Posted by & filed under News.

In honor of Black History Month, this month’s Jay Family Story is about William Jay’s (1789-1858) involvement with the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Founded in Philadelphia in December of 1833, and modeled after London’s Anti-Slavery Society, the main objective of the AASS was to abolish slavery in the United States. By 1838, there were 1,350 affiliated societies and 250,000 members.


Jay drafted the preamble for the Constitution of the  American Anti-Slavery Society and was its Foreign Secretary from 1835-1837. He was highly respected among abolitionists, and other leaders of the movement, such as Arthur and Lewis Tappan, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. Many of these men sought advice from William Jay on AASS business.


According to letters in the John Jay Homestead collection, brothers Lewis (1788-1873) and Arthur Tappan (1786-1865) asked Jay questions about how to structure the organization, for help with their statement of goals, and arranged for him to speak at a meeting of a New York City Anti-Slavery Society. Letters between William Jay and Arthur Tappan from 1836 and 1837 include a discussion of Jay’s book, An Inquiry into the Character and Tenacity of the American Colonization and American Anti-Slavery Societies, where Tappan suggests edits and revisions for Jay and requests his permission to publish another edition of the book. The AASS eventually published two editions of Jay’s book.


William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), author of the AASS’s Declaration and credited as the main founder of the Society also wrote to William Jay about the anti-slavery movement. In June of 1836 Jay and Garrison discussed boycotting products made by enslaved people as a method of action against supporters of the institution of slavery. Another abolitionist, Samuel J. May wrote to William Jay on April 11, 1836, inviting him to attend the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston on May 24, 1836, indicating the importance of Jay’s presence.


Frederick Douglass (born around 1818), a black abolitionist who had significant influence in the AASS, joined the Society in 1841 after escaping enslavement in Maryland. Douglass traveled the country, giving speeches and spreading the word about the Society and its newspaper, The Liberator. Frederick Douglass’s eulogy of William Jay in 1858, expressed the importance of Jay’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement: “In the death of William Jay, the cause of Emancipation in the United States has lost one of its ablest and most effective advocates.”


A rift among prominent members of the AASS developed over the women’s suffrage movement and the involvement of women in the anti-slavery movement. The AASS fractured, and in May of 1840 the Tappan brothers and William Jay formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, while Garrison took control of the AASS. The new American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society did not insist on immediate change and was more concerned with slavery as a moral issue, believing that the only way to achieve abolition was through religious and ethical means rather than political means. Garrison and his followers in the AASS insisted on immediate changes and were also supportive of a political agenda. It is generally argued that the split within the AASS because of fundamental disagreements weakened the overall anti-slavery movement.


William Jay’s involvement in the abolition movement waned significantly in the mid-1840s as his health began to decline. He would still write letters, and give advice to friends still involved, but by 1850 he had essentially retired.