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Samuel G. Howe, Reform, and the Abolition of Slavery

Dr. James W. Trent Jr.

In July 1827 at Nauplion in war-torn Greece, Samuel G. Howe purchased a “Negro slave” from an Orthodox priest and then freed her. He said little about the incident, but we may imagine that the twenty-five-year-old physician saw the injustice of her enslavement. At the time, Howe was in Greece during its war of independence from the Ottoman Empire. From his perspective, Greece was itself a slave, one that needed its freedom. What Howe believed about the Greek cause and what he learned from experiences in Greece would shape the course of his life – on his efforts to educate of the blind and the “idiot,” on his commitment to prison reform, and most of all on his conviction that slavery in his own land must be abolished.1

In April 1831, Howe returned from Greece and Paris to Boston. Although in Paris he had attended lectures of the world’s most respected physicians, he arrived in Boston knowing that he did not want a conventional medical practice. He had witnessed revolutionary movements in Greece, as well as in Brussels and Paris; so, making money from medicine was not appealing. Four months later he found his calling. He became the superintendent of the first school for the blind in the United States. Employing educational techniques used in Europe, Howe taught blind students to read. His most famous pupil, Laura Bridgman, was not only blind, but also deaf. Under Howe’s guidance, Laura learned to communicate and to read.2

Besides teaching the blind to read, Howe educated a group of people for whom there seemed no ability to learn – “idiots” or people with intellectual disability. Relying on the education of the senses, Howe taught “idiots” to read and write, and to acquire skills for employment. His successes motivated other states to open schools for people with intellectual disability.3

Likewise, Howe supported prison reform. The great debate of the 1840s was between two versions of such reform: the Auburn system versus the Pennsylvania system. The former held that prisoners should work together during the day and maintain silence at night, while the latter supported the silent solitary confinement of prisoners. Howe vigorously supported the latter system. He believed that the Philadelphia system allowed prisoners, in quiet solitude, to reflect on their wrong doing.4

In 1841, Howe began a trip through the American South with some of his blind pupils. The trip’s purpose was to generate enthusiasm among southerners to start their own schools for the blind. In New Orleans, he observed an event that affected him profoundly and would, after the publication of a letter about it, move him toward an overt antislavery position. In the city in which the expression, “selling a slave down river,” fulfilled its quintessential meaning, Howe witnessed a brutal slave beating, and wrote to his friend, Charles Sumner, about what he had seen. The letter to Sumner became an article, “Scenes in a Slave Prison,” that appeared in the 1843 edition of the Liberty Bell. In Greece, Howe witnessed the injustice of slavery, but in New Orleans he witnessed its cruelty.5

In February 1846 along with other Bostonians, Howe founded the Boston Vigilance Committee to protect escaped slaves living in Boston from Southern slave catchers and their Boston allies. In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the kidnapping of escaped slaves only increased. On 15 February 1852, the Vigilance Committee became involved in the case of the runaway slave, Shadrach Minkins. Minkins had escaped from Virginia in 1850 and was working as a waiter in a Boston restaurant. On the day of the Committee’s first meeting, federal marshals arrested Minkins and placed him in custody. But shortly thereafter, members of the Committee rescued Minkins from his cell and put him on a train to freedom in Montreal. The Vigilance Committee was not so fortunate in the case of another fugitive slave from Virginia, Anthony Burns. Already in the custody of Boston authorities, Burns was destined to be returned to slavery. Although members of the Vigilance Committee stormed the cell holding Burns, they were not successful in rescuing him.6

In 1856, Howe supported free soilers who were antislavery and moving into Kansas to keep the state free of slavery. Through the fall he raised money for Kansas free-soil relief. In early January 1857, the abolitionist John Brown, back east from Kansas, checked into a Boston hotel. For more than seven months, Brown had eluded proslavery Kansas forces intent on capturing him for his killing of slavery supporters at Pottawatomie in Kansas. Shortly thereafter Brown met with some of his Boston supporters, each of whom knew of Brown by way of his Kansas reputation. Howe was among this group. In 1858 he joined five other free-soil advocates to form what would be called the “Secret Six.” The group supplied arms to Brown. On Sunday, 16 October 1859, the worlds of both the slave holder and the anti-slavery forces turned upside down. At Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, John Brown and his band of twenty-one followers – five black and sixteen white – took over the town’s federal arsenal. It was a daring, but fatally flawed, plan. Within thirty-six hours of the arsenal’s seizure, President James Buchanan sent federal troops under the command of Captain Robert E. Lee, who quickly put down the uprising. Most of Brown’s men, including two of his own sons, were left dead. Brown himself was wounded and was later hanged.7

During the American Civil War, Howe worked with the United States Sanitary Commission. In this capacity, he journeyed to Washington several times in 1861 and 1862. (On one of these trips, Julia Ward Howe, his wife, accompanied him and wrote the poem that became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”) Created by Secretary of War Simon Cameron in June 1861, the Sanitary Commission had as its two principal functions the inspection of military hospitals and advising the Secretary about the establishment of additional hospitals and health-related facilities. Howe was especially delighted when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in January 1863. Two months later the new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. appointed Howe a commissioner of the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. In this role, Howe supported freed slaves fighting for the union army, the distribution of abandoned rebel land to freedmen, and a government sponsored Freedmen’s Bank.8

After the Civil War, in October 1865 Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew appointed Howe to the chair of the Massachusetts State Board of Charities. The first state board of charities in the nation, the Massachusetts board reflected the growing state takeover after the Civil War of many charitable institutions previously operated by local governments. Following Massachusetts’ example, many states in the two decades after the Civil War created state welfare boards and commissions to bring order to the growing charitable organizations and institutions. In this role, Howe spent many hours inspecting local and state welfare institutions. Beside these activities, Howe supported a graduated income tax and a university for the blind.9

In January 1867, Howe found a new cause – the rebellion of Crete against its Ottoman overlords. On 9 May Howe and his daughter Julia Romana arrived in Athens. Almost immediately after reaching in the capital, Howe met a young patriot, Michael Anagnostopoulos, who would share with Julia Romana the responsibilities of being Howe’s secretary during his time in Greece. (Later Anagnostopoulos, who shortened his name to Anagnos, married Julia Romana and, after Howe’s death in 1876, became the second superintendent of the New England School for the Blind.) One of the first tasks that he gave Anagnostopoulos was to use the funds provided by wealthy American donors to purchase rifles for the Cretan fighters. Soon he was also raising goods for the Cretan refugees in Athens. In June, despite a blockade, Howe managed to get himself onto Crete. By mid-summer, Howe had concluded he should distribute relief primarily to Cretans who could work for the relief. As he had done in Greece nearly forty years earlier, he rejected relief without labor. He was especially pleased with the women who made wages from spinning yarn.10

A humanitarian, a philanthropist, an agent of change – Samuel G. Howe was a man whose life was shaped by his participation in the Greek Revolution. Never attracted to the use of his knowledge and skills merely to make money, Howe learned in Greece that, through human effort, individuals and institutions could change for the better. From his experiences in Greece, Howe brought education to the blind and “idiots,” reform to the prisoner, and freedom to the slave.


Howe, Samuel Gridley. Howe Diary. Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind, Perkins Archives, Watertown, MA.

Trent, James W., Jr. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

1Howe Diary, Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind. “Monday, July 23 Monembaria,” 30-34.
2James W, Trent Jr. The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 50-59, 141-73.
3Ibid., 150-154, 184-91.
4Ibid., 146-50.
5Ibid., 115-16.
6Ibid., 157-60, 170-71, 192-93, 199-202.
7Ibid., 183-86, 193-08, 210-18.
8Ibid., 221-29.
9Ibid., 239-42.
10Ibid., 245-50.