Of all the Rhode Island leaders profiled herein, no person’s personal life was more erratic, peripatetic or tragic than that of Seth Luther. No one traveled through America as extensively or delivered more public addresses. No one lived in a more impoverished condition or fought as hard for the working class.
Luther was born in Providence sometime in 1795, one of at least four sons born to Rebecca and Thomas Luther, a leather tanner. His mother’s maiden name is unknown, but his father, a Revolutionary War veteran, was descended from John Luther, one of the earliest settlers of nearby Taunton, Massachusetts.
Seth was educated in Providence common schools, read widely and obviously learned well because he became an articulate and inspiring orator and a knowledgeable writer. Unlike Tristam Burges, however, he was not destined to become a professor of oratory and belles-lettres; instead, he was apprenticed to prominent Providence builder Caleb Earle and learned the trade of a carpenter and housewright.
One of the apt words that could be used to describe Luther is “restless.” In 1817, soon after reaching his majority, he undertook the first of his several trips to America’s western frontier of settlement—Ohio, Indiana and Illinois—where he claimed to “have been delighted after a journey of 40 miles per day on foot, in the vast, gloomy, and grand forests of the West…to enter the hospitable log-cabin of the hardy pioneer…and listen to his well-told tale of hardships endured, of difficulties surmounted, and domestic happiness obtained through perseverance.”
University of Rhode Island sociology professor Carl Gersuny, who has done more than anyone to document Luther’s importance in America’s early labor movement, has best described the impact on Luther of his contrasting impressions of the East and the West: “His mission in life was rooted in the stark contrast he perceived between…his encounters with egalitarian frontier hospitality and the rhetoric of the Revolution (‘all men are created equal’) and…the class inequities of the Northeast.” Another sympathetic historian, Louis Hartz, styled Luther “a working-class rebel,” and that assessment also hits the mark. When Luther was back in Providence after his initial venture, records indicate that he was expelled from the fellowship of the First Baptist Church and spent time in prison for debt.
Luther’s earliest involvement with Rhode Island’s movement for political and constitutional reform occurred at a large Providence rally in March 1829, where participants voiced opposition to Rhode Island’s real estate (i.e., freehold) requirement for voting, office holding, jury duty and other civil rights. That group’s resultant petition to the General Assembly was emphatically denied via a scathing report penned by Benjamin Hazard, an archconservative legislator from Newport.
Despite this rebuff, Luther continued his agitation on behalf of the workingman—a category that for him included women, children and the unskilled laborer—by delivering addresses throughout eastern New England and writing pro-labor essays. He was instrumental in the creation of the New England Association of Farmers and Mechanics in 1832 and the Boston Trades Union in 1834. His greatest impact, however, was in Rhode Island.
On April 19, 1833 (Patriot’s Day), Luther helped to initiate another effort to achieve constitutional reform when he delivered two spirited public addresses at the Providence Town House on Benefit Street. These long exhortations were then printed as An Address on the Right of Free Suffrage, a pamphlet that anticipated the political philosophy of the Dorr Rebellion. This notable and influential Address was tainted by sarcasm, bombast, ridicule and irreverence, but its attack on Rhode Island’s freehold was surprisingly learned and basically accurate. Luther loved to remind his audiences that he was “merely a poor journeyman carpenter,” but despite such self-depreciation his address dared to blast the “small potato aristocrats” who were responsible for the perpetuation of a freehold system that was “contrary to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights of the State of Rhode Island, and the dictates of common sense.”
Luther’s fulminations against the suffrage statute reinforced those criticisms that had been voiced at the 1829 Providence rally, but his proposed method of securing relief was more drastic. To exert pressure on the legislature, he recommended that non-freemen refuse to pay taxes and decline to perform military duty. “No law…assessing a tax on non-voters, can with justice be collected; for they have never given their assent to the tax, directly or indirectly, by themselves or their representatives,” he argued. “Resist tyranny, if need be, sword in hand.”
Although he recommended “passive resistance” at the outset, the Address’s use of the aphorism “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must,” no doubt shook the complacency of the landed establishment. So also did Luther’s assertion, anticipatory of Thomas Dorr, that the people possess “a right to assemble in primary meetings and appoint Delegates to a Convention” that has “a right to form a Constitution, and submit it” for ratification and adoption as “the law of the land.” This bold course of bypassing the General Assembly was the one eventually pursued, but in 1833, hope for less impetuous change still existed and more moderate alternatives temporarily prevailed.
The Providence gathering to whom Luther appealed in April 1833, when he first delivered his Address, was an ad hoc association consisting mainly of “workingmen,” who appointed a committee that evening to correspond with “friends in different parts of the State, for the purpose of fixing a time and place, for holding a State Convention.” This committee, headed by William I. Tillinghast, a Providence barber, was composed of three freemen and three non-freemen. The other members of the group, who proudly added their names and occupations on all reports and correspondence, were Lawrence Richards, blacksmith; William Mitchell, shoemaker; Seth Luther, housewright; William Miller, currier; and David Brown, watch and clock maker.
The 1833 protest led to the call of a constitutional convention the following year, but this abortive gathering adjourned without drafting a new basic law. The 1834 convention, in which delegates were apportioned in replication of the conservative General Assembly, resisted change, despite the reform efforts therein of two young Providence attorneys, Joseph K. Angell and Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Between 1834 and 1840, Luther continued his far-flung travels, spreading the gospel of labor. In one surviving address to the mechanics and workingmen of Brooklyn on the Fourth of July 1836, he impressed upon his audience the fact that Jesus Christ was a carpenter and a workingman.
Sometimes wearied by his efforts, Luther occasionally returned to his father’s home in Providence for rest and rejuvenation. However, when the Rhode Island Suffrage Association formed in the aftermath of the hectic “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” presidential campaign of 1840, he was back in the local fray, delivering reform speeches throughout the state. As Thomas Dorr emerged as the leader of this popular movement, Luther befriended him and became his unshakeable ally. He was with Dorr when the newly inaugurated people’s governor attempted to take possession of the state arsenal at the Dexter Training Grounds after midnight on May 18, 1842, and he was with Dorr in Chepachet in late June, when the beleaguered reformer attempted to convene the people’s legislature in this Glocester village.
After Dorr’s followers fled Chepachet, rather than do battle with an advancing state militia force of 3,500, Governor Samuel Ward King declared martial law. Luther was arrested near the mill villages of Woonsocket Falls and brought to Providence with a score of other prisoners. According to his own testimony, “We were exhibited through the streets in triumph to glut the vengeance of the most cursed aristocracy that ever disgraced humanity.” He was imprisoned on the day his eighty-seven-year-old father died, and he was denied the privilege of attending the funeral.
For his allegedly treasonous actions, Luther remained in prison until March 1843, first in Providence and then in Newport. He was represented by Dorr’s close friend attorney Walter S. Burges. Luther made an attempt at escape in late 1842 by setting fire to his cell and rushing out of it when the jailer went for water, but he was quickly apprehended. When the state dropped its charges against him in August 1843, he traveled to Baltimore, where, according to Luther’s account, sympathetic individuals, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Maryland native, raised a fund of forty dollars to enable him to visit a friend in rural Illinois, with whom he spent the winter of 1843–44.
During the presidential campaign of 1844, Luther traveled on foot throughout Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, attempting to generate popular support for liberating the imprisoned Dorr under the slogan “Polk, Dallas, and Dorr.” By mid-1845, after Dorr had been freed from jail, Luther was back in Providence for another brief stay. In letters to Dorr, he denounced the “false hearted friends” of the people’s governor, those who failed to stand by “you and the cause” and “who forsook you in the darkest days of despair, some of whom are now fawning about you like puppies.”
After another trip westward, Luther returned to New England in 1846 to campaign for the ten-hour workday. Then he suffered a mental breakdown. When the Mexican War erupted in May, he sent an unsolicited letter to President James K. Polk, offering his assistance as a clerk; in it, he claimed, with some hyperbole, to have traveled “about 150,000 miles, within thirty years, in the United States.” Less than two weeks later, he was arrested, sword in hand, for attempting to rob a Boston bank by demanding “a thousand dollars in the name of President Polk.”
On June 15, 1846, Luther was committed to a mental asylum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and would remain institutionalized for the remainder of his life. In November of that year, he was transferred to the Dexter Asylum at the expense of the City of Providence, where he became a workhouse inmate. After Butler Hospital opened in December 1847, he was transferred there, and with Dr. Isaac Ray soon diagnosing him as “incurable,” Luther remained at Butler until November 1858. During that time, no visitor came to see him. Burdened by the economic panic of 1857, the city decided to end the expense of his care at a time when the hospital began to discourage the presence of incurable pauper inmates. He was then transferred to the less expensive Vermont Asylum in Brattleboro, where he died on April 23, 1863, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The relentless Providence Journal, which had attacked Luther through life, wrote a scathing obituary. While admitting that “he had considerable talent for both writing and speaking,” the paper’s parting shot was that “he was too violent, willful, and headstrong to accomplish any good” during “his worse than useless life.” The bitter scribe who wrote that anonymous diatribe is long forgotten, but Luther’s reform legacy lives on, especially through the efforts of URI professor Scott Molloy and his Rhode Island Labor History Society.