In the decades before the Civil War, Columbia produced only two graduates who can be called abolitionists. One was Theodore Sedgwick III, an 1829 graduate and later a U. S. district attorney for New York, who joined the New York Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s and was one of the lawyers who represented the slaves in the famous Amistad case. Far more active in abolitionist affairs was John Jay II, a Columbia graduate in 1836. Jay learn his hatred of slavery at home, not at Columbia; he was the grandson of John Jay and son of William Jay, a judge who became president of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. The previous year, while still a student, John Jay II became a manager of the New-York Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society, whose address to fellow citizens condemned slavery as a system of “violence, outrage, and robbery” and demanded immediate abolition. Jay tried to interest fellow undergraduates in the society but without success. One, invited to attend a meeting, declined, saying “I thought I could spend my time more profitably.” The Society’s six officers and eighteen managers included one other Columbian – William Steele, an 1830 graduate. In 1834, Jay and some friends organized to defend the home of Arthur Tappan, president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, during New York’s anti-abolitionist riots.[i]
Jay’s involvement in the Young Men’s Society marked the beginning of a long career of abolitionist agitation. He became the leading lawyer defending fugitive slaves in the city in the 1840s and 1850s. He also launched a crusade against racism in the Episcopal church that, given the close connection between the college and that denomination, brought him into direct conflict with prominent Columbians. Eighty percent of Columbia’s trustees were Episcopalians, and many of the church’s leaders in New York had graduated from the college. New York’s Episcopal diocese, the largest and wealthiest in the country, maintained cordial relations with southern Episcopalians and strove to avoid any controversy related to slavery. Bishop Benjamin T. Onderdonk, a Columbia graduate and trustee, feared alienating southerners, who made up eighty percent of the students who trained as Episcopal clergy at General Theological Seminary. He excluded blacks from the institution and the annual Episcopal Convention refused to accord representation to the black congregation of St. Philip’s Church. In speeches, pamphlets, and resolutions at successive conventions. Jay denounced his church for “ministering at the altar of slavery.”[ii]
In 1839, Bishop Onderdonk denied a place at the seminary to the black applicant Alexander Crummell. Jay wrote that the church had “deliberately established a system of Caste” among the clergy. “That Bishops should ever side with the oppressor is strange indeed,” he added. Many Columbians in the church did not appreciate Jay’s campaigns. Along with the bishop, his efforts to secure representation for St. Philip’s were opposed, among others, by William Harison, Class of 1811 and treasurer of the vestry of Trinity Church, and Rev. Hugh Smith, Class of 1813. When the convention finally acceded to Jay’s campaign in 1853, George Templeton Strong, an active member of Trinity Church, noted in his diary, “John Jay’s annual motion carried at last, and the nigger delegation admitted into the Diocesan Convention.” Crummell completed his education at Cambridge University in England, and went on to a prominent career as a black religious leader. As for Onderdonk, charged, in the diarist Philip Hone’s words, with “habitual drunkenness” and “an undue fondness for some of the female lambs of his flock,” he was barred by the church from performing ministerial duties.[iii]
[i]. Finding Aid, The Law Office of Robert and Theodore Sedgwick III Records, Houghton Library, Harvard University; Foner, Gateway, 60; Address of the New-York Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society to Their Fellow Citizens (New York, 1834), 7, 15-16, 40; Diary of Christodoulos Evangeles, May 10, 1835, New-York Historical Society.
[ii]. Foner, Gateway, 112; Jared Odessky, “‘Possessed of One Idea Himself’: John Jay II’s Challenges to Columbia on Slavery and Race,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 10-12; Robert Trendel, “John Jay II: Antislavery Conscience of the Episcopal Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 45; (September 1976), 237-52; John Jay, Thoughts on the Duty of the Episcopal Church (New York, 1839), 6.
[iii]. John Jay, Caste and Slavery in the American Church (New York, 1843), 8, 22; Odessky, “‘Possessed of One Idea,’” 17-18; Wilder, “Driven ... From the School,” 176-83; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 2: 131; Excerpts from the Diary of Philip Hone, 65-66, Item 125, Columbiana Manuscripts.