Recto and Verso: Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch

The Legend
William Edward West (Attr. To), Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch, ca. 1840
Private Collection (Detail)
Used with Permission

When Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch sat for his portrait in the studio of William Edward West (1788-1857) in Baltimore, Maryland around 1840, he was in his early 50s. According to a family biographer, six years earlier Balch had freed his 22 slaves and spent the equivalent of $40,000 to pay for their supplies and passage to Liberia.[1]

Like many family stories, this one is not true, but also, like many family stories, it contains a kernel of truth. The true story requires familiarity with the life of L.P.W. Balch.

Early Life

Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch was born in Georgetown, District of Columbia, on July 31, 1787. His father, Reverend Stephen Bloomer Balch (1747-1833), had attended Princeton College and studied with the college’s president, John Witherspoon (1723–1794), who signed the Declaration of Independence. His mother was Elizabeth Beall Balch (1762-1827). Her father, Colonel George Beall, owned much of Georgetown. Stephen Balch founded the Georgetown Presbyterian Church, and led it for 53 years (1780-1833). He was a founder of the American Colonization Society.[2]

Lewis P. W. Balch also attended Princeton. After he graduated in 1806, he studied law in Frederick, Maryland, with a relative of his mother, Roger Brooke Taney, who would become the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taney infamously ruled in 1857 in the Dred Scott case that slaves were property rather than humans with rights.[3]

Lewis married a woman from a Quaker family, on March 14, 1811, Elizabeth Emmeline Wever (1790-1874), of Weverton, Maryland. Lewis and Elizabeth would have eleven children. The oldest of the surviving six was named for his father. By 1812, Balch had set up a law practice in Leesburg, Virginia. The family moved to Frederick, Maryland about 1830 and to Charleston, Virginia in 1850.[4]

The Civil War split the state of Virginia. Charleston became part of Unionist West Virginia. According to family history, so strong a federal supporter was Balch that during the Battle of Charleston in September 13, 1862, even as “bullets were flying thick,” near his home, he came outside and cheered the Union forces. Following the war, Balch was appointed a state circuit judge for the northeastern counties of West Virginia. He died in Leesburg in 1868.[5]

The True Story

In a letter written in 1857, Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch’s oldest son and namesake, wrote that in 1836, his maternal grandfather, Adam Wever, freed his 22 slaves. Wever asked Lewis II to escort the slaves from Weverton, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland. Wever paid their passage to Liberia. Wever also donated $1,000 each for supplies. Baltimore merchants, at least some of whom may also have been Quakers, donated still more goods at cost. Even at cost, the total amount per person equaled about $1,500.[6]

Family memory merged the liberation of Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch’s slaves who remained in America, with those liberated by his father-in-law, Adam Wever, who were transported to Liberia. But while the liberation of the slaves may have been the end of the story for Balch and Wever, the story continued for the freed people.

Lewis P. W. Balch II followed the lives of his grandfather’s freed slaves through reports from Commodore Perry and letters from the former slaves themselves. Without providing details, he concluded that they fared far better than the eleven slaves his father freed who remained in the United States.[7]

To the emancipation of his slaves in his will Adam Wever added the words, on “the express Condition that the above named negroes, & each, every of them shall within a reasonable time from the date of said manumission proceed to the Colony of Cape Palmas in Maryland, in Liberia on the Coast of Africa, there continue to reside.” This requirement conformed to legislation passed by the Maryland legislature in 1832, the year following the Nat Turner rebellion. The act both encouraged colonization of emancipated slaves and supported policing of the free black community within the state.“[8]

Fifteen of the 22 slaves Wever emancipated were members of the Davenport family, headed by Thomas, 46, and Frances, 44. They had 13 children and grandchildren. The Davenports were fortunate in having the same owner. Other freed slaves sent to Liberia had wives, children, parents, uncles, and aunts owned by other slaveholders but who were not allowed to accompany them. Those separated from their families missed them terribly. Two men were known even to have sailed back to the United States. By law, they were made slaves once more.[9]

By 1852, seven members of the Davenport family died. That death rate may not be significantly higher than if they had remained in the United States. Almost half of the children born in the United States in the 1850s did not live to age 10. Just over a quarter lived to age 40. In 1860, only 3.5 % of slaves and 4.4 % of whites lived to be 60 and older.[10]

Life circumstances for the Davenports in Liberia were not given but other records show that some freed people were swindled by American Colonization Society (ACS) employees. Some were promised 5 acres of farmland but received ½ acre of land in town. When they learned that the local Vai tribe were slave traders, some former bondspeople feared being kidnapped and returned to slavery. Others wrote happy letters home.[11]

As of yet, I have been unable to learn the names or histories of the eleven slaves liberated in the United States but they lived in the times of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857.

These verso stories are complicated. In hindsight, sending freed African-Americans to Africa to begin a new life, although well-intended, was neither pure nor without consequences. The American Colonization Society was a colonization society and embodied the worst aspects now apparent in that practice. But we and they do not live in hindsight. We and they live in the present. In Balch and Wever’s time, their actions were based on some of the most enlightened thinking of their era, albeit appropriated by those with less than honorable motivations. In truth, until full emancipation no completely good options existed for freed slaves.


Footnotes:
  1. George C. Croce and David H. Wallace, The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564-1860 (Yale University Press, 1957), 676; The most probable place where Balch’s portrait was painted was the area around Baltimore, Maryland. According to William H. Gerdts in Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Art, 710-1920, Vol II: The East and the Mid-Atlantic, (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 321, the portrait artists working in Baltimore in the mid-1830s to mid-1840s were William Edward West (1788-1857), Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799-1868), Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874), and Matthew Henry Wilson (1814- 1892). Eddy’s style was more naïve; the brushstrokes of Miller, best known for his western scenes, were looser. Wilson’s style was terser. The Balch portrait fits in well with West’s oeuvre of the time; Galusha Balch, Genealogy of the Balch families in America, (Salem, Massachusetts, Eben Putnam, 1897), 458, on Ancestry.com. Thomas Willing Balch, Balch Genealogica, (Allen, Lane and Scott, 1907), 212.[]
  2. Galusha Balch, 451; “Stephen “Boomer’ [sic] Balch,” The Georgetown Presbyterian Church, https://www.gtownpres.org/stephen-boomer-balch, accessed April 2021; Thomas Willing Balch, 222.[]
  3. Galusha Balch, 458.[]
  4. Ibid, 211-215; The Balch children were:

    • Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch II, D. D. (1814-1875)
      • Balch’s namesake child was the rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, in New York City. In 1839, Balch wed Anna Jay (1813-1849), a granddaughter of the first Supreme Court Justice John Jay (1745–1829), and a daughter of William Jay (1789-1858), a founder of the American Antislavery Society. (Thomas Willing Balch, 228)
    • Catherine Balch (Mrs. Freeman Clarkson) (1815-1850)
    • Virginia Balch (Mrs. Charles H. Stephen) (1818-1898)
    • Thomas Bloomer Balch (1821-1877)
      • Thomas B. Balch trained as an attorney but worked as a writer. His most influential boos were Les Francais en Amérique Pendant le Guerre de l’Indépendence (The French During the American War for Independence) and International Courts of Arbitration. For his help in solving a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Britain, he was monikered, “”Father of International Arbitration.” In his honor his sons built the Balch Library in Leesburg, Virginia. Once segregated, the library is now a history center and an Underground Railroad research site. [iv]( Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Balch Family Papers, https://hsp.org/sites/default/files/legacy_files/migrated/findingaid3058balch.pdf , accessed March 2021; Friends of Thomas Balch Library, “Thomas Balch Library,” http://balchfriends.org/balch-library, accessed March 2021.)
    • Alexandrine Macomb Balch (Mrs. George. D. Cummins) (1828-1900)
      • Alexandrine M. Balch Cummins and her husband were leaders in the creation of the Reformed Episcopal Church in America. The Rev. Dr. Cummins was its first bishop. (Galusha Balch, 473.)
    • Stephen Fitzhugh Balch (1830-1903)
      • Dr. Stephen F. Balch was a surgeon in the Civil War with the 19th Iowa Infantry. He broke down after three months and later became paralyzed. (Thomas Willing Balch, 344.)

    United States Census Bureau, Third Census of the United States, 1820, Leesburg, Loudoun, Virginia, NARA Roll: M33_137, page 3, last line; United States Census Bureau, Fourth Census of the United States, 1830, Frederick, Maryland; NARA Roll: M19_57, page 107, line 14; United States Census Bureau, Fifth Census of the United States, 1840, Frederick, Frederick, Maryland, NARA Roll:165_113, page 16, line 10; United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Jefferson County, Virginia, NARA Roll M432, page 75, lines 4-14; United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Charlestown, Jefferson County, West Virginia, NARA Roll: M653_1355, page 7, lines 32-36; Galusha Balch,), 451.[]

  5. Thomas Willing Balch, 215-216, 218; J. E. Norris, History of the Lower Shenandoah Valley Counties of Frederick, Berkeley, Jefferson and Clarke: Their Early Settlement and Progress to the Present Time; Geological Features; a Description of Their Historic and Interesting Localities; Cities, Towns and Villages; Portraits of Some of the Prominent Men, and Biographies of Many of the Representative Citizens (A. Warner & Company, 1890), 295. Galusha Burchard Balch, op. cit.[]
  6. Thomas Willing Balch, 221-225.[]
  7. Ibid.[]
  8. Maryland State Colonization Society Overview” (fn. 18), Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, available at: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov/html/casestudies/mscs_overview.pdf#search=manumission%20chapter%20281 in Eric C. Stoykovich, “Africa’s Maryland: Manumission and Emigration of Maryland’s Freed People, ca. 1836,” Hornbake Library (Baltimore, Maryland),Blog, February 16, 2017, https://hornbakelibrary.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/africas-maryland-manumission-and-emigration-of-marylands-freed-people-ca-1836/, accessed April 2021.[]
  9. Stoykovich; Ted Maris-Wolf, Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 142, 146.[]
  10. Stoykovich; Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, /ipa/0/0/0/5/1/4/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Vital Statistics Reports, Web: www.dhhs.gov ; www.cdc.gov.[]
  11. Stoykovich; Maris-Wolf, 134, 138.[]

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits.