A Moment in Abolition History

A view by Horace Seldon

Often history records an event which later is seen as a crucial “moment”, filled with meaning beyond the specific time, place and personalities involved.  Such a time happened in London, in June, 1840.  In another place I’ve written about the international significance of that time, when Garrison and other men from New England refused to participate in an international anti-slavery convention, because women delegates had been denied recognition.  The effect on the movement became significant as a “watershed moment”.

In Boston, in 1835, a similarly significant “moment” occurred, once again with William Lloyd Garrison at the center, this time encountered by an angry “mob”.  To tell the story I will rely on Garrison’s own words, on the historical accounts of Henry Mayer, and of Garrison’s sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison, and Francis Jackson Garrison. Any particular “moment” has a historical context, and the year 1835, is a time which Garrison himself called a “reign of terror”, threatening individual abolitionists and the movement itself.

In New England in premonition of “terror”, late 1834 saw the destruction of Prudence Crandall’s school in Canterbury, Connecticut.  She had opened her school for young black women, and that act enflamed a hatred that warned abolitionists of the depth of what previously Garrison had called the “mountains of ice” which needed to be melted.  Then came the hot hatred of 1835. In Charleston, South Carolina, a post office was seized by a crowd of people who seized mailbags full of anti-slavery pamphlets; the fire which burned the literature became the scene of the hanging of effigies of Arthur Tappan and Garrison. In Nashville, Amos Dresser, a young man who had joined abolitionist protests at Lane Seminary, was publicly assailed and lashed twenty times in the public market. In Canaan, New Hampshire, voters of the town assembled in town meeting, and acted to appoint a committee to oversee the physical removal from the town of Noyes Academy.  That Academy had been started to educate young black children, under leadership which included one of Garrison’s devotees, David Child.    Also in New Hampshire, in that same year, in a church in Northfield, George Storrs, was lifted from his knees while offering an anti-slavery prayer, and thrown out of the church! This “reign of terror” became very real for Boston, and for Garrison.

George Thompson, strong abolitionist leader from England, had come to the United States in the previous year, and was still touring the country in 1835.  His speeches brought strength to the movement here, but he was under constant threat wherever he appeared.  At an August speech in Boston abolitionist women had cleverly maneuvered him away from a threatening crowd.  In the same month, a stone meant for Thompson, was thrown through a window, where he was speaking, in Lynn. Slaveholder hatred and fear took radical form. Subscriptions to a fund for procuring the heads of Garrison, Thompson, and Tappan, were invited to be made through a bookstore in Norfolk, Virginia.  The Richmond Enquirer urged that these “wanton fanatics” be “put down forever”, and warned the North against interference with the right of slavery. Some Northern commercial interests, threatened with the loss of Southern patronage, or the destruction of Southern branches, responded by bringing  pressure against abolitionists in Boston.

One Boston newspaper, the Commercial Gazette, responded to an announcement of an August 14 annual meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and predicted resistance.  “This resistance will not come from a rabble, but from men of property and standing, who have a large interest at stake in this community…”   The paper warned ladies to keep away, and threatened that if Thompson were to appear, he would be lynched.

Faneuil Hall was denied for abolitionist meetings, but on August 21, the same Hall was filled with those who wanted to “protect the rights of the South”.  Harrison Gray Otis, retired Mayor, was a featured organizer-speaker for that crowded meeting.  Otis spoke of the intent of abolitionists to create auxiliary societies in “every state and municipality”, asserting that this proved them to be “imminently dangerous” and “hostile to the spirit and letter of the constitution”. In the same period Samuel May had a speech broken up in Haverhill, and John Greenleaf Whittier was pelted with eggs in Concord.  The Garrison family was frightened by a gallows which was planted on the doorstep of their home, on Brighton Street.

The postponed meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, was announced for three o-clock on Wednesday afternoon, October 21st.  It was to be held at 46 Washington Street, in a hall at the Anti-Slavery office.  The Commercial Gazette reported on the indignation among business men who thought that “women ought to be engaged in some better business than that of stirring up strife between the South and the North on this matter of slavery… they ought to be at home, attending to their domestic concerns …”

Believing that George Thompson was to speak, anti-abolition forces distributed handbills which urged people to “snake out” Thompson, and offered a one hundred dollar prize for the first to lay violent hands on him. It hoped that  Thompson would “be brought to the tar-kettle before dark”.  These warnings were widely distributed to insurance offices, hotels, reading rooms, from State Street to the North end. Fearful merchants petitioned Mayor Lyman to prevent the meeting.

On the day of the meeting, a crowd had gathered along Washington Street, and in the vicinity of City Hall.  Hisses, sarcastic cheers, racial epithets were accompanied by demands for “Thompson”. The crowd was assured by the Mayor, who had arrived, that Thompson was not in the building.  Word spread soon that Garrison was there. He had come from his home on Brighton Street, where he had hosted a dinner for John Vashon, a leader of the Pittsburgh colored community; he was accompanied by Charles Burleigh, abolitionist from Connecticut.  Garrison, after consulting with the women leaders of the meeting, retired into the Anti-Slavery office, separated from the gathering by a partition.

The President of the Society, Mary Parker, proceeded with the business of the meeting, with the customary prayers and reading of Scripture. She was interrupted by the Mayor bursting into the room, requesting that the ladies abandon the meeting and go home. A conference between Parker, Maria Chapman, and the Mayor resulted in the decision by the ladies to adjourn the meeting and reconvene at the Chapman home at 11 West Street.

The story then becomes one of a remarkably dignified walk by the women, black and white, arm in arm, six blocks down Washington Street, through an angry mob, still resolute in determination to continue their meeting.  It is also the story of a portion of the mob gaining access to the building, grabbing Garrison, and his final release from the crowd by “two burly Irishmen not know as abolitionists”. He was then rushed by constables, into a carriage, and taken to the Leveret Street jail for safety overnight. John Vashon visited Garrison the next morning, where he was in prison, and gave him a hat to replace the one which had been “cut in pieces by the knives of men of propoerty and standing”.

History most often gives emphasis to the threat to Garrison, who was indeed nearly lynched, and could have been killed by some in the mob.  Here I want to lift up the courage of the women who walked through that mob, undeterred in the immediate purpose of their meeting, or the overarching purpose of abolition.  Here also it is appropriate to some who were present that day who were led to become dedicated abolitionists.

Young Wendell Phillips, son of Boston‘s first Mayor, dated his “conversion” to the abolitionist cause from the day when he witnessed the mob.  Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, just returned from medical training in Europe, knowing nothing of Garrison, was also infuriated by the mob’s action against Garrison. He vowed himself an abolitioinst from that moment, and shortly after subscribed to Garrison’s Liberator. Edmund Quincy, son of the second Mayor, was alerted toward the rights of abolition.  His father, Josiah Quincy, then President of the City Council, saw the mob from his office at 27 State Street, rushed to Garrison’s side until he was placed in the carriage and driven off, .  Rev. James E. Crawford, later of Nantucket, was walking on State Street and encountered the riotous mob, and “his heart and soul became fully dediacted to the cause of immediate emancipation. Thirty years later, William H. Logan told of how, soon after the mob had left, he had received from Sheriff Parkman, remnants of a pair of pantaloons which had been torn from Garrison. At that same 1855 remembrance of the occasion, William C. Nell reported that a Boston merchant, David Tilden, Esq., “immediately became a subscriber to the Liberator and continued a reader until his death. Reports of several others of the affect of being witness may be suspect, but the affect on Harriett Martineau was widely reported. Martineau, an English teacher, professor, liberator, had been in the country for months, conducting what might be termed a sociological study of slavery. She had interviewed slave owners and abolitionists alike, adhering to her academic style for the most part.  On the historic day, she was on her way from Salem to Providence, passing through Boston as the crowd was gathering.  Friends, seeing the well-dressed crowd, and knowing it was close to a Post Office, informed her that the crowd was assembled because it was a “busy foreign-post day”.  In Providence she heard the factual account.  She volunteered her interest and within a few weeks she was a speaker at the Society. In December she visited Garrison in Boston, and became a worthy supporter.

This date, October 21, 1835 is worthy of celebration as a “moment” of gathering strength for the Abolition Movement in the United States. Five years later, in London, came a similarly significant “moment” of strength for abolitionists in the United Kingdom.  In that “moment”, a major issue revolved around what some have called the “woman” question.