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

In 1818, two years before this Compromise was agreed upon, Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond. As we have already seen, when she was seventeen, she was in the North at school. Doubtless Philadelphia had been chosen not only because of the excellence of the school to which she was sent, but also because the Quaker City was her mother’s childhood home, which fact is one to be kept clearly in mind as one follows Betty Van Lew’s later life in all its thrilling details.

For many months after her victory as a debater Betty’s convictions did not waver–she was still a firm believer that slavery was right and best for all. Then she spent a vacation with a schoolmate who lived in a New England village, in whose home she heard arguments fully as convincing in their appeal to her reason as those to which she had listened at home from earliest childhood. John Van Lew, Betty’s father, had ever been one of those Southerners who argued that in slavery lay the great protection for the negro–in Massachusetts Betty heard impassioned appeals for the freedom of the individual, of whatever race, and to those appeals her nature slowly responded as a result partly of her inheritance from her mother’s Northern blood, and partly as a result of that keen sense of justice which was always one of her marked traits.

At the end of her school days in the North, Betty’s viewpoint had so completely changed that she went back to her Richmond home an unwavering abolitionist, who was to give her all for a cause which became more sacred to her than possessions or life itself.

Soon after her return to Virginia she was visited by the New England friend in whose home she had been a guest, and to the Massachusetts girl, fresh from the rugged hills and more severe life of New England, Richmond was a fascinating spot, and the stately old mansion, which John Van Lew had recently bought, was a revelation of classic beauty which enchanted her.

The old mansion stood on Church Hill, the highest of Richmond’s seven hills. “Across the way was St. John’s, in the shadow of whose walls Elizabeth Van Lew grew from childhood. St. John’s, which christened her and confirmed her, and later barred its doors against her.” Behind the house at the foot of the hill stood “The Libby,” which in years to come was to be her special care…. But this is anticipating our story. Betty Van Lew, full of the charm and enthusiasm of youth, had just come home from school, and with her had come the Northern friend, to whom the Southern city with its languorous beauty and warm hospitality was a wonder and a delight.

The old mansion stood close to the street, and “from the pavement two steep, curving flights of stone steps, banistered by curious old iron railings, ascended to either end of the square, white-pillared portico which formed the entrance to the stately Van Lew home with its impressive hall and great high-ceilinged rooms. And, oh! the beauty of the garden at its rear!”

Betty’s friend reveled in its depths of tangled color and fragrance, as arm in arm the girls wandered down broad, box-bordered walks, from terrace to terrace by way of moss-grown stone stairs, deep sunk in the grassy lawn, and now and again the New England girl would exclaim:

“Oh, Betty, I can’t breathe, it is all so beautiful!”

And indeed it was. “There were fig-trees, persimmons, mock orange, and shrubs ablaze with blossoms. The air was heavy with the sweetness of the magnolias, loud with the mocking-birds in the thickets, and the drone of insects in the hot, dry grass. And through the branches of the trees on the lower terrace one could get frequent glimpses of the James River, thickly studded with black rocks and tiny green islands.” No wonder that the girl from the bleak North found it in her heart to thrill at the beauty of such a gem from Nature’s jewel-casket as was that garden of the Van Lews’!