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Elizabeth Van Lew: The Girl Who Risked All That Slavery…
by [?]

Elizabeth Van Lew: The Girl Who Risked All

That Slavery Might Be abolished and the Union



It was the winter of 1835. Study hour was just over in one of Philadelphia’s most famous “finishing schools” of that day, and half a dozen girls were still grouped around the big center-table piling their books up preparatory to going to their rooms for the night. Suddenly Catherine Holloway spoke.

“Listen, girls,” she said; “Miss Smith says we are to have a real Debating Club, with officers and regular club nights, and all sorts of interesting subjects. Won’t it be fun? And what do you suppose the first topic is to be?”

Books were dropped on the table, and several voices exclaimed in eager question, “What?”

“‘Resolved: That Slavery be abolished.’ And Betty Van Lew is to take the negative side!”

There was a chorus of suppressed “Oh-h-hs!” around the table, then some one asked, “Who is going to take the other side?”

The speaker shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hope it will be me. My, but it would be exciting to debate that question against Betty!”

“You would get the worst of it,” said a positive voice. “There isn’t a girl in school who knows what she thinks on any subject as clearly as Betty knows what she believes about slavery.”

The speaker tossed her head. “You don’t know much about it, if you think that!” she declared. “We Massachusetts colonists are just as sure on our side as she is on hers–and you all ought to be if you are not! Father says it is only in the cotton-raising States that they think the way Betty does, and we Northerners must stand firm against having human beings bought and sold like merchandise. I just hope I will be chosen on that debate against Betty.”

She was, but she came off vanquished by the verbal gymnastics of her opponent, to whom the arguments in favor of slavery were as familiar as the principles of arithmetic, for Betty had heard the subject discussed by eloquent and interested men ever since she was able to understand what they were talking about.

Never did two opponents argue with greater fire and determination for a cause than did those two school-girls, pitted against each other in a discussion of a subject far beyond their understanding. So cleverly did the Virginia girl hold up her end of the debate against her New England opponent, and so shrewdly did she repeat all the arguments she had heard fall from Southern lips, that she sat down amid a burst of applause, having won her case, proudly sure that from that moment there would be no more argument against slavery among her schoolmates, for who could know more about it than the daughter of one of Richmond’s leading inhabitants? And who could appreciate the great advantages of slavery to the slaves themselves better than one who owned them?

But Betty had not reckoned with the strength of the feeling among those Northerners with whose children she was associated. They had also heard many telling arguments at home on the side against that which Betty had won because she had complied so fully with the rules of debate; and she had by no means won her friends over to her way of thinking. Many a heated argument was carried on later in the Quaker City school over that question which was becoming a matter of serious difference between the North and the South.

Before the war for Independence slavery existed in all the States of the Union. After the war was over some of the States abolished slavery, and others would have followed their example had it not been for the invention of the cotton-gin, which made the owning of slaves much more valuable in the cotton-growing States. East of the Mississippi River slavery was allowed in the new States lying south of the Ohio, but forbidden in the territory north of the Ohio. When Missouri applied for admission into the Union, the question of slavery west of the Mississippi was discussed and finally settled by what was afterward called “The Missouri Compromise of 1820.”