Levi Coffin Reminisces

by Rachel Creager Ireland

I’ve been reading Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, a book that appears to be out of print in the unabridged version I have. I found it in my parents’ house after they were gone. They used to say we were related to Levi Coffin, though I don’t know in what way, and it appears it would take a true genealogist to put all the connections together.

In any case, Levi Coffin was a devout Quaker and an important abolitionist. He frequently aided fugitive slaves crossing through his home state of Indiana from Kentucky. He was well known for being willing to give shelter to fugitives, often in groups of a dozen or more, when others in his community were afraid to cross the law. Slave hunters marveled at the way the trail of runaways seemed to end at the home of Levi Coffin; it was as if there were some kind of underground railroad between his house and Canada, and apparently Coffin was the President of this Underground Railroad.

Coffin’s autobiography offers much detail to a period in history that some in our time might wish to gloss over (Ahem. Texas? You listening?) He relates dozens of stories of the people he helped, of their sufferings, their oppression, their fears. Many were motivated to seek freedom by the possibility of being separated from family members. Some of those he assisted took the huge risk of going back to the places they’d come from to retrieve children or spouses still in slavery. Tragically, many didn’t succeed, if they tried.

Of course we all know that slavery was (and continues to be) terrible and tragic. What is striking to me as I read Reminiscences is the economic framework which perpetuated the system. Slaves were expensive, yet, I don’t get the impression everyone who owned a slave or two was wealthy. One price named was $750 for a slave known to have escaped twice, which brought the price of that person down considerably. A more valuable slave might have been traded for $1000 or more. According to Measuring Worth, that $750 might be equivalent to about $20,000 today. (See the site for detailed discussion of the various ways such a value can be calculated.) What would be comparable in price today? A new car?

Imagine all the work you’d have to do to acquire a new vehicle.

Now imagine it suddenly disappears. (And no, you don’t have insurance on it!)

Of course you’d be pissed. And what if some people from somewhere else decided that your ownership of that car was terribly wrong, and that all cars should be removed from their owners immediately? Even if you were sympathetic to that idea, it would be awfully hard to give up the investment. Maybe there could be some compromise, a gradual process which would lead to an end to the ownership of cars, but wouldn’t cause such an upheaval and sacrifice on the part of the owners. Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

Possibly, unless you were talking about actual people. People leading real lives. There can’t possibly be any excuse for holding real people in slavery for one more day, can there? Somebody might suffer an economic setback? How can that compare?

Yet, even among the Quakers, who were known for being against slavery two hundred years before it was abolished, there was division as late as the 1830s as to just how bad slavery was, and exactly how it ought to be rectified.

So my question is: With what tragedies are we complicit today, which are commonly framed as ethical dilemmas? For what inexcusable horrors are we offered gradual solutions that would be less economically stressful for those profiting from said horrors? What atrocities are so embedded in our lives that we can’t imagine simply walking away from them?