In 1826, Arthur and his brother Lewis moved to New York City, a center of business and retail trade, and established a silk importing business. In 1827, the brothers founded the New York Journal of Commerce with Samuel F.B. Morse. Arthur and Lewis Tappan were successful businessmen, but commerce was never their foremost interest. They viewed making money as less important than saving souls. They made The Journal of Commerce a publication free of “immoral advertisements.” Both men suffered in the Anti-abolitionist riots (1834), in which anti-abolitionist mobs attacked their property. Arthur Tappan was one of two signatories who issued a disclaimer on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the aftermath of the riots, emphasising its dedication to abolishing slavery within the existing laws of the United States.
The Panic of 1837 forced the Tappans to close their silk-importing business, and almost scuttled their paper, but the brothers persevered. In the 1840s, they founded another lucrative business enterprise when they opened the first commercial credit-rating service, the Mercantile Agency, a predecessor of Dun and Bradstreet.
The Tappan brothers made their mark in commerce and in abolitionism. Throughout their careers, the Tappans devoted time and money to philanthropic causes as diverse as temperance, the abolition of slavery, and the establishment of theological seminaries and educational institutions, such as Oberlin and Kenyon colleges in Ohio. Their beliefs about observing Sabbath extended to campaigns against providing stagecoach service and mail deliveries on Sundays.
In the early 1830s, while a principal owner of The Journal of Commerce, Arthur Tappan allied with William Lloyd Garrison and co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Arthur served as its first president until 1840, when he resigned based on his opposition to the society's new support of women's suffrage and feminism. Their early support for Oberlin College, a center of abolitionist activity, included $10,000 to build Tappan Hall. Oberlin's green Tappan Square now occupies the site.
Continuing their support for abolition, Arthur and his brother founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, and the American Missionary Association in 1846. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, Tappan refused to comply with the new law and donated money to the Underground Railroad. The brothers' positions on the slavery issue were not universally popular. In early July 1834, Lewis Tappan’s New York home was sacked by a mob, who threw his furniture into the street and burned it.
The Tappans and The Journal of Commerce attracted bitter criticism for their campaign to free the Africans who had taken over the slave ship Amistad in 1839. James Gordon Bennett, Sr.’s rival New York Morning Herald denounced “the humbug doctrines of the abolitionists and the miserable fanatics who propagate them,” particularly Lewis Tappan and The Journal of Commerce.
Arthur Tappan died in 1865, Lewis in 1873. Both men lived long enough to see the Emancipation Proclamation grant freedom to millions of African Americans in the South and presage the end of slavery.
- The Times, Friday August 08, 1834; pg. 2; Issue 15551; col D
- The Times, Friday August 08, 1834; pg. 2; Issue 15551; col D ‘AMERICAN ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY: DISCLAIMER. – The undersigned, in behalf of the Executive Committee of the ‘American Anti-Slavery Society’ and of other leading friends of the cause, now absent from the city, beg the attention of their fellow-citizens to the following disclaimer:- 1. We entirely disclaim any desire to promote or encourage intermarriages between white and coloured persons. 2. We disclaim and entirely disapprove the language of a handbill recently circulated in this city, the tendency of which is thought to be to excite resistance to the laws. Our principle is, that even hard laws are to be submitted to by all men, until they can by peaceable means be altered. We disclaim, as we have already done, any intention to dissolve the Union, or to violate the constitution and laws of the country, or to ask of Congress any act transcending their constitutional powers, which the abolition of slavery by Congress in any state would plainly do. July 12, 1834 ARTHUR TAPPAN. JOHN RANKIN
- Oberlin History: Frequently Asked Questions.
- ‘’The Times’’, Friday August 08, 1834; pg. 2; Issue 15551; col D : ‘Dr. Cox, whose church and house were gutted, and Mr. TAPPAN, whose house and store were entered and robbed, seem to have been the chief sufferers by these riots.’