Arnold Buffum was one of Rhode Island’s leading abolitionists. He was born and raised in a farmhouse near Union Village in present-day North Smithfield. His childhood home, called the William Buffum House for his Quaker father who built it, still stands at 383 Great Road.
Despite his rural roots, Arnold Buffum became an entrepreneur whose main business was the manufacture and sale of hats in Providence, but he also patented some inventions pertaining to his trade and raised sheep on his father’s farm. During his career, business reverses caused his relocation back to the family homestead, and then to Fall River and also to Philadelphia. He and his wife, the former Rebecca Gould, became the parents of seven children, all of whom were raised in the Quaker faith.
Arnold’s Quaker beliefs greatly influenced his views on slavery, and soon after William Lloyd Garrison began the publication of the Liberator in 1831, the two joined with other like-minded reformers to establish the New England Anti-Slavery Society (1832). Garrison became the bold new organization’s secretary-treasurer while the eloquent Buffum was selected president and the group’s first roving lecturer, a post not conducive to his economic well-being.
For the next decade and-a-half, Buffum traveled in New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, preaching the gospel of abolitionism to all who would listen, and especially to meetings of the Society of Friends. By the late 1830s, however, he broke with Garrison to support “political abolitionism” through the creation of a third-party dedicated to that goal. Accordingly, he assisted James G. Birney in founding the Liberty Party in 1840, supported the Free Soil campaign of 1848, and gravitated into the Republican Party by the mid-1850s. In addition to his passion against slavery, Buffum has been also described as a temperance advocate and a “lover of books.”
Arnold’s reform work had a great influence on his second child, Elizabeth, born in Providence on Benefit Street in 1806. As Elizabeth Buffum Chace, she became not only a prominent abolitionist, but also a leader in the movements for women’s rights and prison reform.