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Friday, September 3, 2021

Lorenzo L. D. Tanner

 by Richard White

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved by the author.

An African loving fanatic in Marathon, Cortland County, has sent a letter to the President, asking that he issue a “Compensation Proclamation,” giving to the negroes freed by the Emancipation Proclamation land in the South, all of which this lunatic says by right belongs to the freedmen. Tanner probably would like to be President, and this is a bid for the negro vote.

This was the opening “Editorial Sentiment” in Binghamton’s racially virulent Democratic Leader on March 29, 1872, regarding a petition authored by a long-time abolitionist from central New York to President Grant provide confiscated acreage in the South to the former slaves freed in 1863 by President Lincoln. “Compensation” and similar proposals such as land redistribution and agrarian reform were not new ideas. In fact, in 1862, President Lincoln signed two Compensated Emancipation Acts ended slavery in Washington, DC, and allowed former slaves to petition for reimbursement for their value. In 1865, the well-known slogan, “40 acres and a mule,” was popularized but never gained traction in Congress, and certainly not with President Johnson, whose viewpoint favored property restoration instead of compensation. In his classic The Struggle for Equality (1964), James McPherson explained Johnson’s amnesty proclamation in 1865. Subsequent pardons restored property rights to most rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. Still, he also points out that “abolitionists continued to work ”(410) for racial justice as Reconstruction developed as they had in the pre-War period.

Such a person was a little-known public-spirited resident who lived in the Marathon-Freetown-Galatia region of Cortland County, Lorenzo D. Tanner. L. D., as he was called, moved to this rural region of central New York from Oneida County in 1835 and practiced a variation of citizen advocacy. In a look back at his life, The Cortland Democrat, on March 16, 1934, stated that he “was an impressive figure [who] wrote letters to the newspapers on all public questions. In the slavery days, he was an uncompromising Abolitionist, and his opponents nicknamed him ‘Nigger’ Tanner.” For example, Cazenovia’s The Liberty Press on July 18, 1843, discussed L. D.’s participation at the village’s anti-slavery meeting and stated that “our excellent friend…L. D. Tanner of Freetown, moved the resolutions” condemning the inhumanity of enslavement.

Even before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Tanner’s activism spurred him to travel to a nearby village to rally against slavery, not because he was “lunatic,” but because of his prime belief in racial equality and freedom for African Americans. At the rally on September 2, 1850, at Freetown’s Baptist Church, Tanner attended and was asked to co-write the assemblage’s resolutions.

According to Cortland’s The Whig on September 26, the rally’s first purpose was to validate “the inalienable right to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a paramount principle of America.

The second was to support the imprisoned William L. Chaplin, an agent of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, who was jailed for helping two slaves trying to escape bondage in Maryland. As the rally neared its closing, seven resolutions were formulated and presented, and three were specifically about Chaplin’s incarceration. One insisted “that in that as much as the friends of slavery claim the right to extend it into the territories now free, we in our turn demand that the U. S. Constitution shall be amended by striking out those clauses which are claimed as its compromises.” Tanner’s style as a proponent of impartial freedom was quiet and “uncompromising,” and it presented itself through the tumultuous pre-war and war years.

His approach to Reconstruction issues remained dramatically solid and unaltered in his work for civil rights. In 1870, for example, L. D. challenged a prominent neighbor and future two-term Assemblyman, D. C. Squires, to debate the freedmen’s immediate future at the Union school house in Lapeer to the west of Marathon. On June 3, The Cortland Democrat captured the complexity of their first debate months earlier and its aftermath. While the paper did not estimate the length of the first face-off or the audience’s size, it did note that there was no formal decision regarding who won the debate and later published L. D.’s challenge to Squires to debate on the pages of this newspaper which Squires did not answer.

Two years later, an issue concerning the future of the Freedmen prompted Tanner to write to President Grant but, despite it being a petition to the President of the United States, there was limited reportage on this letter which was published in The Marathon Independent, which reprinted on March 26 an article originally appearing in the Cortland Democrat. In it, Tanner asked Grant “to issue a compensation proclamation in behalf of the freedmen. He asked that the President shall give the negroes their ‘forty acres and a mule’—at least he wants them to have the land they used to till for their masters.” While a letter from one constituent might impact a President, in this case, Grant’s mind was already made up. In his book, Grant (2017), historian Ron Chernow succinctly states the President’s stance on compensation. “Grant opposed land redistribution, which had excited so much hope among freedmen….On the other hand, he urged the continuance to safeguard black rights (565).” Yet even if Tanner were aware of the President’s view, he would not have been deterred in writing his letter.

In the mid-1800s, Lorenzo Tanner's efforts in support of freedom and justice has endured for more than empirical reasons. He was not a firebrand or a  charismatic, but he stands tall in New York State history. The offensive nickname-- both then and now--"Nigger Tanner"-- provides a powerful picture of the resilient racism that Tanner challenged.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of Negro History, and other publications.