Eli Thayer (1819-1899) was an American reformer, agitator, and promoter who used his considerable talent and generally progressive ideals to devise and support harebrained schemes.
Eli Thayer was born in Mendon, Mass., on June 11, 1819, the scion of an old family of comfortable means. He was well educated but interrupted his studies several times, perhaps because of financial problems but possibly because of an erratic temperament that later became more obvious. He graduated from Brown University in 1845 and soon became president of Worcester Academy, his old school. Thayer and his wife constructed a preposterous castle-type building for Oread Collegiate Institute, a women's school under Thayer's headship. Like virtually all of Thayer's projects, Oread was a curious admixture of high idealism and canny Yankee opportunism. The school offered a far more substantial curriculum than most contemporary "female academies, " while it also provided Thayer with a decent income.
By 1852 Thayer had held several public offices. But his chief work began in 1854 and 1855, when he led in organizing the New England Emigrant Aid Company. These were the days of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, when Congress revoked the slave-free status of what became Kansas Territory and declared that the problem of slavery in the territory would be determined by popular vote within it. New England became a hotbed of opposition to this act. The Emigrant Aid Company helped finance New Englanders who wished to settle in Kansas so as to vote it free. Thayer as usual made a lucrative practice out of an ideal; he devoted most of his time between 1854 and 1856 to promoting settlement and received a percentage of all money he collected. He was perhaps the most significant figure in the proceedings. Thayer later looked back on Kansas as his chief accomplishment, writing several books about it, the most notable being A History of the Kansas Crusade (1889).
Thayer served in Congress between 1857 and 1861 and touted "colonization" as virtually a cure-all of the nation's (and the world's) ills. He advocated financing settlers to Utah (in order to vote out Mormon polygamy), to the border states (in order to whittle away at slavery), and to Central America (in order to guard against the introduction of slavery). By 1860, however, his political career had been hurt by his extreme individualism and his relationship with John Brown (whom Thayer may have helped subsidize). Thayer received some political patronage during the war, worked successfully as a land agent for western railroads between 1864 and 1870, and ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1874 and 1878. He died in April 1899.
There is probably no better insight into Thayer's personality and role in the Kansas affair than his A History of the Kansas Crusade, Its Friends and Its Foes (1889). A short sketch of Thayer is in Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830-1860 (1960). A more complete sketch is in Lawrence Lader, The Bold Brahmins: New England's War against Slavery, 1831-1863 (1961).