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Native Texan: A Houston abolitionist was nothing if not audacious

December 8, 2018

A Houston abolitionist was nothing if not audacious

You’ve seen the soaring statue downtown, right? Or maybe the graceful tree-lined parkway hugging the bayou, the parkway named after attorney and abolitionist Stephen Pearl Andrews?

You haven’t, of course, because memorials to this early-day Houstonian don’t exist. In fact, if you’re like most Texans — myself included until recently — you’ve never heard of Andrews, even though his effort to shape the Republic of Texas in his abolitionist image was taken seriously by both friends and ardent foes. Never mind statues and parkways. Once his fellow Texans heard of his audacious plan to free the slaves by persuading Great Britain to buy Texas, he was lucky to escape with his head.

I mentioned Andrews in a column a few months ago after visiting the site of the former Texas Legation in London, but I knew little about him until I read an essay recently by Mark Sussman, a professor at Hunter College in New York. As Sussman points out, Andrews’s scheme was not as outlandish as it sounds. He notes that Britain had done something similar when it abolished slavery on its plantations in the West Indies. Slaveholders were paid a total of $20 million sterling for their lost property, although they retained their land.

Like most Houstonians in the early 1840s, Andrews was a newcomer to Texas. Born in Massachusetts in 1812, he taught at a girl’s school in New Orleans in his teens and early 20s and developed a visceral hatred for slavery. He studied law in New Orleans and established a successful practice but decided he could do more to combat the scourge in the fledgling Texas Republic than in the established state of Louisiana.

As Andrews biographer Madeleine Stern told the story in a 1964 Southwestern Historical Quarterly essay, Andrews and his wife Mary Ann, who shared his abolitionist sympathies, arrived in Houston in 1839 and acquired 640 acres of land in Harris County. Andrews brought with him a letter to President Mirabeau B. Lamar introducing the 26-year-old attorney as “a highly respectable member of the New Orleans bar … an ornament to the society of this place … and a very valuable citizen.”

Andrews set up his Houston practice in an office across the street from the courthouse, took out an ad touting his ability to translate Spanish land-title documents into English and stayed alert for opportunities to put his abolitionist ideas into practice.

“While he waited, he watched,” Stern wrote, “and there was much to watch in Houston as the city grew and changed. Only the year before, the place could boast but 400 inhabitants and pine stumps still cluttered the main street. But soon, Andrews could see the mud holes filled in, brick sidewalks laid, farmers’ wagons laden with produce, and despite yellow plague and worthless currency he could feel the spirit of the future — the spirit of ‘go-a-head’ and ‘up saddle-bags’ like a wind over Houston.”

Andrews became an ornament and valuable citizen in his new abode, as well. He addressed temperance meetings in “the grog-loving city of Houston” (Stern’s description), became a charter member of the First Baptist Church, had a hand in the founding of Baylor University and joined the Houston Committee of Vigilance, a group of leading citizens established to solicit funds from the United States for the Texas military.

In 1841, he laid out his plan for freeing the slaves. Biographer Stern explained his thinking this way: “By the exchange of British money for Texas land, slaveholders could be reimbursed for the loss of their slaves and slavery could be abolished; [British] emigrants would pour into a ‘free soil territory’ and under the protection of the British flag expediency would be made to serve principle.”

Andrews himself wrote: “My plan is for the British nation to buy up Texas, which I think she can do. … What I mean by buying is, that she shall … make it most obviously the interest of Texas to abolish slavery.”

Andrews didn’t seem all that concerned that his plan would be handing over a piece of North America to a foreign power, nor did it concern his fellow abolitionists. Surprisingly, he got a positive response when he tried out on his plan on a Houston audience gathered at the courthouse one evening. “Immense & continuous applause … sealed the triumph of the occasion,” he wrote.

A few days later, he took his show on the road, to Galveston, where the response was not what he expected. A “gentlemanly southern mob” that had gathered at the Custom House put him on a boat back to Houston.

Public sentiment had turned against him here, as well. Word began to spread of a radical abolitionist plot hatched by a “negrophilist” meddler. His plan might have helped a struggling Texas deal with its political, economic and military pressures (from Mexico), but the Republic’s problems, as Sussman notes, “were not great enough to overcome its investments in slavery and its anger at the prospect of colonization by Great Britain.”

A mob showed up at the Andrews home, and just to show they meant business, they brought along a rope. Andrews, who was said to have a working knowledge of 32 languages, got the message. He turned over his law practice to his partner, sold his land and fled to New Orleans with his wife and son under cover of night.

New Orleans was no more hospitable than Houston. Police were under orders to arrest him on sight, so after a few days he took his family to Norwich, Conn., where his wife had grown up.

Despite the danger down South, Andrews did not abandon his scheme. He and a colleague sailed to London, where abolitionist groups greeted them warmly and Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary and future prime minister, granted them an audience. Aberdeen seemed sympathetic to their cause, until he found out from Ashbel Smith, the Texas charge d’affaires, that Andrews represented no one but himself. The foreign secretary was no supporter of slavery, but he was reluctant to interfere with Texas, already in the early stages of annexation by the U.S. as a slave state.

Andrews sailed home a failure, but he didn’t surrender to disappointment. While in England, he had become intrigued with a shorthand system devised by a man named Isaac Pitman, and when he got home he opened a school of “phonography” in Boston. He also got interested in spelling reform and wrote several books and edited a couple of magazines using phonetic spelling.

Andrews also founded a utopian community on Long Island called Modern Times, but it failed too. As far as we know, he never returned to Texas.

djholley10@gmail.com

Twitter: holleynews

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