Bradburn, George

George Bradburn
George Bradburn

George Bradburn (March 4, 1806-July 26, 1880), antislavery politician, was a journalist, lecturer, and Unitarian minister. He was a friend and co-worker in the abolitionist cause with William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, Richard Hildreth, Lucretia Mott, and Lysander Spooner. His greatest moments came during 1839-43, when he led the antislavery cause in the Massachusetts legislature, stood up for women’s rights at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, and went on a memorable lecture tour with Douglass. According to Spooner, he was at that time “more widely known throughout the Northern states than almost any of the other Anti-slavery orators.”

Born in Attleborough, Massachusetts, George was the son of James Bradburn, a woolen manufacturer, and Sarah Leach Hovey. After Sarah died when George was eight, he was raised by his half-sister Fanny Fisher in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was trained as a machinist, but decided at the age of 19 to pursue academic studies. He attended Phillips Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire. By the time he left he had decided to train for ministry. Around 1828 he began studies with Portsmouth, New Hampshire Universalist minister Thomas Farrington King and Roxbury, Massachusetts Universalist minister Hosea Ballou 2d. Soon after, he entered Harvard Divinity School. There, under the tutelage of Henry Ware Sr., he became a Unitarian.

Although he received a certificate to preach from the American Unitarian Association, Bradburn’s first settlement as a minister, 1831-34, was at a Restorationist Universalist society on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. This pastorate coincided with the early days of the Restorationist schism, a time when many Unitarian clergymen shared fellowship with Restorationists. In 1834, when Bradburn was away on a trip, the congregation sold the church building and soon after disbanded. He, nevertheless, remained a resident of Nantucket for a decade.

While on Nantucket, Bradburn married Lydia Barnard, a Quaker. She died after a year of marriage. Their only child, a daughter, did not live past infancy. While still a young man Bradburn began to lose his hearing and had to take particular care in listening to others speak. Although he was a friendly and out-going man, his disability made him progressively more isolated and hampered his later career in public life.

Bradburn was the Nantucket Representative to the Massachusetts legislature, 1839-42. He quickly became the major spokesman for antislavery in the Massachusetts government, initiating a bill to prevent Massachusetts citizens being sold into slavery and leading the effort to repeal the anti-miscegenation law. “People in Massachusetts, wishing to marry, are under no necessity of comparing complexions,” Bradburn rejoiced. He also supported temperance and Horace Mann‘s educational reforms, opposed capital punishment and imprisonment for debt, and promoted a universal electoral franchise. At that time a pacifist, he unsuccessfully tried to abolish the militia and to introduce a conscientious objector status. He did manage to secure an exemption from military service for Shakers. During his term he was the most frequent speaker in the House.

According to the libertarian abolitionist Lysander Spooner, Bradburn “had many and rare gifts as a popular speaker,—a face and a figure of striking dignity and beauty, a courage that feared no antagonism, a frankness, sincerity and disinterestedness so transparent as to compel universal confidence, a style of oratory remarkably unique, picturesque and impressive, and powers of wit, eloquence and argument that usually left his adversary little else than a wreck, oftentimes a very ridiculous one. The absurd and exclusive social, political and religious customs, opinions and prejudices which he had to meet and combat at every step, received many stunning blows at his hands.”

In 1839 Bradburn became an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Like William Lloyd Garrison he declaimed against the sinfulness of the government. In an early speech for the Society, he thundered, “It is an abuse of language, it is solemn mockery, it is sheer nonsense, to call that a Republic in which every sixth man is doomed to slavery!” He also denounced the clergy in general, whom he called a “race of corrupt hypocrites.”

Bradburn was chosen, along with Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Harriet Martineau, Maria Weston Chapman, and Lydia Maria Child, to represent Massachusetts at the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Conference, held in London, England. When they arrived, however, the host society excluded the women representatives from being seated as delegates. Bradburn took the floor to dispute the arguments used to justify this exclusion: “It has been said, if the women were admitted, they would take sides. Why, had they not as good a right to take sides as the men?” Using the same kind of rhetoric he had used in America to condemn slavery, he attacked the pretensions of the antislavery gathering: “And what a misnomer to call this a World’s Convention of Abolitionists, where some of the oldest and most thoroughgoing Abolitionists in the world are denied the right to be represented in it by delegates of their own choice!”

The London Conference was shocked by the nature and vehemence of Bradburn’s denial of appeal to Bible authority. He claimed that if it could be shown that the New Testament upheld slavery he would “repudiate its authority” and “scatter its leaves to the four winds.” Furthermore, he demanded that his hosts prove that the Bible “sanctions the slavery of women—the complete subjugation of one half of the race to the other.” If they could do so, he would feel it his duty to “make a grand bonfire of every Bible in the universe.”

Bradburn also protested the barring of non-Christians and non-religious people from the Conference. He hoped that, at a future convention, “every friend of humanity, duly delegated, will be heartily welcomed to a seat, without respect of color, of creed, or of sex.”

In 1843, under the auspices of the New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS), Bradburn went on an preaching tour in the western states with Frederick Douglass and William A. White. At a meeting in Pendleton, Indiana all three were injured by an attacking mob. When Douglass later rebuked Bradburn for speaking extendedly on a topic Douglass deemed peripheral to antislavery, they engaged in a platform dispute. Afterwards the two made their tours separately.

The following year Bradburn’s working relationship with Garrison also began to break down. Garrison, who wished to keep abolition clear of party politics, had in 1840 criticized Bradburn for campaigning for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. In 1844 Garrison orchestrated the passage of an anti-government resolution at the NEASS. Bradburn dissented from this policy. He chose Spooner’s constitutional anti-slavery over Garrison’s anti-constitutional variety and, much to Garrison’s distress, began to work for the newly-organized Liberty Party. At the 1848 Liberty Party national convention, Bradburn was chosen an officer of the convention and was a candidate for the vice-presidential position on the national ticket. On the floor, he debated with Douglass about the party constitution.

Bradburn continued his antislavery work over the next decade as a journalist and a lecturer. He edited the Lynn, Massachusetts Pioneer and Herald of Freedom, 1846-49, co-edited the Boston Chronotype, 1850, and the Cleveland, Ohio True Democrat, 1851-53. Until late 1856, culminating in the presidential campaign of Republican John Fremont, Bradburn traveled throughout the western states, lecturing on slavery, literature, and on material gleaned from his 1840 trip to the British Isles.

While in Boston in 1850 Bradburn married Frances Parker. She later compiled his memoirs, in which she included a sermon on John Brown, whom Bradburn celebrated as a martyr, and one on woman’s rights. “It has always seemed to me,” Bradburn wrote in the latter, “to be a little ridiculous in any man, whether a clergyman or a layman, to undertake to mark out the boundaries of [Woman’s] sphere, or show precisely, what is fit or not fitting, for the other half of humanity. The ridiculousness of such a proceeding would perhaps appear even to those who so often embark in it, if women were to set about defining ‘the appropriate sphere of man.’ The women in such a case would doubtless be told to mind their own business.”

In 1858 Bradburn returned to New England, where he accepted a call to serve the Unitarian society in Athol, Massachusetts, 1859-60. In 1861 his friend Salmon P. Chase, now a member of the Lincoln administration, rewarded him by offering him his choice of consulships. Since his invalid wife could not travel, Chase gave him instead a position at the Boston Customs House. He remained there until his retirement in 1875.

Although Bradburn was considered a major abolitionist by his peers and his name is much to be found in antislavery memoirs and books written in the nineteenth century, he has largely disappeared from twentieth century histories and biographies. From a modern perspective, he is most to be remembered as a promoter of women’s rights, years before the woman’s movement was even begun. Lydia Maria Child called him, “the bold opposer of any limitation of rights by the graduation of color, and the true-hearted champion of woman’s freedom.”


The main source of information on George Bradburn is Frances H. Bradburn, A Memorial of George Bradburn (1883). Besides the sermons in the Memorial, there is an early one, “The Importance of Man’s Exercising All the Faculties of His Nature,” printed in the Independent Messenger (Nov. 29, 1834). His abolition writings are in the Liberator and the periodicals he edited, mentioned above. His correspondence can be found in collections preserving the letters of Garrison, Spooner, and others. For information about the Nantucket Universalist church, consult WPA, Inventory of Universalist Archives in Massachusetts (1942). Additional material on Bradburn can be found in Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children (1885); Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage (1889); Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893); Frederick B. Tolles, ed., Slavery and “the Woman Question”: Lucretia Mott’s Diary of Her Visit to Great Britain to Attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 (1952); and John M. Lovejoy, “Racism in Antebellum Vermont,” Vermont History (2001).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted May 26, 2005