Moncure Conway Rewrites the Past

By Frank Cirillo

The author of The Abolitionist Civil War describes his efforts to separate fact from fiction in the autobiographical record of an antislavery activist.

Photo of Moncure Conway by Van der Weyde

As a historian, I try to understand and interpret the past using what we call primary sources—firsthand accounts of the time, whether they be letters, diaries, or public speeches and newspaper articles. Usually, I take these sources at face value. If a newspaper article prints the text of a speech delivered by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Washington in January 1862, I can pretty safely assume that Douglass was indeed in the capital at that time—and that he said the words printed on the newspaper page (or something closely approximating them). But not all narrators are reliable ones. The writers of these myriad historical accounts and chronicles, after all, were human beings. The people of the past were no different than people now. They exaggerated, distorted, or outright lied as much as we do in recounting events, whether to make themselves look better, to make someone else look worse, or to suit some other purpose. It’s my job to try and parse the human nature of it all and arrive at something resembling the truth.

This historical detective work can be quite difficult at times. Sometimes, however, it just requires a little digging to catch out our subjects in their misrepresentations. In writing my new book, The Abolitionist Civil War, I found one constant fibber among my main subjects: Moncure Conway. To call Conway a colorful character would be an understatement. The scion of a prominent Virginia slaveholding dynasty, Conway spent his young adulthood as an ardent secessionist. After moving to the North to attend college, however, he experienced a religious conversion and gradually moved away from proslavery fanaticism toward radical antislavery activism. On the eve of the Civil War, Conway became a Unitarian preacher and a leading abolitionist—a reformer determined to end the evils of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States. Conway’s tale took many turns over the course of the Civil War, from his journey to rescue his family’s escaped slaves to his disastrous diplomatic mission to England that resulted in his self-exile from the United States—all of which I discuss in my book. Conway spent most of his remaining years in London as a respected intellectual and ethicist, ultimately penning a two-volume autobiography that chronicled his long life. He died in 1907.

Because Conway discussed the Civil War years at length in his autobiography, I naturally was interested in using it as a source. But in reading it, I kept finding that his descriptions in 1904 of his actions during the 1860s were quite different from what he said (and did) at the time. Most of these differences had to do with his opinion of, and actions regarding, Abraham Lincoln. During the first years of the war, Conway had been a firm supporter of the Lincoln administration, even as he tried to nudge it toward more pronounced antislavery action. After 1863, however, Conway broke with the president over the latter’s unwillingness to move beyond emancipation and toward rights for African Americans. Conway actively campaigned against Lincoln during the 1864 election and maintained an unfavorable opinion of him thereafter. In writing his autobiography decades later, Conway therefore attempted to write his post-1863 distrust and disdain of Lincoln back into his pre-1863 actions. In effect, he tried to rewrite his own history. The problem for him was that his actual earlier history—the things he wrote and said in the first years of the Civil War—was out there for historians like me to see.

Take, for example, Conway’s reaction to Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the Confederate rebellion in April 1861, after the fall of Fort Sumter. In his 1904 autobiography, Conway claimed that he had opposed the entrance of Union troops into his native state of Virginia. He had supposedly believed that the Union would “only occupy the border with camps . . . [as] refuges and asylums for slaves, so compelling slaveholders to return to their homes.” But when Lincoln had sent the troops in, Conway claimed that he had opposed this action as something with which he “could not sympathize.” When I first read this account, I found it a bit odd—a bit inconsistent with what I knew Conway was doing around the start of the Civil War. But then I found a letter Conway had written in May 1861, a few weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter. In it, he said essentially the exact opposite of everything he later claimed to have said. Conway had written personally to Abraham Lincoln himself, offering his services in the “solemn but ever-glorious emergency” facing the Union. Far from opposing the Union invasion of Virginia, Conway volunteered that he was “acquainted with the topography” of the Richmond area, and wondered if the “War Department needed a question concerning such minutiae answered.” The Conway of 1861 thereby gave the lie to the Conway of 1904, in as clear a smoking gun as I’ve ever seen in my years of research.[1]

Conway did not stop at one such misrepresentation, however. Over and over again, I found letters from the war years directly contradicting his autobiographical claims. He stated that he had rejected an offer of a military chaplaincy in revulsion at assisting a military invasion. In reality, despite originally wanting to take the job, he ultimately rejected it in protest not of the invasion itself but of the fact that said invasion was proceeding too slowly. Another time, he claimed to have declined Lincoln’s offer of a diplomatic consulship, when he had actually requested such a position in the first place—only to be turned down.[2]

While Conway’s revisions were more obvious than the norm, they were not especially unusual—and were perfectly understandable. In looking back on the span of their lives, people want to impose a sort of consistency on everything they have done. Conway had eventually come to oppose Lincoln, and so he wanted it to seem like he had opposed Lincoln all along. In the end, I savor situations like this when I come across them. It’s the raw stuff of history. It’s up to us historians to sort the facts from the fiction as best we can—and as best the actual historical breadcrumbs that these people have left behind allow us to do.

[1] Moncure Conway, Autobiography: Memoirs and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1904), 324–39; Moncure Conway to Abraham Lincoln, May 7, 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

[2] Conway, Autobiography, 353; Moncure Conway to Ellen Conway, n.d. [June 1861], July 2, 1861, Moncure Conway Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University; Moncure Conway to Charles Sumner, April 22, 30, 1862, Charles Sumner Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Frank J. Cirillo is a historian of slavery and antislavery in the nineteenth-century United States. He has held positions at the University of Bonn, The New School, and the University of Virginia.

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Finalist for the 2024 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

The astonishing transformation of the abolitionist movement during the Civil War proved enormously consequential both for the cause of abolitionism and for the nation at large. Drawing on a cast of famous and obscure figures from Frederick Douglass to Moncure Conway, Frank J. Cirillo’s The Abolitionist Civil War explores how immediate abolitionists contorted their arguments and clashed with each other as they labored over the course of the conflict to create a more perfect Union. Cirillo reveals that immediatists’ efforts to forge a morally transformed nation that enshrined emancipation and Black rights shaped contemporary debates surrounding the abolition of slavery but ultimately did little to achieve racial justice for African Americans beyond formal freedom.

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