NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

PortWatch

January 29, 2009

Debating history; Church summons two prominent men to explore slavery and the Union in pre-Civil War Port

Church summons two prominent men to explore slavery and the Union in pre-Civil War Port

111The setting: Newburyport, following Abraham Lincoln's election as president of a country on the cusp of the Civil War.

On one side: a fire-breathing abolitionist determined to end slavery at whatever cost.

On the other side: a law-and-order man who considers the Constitution a gift and is committed to protecting it over all else.

The states of the deep South have just seceded from the Union. Every month, more Northerners see the expanding slave system as an abomination. Yet, concerns for the survival of the nation run high.

With that, the stage is set for a debate around a resolution embroiling the nation at the time — one that argues preservation of the Union is more important than the abolition of slavery.

In recognition of Black History Month, the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, of Newburyport will ponder the issue Saturday with the help of two historically prominent men with ties to Newburyport who were pivotal players of the time.

Caleb Cushing — Newburyport's first mayor, U.S. Congressman and absolute defender of the Union, and Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson — an anti-slavery champion whose radical views led to his dismissal as minister of Newburyport's First Religious Society in 1849, bring the issue to bear in a fictional debate that will revisit pre-Civil War Newburyport.

Ben Labaree of Amesbury, professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at Williams College in Williamstown, will portray the morally driven Higginson, with Jim Dyer, a 19th century historian who has done extensive research on Cushing, stepping forward to defend the Union.

"This was a time in history when the proposition was being made that we essentially dissolve the Union to free the slaves," Dyer said. "We have to conjure up the willing suspension of disbelief and pretend we don't know how this will turn out."

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