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CHARLES ERDMAN HELLER, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Born January 8, 1809, George Luther Stearns was from an old New England family. His father's death forced him to enter the business world at an early age. He rose from a clerk to a linseed oil manufacturer for the shipbuilders of his native Medford, Massachusetts. Later, the lead pipe factory he started solidified his wealth and standing in the manufacturing community. A conservative businessman, Stearns kept half his earnings in gold. From the Compromise of 1850 on, Stearns became increasingly active in antislavery efforts and involved with the Concord literati, including Emerson and Alcott. With slowness of speech, Stearns preferred working behind the scenes, allowing his money to speak for him. Although he did not join radical antislavery groups and other reform movements, in the cause of Kansas, he used his managerial skills effectively, eventually becoming chairman of the Massachusetts State Kansas Aid Committee. About this time, Stearns met John Brown, became involved with his commitment to free blacks in America, and emerged as chief financial backer for Brown's Harper's Ferry plan. After this episode, Stearns helped organize the Emancipation League and recruited the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. His success led Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to ask him to recruit blacks for the Union armies. As Assistant Adjutant-General for the Recruitment of Colored Troops, Major Stearns was most productive in Nashville, Tennessee, where he met Andrew Johnson. Sympathetic to the plight of "Contraband," Stearns also organized hospitals and schools, stopped impressment, and organized Unionists into a lobby for the emancipation of slaves in their state. Sensitive and quick-tempered, Stearns ran afoul of Stanton and resigned. He then channeled his energy into a civil rights movement and organized the Impartial Suffrage Association. After the Civil War, Stearns continued his efforts on behalf of blacks, sending out pamphlets and publishing a paper, The Right Way, to advance the cause. Finally his strength gave way, and Stearns, who suffered from bronchial problems, died of pneumonia in New York in April 1867.

Subject Area

American history|Biographies|African Americans

Recommended Citation

HELLER, CHARLES ERDMAN, "IN ADVANCE OF FATE: A BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE LUTHER STEARNS, 1809-1867 (MASSACHUSETTS)" (1985). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8509553.