The Preacher Who Called for Reparations in 1837

Rev Hosea Easton

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner was in Hartford discussing the lasting impact of the Civil War on present-day life. His book The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution may seem like dusty history, but its lessons hold important clues to the fate of our country.

Professor Foner has also spoken frequently on the subject of reparations, a hot button issue if there ever was one. Five presidential candidates in 2020 endorsed the idea, but polls showed it is not widely popular.

The Reverend Hosea Easton was one of the earliest voices for healing and redeeming our society through true emancipation. He tackled reconstruction and reparations in 1837, three decades before the subjects were widely contemplated. Rev. Easton was the first pastor of Talcott Street Congregational in 1833, Hartford’s first Black church. He had been a freedom fighter since childhood; later he became a speaker, a writer, and an organizer.

“Emancipation” sculpture by Preston Jackson on the Founders Bridge ( Photo George A. Chien)

Easton’s most famous written work was A treatise on the intellectual character, and civil and political condition of the colored people of the United States and the prejudice exercised towards them, published in March, 1837. In it, Easton described the compensation and atonement required by society to repair the deep, life-long physical, mental, and economic damage inflicted on the millions  who had been enslaved. 

“Immediate abolition,” he wrote, “embraces the idea of an entire reversal of the system of slavery. The work of emancipation is not complete when it only cuts off some of the most prominent limbs of slavery, such as destroying the despotic power of the master.” This simply “leaves the poor man who is half dead … without proscribing any healing remedy for the bruises and wounds.

Minolta DSC
1860s illustration

“Emancipation embraces the idea that the emancipated must be placed back where slavery found them, and restore to them all that slavery has taken away from them. 

“Merely to cease beating the colored people, and leave them in their gore and call it emancipation, is nonsense. Nothing short of the entire reversal of the slave system in theory and practice—in general and in particular— will ever accomplish the work of redeeming the colored people of this country from their present condition.” (emphasis added)

As we know, Emancipation neither reversed or repaired the incalculable injuries of the deadly, degrading system that made an entire class of white men wealthy.

It is not too late to consider a “healing remedy” for African Americans now. Hosea Easton would agree. The construction of the U.S. economic system is faulty. There are dangerous cracks in the foundation. The house was built long ago, but we’re living in it now. It must be repaired, for everyone’s sake.

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