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Chapter 9: Anti-slavery societies

The divergent characteristics of the East and the West were never more clearly shown than in the progress of the Anti-Slavery movement. Efforts were made to plant Abolition societies at various points throughout the West, but they failed to take permanent root and soon disappeared. The failure was not due to any lack of interest, but rather to an excess of zeal on the part of the Western supporters of the cause. Society organizations on the lines of moral suasion were too slow and tame to suit them. They preferred the excitement of politics. They believed in the superior efficacy of a political party, and to its upbuilding they gave their energies and resources. In the “long run” they were amply vindicated, but for all that, the favorite Eastern method for organized effort had its advantages.

The East, and especially New England, always believed in societies. If anything of a public nature was to be promoted or prevented, a society always appealed to the New Englander as the natural instrumentality. There is a tradition that when Boston was ravaged by a loathsome disease, a number of its leading citizens came together and promptly organized an anti-smallpox society. [73]

When, therefore, it was decided that an Anti-Slavery movement should be inaugurated in Boston, the proper thing to do, according to all the standards of the place, was to organize a society. But the thing was more easily resolved upon than done. It required the concurrence of several parties of likemindedness. Boston was a pretty large place, but Anti-Slavery people were scarce. The number (doubtless selected because it was Apostolic) assumed to be necessary was twelve. Fifteen people of somewhat similar views were at last brought together. After much discussion nine favored an organization and six opposed it. So far the operation was a failure. But at last, after much canvassing, twelve men were found who promised their co-operation-twelve and no more. Although respectable people, they were not of Boston's “first citizens” by any means. It is said that if they had been called upon for a hundred dollars each, not over two of them could have responded without bankruptcy.

The twelve came together at night and in the basement of an African Baptist Church, the room being used in the daytime to accommodate a school for colored children. It was in an obscure quarter of Boston known as “Nigger Hill.” The conference was in the month of December, and the night is thus described by Oliver Johnson, who was one of the twelve: “A fierce northeast storm, combining rain, snow, and hail in about equal proportions, was raging, and the streets were full of slush. They were dark, too, for the city of Boston in those days was very economical of light on Nigger Hill.” [74]

Both nature and man seemed to be in league against those plucky pioneers of an unpopular cause. They, however, were not dismayed nor disheartened. It was as they were stepping out into the gloomy night, that Mr. Garrison, who, it is scarcely necessary to say, was one of the twelve, remarked to his associates: “We have met to-night in this obscure schoolhouse; our numbers are few, and our influence limited, but mark my prediction. Faneuil Hall shall ere long echo to the principles we have set forth.”

What those principles were is shown by the declaration adopted by that handful of confederates, and which, in view of the time and circumstances of its formulation, was certainly a most remarkable document. Its essential proposition was: “We, the undersigned, hold that every person of full age and sound mind has a right to immediate freedom from personal bondage of whatsoever kind, unless imposed by the sentence of the law for the commission of some crime.”

The Declaration of Independence, which was produced with no little theatrical effect amid the pomp and circumstance of a national conclave that had met in the finest hall in the country, was unquestionably a remarkable and memorable pronouncement. It was for the time and situation a radical utterance. It was the precursor of a revolution that gave political freedom to several million people.

But the platform of principles that was announced by the New England Anti-Slavery Society (the name adopted) in that little grimy schoolroom on “Nigger Hill” was, in at least some respects, a more remarkable [75] document. Its enunciation required an equal degree of physical and moral courage. It was the precursor of a revolution that gave both personal and political freedom to a larger number than were benefited by the other declaration. But what chiefly distinguished it, the time and the situation being considered, was its radical utterance. It gave no countenance to any measure of compromise. It offered no pabulum to the wrongdoer in the form of compensation for stolen humanity. It demanded what was right, and demanded it at once. And that fearless and unyielding platform became the basis for all the Abolition societies that came after it. A goodly number of such societies were organized. “The Anti-slavery Society for the City of New York” was formed by a few men who met and did their work while a mob was pounding at the door, and who, having completed their task, fled for their lives.

It was at first intended that a national Anti-Slavery society should be established with headquarters in the city of New York, but its proposed organizers discovered that there was not a public hall or church in that city in which they would be permitted to assemble. Philadelphia, with its Quaker contingent, offered a more inviting field, and to that city it was decided to go. But serious obstructions here interposed. Representatives appeared from fourteen States, which was highly encouraging, but no prominent Philadelphian could be found to act as chairman of the meeting. A committee was appointed to secure the services of such a man, but, after interviewing a number of [76] leading citizens, it was compelled to report that it was received by all of them with “polite frigidity.”

Strange to say, the convention was permitted to meet for three days in succession in a public assembly room without interference from a mob. The police, however, warned the participants not to hold night sessions, as they in that case would not promise protection. The good behavior of Philadelphia on this occasion was noteworthy, but it was too good to last. When another Anti-Slavery meeting, not long after, was convened in that city, it was broken up by a mob, and the hall in which it met was burned to the ground.

Finally came the National Anti-Slavery Society, which, in view of its limited financial resources, certainly did a wonderful work. Its publications, in spite of careful watching of the mails and other precautions adopted by the slaveholders, reached all parts of the country, and its preachers, sent out and commissioned to proclaim the new evangel of equal manhood, were absolutely ubiquitous.

Those early Anti-Slavery lecturers were a peculiar set. Since the days of the Apostles there have been no more earnest propagandists. They were both male and female. That they were, as a rule, financially poor, it is unnecessary to state. They lived largely on the country traversed. Sympathizers with their views, having received and entertained them-sometimes clandestinely — after a public talk or two, would carry them on to the next stations on their routes, occasionally contributing a few dollars to their purses. It made no particular difference to them whether they spoke in halls, in [77] churches, or in the open air. Before beginning their addresses their usual course was to challenge their opponents to debate, and to taunt them with lack of courage or principle if they failed to respond. Of course, they were in constant danger from mobs. They were stoned, clubbed, shot at, and rotten-egged, and in a few extreme cases tarred and feathered; but they were never frightened from their work.

They were by no means policy-wise. That was one of their peculiarities. Their idea seemed to be that they could drive people easier than they could lead them. They used no buttered phrases. They told the plainest truths in the plainest way. They gave their audiences hard words, and often received hard knocks in return. They called the slaveholders robbers and man-stealers. They branded Northern politicians with Southern principles as “doughfaces.” But their hardest and sharpest expletives were reserved for those Northern clergymen who were either pro-slavery or non-committal. They blistered them all over with their lashings. In speaking of one of the most noted among them, Lowell describes him as

A kind of maddened John the Baptist
To whom the hardest word came aptest.

The lecturer of whom I saw the most in those early trying days was Professor Hudson, of Oberlin College. While in that part of the field he made headquarters at my father's house, radiating out and filling appointments in different directions. He was exceedingly sharp-tongued and very fearless. [78] Nothing seemed to please him better than a “scrimmage” with his opponents. Often he conquered mobs by resolutely talking them down and making them ashamed of themselves. But on one occasion, looking through the window from the outside to see what awaited him in a room where he was to speak, he saw a pot of boiling tar on the stove that heated the room and a pillow-case full of feathers conveniently near, while a half-drunken crowd was in possession of the place, and concluded to run. He, however, had been seen and was pursued. There was a foot race, but as some of the pursuers were better sprinters than Hudson, and he was about to be captured, he dashed into the first house he came to and asked for protection. The proprietor was a kinsman of mine. He was an old man, but hearty and vigorous. He ordered his sons to take their guns and guard the other entrances, while he took his stand in the front door with an axe in his hand. When the mob came up and demanded the Abolitionist, he gave warning that he would brain the first man that attempted to enter his house without his consent. So evidently in earnest was he that the rowdies, after a little bluster, concluded to give up the hunt and left in disgust.

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