Thursday, July 10, 2014

Prudence Crandall and Edward S. Abdy: Civil Rights in Connecticut in the 1830’s

This essay was written for a class in American history. This topic was chosen as one that fits with the author's interest in the life of Prudence Crandall.

Edward S. Abdy recorded and commented on his observations of race relations in the United States in the 1830’s. Writing for a large audience, he had his work published in 1835. As a visitor from England, he was not a product of the culture he was describing, and thus had a somewhat distanced perspective of events. He published his observations in the 1830’s under the title A Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States. It is a journal with entries marked by dates, written firsthand by the author. Volume one of this three volume work provides readers with many details of the difficulties and challenges which faced Prudence Crandall in her efforts to set up a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut. Abdy provides many observations of American culture and government in his journal, and it is well worth reading. My particular interest is in his descriptions of the efforts of Prudence Crandall and the reactions of the townspeople of Canterbury.

Crandall encountered extreme opposition in the traditionally peaceful town of Canterbury, Connecticut where she lived. The opposition escalated into violence. Her school was attacked, and Crandall was denied access to local shops. Her family and students were denied access to church services (Abdy, Chapter 6).  Some of Abdy’s comments are based on first-hand observations of events, while other comments are based on conversations, sometimes with a person who has observed an event, and sometimes with a person who has read or heard of the event. Abdy spoke with a number of people involved in the situation, and was able to report the observations of various people and groups as a result. Abdy does not pretend to have objective opinions about the topics he reported on, and in fact he advocates for the rights of Prudence Crandall and her husband  Calvin Philleo by  explaining their rights, as he understands them, to town officials.

My access to this primary source is by reading through the filter of a digitized version, which has preserved the words, but not the page numbers, nor all of the publisher information, from the original text. My surrogate primary source is the transcription of the text of A Journal of a Residence and tour in the United States (Abdy) as accessed on the website maintained by Hal Morris,  “Tales of the Early Republic: A History Resource and an Experiment in Hypertext Style.”

Although Abdy was a visitor to the United States, which makes his perspective as an outsider objective in certain ways (he was not U.S. citizen, he was not a product of U.S. culture, and he was not a neighbor to anyone he described) he was subjective in ways that can be seen in his editorial remarks.  In his journal he often comments on the inequality that he sees between black and white Americans.  Such comments make it clear that he is completely against and appalled by the inequality and injustice he sees, and that he would not support the view of those who wished to suppress the rights of black people. At the time of his writing, some Americans shared his views of equality, and many, of course, did not. Slavery had not yet been outlawed in Connecticut. As we read his works today, we now are inclined to agree with Abdy, and to sympathize with his outrage at inequality.  We have benefited from the changes in law, society, and outlook that have evolved in the United States since the 1830’s. His words and style suggest that he wishes to influence his readers. It appears that he wants the reader to think about civil rights, and to be aware of injustice. He provides enough detail and passion in his writing that the reader may be swayed to look at civil rights issues and to act in such a way as to promote equality.

 Demonstrating that he is not an impartial journalist, but a writer with an interest in advancing equality, Abdy tells in his journal of how he himself approached town officials in Canterbury on behalf of Crandall and her school. He was able to speak to a selectman, Mr. Bacon. Abdy asked what sort of measures would be taken to prosecute the townspeople who had damaged the school.   Mr. Bacon responded that nothing had been done, nor would it be done, for no formal complaint had been made. Abdy points out that Philleo had attempted to speak to the town clerk, but the town clerk refused to hear the complaint. As Abdy pursues the matter, Bacon tells him that Crandall had broken a State law. This is a very interesting and ironic aspect of the story, because as Abdy points to Bacon, this law was passed after Crandall had opened her school, and as a matter of fact was passed  in consequence of the school having been opened to girls of color (Abdy, Chapter 6). 

Abdy describes Crandall’s personal response to the new law:
They had, however, miscalculated the temperament of their victim. She set both her oppressors and their ex-post-facto statute at defiance. She persisted in keeping her school. She was prosecuted; and declining, by the advice of her lawyer, to give bail, she was sent to prison, and confined (not intentionally it was afterwards stated) in the very room which a murderer had just quitted (Abdy, Chapter 6).

Abdy describes the trial of Prudence Crandall in a tone which is highly critical of the unfair treatment she was shown by the justice system:
Miss Crandall's trial came on at Brooklyn in August. Judge Eaton, who tried her, was one of the committee of the legislature that drew up the law under which she was indicted. He charged the jury three times to convict her; and evinced throughout a marked spirit of hostility against her. Five of the jury were for her, and seven against her each time. As they could not agree, she was discharged. The second trial ought to have taken place in December following before the same judge; but, in October, she was indicted under a new writ, and brought before Judge Daggett, who was well known, both for his attachment to the colonization cause, and for the active part he had taken against a projected college for colored young men at Newhaven, the University of which, it was alleged, would be injured by its establishment. It was not likely, therefore, that the question at issue would meet with an impartial and unbiassed consideration in that quarter. The prisoner was convicted; and appealed, from the sentence, to the Court of Errors, where the original proceedings were quashed on the ground of an alleged informality — a very convenient loop-hole to creep out at (Abdy, Chapter 6). 

Edward Abdy’s views and attitudes towards those he spoke with may have been at times subjective rather than objective due to his relationships with these persons. He had many acquaintances and friendships with Americans, and this may have affected his choices in what to write and about whom to write it, in addition to having affected his interest in supporting certain individuals with his words or actions.

He explains the beginnings of the boarding school for girls of color, the first of its kind in Connecticut. She had originally set up a school for young women, and had “admitted, as a scholar, the daughter of a respectable neighbor, whose quarterings were unfortunately not of the pure European tinge” (Abdy, Chaper 6). Soon after this, Crandall admitted another young woman of color, who asked to enroll at the school. The white parents of the other girls began to withdraw their own daughters from the school, “annoyed at the ‘violation of the established order of things’, ” and in response, and after consultation with Reverend May, Prudence “changed her white school into a colored school."( Abdy, Chapter 6)

Abdy spoke personally to Calvin Philleo, who married Crandall (Abdy, Chapter 6) in the midst of her difficulties with the Canterbury townspeople, and also spoke to Crandall herself. At one point, Abdy describes the conversation between Philleo and the town clerk of Canterbury, Andrew T. Judson. Philleo wanted to complain about the damage that was done to the school. Although the conversation is described in dialogue form, using quotation marks, as Abdy himself says, “…the following conversation, as well as my informant can remember the words, took place.” (Abdy, Chapter 6).  The reported  dialogue which follows may be close to accurate, as it was remembered by Philleo, and recorded by Abdy. The gist of the conversation itself is clear. Philleo attempted to speak to the town clerk, and was refused (Abdy, Chapter 6). Abdy  also reports  a firsthand conversation with  Crandall  on the topic of her interest in leaving for England, fearful for her safety in Connecticut (Abdy, Chapter 6)

Instead, Crandall left for Illinois, where she lived near relatives in a farming community and continued her abolitionist work. She later moved to Kansas. The Connecticut government eventually acknowledged that it had wronged her, and provided her with a small financial compensation (National Womens’ History Musem).
In 1995 the State recognized her as its State Heroine. Her house in Canterbury was declared a National Landmark in 1991 (

The events in Canterbury surrounding Prudence Crandall’s school took place over the span of a few years. The significance of her actions in her time and for Americans today is remarkable. Abdy’s journal is an excellent record which sheds light on the events as he perceived them. The  journal and the insights of its writer offer contemporary readers and excellent view into an important moment in the past.  Readers of this text have the opportunity to ponder Prudence Crandall's actions, Edward Abdy's work as a journalist, and the implications for their time and for ours.

Works Cited:

Abdy, Edward S. A Journal of Residence and Tour in the United States of North America.  J. Murray. London: 1835. Reprint of the original. Tales of the Early Republic. Hal Morris' Home Page. Web. 05 Feb. 2012. <>.

"African American Historic Places - Beth L. Savage, National Register of Historic Places." Google Books. Web. 05 Feb. 2012. <>. 

 " "The State Heroine." Portal. Web. 05 Feb. 2012. <>.

"Education & Resources." National Women's History Museum - NWHM. Web. 05 Feb. 2012. <>.

"Miss Crandall in Prison.” New-Hampshire Sentinel 1833-07-18 Vol. XXV Issue 29, page 2. Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876.  New England Genealogic Historical Society (online). November 27, 2005. <>.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Don't have that genealogy database subscription? Here's what you do.

What genealogy databases do you access or would you like to access? Historical newspaper databases? Major genealogy databases with access to census records, vital records and more? HeritageQuest? Without breaking your budget, you can most likely get access to many databases without subscribing to them.

Two excellent resources for access to databases are Family History Centers and public libraries.

Family History Centers may provide access to many databases at no cost. The computers are all set up for you to use. You will also probably be able to download the data to your own flash drive, or make photocopies, or scans. I had all of those options open to me at my last visit to a Family History Center, and having forgotten my flash drive, I simply "clipped" articles from historical newspapers and had them sent to my email, where I can download them to my own computer files. It was a breeze.

Public libraries often have subscriptions to genealogy databases and/or historical newspapers. If your county library doesn't offer these, you may be able to acquire a library card for another county in your State. Databases might be available from remote locations, provided you enter the card number, or you may have to visit the library to use a computer there to get access.

For some researchers, from the novice genealogists to the advanced masters of historical data, it may be worthwhile to consider options which broaden access to databases without adding cost to every new search. And you might even have the chance to share a smile and rub elbows with others passionate  about searching the documents of the past..