Lane Debates 1834
The debates over the abolition of slavery that took place in1834 among the theology students attending Cincinnati's Lane Seminary marked an epochal moment of departure for the American struggle to overthrow slavery and establish social justice for people of all skin colors.
The debate concentrated on the new and explosive question of "immediate emancipation", that is, whether or not it was morally imperative to begin at once to seek slavery's rapid overthrow, a highly charged question indeed given the fact that the vast majority of American whites deemed African Americans to be inferiors, and the fact at that time slavery represented the nation's second-largest form of capital investment, exceeded only by real estate.
The motives of those wishing to force this discussion involved deeply felt imperatives of evangelical Protestant religiosity, which led abolitionists to view slavery as a terrible sin. The most active agent in pushing these debates forward was charismatic Theodore Dwight Weld, a close associate of the great revivalist preacher and Lane Seminary President Lyman Beecher.
Ultimately, Lane's Board of Trustees denied the students' request that the Seminary commit itself to immediate emancipation and black "uplift", whereupon the students and many faculty resigned from the institution to enter Oberlin College, a struggling small college in north easter Ohio. As news of the Lane debates and their outcome transfixed public opinion throughout the nation, Oberlin's new faculty and student body turned the College into the epicenter of abolitionist activity, while opening it as the first institution of higher learning to admit women and people of color.
What makes these debates so compelling even a century and a half later is their deeply moral focus on an overwhelmingly difficult moral problem, slavery, a problem as large as any we confront today. What makes them so dramatic is the fact that they really WERE DEBATES. Participants included those who had grown up in the south and had held slaves, as well as "yankees" who had quite different life experiences. Also participating were at least one African American and several women, Catherine Beecher in particular, who spoke for her father. Alternatives to immediate emancipation were also debated, particularly colonization, or the idea of gradually freeing slaves and returning them to West African.
What makes these debates so relevant to today's world is the immediate context in which they transpired-Cincinnati Ohio, a river town located on the very borders of slavery where anti abolitionist students involved in these debates simultaneously committed themselves to assisting these local blacks by opening schools, temperance societies and other institutions of "uplift". Here were students, much like those today, who struggled to insure that their strongest moral convictions and their day-to-day lives enforced and enhanced one another. In the process of following those convictions whey went to help in creating the nation's first full-blown crusade for racial justice.