By Sonya Vartabedian
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."
While Cushing, a Presbyterian, likely never heard Higginson preach, and the two may have never even met, Dyer said, there's no doubt they would have been staunch adversaries.
Higginson came to Newburyport in 1847 on his first assignment out of divinity school. He lasted two years before he wore out his welcome with his radical views and was asked to resign. From Newburyport, he headed to a more liberal-thinking church and community in Worcester and stepped up his abolitionist work, storming courthouses in Boston to free fugitive slaves and leading the charge for secession.
"He was willing to use and condone violence if necessary to free slaves, and he did that," Labaree said.
"He was a wonderful guy, but man, he was crazy," Dyer agreed. "In 1957, he organized a Massachusetts disunity convention in Worcester with the object of encouraging the North to secede from the Union because slavery was a sin and sinners go to hell. He believed there was a law greater than the law of the land — God's law."
Cushing, on the other hand, feared the devastating impact slavery's abolishment would have on the country, Dyer said. He viewed abolitionists like Higginson and William Lloyd Garrison as anarchists with no plan for the 4 million slaves once they were freed.
"Cushing was a Union man through and through," Dyer said. "He thought the Constitution was a gift from God and we were a beacon to the oppressed people of the world that what we were doing was possible for them.
"He saw the Union as a precious means of governance, and while it was imperfect and they should never quit finding a way to get rid of slavery, blowing up the Union to do it was not the way to go."
Cushing's views at the time, Dyer said, were actually quite common in mid-1860s Newburyport. But to say the city was pro-slavery because of the revenue from the coal-run steam mills churning out cotton is unfair and simple, he said. Opponents of the abolition movement, he said, saw more at stake.
"It's way too easy to say if you're not pro-abolitionist, you must be pro-slavery," Dyer said. "I never want to defend slavery. I don't think Cushing ever said that. Slavery is every bit as horrible as anybody can imagine. No one's making any excuses for it. ... The issue is a very complex and very subtle one."
The format of Saturday's program will follow the style of a classic college debate. Cushing and Higginson, through Labaree and Dyer attired in period costume, will both give opening statements followed by rebuttals. Then, they'll take questions from the moderator, portrayed by John Mercer, as well as the audience.
Spectators will be asked to play along, putting themselves in the period and erasing knowledge of coming events.
"Nobody in the audience is supposed to know that there's a war coming," said Labaree, who assures he has a couple "zingers" planned for Caleb.
To give the audience a better understanding of the period, Labaree has crafted a five-part backgrounder on the era, which is available on the church's Web site and will also be handed out on Saturday.
"We have tried to create characters that themselves will be distinct," Dyer said. "There will be a little bit of theater involved. Even if you don't know anything and see these two guys butting heads, you'll know one is in favor of abolition and the other in favor of preserving the Union, and they're never going to agree."
Labaree hopes the debate, which is being sponsored by the church's Historical and Adult Education committees, appeals to not only Civil War buffs and historians, but the youth of Newburyport.
"I hope a lot of kids come," he said. "I think they'll get an interesting perspective on history."
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Minister, First Religious Society, Newburyport, 1847-1849
Joined 1854 attack on Boston Courthouse to free a slave
Backer of antislavery activist John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, 1859
Organized Massachusetts Disunity Convention in Worcester to encourage North to secede from the Union over slavery, 1857
Led First South Carolina Colored Volunteers, the first regiment of former slaves organized by the Union Army in the Civil War, 1862
State senator, 1825
U.S. congressman, 1834-1842
Commissioner to China, 1843-1844
Newburyport's first mayor, 1851
U.S. attorney general, 1853-1857
President of National Democratic Convention, South Carolina, 1860
Sent as President James Buchanan's representative to Charleston, S.C., to delay passage of ordinance of secession
IF YOU GO
What: The Great Debate
When: Saturday, 10 to 11:30 a.m.
Where: Sanctuary, First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport
How: Free. Call 978-465-0602 or visit www.frsuu.org.
A look back
The First Religious Society's commemoration of Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson will continue on Sunday at the church's morning worship service.
Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, who was raised in the church, will join Rev. Harold Babcock, minister, and Rev Bert Steeves, minister emeritus, on the pulpit in exploring attitudes in antebellum (pre-Civil War) and contemporary Newburyport.
The music and readings of the morning will be reflective of Higginson's era, including spirituals from former slaves of the Sea Island cotton plantations who made up the first black regiment in the Civil War. Higginson led the First South Carolina Volunteers and recorded his troop's spirituals for not only their music, but as oral history.
The public is invited to the service, which runs from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.