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James Armstrong Thome (1813–1873)

James Thome was the son of a Kentucky slaveholder. But, from early on, he harbored uneasy feelings about slavery, and in 1834, that uneasiness turned to unqualified abhorrence when as a theological student he attended an extended debate on the morality of slavery. Soon Thome was serving as a traveling agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and by 1837, he and a companion, Horace Kimball, were conducting a study for the society on the results of slave emancipation in the British West Indies. In the report on this trip, Emancipation in the West Indies, Thome and Kimball offered evidence that firmly refuted the prevailing belief among abolitionists that slavery could only be eliminated gradually because most slaves would need to be prepared for life in freedom. As a result, the American Anti-Slavery Society shifted from its advocacy of gradual emancipation to a demand for “unconditional freedom without delay.”

In late 1839, Thome fled Ohio, where he was teaching, to avoid arrest for assisting a runaway Kentucky slave in his escape to freedom. He sought refuge in Fairfield, Connecticut, and while he was living there, it is thought that the artist Nathaniel Jocelyn, who was also an abolitionist, painted this portrait. In the picture, Thome holds the pamphlet American Slavery As It Is by Theodore Weld, a tract that electrified the North with its portrayal of the harshness of slavery and that greatly moved Thome when he read it.

Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796–1881)
Oil on canvas, 1840
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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