The first chapter in Whitney’s biography is an “unfinished autobiography,” consisting of a series of Sanford’s sepia-toned reminiscences about her youth. Following a brief account of her illustrious ancestors, she describes her parents and their happy, loving marriage. Shortly before Sanford was born, an incident occurred that would shape Sanford’s childhood and form the basis for her opinions about debt and honor:
Some time in the first seven years of his married life1Maria Sanford was born roughly seven years after her oldest sister, and this might account for why her father’s time in Georgia is remembered as beginning within the first seven years of his marriage., my father went to Georgia and set up a shoe store, and he was successful. But the years of 1836 and 1837 were not only years of financial panic, but also of anti-slavery agitation and of great prejudice in the South against Northern people. Somebody sent my father anti-slavery newspapers. He never saw them. They were taken out of his office and distributed among his customers.2If this memory is credible, there would have to have been someone other than Sanford with access to the shop, and it is possible that he was absent for part of the year. All at once his business fell flat. He could sell nothing, he could collect nothing, for even in the best days Southerners, at that time, paid their bills only once a year. He came home to do the best he could by his business creditors. He sold the place he and my mother loved so well,3It’s notable that Sanford did not sell his Connecticut house before opening his Georgia shop. Did he keep only a shop in Georgia and not establish a residence there? moved his family into part of his father’s house, and when he had thus raised all that he could, there still remained a debt of a thousand dollars, for which he gave his note; and of which, I rejoice to say, he paid every cent. It was a heavy burden for a man with only his hands and courage, and with a delicate wife and little children to care for, but he bore it with unwavering cheerfulness. He might have taken advantage of the bankrupt law, but he said proudly: ‘No man shall ever look me in the face and say I wronged him out of a penny.’4
There are peculiar aspects to this account, and we’ll get to those points shortly, but let’s begin by establishing a rough time frame for when this would have to have happened. Sanford’s father, Henry Elisha, was married in 1828, and his daughters Elizabeth, Clarissa, and Maria were born in Saybrook in 1829, 1834, and 1836, respectively. The 1830 federal census shows Henry living in Saybrook with his wife and daughter. If Henry relocated his family to Georgia when he opened his shop, the most likely period for him to have been there would been roughly 1835 to late 1836, between the births of Clarissa and Maria. If he instead maintained his Saybrook residence and periodically visited Georgia to conduct commerce, he could have established the shop at any point between 1828 and 1835, and the period in 1834 when his second daughter was born is plausibly a time when he might have become laxer in his supervision of the business.5These dates are taken from the genealogy databases on ancestry.com and familysearch.org, and, apart from checking the 1830 and 1840 censuses, have not been validated.
We next need to consider the context in which this would have happened. Events at the beginning of the decade made the mid-1830s a particularly fraught period for anyone expressing anti-slavery sentiment in the south. David Walker’s Appeal, which called for slaves to rise up against their masters, surreptitiously circulated in the south in the early 1830s, distributed in part through small business establishments. Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion, not inspired by the Appeal but coming in its wake, heightened southern fears that northern agitators both wanted to and could turn their slaves against them. When William Lloyd Garrison attempted to flood the south with anti-slavery materials in the 1835 “Great Postal Campaign,” southerners reacted vigorously and immediately. Most famously, a Charleston mob attacked the Post Office and seized the mail, rioting in the streets and burning it the next night. With these fears in the air, southern mobs during the mid-1830s would at times arbitrarily turn against outsiders, triggered by only the slightest suspicion.6
Georgia was potentially less susceptible to fears of anti-slavery activities during this period . Its political divisions were largely shaped by Jackson’s tariff and by the Supreme Court ruling on the Cherokee question, and its fiercest political battles erupted over those issues.7 The two de facto political parties were established during the 1820s along states rights and unionist positions and along geographical lines. The states rights party was strongest in areas where the plantation economy had begun to take hold, and the unionist party was strongest in areas with poor soil and little slavery. The Nullification Crisis split the states rights party into two factions, divided over whether they considered nullification an acceptable way to oppose the tariff. It was possible in this situation to find Georgia political figures taking positions that would be all-but-unthinkable two decades later. For example, states rights supporter Joseph Henry Lumpkin, who would become the first chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court and whose brother was the unionist party governor of the state, tended to take moderate positions and to seek ways to resolve disputes within legal frameworks. He stood with the moderate states rights supporters in opposing nullification, and this may also have given him an opening to publicly test his private views about slavery.8 Lumpkin argued that African colonization of free blacks was the best way to defuse the tensions raised by distribution of the Appeal in Savannah and reports of Turner’s Rebellion, and he cautiously supported northern anti-slavery activists who advocated colonization and opposed abolition.
Lumpkin’s views on slavery proved controversial when they became public, however, and Georgia was not immune to the mob violence seen elsewhere in the south. Publicity about Lumpkin’s participation in a meeting of the Massachusetts Colonization Society ignited a series of polemical letters in Georgia newspapers, and one of the people whom he had defended nearly came to grief on account of the controversy.9 An Augusta Chronicle letter writer responded to Lumpkin’s defense of northern minister Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, who had met with black Savannah ministers earlier in 1833, by claiming that the meeting was actually part of a conspiracy to organize a revolt and that Van Rensselaer left the city barely in time to avoid arrest.10 A friend of Van Rensselaer’s, writing to him after this episode, quoted what was said of him in the Chronicle and reminded him that, had he been arrested, he would have faced a capital charge. Although the mob was thwarted at this time, fears of unrest swept Georgia again in late 1835, and by 1836 it was possible for Edwin Roberts, a wholly innocent Englishman, to face the death penalty for encouraging a slave rebellion, simply because he was confused with someone else.11
Having set the stage, we can now return to Sanford’s story about her father’s time in Georgia. One peculiarity about it is that no trace of an episode like this appears in any of the Georgia newspapers that I’ve examined. If he had truly been caught receiving anti-slavery materials during the mid-1830s, it strikes me as something that would have led to more than flat business and that would have been reported. Further, he most likely would have to have received the materials prior to or during the Great Postal Campaign (the American Anti-Slavery Society switched tactics after the campaign’s failure, focusing on petition efforts), making it unlikely that he would have remained in Georgia as late as the 1836 date that Sanford mentions. As Van Rensselaer and Roberts discovered, Georgia law called for the death penalty for anyone assisting in the distribution of literature that incited black resistance.12
What seems most likely to me is that in 1836 Sanford’s father was struggling with his business, nervous about events such as the Charleston riots and the Roberts trial, and looking forward to the birth of a new child. Returning home, even with a large debt hanging over him, might have appeared far preferable to the risks that he faced by remaining in Georgia. In trying to remember what her father had told her 60 years before, Sanford could easily have conflated what happened to him with what he told her had happened to others, yielding the story that appears in her unfinished autobiography.
Another possibility is that materials actually were distributed, but at a time when Sanford’s father was back home in Connecticut. This could have been possible in 1834. The American Anti-Slavery Association was still attempting to distribute its literature in the south, and Henry might have returned to Saybrook for the last part of his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of his daughter. If he had left Georgia business partners in charge of his shop during his absence, they would not have been blamed for receiving unsolicited anti-slavery materials. By the time that Henry traveled south to resume his personal supervision, mob passions might well have cooled. It remains difficult, though, to see him sticking around for another two years in an attempt to turn around his failing business. This version also fails to account for the claim that the materials were not only received by the shop, but also distributed from it.