Charles Calistus Burleigh

A younger Burleigh pledged to not cut his hair or beard until slavery had been abolished. Image courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Charles C. Burleigh as he appeared late in life still sporting beard and ringlets. Image courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Charles C. Burleigh

by Karen Board Moran, 3/26/2005
An ardent abolitionist and journalist, Burleigh was vocal against Connecticut’s “Black Law” and became editor of the Unionist, originally published in defense of Prudence Crandall’s school.

Eccentric in dress and with a flowing beard he vowed not to remove until the end of slavery, Burleigh turned his back on a professional career to become agent and lecturer for the Middlesex Anti-Slavery. He was a regular contributor to the Liberator and one of the editors of thePennsylvania Freeman.

He was a supportive friend of Abby Kelley. Active in a number of reform movements, Burleigh plunged into the Anti-Sabbatarian campaign after he was arrested in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1847 for selling antislavery literature on Sunday. Abby and Stephen Foster had been arrested in Ohio for the same offense in July 1846.

In 1845 he published a pamphlet, Thoughts on the Death Penalty, condemning capital punishment.

He participated in the 1850 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA and was a woman’s rights man throughout his life.

  • Born November 3, 1810 in Plainfield, Connecticut
  • Died June 13,1878 in railroad accident in Florence, MA
  • Buried: Park Street Cemetery, Florence, MA
  • Education: early schooling at Plainfield Academy and began to study the law
  • Married Gertrude Kimber of Chester County, PA in October 24, 1842
  • Children: Charles C. Burleigh, Jr. (1848-1882) and two others
  • In 1861 the family moved to Florence, MA where he was the first speaker of the Free Congregational Society.
  • In the 1870s he joined his brother, William Henry, in the campaign for temperance reform


Worcester Women’s History Project – 30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852

Burleigh's house on North Main Street in Florence as it appeared at the turn of the twentieth century. Photo courtesy Historic Northampton

Charles C. Burleigh
by Joe Lockard

Charles Burleigh (1810-1878) was one of the most active, vital and exciting speakers of the antebellum abolition movement. As an agent for several abolitionist groups, he earned widespread admiration for his public addresses. William Wells Brown, ex-slave and public orator, described Burleigh in glowing terms:

“In the month of May, 1834, while one evening strolling up Broadway, New York, I saw a crowd making its way into the Minerva Rooms, and, having no pressing engagement, I followed, and was soon in a splendid hall, where some twelve or fifteen hundred persons were seated, and listening to rather a strange-looking man. The speaker was tall and slim, with long arms, long legs, and a profusion of auburn or reddish hair hanging in ringlets down his shoulders; while a huge beard of the same colour fell upon his breast. His person was not at all improved by his dress. The legs of his trousers were shorter than those worn by smaller men: the sleeves of his coat were small and short, the shirt collar turned down in Byronic style, beard and hair hid his countenance, so that no redeeming feature could be found there; yet there was one redeeming quality about the man—that was the stream of fervid eloquence which escaped from his lips. I inquired his name, and was informed that it was Charles C. Burleigh. Nature has been profuse in showering her gifts upon Mr. Burleigh, but all has been bestowed upon his head and heart. There is a kind of eloquence which weaves its thread around the hearer, and gradually draws him into its web, fascinating him with its gaze, entangling him as the spider does the fly, until he is fast: such is the eloquence of C. C. Burleigh. As a debater he is unquestionably the first on the Anti-slavery platform. If he did not speak so fast, he would equal Wendell Phillips; if he did not reason his subject out of existence, he would surpass him. However, one would have to travel over many miles, and look in the faces of many men, before he would find one who has made more personal sacrifices, or done more to bring about the Emancipation of the American Slaves, than Mr. Charles C. Burleigh.” (Brown, Three Years in Europe, London, Charles Gilpin, 1852, 264-265)

Similarly, Parker Pillsbury observed of Burleigh that “On the platform, in argument, he had no superior and few equals.” (Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles, Concord, NH, 1883, 479-480) As well as engaging in lengthy speaking tours, Burleigh served as the antislavery editor of The Unionist and The Pennsylvania Freeman. He published Thoughts on the Death Penalty (1845), a notable early argument against capital punishment.

This tract reads as Burleigh might have spoken in his antislavery stump speeches. It presents a series of paragraphed arguments that address different objections to immediate emancipation. He addresses, for example, proslavery objections concerning ‘fitness for freedom’ by observing that the prevalence of illiteracy illustrates that “bad effect is no good reason for continuing the cause, but rather shows the need for its immediate removal. What!—shall we enslave men, because slavery makes them base?”(3) Freedom, he argues, acts to correct differences in social conditions between blacks and whites; slavery perpetuates these differences. Since slave-holders asserted that slaves were content in slavery, Burleigh points to this as a myth contradicted by abundant evidence to the contrary. (6-7)  He is particularly concerned to address proslavery arguments in circulation in the northern states, such as a belief that emancipated slaves would leave the South en masse and lower wages in the North. (8-9) Burleigh condemns Northern inaction on slavery and concludes “The system is not southern only; it is national. Till this alliance with it is dissolved, the North is guilty with the South.” (12)

For further on Burleigh, see Ira V. Brown, An Antislavery Agent: C.C. Burleigh in Pennsylvania, 1836-1837, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 105 (1981) 1: 66-84.