Lewis Tappan, A Man for Our Season

Nineteenth-century anti-slavery activist Lewis Tappan had the disadvantage of a biographer who disliked him—so palpably disliked him that it is difficult to imagine how Bertram Wyatt-Brown managed to complete the arduous task of a scholarly biography, with all its hours in dusty letters and papers drawn up by the man he despised.

If I had spent that much time with Lewis Tappan’s memory who knows, I might dislike him too, but after reading and re-reading Wyatt-Brown (Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery) I find myself admiring Tappan. He seems more a model for our times than the mercurial, clever and highly articulate anti-slavery activists who usually get our attention, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld or (in Britain) William Wilberforce. Tappan was square, but he was not unimaginative. It was just that his imagination ran in a different direction.

Fundamentally he was a businessman—a very successful one—who became an evangelical Christian and then an abolitionist. He never wavered from those convictions, nor did he expand on them much. He was a radical on a very narrow field, that of anti-slavery. He knew the world was sin-sick but didn’t see the cure as radical social innovation. Anti-slavery wasn’t radical, to his way of thinking, slavery was—and the end of slavery, far from being a social innovation, would be the end to a contrived and artificial arrangement.

Unlike Garrison or Weld he wasn’t disappointed that the world didn’t become the kingdom of heaven in his lifetime. He just wanted to see the slaves freed.

Tappan was an ingenious businessman. He and his brother Arthur built one of the most successful stores in New York by trading on the innovative idea of “one price.” There was no haggling; everybody paid the same. This increased the level of trust among traders—no inside dealings, every trade transparent—and decreased transaction costs. It worked because the Tappan Brothers were known to be scrupulously honest. The Tappans made a lot of money, lived frugally and invested most of their profits in the anti-slavery cause, especially publications and the hiring of “agents” who traveled throughout the north making the case for anti-slavery. Lewis worked hard at business but worked at least as hard after hours at his reform causes. Southern slavery advocates wanted to kill him, and pro-slavery rioters trashed his New York home, but Tappan shrugged it off. He wasn’t easily scared.

Later on, Tappan Brothers went bankrupt, partly because Southern traders boycotted the business. Lewis started over from scratch and invented the first credit-rating agency, an important business institution that enabled trade to expand beyond the circle of those you knew and trusted personally. (Tappan’s firm survives, under the name Dun and Bradstreet.)

In anti-slavery, too, Tappan was an innovative institution-builder. He was an important founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society (which spread the anti-slavery gospel in the 1830s), a ground-level supporter of the new Oberlin College (first to accept both blacks and women), and the key founder of the American Missionary Association, which would be responsible for starting most of the African-American colleges in the South after the Civil War. He worked mostly behind the scenes, writing letters, organizing meetings, providing funds. Whereas he admired charismatic activists like Theodore Weld, Tappan believed in the power of organization. He was hard-working and got things done. He was the key figure in freeing the Amistad slaves—a story that Stephen Spielberg adapted into his movie Amistad, though he left out all of Tappan’s diligence and substituted the eloquence of John Quincy Adams, whom Tappan hired.

Wyatt-Brown says that “Tappan scored all too well on the familiar checklist of the Yankee do-gooders’ grave defects: moral arrogance, obstinacy, cliquish conformity, provincial bigotry, and abrasive manners.” (viii) Maybe so, though strong-minded people often find similar faults in those they disagree with. Liberals often think conservatives have those traits, and so do conservatives think of liberals. Personally, I like that Tappan lived a long and turbulent life, faced many trials, persevered, and ended with his core beliefs intact.

Tappan’s life is especially relevant today, when business seems closely interlocked with positive change. Google and its “don’t be evil” slogan are associated with exciting and beneficial transformations of society; microfinance has electrified the world of charity; Barack Obama was elected president partly because of innovative uses of the web. Of course we need charismatic and eloquent leaders, e.g. Bono or Obama, but by themselves they are always at risk of marginalization. We also need square people with the imagination to build institutions and get things done.

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3 Responses to “Lewis Tappan, A Man for Our Season”

  1. chasta Says:

    A perfect example of the key combination of charisma and institutions: World Vision, which was started by Bob Pierce but really built by Ted Engstrom.

  2. jun Says:

    Indeed. More than ever, we need people who have the diligence and perseverance to build institutions and get things done. And I think this is the harder part of any enterprise. As one quotation would put it, “After all is said and done, a lot have been said and there is still a lot that needs to be done.”

  3. bong Says:

    i remember he was portrayed as dour and unlikeable in the movie, Amistad but he helped financed and supported the captured slaves during their courtroom ordeal. something must be said of the square people – i agree -diligent and often behind-the-scene persons who contribute and get things done.

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