Abolitionism came relatively late to Lewis Tappan. Devotional, benevolent and hardworking are all words that describe Tappan in his twenties and thirties. Social reformer he was not. In 1818, Tappan abandoned the Calvinism of his mother for Unitarianism, then fashionable for a socially ambitious merchant. For the next eight years, Tappan enjoyed the typical life of an upper-middle-class New England merchant. He took his new faith seriously, however, editing a Unitarian journal, and becoming the first treasurer of the American Unitarian Association. In the mid-1820's, America experienced The Great Second Awakening, a widespread revival of religion and religious debate and Tappan became a zealous Christian. Around 1830, at the age of forty-one, Tappan began to take an interest in the slavery question. In the summer of 1833, Tappan resolved to do whatever he could for the abolitionist cause. It turned out to be a lot. In 1839 when word of the arrest of the Amistad Africans reached Lewis Tappan in New York, he called a meeting of the city's leading abolitionists. Tappan recognized that the Amistad story could be used to bring to the attention of the public the plight of the hundreds of thousands American slaves. Not content to merely collect donations, Tappan set off for New Haven. He met the Africans for the first time at the city jail. The usually quiet town of Hartford took on a carnival atmosphere as the time of trial approached. The great excitement surrounding the case pleased Tappan and his fellow abolitionists. Lewis Tappan published his account of the complicated legal maneuverings which, not surprisingly, reflected his abolitionist bias. As much as he might have wished it would be so, Tappan could not have expected any federal district judge to issue a decision repudiating the institution of slavery. In October 1840, Lewis Tappan visited John Quincy Adams at his home in Massachusetts. Tappan asked Old Man Eloquent to join Roger Baldwin in arguing the Africans' case in Washington. The former President at first resisted. But Adams believed firmly in the rightness of the cause. He finally agreed to join Baldwin in arguments before the Court. By the blessing of God, I will argue the case before the Supreme Court, Adams told Tappan. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court announced its decision that the Negroes were kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom. Lewis Tappan sat in the audience at Cooper Hall in January 1863 as Negro minister Henry Garnat opened the Emancipation Jubilee with a reading of Lincoln's Proclamation freeing the slaves. When the reading finished, Tappan joined the crowd in giving three cheers for the President. The abolitionist movement had come along way since the Amistad turned up along Long Island's coast and Tappan as much as anyone was responsible for its progress.
Douglas O. Linder,
Stamped with Glory: Lewis Tappan and the Africans of the Amistad,
Available at: https://irlaw.umkc.edu/faculty_works/841