was far less likely to be suspected of aiding escaped slaves. As his neighbors and others observed the success that Levi was having in helping runaways, they became increasingly willing to offer their assistance in the form of food, clothes, and shelter.
With more support, Levi and his supporters were eventually able to develop a secret network of safe locations for fugitive slaves to stop as they were smuggled north to Canada. He continued to help more and more slaves escape to freedom, and his house became known as the “Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad,” which was fitting, given the fact that it was the meeting point of escape routes from Madison, New Albany, and Cincinnati. His business initially struggled while the majority of the community disapproved of his illegal activity, but as more citizens who opposed slavery moved into the area he saw increased sales.
After becoming the director of the Richmond branch of the Bank of Indiana, he was financially able to increase his contributions to his fugitive aid efforts. He even built an addition on his house where he could hide up runaways from the slave-hunters who constantly checked his house for escapees. Despite public knowledge of his involvement with the abolition movement, Coffin never feared for his safety or the safety of his family and business; claiming, “If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval.”
Tubman eventually married a free man named John, whose last name she took, and around the same time, changed her first name to Harriet. Although marriages between free and enslaved blacks were not uncommon, they did nothing to change the status of the enslaved individual. As Tubman’s value as a slave diminished due to symptoms associated with her head injury, her owner Edward Brodess attempted to sell her, but could not make a sale before he himself died. Brodess’s death all but guaranteed that Harriet would be sold and separated from her family and husband. At this point she decided that she would live in slavery no longer, and made an escape attempt with two of her brothers in September of 1849, despite John’s advice against it. They did not make it far before her brothers got cold feet and she was forced to return with them. It did not take her long after this to make a second attempt at escape, this time with nobody else.
She made use of the Underground Railroad to make her way north to Pennsylvania, often traveling by night and using her knowledge of the land to survive. Although she was free in Philadelphia, where she was working odd jobs and saving money, Tubman could not be content while her family and friends were still enslaved in Maryland. Unfortunately though, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prompted many escaped slaves living in free states to venture further north to Canada, since they were no longer protected from slave-hunters, and Tubman was once again a fugitive. Upon hearing that her niece was to be sold in Baltimore, she travelled there from Philadelphia to aid in her extended family’s escape. She successfully transported them back to Philadelphia, and was soon returning to Baltimore to free her brother and two others.
With her newfound abilities as a strong leader, she made her way back to Dorchester County to attempt to free those whom she cared about most. However, she found that her husband John had remarried and claimed to be happy in Maryland. Rather than make a scene that could result in her capture, Tubman swallowed her pain and decided to aid several other slaves who were anxious to escape. She would make approximately 19 trips into southern states in the next eleven years, guiding as many as 300 individuals north to freedom, including her other brothers and their families. In her time not spent guiding slaves out of Maryland, she helped guide those escaped slaves who had already made it to Pennsylvania further north to the political refuge of Canada.
Coffin and Tubman both claimed that their faith in God overpowered any fear they may have had regarding their own safety or wellbeing. They felt as though there was no way they could be punished for doing God’s work. Tubman’s powerful visions and dreams often took on a religious theme, which she interpreted as God speaking to her. While Coffin did not have visions, he had strong faith and varying amounts of support from his community. Their driving forces were similar, yet their means of lending aid were almost exactly opposite. Where Coffin provided lodging, food, and transportation, Tubman acted as more of a shepherd, sharing her knowledge and courage with the runaways she guided. Tubman was reliant on help from anti-slavery activists like Coffin to provide her runaways and her with food and shelter. Allegedly, she received a great deal of help from northeastern Quakers such as Thomas Garret, which demonstrates the Quakers’ aversion to slavery, no matter where they lived.
The life of an Abolitionist in the 19th century United States was anything but easy, given the fact that they were battling an age-old institution that was deeply engrained in the culture of the nation. Both Tubman and Coffin faced adversity wherever they attempted to assist escaped slaves, though the obstacles they faced were different given their very different circumstances. Being an escaped slave herself, Tubman was constantly in danger of being recognized and taken back to the south, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She could use this to her advantage on her frequent trips into southern states though, often hiding in plain sight by acting like she was busy running errands for an owner. While Tubman acted in secrecy and used her relative anonymity to her advantage, Coffin managed to help thousands of slaves escape to freedom despite his local fame and constant scrutiny from law enforcement and public officials.
After public support for his actions increased amongst his community members, he was able to expand his network; endeavoring into the business of transporting runaways along secret routes. Coffin noted that many times, “people who were not abolitionists were deeply moved by the sight of another human fleeing slavery.” However, the Quakers were a historically unpopular religious faction in both Europe and America, and eventually the leaders of the Quaker’s governing body decided his actions could possibly provoke law enforcement officials and the non-Quaker community to force them to move once more. Using his skills as a leader and organizer, he simply formed his own sect of the Quaker religion known as the Antislavery Friends. One notable quality shared by both Tubman and Coffin was their undying need to help others and willingness to sacrifice everything they had.
In 1847, Coffin undertook the unappealing task of moving to Cincinnati to try to promote goods produced from free labor, even though the quality was poor and he saw almost no profits from such goods. He felt as though it was an important business venture to support, and gave no heed to the financial risks. After operating his business rather unsuccessfully for some time in Cincinnati, he began helping escaped slaves again by opening his house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. As emancipation became more likely he began to concern himself with the wellbeing of freed slaves, helping to form the Western Freedman’s Aid Society and petitioning the government to form the Freedman’s Bureau to help freed slaves receive educations and get jobs to support themselves.
He would raise over $100,000 for the Western Freedman’s Aid Society after the Civil War, and attended several notable international anti-slavery conventions. Eventually he slowed down in his old age, declaring that he would retire from this stressful lifestyle after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, since the abolitionists had won what they had been fighting for all these years. Coffin’s views on such matters conflicted with many other Quakers who felt as though, “opposing slavery was one thing,” and, “envisioning the place of free people of color in American society was quite another.”
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Tubman took an aggressive stance, advocating the need for definitive action. She helped John Brown recruit volunteers for his attempted revolt at the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1858, though she did not actually participate in the skirmish due to her illness. Throughout the War, she aided the Union as a spy and nurse, and even led an armed raid on several plantations along the Combahee River. However, the whole time she worked for the Union Army she was never paid a regular salary, and did not receive an official pension for her service until 1899. This is why she was especially unique as a leader, because she had experienced both the oppression of slavery and the prejudice of a strongly male-dominant society.
This is why she was keen on joining the women’s suffrage movement later in her life, and quickly rose to be a great leader; working alongside Susan B. Anthony. Later on in life, she also contributed a portion of her land in Auburn, New York to be used to build a care center for impoverished elderly African Americans. This was the same land on which she had housed her parents, siblings, and many fugitive slaves, suggesting that she was intent on using her land to aid those for whom she cared. All of her efforts eventually left her in a great deal of debt, despite her status as a folk hero and truly inspirational American patriot, and she would spend her last years living in the rest home named after her.
To compare Levi Coffin and Harriet Tubman is difficult due to their differing circumstances and methods for assisting escaped slaves. Tubman could hardly have provided an inconspicuous and consistent hiding place for those she helped on her early missions, due to her fugitive status and lack of steady income. Coffin found that providing the financial backing for a large network was more effective than if he were to have simply guided a few escapees at a time to the safety of Canada. Both Tubman and Coffin had to draw strength from their faith and experiences to become the leaders that they were, and their actions reflected the conviction they felt for advancing the abolitionist movement.
To bring about change, there must be individuals who are willing to take the reins and expedite the process through action. These individuals must act with no fear and no regret, with total confidence that their plans will bear the fruit of success. Levi Coffin and Harriet Tubman luckily lived to see the fall of slavery, which they felt justified all of their efforts and any amount of law breaking they partook in over the years.
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