Moncure Daniel Conway (17 March 1832–14 or 15 November 1907), reformer and writer, was born at Middleton, the Stafford County estate of his parents, Walker Peyton Conway, a planter, entrepreneur, and presiding judge of the Stafford County Court, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel Conway, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. From both parents he inherited prestigious names and powerful connections. His great-uncle Peter V. Daniel (1784–1860) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and his uncle Raleigh Travers Daniel later served as Virginia's attorney general. In 1832 no one could have envisioned this son of the Virginia slavocracy as an abolitionist and abettor of fugitive slaves, a racial egalitarian and feminist, and a leading religious radical on two continents. Yet Conway was all these things. His significance for Virginia history lies not merely in the breathtaking dimensions of his apostasy, nor in his regurgitation from the state for abolitionist activism; most fundamentally it lies in the ways in which Virginia helped create him. Virginia repudiated Conway only after Virginians had helped produce him.
In 1834 the Conway family moved to Inglewood, a plantation two miles from Falmouth, and four years later to a house in Falmouth that was the family's residence for the remainder of Conway's youth. His father concentrated his attention on Conway's elder brother; the major influence on Conway was his dynamic, outspoken mother, who encouraged his love of music and literature and without crushing his inner nature urged him to do his duty. Although not an abolitionist or a formal supporter of woman's rights, Margaret Conway imparted to her son a suspicion of arbitrary power, the key to all his later radical commitments. She expressed moral reservations about slavery, as did other female relatives. Two paternal aunts were chastised in their father's will for their antislavery views, and a cousin became the model for a fiercely antislavery southern woman in Conway's novel Pine and Palm (1887).
After attending a Fredericksburg academy, Conway joined his brother at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, chosen for its affiliation with Methodism. Trying to embrace the politics of his male relatives, he sent the Richmond Examiner—edited by his cousin John Moncure Daniel—articles lambasting northern ways. After graduating in July 1849, Conway studied law, dutifully but unhappily, in Warrenton with a family acquaintance. In April 1850 he read about Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose emphasis on self-reliance and personal authenticity energized Conway. He began corresponding with Emerson, whom he met in 1853 and with whom he maintained a fond friendship until the older man's death.
Conway became interested in public education and advocated establishing a statewide system of public schools. All his male relatives disapproved. Senator James Murray Mason personally rebuked him and warned that public education would unleash "the entire swarm of Northern 'isms.'" In the autumn of 1850 Conway wrote and published a self-financed pamphlet entitled Free-Schools in Virginia: A Plea of Education, Virtue and Thrift, vs. Ignorance, Vice and Poverty. He blamed Virginia's economic decline on educational backwardness, not on slavery. Conway sent a copy to each delegate to the state convention then meeting to revise the constitution; they ignored it and the issue.
Disillusioned, struggling to meet expectations, yet increasingly determined to live an autonomous and not arbitrary life, Conway late in 1850 abandoned legal studies to become a Methodist minister. Beginning in April 1851 he rode the Rockville circuit in Maryland. For several months he threw himself into Methodist orthodoxy, but his calling had been artificially created and did not last. Paternal pressure intensified with the death of Conway's elder brother in March 1852. Conway escaped by applying to the Harvard Divinity School in order to prepare for the Unitarian ministry. He spent about two interim months in Falmouth and Fredericksburg, where his religious and political unorthodoxy had become well known. While he drew closer to the women of the family, his father was icy, and his uncle Eustace Conway, a member of the Convention of 1850–1851, threatened to have him drummed out of town. On 1 January 1853 Conway witnessed the annual hiring-out of slaves. The sight drove home "how much hatred I had of the Institution—and how much contempt for the persons engaged in it." On 14 February he left for Massachusetts, never to live in Virginia again.
Opposition to Slavery
Conway received a B.D. in 1854. He reveled in the literary and artistic life of Boston and Cambridge. Conway befriended Theodore Parker, whose politically conscious ministry became a model for his own. He declared himself a radical abolitionist during a notorious fugitive slave case, when in May 1854 Anthony Burns, of Stafford County (whom Conway apparently had met), was marched in manacles through angry Boston crowds and returned to slavery in Virginia. Conway watched the procession with a group of abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. At the famous Fourth of July Framingham rally at which Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution, Conway told the crowd of his exultation at the opportunity to speak freely, because "in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave." He urged his listeners to resist the heightened demands of the slavocracy lest they become slaves too.
In September 1854 Conway began preaching at First Unitarian Church (later All Souls Church), in Washington, D.C., where he was ordained on 28 February 1855. His support for the emerging Republican Party and a series of widely publicized antislavery sermons caused his dismissal in 1856, but a more-compatible congregation in Cincinnati immediately hired him. There on 1 June 1858 he married Ellen Davis Dana, daughter of a Unitarian businessman of Massachusetts lineage. They had three sons and one daughter. They closed their honeymoon in Falmouth, which Conway last had seen in January 1855, when almost immediately local toughs had forced him to decamp. The honeymoon visit was a fiasco as well and collapsed in acrimony after Ellen Conway kissed a four-year-old slave girl at a neighbor's farm and thus (recalled a former slave) "set the magazine on fire." Conway's wife never visited Virginia again.
In 1859, after Conway announced that he had ceased to believe in miracles or the divinity of Jesus, one-third of his Cincinnati congregation seceded. But the cosmopolitanism of his renamed "Free Church" attracted still more members and positioned Conway as a leading figure in American free thought, as he groped toward a theism compatible with an individualistic and scientific age. In 1860 he founded and edited the Dial, a short-lived monthly magazine that disseminated his liberal Unitarian views to a national audience.
During the Civil War, two of Conway's brothers served in the Confederate army, and his father was a Confederate supporter living at a Richmond boardinghouse. His mother spent much of the war in Pennsylvania with his married sister. Conway initially supported the war for reunion, provided it became explicitly about abolition and not mere conquest. On lecture tours and in two books—The Rejected Stone: or, Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America (1861) and The Golden Hour (1862)—he argued that only unconditional emancipation could justify or win the war and consistently urged compassion, not hatred, for the slavery-maddened South.
In the summer of 1862 Conway learned that about thirty of his father's slaves had escaped to Washington, D.C. At great risk to himself he rushed to escort them to Ohio and posed for a time as their owner in the slave city of Baltimore. He helped to resettle the freedpeople on donated land near Yellow Springs. Conway's activity so impressed Boston abolitionists that they hired him as coeditor, with Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, of a new antislavery weekly, The Commonwealth. Conway moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and the paper debuted on 6 September 1862.
Yet Conway grew disillusioned by what he saw as Abraham Lincoln's timidity, disappointed that the Emancipation Proclamation left many people enslaved, and depressed by the war's ravaging of his native region. In April 1863 he left the country for a speaking tour in Great Britain. Though known to few but himself, Conway's intention was to stay away. He soon wrote to his wife beseeching her to move the family to England. Conway also wrote to the unreceived Confederate emissary in London, James Murray Mason, asserting that abolitionists would stop supporting the war if the Confederacy freed its slaves—a last, naive effort to achieve abolition and peace simultaneously. Shrewdly, Mason published Conway's unauthorized letter in the pro-Confederate Times. A firestorm of rebuke resulted, and most abolitionists repudiated Conway. He also was drafted, a move probably politically motivated; he paid the commutation fee. The abolitionist outcry sealed his exile. Unable to end the fratricide honorably, he felt justified in staying away from it honorably. His family sailed for London in August 1863.
In London, Conway published Testimonies Concerning Slavery (1864), recounting his experiences in slaveholding Virginia, attacking ethnic prejudice, and recommending interracial marriage as one step toward a better society. He also began a literary and journalistic career, during which he wrote for both British and American audiences, played a major role in popularizing Walt Whitman in England, and acted as literary agent for Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain.
In 1864 Conway became minister at South Place Chapel, the most distinguished center of liberal religion in England. Serving there for a quarter of a century (1864–1885, 1893–1897), he made it even more a bastion of unfettered religious exploration and debate. (It continues as the South Place Ethical Society, meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square.) By the 1870s Conway had become agnostic (although he never used that term) and saw comparative religious study as a way of uniting disparate people, facing life's urgent mysteries, and challenging the mind. He published noteworthy works on spiritual topics, including Demonology and Devil-Lore (1879) and The Sacred Anthology: A Book of Ethnical Scriptures (1874), a pioneering compilation of excerpts from the world's sacred books. In 1883 Conway lectured in Australia and traversed India. He recounted the journey in his last book, the sensitive and thoughtful My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East (1906).
In 1875 and 1880 Conway lectured in the United States and visited Virginia, where family wounds were staunched if not healed. From 1885 to 1892 the family lived in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan, where Conway buttressed his reputation as a man of letters. His literary output included a sympathetic account of Edmund Randolph (1888), an insightful biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890), and Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (1892), romanticized anecdotes about the colonial Virginia gentry. The crowning achievement of this period was his biography of fellow transatlantic radical Thomas Paine (1892). In that year Dickinson College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
After a second sojourn in London, in 1897 Conway and his wife returned to New York, where Ellen Conway died on Christmas Day. A few months later Conway, denouncing the war with Spain and terror tactics against southern blacks, left the country. Unwilling to resettle in imperialist Britain, he chose France, where he believed independent thinkers had more influence. There Conway wrote one of the most significant autobiographies by a nineteenth-century American. Eventually acquiring another home in New York's Greenwich Village, he commuted between continents so often that the crew of the New York called him their mascot.
Despite long expatriation, Conway always regarded himself as American, southern, and Virginian. He named his first child after his proslavery uncle Eustace Conway and the only house he ever built (Inglewood, in Bedford Park, London) after the Stafford County plantation of his earliest memories. Conway always respected his father and similar Virginians for their commitment to honor, duty, and hard work. But he believed them bewitched by slavery and white supremacy, driven into unintended, unnoticed daily barbarities. Leaving Virginia, he rejected not these people but the moral blinders that shackled them.
Conway retained values gained from other Virginians: generosity and forgiveness from enslaved men and women whom he knew and respected, compassion and toleration from free women who mightily influenced him. He came to envision and advocate a community infused by humane toleration, rejection of arbitrary power and easy violence, and respect for each person's autonomy. His life's "pilgrimage"—his favorite word—was a quest for these things. "Strike out the word white and the word male from our laws," he wrote in The Commonwealth in 1865, "and we shall reach the noblest transformation." His battles with dogma—political, social, religious—gave coherence and meaning to a dizzying, stunningly unusual life, one that requires broadening the definition of what nineteenth-century Virginia was, and what a nineteenth-century Virginian could be.
Moncure Daniel Conway was researching a biography of John Calvin when he died of a stroke, alone in his Paris apartment, during the night of 14–15 November 1907. His body was cremated at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, and his ashes were buried at Kensico Cemetery, in Valhalla, Westchester County, New York.
Conway, Autobiography: Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway (1904), with frontispiece portrait; Eustace Conway, ed., Moncure D. Conway: Addresses and Reprints, 1850–1907 (1909), with selected bibliography of writings on 437–444; Mary Elizabeth Burtis, Moncure Conway, 1832–1907 (1952), including selected bibliography of writings on 242–254; John d'Entremont, Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway, The American Years, 1832–1865 (1987), portraits and selected bibliography of writings on 271–273; Moncure Daniel Conway Papers (including fourth quotation from former slave Dunmore Gwinn to Conway, 10 Nov. 1891), Columbia University, New York, N.Y.; Moncure Daniel Conway Family Papers, including diary, 1851–1853 (second quotation in entry for 1 Jan. 1853), and copy of will, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa.; Conway, Testimonies Concerning Slavery (1864), 32–33 (first quotation); The Liberator, 14 July 1854 (third quotation); Boston Commonwealth, 22 Apr. 1865 (fifth quotation); Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 2, 9 Feb. 2002; Yellow Springs [Ohio] News, 12 June 2003; obituaries in New York Times, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Washington Post, all 17 Nov. 1907, London Times, 19 Nov. 1907, and Fredericksburg Free Lance, 21 Nov. 1907.
Image courtesy of World's Work 9 (1904):5650.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John d'Entremont.
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>John d'Entremont,"Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006, rev. 2017 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Conway_Moncure_Daniel, accessed [today's date]).
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