Quakers in the nineteenth century were perhaps best known for their antislavery work, and among Quaker abolitionists perhaps the best known was Levi Coffin (1798–1877). He had migrated from North Carolina to Indiana, as did many southern Friends, to leave behind the land where slavery was legal and to take up life in territories where it was prohibited. He became a leader in the Underground Railroad, the clandestine movement of escaped slaves on their way to Canada. Coffin’s activities were controversial among some Quakers. In earlier days Friends had broken the law— for example, to continue to hold Quaker worship when it was illegal in England—but they had done so publicly, despite the threat of persecution. Now their defiance of the law endangered not themselves but those whom they were attempting to help, so Coffin and others were comfortable acting in secret so as not to endanger the safety of the refugees. Fidelity to the Quaker commitment to equality led to careful reflection on Quaker devotion to moral integrity, when the traditional Quaker practice of honesty could threaten the lives and liberty of the escapees.
Levi Coffin’s Reminiscences (1876) relates many tales of his work with the Underground Railroad and reveal his considerable skills as a raconteur. Among his stories is an account of his houseguest Eliza Harris, the historical figure who inspired her namesake in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) Eliza Harris, escaping from Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River near Ripley on drifting broken ice with her child in her arm. Readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Levi Coffin’s day to the early twenty-first century have speculated that Simeon and Rachel Halliday are Levi and Catherine Coffin in thin disguise. After some twenty years in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, where they assisted thousands of refugees from slavery, the Coffins moved to Cincinnati, where they continued in the Underground Railroad. Coffin also became a leader in the free-labor movement. Another form of protest against slavery, this movement bought and sold only goods produced without the exploitation of slaves. After the Civil War, Coffin worked with freed slaves in Arkansas. He traveled to England, where he raised $100,000 to support the work with freedmen. Other Friends recognized for their antislavery work in this period include the abolitionist Thomas Garrett (1789–1871) and the Grimké sisters Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina (1805–1879). Some used journalism to promote antislavery work, as did John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), who worked for several newspapers; Benjamin Lundy (1789–1839) in his newspaper the Genius of Universal Emancipation; and Elisha Bates (1781–1861), whose Moral Advocate also protested against capital punishment and war and promoted temperance and prison reform. American Quakers engaged in prison reform also included Stephen Grellet (1773–1855)—who made his home in New York but reported to the tsar, the pope, the sultan, and various European monarchs on the sorry conditions of their prisons—and Charles (1823–1916) and Rhoda (1826–1909) Coffin, relatives of Levi. Elizabeth Comstock (1815–1891) promoted prison reform and also worked in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War and with freedman’s concerns thereafter as well as temperance and women’s equality. Elizabeth Howland (1827–1929) shared these last three concerns. If a single person can represent the breadth of Quaker commitment to social reform in the nineteenth century, Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880, also related to Levi through common Nantucket Quaker ancestry) may be the best candidate. A liberal Friend committed to freedom and progress, she acquired her antislavery views early in life. In 1830 she and her husband, James, befriended the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. They supported the Anti-Slavery Society in America, though only James could join because women were not admitted into membership. In response, Lucretia Mott and other Quaker women, along with free blacks, formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Mott was not satisfied to call for the end of slavery in the South: she also protested the racism of the North. She defied the segregationist customs of her day, offering hospitality to African Americans in her home and preaching in black churches. Lucretia and James Mott were appointed delegates to the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, but as a woman she was not seated as a delegate but only invited to sit politely in the ladies’ gallery. Quite a stir followed as she and others held for the recognition of women as official delegates. At that conference she befriended the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Upon their return to the United States, they committed themselves to laboring for women’s rights. The outcome of their (and others’) resolve was the conference at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and its famous Declaration of Sentiments, which led the way to the women’s suffrage movement. Mott also worked with peace societies, the Nonresistance Society, anti- Sabbath groups, Native American concerns, and on education, including women’s medical education. Bold and unshakable in her ethical passions, Mott was nearly pushed out of Quakerism by more conservative voices. She stood her ground, and by her later years Hicksite Friends considered her as their spiritual leader.