The Tappan Brothers

American merchants and reformers Arthur (1786-1865) and Lewis (1788-1873) Tappan were religious moralists and abolitionists who helped create important new institutions.

Born in Northampton, Mass., Arthur and Lewis Tappan were among the 11 children of a goldsmith and merchant. Their mother kept a strict Calvinistic household. Both Arthur and Lewis early showed aptitude for business and rose rapidly as wholesale and retail merchants in Boston and Canada. Arthur, a stern man, moved to New York, where he attained wealth in selling silks and a reputation for social and religious concerns. His most notable innovation was the one-price system on sales. Lewis, a warmer and more expressive personality, was won over by the Reverend William Ellery Channing and troubled his family by becoming a Unitarian. His return to Calvinism in 1828 created a sensation in Boston and beyond.

In 1827 Lewis joined Arthur in New York. They became influential in numerous fields. They began the Journal of Commerce to create a business paper which also had a religious perspective. Their connection with the Magdalen Society, intended to end prostitution in the city, exposed them to antagonism and ridicule, as did their campaigns against Sunday mails. They contributed to church funds and building.

Arthur took himself and his brother into the antislavery crusade. Impelled by evangelicism, both embraced William Lloyd Garrison's radical doctrine of "immediate" abolition. In 1833 they helped organize the New-York Antislavery Society and the American Antislavery Society. Public dissatisfaction with their activities the next year resulted in a riot during which Lewis Tappan's home was sacked. Arthur was active in founding Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a religious outpost. He also helped build Oberlin College in Ohio.

The economic crisis of 1837 ruined Arthur, and despite Lewis's loyalty and cooperation, he never regained his status as businessman or reformer. Lewis, on the other hand, continued consequential in both fields. In 1841 he founded the successful Mercantile Agency, the first commercial credit institution; it later become Dun and Bradstreet. Meanwhile he was at the center of abolitionist developments. In 1843 he visited England in a remarkable effort to persuade the British government to end slavery in Texas through a loan to the young republic.

In 1846 Lewis helped found the American Missionary Association, in opposition to groups more conservative on the slavery issue. The next year he helped found the National Era, which in 1852 published Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. His pamphlet Is It Right To Be Rich? (1869) answered the question with a firm negative.


Further Reading on Tappan Brothers

Lewis Tappan's Life of Arthur Tappan (1870) made his brother a major figure among later historians, at the expense of his own fame. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War against Slavery (1969), delineates Lewis's major significance in social and reform affairs of his era.