Arnold Buffum

Inducted: 2001
Born: 1782
Died: 1859

Arnold Buffum, hatmaker, inventor, and abolitionist, was the second son among William Buffum’s and Lydia Arnold’s eight children. He was born on December 13, 1782, and raised in a farmhouse near Smithfield’s Union Village, now part of North Smithfield. Arnold’s childhood home, called the William Buffum House for his Quaker father, who built it, still stands at 383 Great Road. William Buffum, a member of the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, strongly influenced his son Arnold and his granddaughter, daughter Elizabeth.

Despite his rural roots and meager education, Arnold Buffum became an entrepreneur whose main business was manufacturing and selling hats in Providence. He received no formal education but developed an early sympathy for the antislavery cause in a family that assisted fugitive slaves. Buffum received patents for carding wool and fur for hats in 1807 and 1825 and for the manufacture of waterproofing for hats, shoes, and boots in 1820 and 1822. He manufactured hats and raised sheep successfully while moving his family from Rhode Island to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Business reverses during his career caused his relocation back to the family homestead and then to Fall River and Philadelphia, and business interests even prompted him to visit Europe twice. He and his wife, the former Rebecca Gould, were married in 1803 and became the parents of seven children, all of whom were raised in the Quaker faith. The most notable of these children were their daughter Elizabeth and son Edward, who became the Paris correspondent of the New York Herald.

Arnold Buffum’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 Antislavery Society in 1832. Garrison became the bold new organization’s secretary-treasurer, while the eloquent Buffum was elected 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, especially to the Society of Friends meetings. By the late 1830s, however, he broke with Garrison to support “political abolitionism” by creating a third party dedicated to that goal. He accordingly assisted James G. Birney in founding the Liberty Party in 1840 and supported the Free-Soil campaign of 1848. In addition to his passion against slavery, Buffum has also been described as a temperance advocate and a “lover of books.”

In 1843, a fellow passenger on one of Buffum’s European trips described him as “an Old Hickory [i.e., Jacksonian] abolitionist…a tall, gray-headed, gold-spectacled patriarch…a very sharp old fellow [who] has all his facts ready…abuses his country outrageously” for being proslavery but who is still a “genuine democratic American.” On March 13, 1989, Buffum died near Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in Eaglewood, the utopian community founded by his daughter Rebecca Buffum Spring and her husband, Marcus Spring. He was eventually returned home to the Smithfield Meetinghouse for burial beside his wife, Rebecca.

Arnold Buffum was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2001.

For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, History Press, Charleston, SC,

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