Oren Cheney Paper
Historical Methods Short Term
The Abolitionism of Oren B. Cheney (The Founder of Bates College)
As a student at Bates College for the past two years, I have often wondered about the history of the school and those who were here before me. This curiosity led me to research the founder of Bates College, Oren Burbank Cheney. After reading a little bit about Cheney and his abolitionist beliefs in the college catalog and hearing about the old egalitarian tradition of the college from various friends and faculty, I decided to further investigate Cheney’s abolitionist relationship, and to see if he was as vehemently opposed to slavery and racism throughout his life as implied in the college’s present literature. After researching various pieces of writing written by and about Cheney in Ladd Library and the Special Collections section of Muskie Archives, it seemed as though Cheney largely fulfilled the abolitionist description perpetuated in the college today. Cheney’s life did contain certain distinctly human contradictions in philosophy, yet he appeared to be unfailingly opposed to slavery and racism throughout his life. In this short paper, I will present this argument by first giving a brief description of the abolitionist movement in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Then I will use the various sources I have found to present a picture of Cheney’s involvement in the abolitionist movement through his life, from childhood, right up through the end of the Civil War. I will also stress the anti-racist ideals he held during this period, and the context of these ideals in the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth-century America that Oren Cheney lived in was not simply a society of northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders. James B. Stewart does an excellent job of emphasizing and dissecting the complexities of the slave system in the United States at this time in his book Holy Warriors. He describes how most people in the northern states were not abolitionists and most people in the southern states were not large slaveholders. In fact very few people in the United States were abolitionists, and those who were often had varying reasons for their involvement in the movement. Some simply wanted African-Americans out of the United States, and some were opposed to the competitive advantage that southern plantation owners had over northern farmers because of slave labor. Very few abolitionists were actually anti-racists like Cheney, as will be seen later in this paper. To oppose slavery because of the injustice done to fellow human beings was considered a fairly radical approach in this era. Although there were many notable activists working against slavery because of its injustice, few saw blacks as equals and few even believed that blacks should be freed initially.
Oren Cheney’s radical abolitionist background appears to have first evolved from influences early in his life. Cheney’s wife, Emeline Burlingame-Cheney, describes these influences in her biography of Cheney in 1907, written four years after his death. This book is by far the most useful source in piecing together Oren Cheney’s life because in addition to Mrs. Cheney’s own reminiscences, it is utilizes and directly quotes from most of Oren Cheney’s diaries, kept throughout his entire life. Only Cheney’s diary from 1864 currently exists, so Mrs. Cheney’s biography is very important in piecing together his life. Although this work is biased because of Mrs. Cheney’s relationship, it is still an extremely useful source. According to the biography, Cheney’s abolitionist beliefs were largely influenced by his family upbringing in New Hampshire. Cheney’s father Deacon Moses Cheney was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and the original printer for the Morning Star, a Freewill Baptist newspaper, which expressed anti-slavery views. Cheney was educated at New Hampton Academy and Parsonfield Seminary in Maine, which were run by the Free Baptists and had strong abolitionist connections. Cheney undoubtedly took many of these abolitionist views with him when he enrolled at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1835.
While at Brown, Cheney played an active role in the abolitionist movement, participating in an abolitionist rally in Providence. After one term however, Cheney decided that Brown was not open enough to abolitionist ideas, and therefore he transferred to Dartmouth College, which was supposedly more tolerant of abolitionist views. At Dartmouth Cheney continued to attend anti-slavery rallies until his graduation in 1839. After leaving Dartmouth Cheney worked over the next few years as principal of Farmington Academy, Stratfford Academy, Greenland Academy, and Parsonfield Seminary, and continued expressing his abolitionist views at all of these institutions. Cheney even ran a branch of the Underground Railroad to Canada while at Parsonfield. After five years of teaching and these other activities, Cheney decided to be ordained as a minister in the Freewill Baptist denomination. At this period the Freewill Baptists were among the most ardent opponents of slavery, and they even refused to receive slaveholders as members of their church. Cheney’s views undoubtedly coincided with this sect.
After studying briefly at Whitestown Seminary in New York, Cheney returned to Maine and received his first pastorate in 1847 in West Lebanon. At this time Cheney was known for delivering sermons vehemently opposing both slavery and alcohol, and when a member of his congregation asked him to stop preaching about these subjects, Cheney replied that “a pile of gold as high as the mountains would not tempt me to stop speaking upon those topics.” Clearly Cheney was passionate about his ministry, yet his interests were hardly limited to this field. When he was not preaching Cheney founded Lebanon Academy and was elected to the serve in the Maine House of Representatives for the term of 1851-1852 by a combination of the Free Soil, Whig, and Independent party voters. I tried to locate Cheney’s voting record for this session to see if his personal record matched the sentiments of his large Free Soil constituency, but unfortunately the state archives do not officially have organized records for those years, but a lengthier search may discover them in the future.
After serving as a legislator in Augusta, Cheney became a pastor at the Free Baptist church in the city. While living in Augusta, Cheney became an editor for the Morning Star in October of 1853, and he frequently expressed his anti-slavery views through this medium. Fortunately Bates is the chief repository for Freewill Baptist material in the region, and therefore the entire Morning Star is available from 1826-1911. Unfortunately there is no index of this newspaper at the present, so I tried searching a few key dates to try to locate any writing by Cheney or about Cheney. I found both references to his opposition to slavery and many references to the founding of Bates College (Maine State Seminary). In his first article as an editor Cheney expressed his views on slavery, which correspond to his other later writing and actions. He asserts that:
We shall speak against slavery, as we have hitherto done. We can find no language that has power to express the hatred we have towards so vile and so wicked an institution—We hate it—we abhor it, we loathe it—we detest and despise it as a giant sin against God, and an awful crime upon man. Thus we feel ourself, and thus we teach our children to feel, and dying we will teach them so.
This excerpt from Cheney’s Salutatory article seems to be representative of Cheney’s views on abolitionism during the 1850s. Rev. C.F. Penny, who knew Cheney and his family while they lived in Augusta, reaffirms this view when describes how the Cheney’s welcomed into their home at this time “the then despised advocates of the anti-slavery cause, Austen Willey, Fred. Douglass, Henry Wilson, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Watkins.” At a time when most Americans were not abolitionists, it was extremely courageous of Cheney to allow abolitionists into his home, and particularly black abolitionists. It was also in Augusta that Cheney heard that Parsonfield Seminary had burned down in 1854, and he decided to build the Maine State Seminary (later Bates College) in Lewiston to take its place.
Although Cheney went on to serve as the President of the Maine State Seminary and Bates College for the next forty years, until 1894, he remained active in various abolitionist groups. He served as a delegate to the Free Soil Party convention in 1852, an active contributor to the Morning Star until 1863, and the President of the Freewill Baptist Anti-Slavery Society in 1863. In addition Cheney also played a major role in founding Maine Central Institute and raising the initial money for Storer College for freed slaves in West Virginia in 1867. All of these other positions were in addition to Cheney’s major role as president and founder of Bates College.
The abolitionist and egalitarian principles, which Cheney held throughout his life, were clearly present in Bates College since it’s founding in 1855. Largely because of Oren Cheney Bates became the first college in the northeastern United States to admit students regardless of race, gender, national origin, or religion. Many of the first graduates were women and African-Americans. Today Bates celebrates Mary Mitchell, class of 1869, as the first female graduate and Henry Chandler, class of 1874, as the first African-American graduate. This groundbreaking stride in higher education was not out of line with Cheney’s views of society, yet many contemporaries held less progressive stances on co-education and desegregation at this period. A more typical view of co-education was expressed through the dialogue of the friends of another nearby college. One of these friends asked, “How many College students have they down at Bates Seminary?” and the other responded “Five and a nigger and a woman.” This quote blatantly illustrates how other institutions were skeptical of co-education, desegregation, and other egalitarian principles, which Bates College had adopted from its inception. The fact that Cheney insisted on making Bates College open to all students shows that he was not only an abolitionist but also anti-racist.
This anti-racist attitude is exemplified in many other instances in Cheney’s life. One of the most prominent of these events occurred after Cheney had been elected as a delegate to the Free Soil Party Convention in Pittsburgh in 1852. Along the journey to Pittsburgh, Cheney stopped at various points and met with other delegates. One of the most notable meetings on this trip was in Alliance, Ohio, where Cheney met up with Frederick Douglass, another Free Soil delegate. As Cheney, Douglass, and the rest of their party entered a dining hall that evening, the owner of the restaurant noticed Douglass and told the group that “the nigger must not come in.” This remark outraged Cheney and the other Free Soil delegates, and they decided that if Douglass could not eat at the establishment, then none of the delegates would eat. Fearing a loss of business, the owner finally backed down. This situation seems to be representative of the anti-racist position, which Cheney consistently held throughout his life, whether working in education, religion, politics, or personal relationships.
Cheney’s personal relationships involved nearly all of the most prominent abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates of the mid-nineteenth century. His friends and acquaintances included Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, and George Thompson. The only abolitionist references that I found in Cheney’s 1864 diary were references to anti-slavery speakers whom he enjoyed listening to.
One of Cheney’s abolitionist friends, Charles Sumner, directly impacted Bates College’s history. Sumner, who gained fame for being beaten nearly to death on the floor of the U. S. Senate because of his abolitionist views, received the honor from Cheney of naming a motto for Bates. Sumner wrote to Cheney in 1857 suggesting “amore ac studio,” which means love of learning. Bates later acquired the chair that Sumner was sitting in when he was attacked, and it is currently used for presidential inaugurations. This chair and motto serve as symbolic reminders of Bates College’s abolitionist past, and Cheney’s connection to the larger abolitionist movement.
The storied abolitionist history of Bates College and of Oren Cheney seems almost perfectly moral and righteous, yet contradictions lay beneath the surface of this idealistic portrait. A quote by Charles Sumner actually presents one of these situations where he claims that the slave system was an “unholy union…between the cotton planters and fleshmongers of Louisiana and Mississippi and the cotton spinners and traffickers of New England—between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Sumner’s words point out the fact that northern textile industrialists were as much to blame as southern slave owners because they were allowing slavery to thrive. Among the ranks of these textile industrialists was Benjamin Bates, from whom Oren Cheney obtained funding for the college, and then named the college after. It is ironic that an ardent abolitionist such as Cheney obtained funding for his college from someone who profited handsomely from manufacturing products out of cotton produced with slave labor. This irony is not meant to suggest that Benjamin Bates favored slavery or that Oren Cheney was any less noble for accepting funding from a textile magnate. The situation simply shows that Cheney was human and was affected by factors that he did not necessarily agree with. He was simply a man of his era, and a very progressive one at that.
Oren B. Cheney clearly led a life that was focused largely on abolitionism and opposing racism through education, religion and politics. Cheney deserves praise bestowed upon him by current Batesies, and people should remember the significance of this man in creating the institution which many people enjoy today. Although his views may currently seem fairly mainstream, it should not be forgotten how radical and progressive his stances were in regard to topics such race and gender in the mid-nineteenth century. The impact of Cheney’s egalitarian traditions can clearly be felt today on this liberal arts campus, which is still largely conscious of its history as progressive school. This tradition started with Cheney and the impact of this has barely been touched upon at all in this paper. Hopefully future historians will study more in depth on how the impact of Bates’ historic policy of inclusiveness has affected this college in regard to anything from relative endowment size to campus activism. This topic has just begun to pique my interest, and I hope it will do so for others.
Papers of Oren B. Cheney, box 1, folder “Diary.”
Other Primary Sources
Bates Student, June 1886.
Burlingame-Cheney, Emeline. The Story of the Life and Work of Oren B.
Cheney. Boston: Morning Star Publishing, 1907.
Morning Star, 5 October 1853.
Anthony, Alfred Williams. Bates College and Its Background. Philadelphia:
Judson Press, 1936.
Bates College Catalog 2002-2003. Lewiston, ME: Bates College, 2002.
Dublin, Thomas. Lowell: The Story of an Industrial City, Washington: National
Park Service, 1992.
Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: Abolitionists and American Slavery. New
York: Hill and Wang, 1997.
Alfred Williams Antony. Bates College and Its Background. (Philadelphia: Judson Press,