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Chapter 8: the Rynders mob

The Anti-slavery meeting at the Broadway Tabernacle on May 7, 1850, which goes by the name of the Rynders Mob, has an interest quite beyond the boundaries of its epoch. It gives an example of how any disturbance that arises in a public meeting ought to be handled by the managers of the meeting. It has a lesson for all agitators and popular speakers. It gives, indeed, a picture of humanity during a turbulent crisis, a picture that is Athenian, Roman, Mediaeval, modern — a scene of democratic life, flung to us from the ages. I shall copy the account of this meeting almost verbatim from the large Life of Garrison. No comment can add to the power of it.

We have to remember that Webster had made his famous Compromise speech just two months before this meeting; and that the phalanxes of all conservative people, from George Ticknor, in Boston, to the rowdies on the Bowery in New York, were being [200] marshalled to repress Abolition as they had not been marshalled since 1835. It must be noted also that this attempt succeeded on the whole. In spite of the triumph which the Abolitionists scored at this particular meeting, it became impossible for them to hold meetings in great cities for some time afterwards. The complicity of the Churches with Slavery is now almost forgotten. Among the Abolitionists during the critical epoch there was to be found no Episcopal clergyman (save the Rev. E. M. P. Wells, of Boston, who early withdrew from the Cause) and no Catholic priest. The Abolition leaders were, nevertheless, drawn largely from the clerical ranks; but they were Unitarians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, etc., and were generally driven from their own pulpits in consequence of their opinions about Slavery. The Ecclesiastical Apologists for Slavery founded their case upon the New Testament. A literature of exegesis was in existence of which the “View of Slavery” by John Henry Hopkins, D. D., Ll.D., Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Vermont, is a late example. At this time Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder and a devout Episcopalian, was president of the United States. [201]

The situation was a difficult one for the Evangelical, anti-sectarian mind to deal with. What was the use of quoting the New Testament to slaveholders, who were already fortified out of that very volume? The effect of the situation on Garrison's temperament may be seen in the meeting at the Tabernacle. There is a demonic element in what he says: his utterance is forced out of him: it is not calculated. You could not reproduce the spirit of this utterance except at the cost of two centuries of human passion. There is a demonic element also in Garrison's courage. He displays, on this occasion, at least two kinds of genius, the genius of satire,---Voltaire might have uttered the scathing slashes about “Christ in the presidential chair,” --and the all but antipodal genius of infinite sweetness of temperament.

The New York Herald in advance of the meeting denounced Garrison for many days in succession, and advised the breaking up of the meeting by violence. According to the Herald, “Garrison boldly urges the utter overthrow of the churches, the Sabbath, and the Bible. Nothing has been sacred with him but the ideal intellect of the negro race. To elevate this chimera, he has urged the necessity of an immediate overthrow of [202] the Government, a total disrespect for the Constitution, actual disruption and annihilation of the Union, and a cessation of all order, legal or divine, which does not square with his narrow views of what constitutes human liberty. Never, in the time of the French Revolution and blasphemous atheism, was there more malevolence and unblushing wickedness avowed than by this same Garrison. Indeed, he surpasses Robespierre and his associates, for he has no design of building up. His only object is to destroy. . . .In Boston, a few months ago, a convention was held, the object of which was the overthrow of Sunday worship. Thus it appears that nothing divine or secular is respected by these fanatics. . . When free discussion does not promote the public good, it has no more right to exist than a bad government that is dangerous and oppressive to the common weal. It should be overthrown. On the question of usefulness to the public of the packed, organized meetings of these Abolitionists, socialists, Sabbath-breakers, and anarchists, there can be but one result arrived at by prudence and patriotism. They are dangerous assemblies — calculated for mischief, and treasonable in their character and purposes. [203] Though the law cannot reach them, public opinion can; and as, in England, a peaceful dissent from such doctrines as these fellows would promulgate — a strong expression of hisses and by counter statements and expositions, so here in New York we may anticipate that there are those who will enter the arena of discussion, and send out the true opinion of the public. . .”

The meeting of May 7, at the Tabernacle, was a vast assembly which contained many respectable people, intermingled with whom was an organized element of impending mob. The leader of the mob was a wellknow ruffian called Isaiah Rynders, “a native American, of mixed German and Irish lineage, now some forty-six years of age. He began life as a boatman on the Hudson River, and, passing easily into the sporting class, went to seek his fortunes as a professional gambler in the paradise of the Southwest. In this region he became familiar with all forms of violence, including the institution of slavery. After many personal hazards and vicissitudes, he returned to New York city, where he proved to be admirably qualified for local political leadership in connection with Tammany Hall. A sportinghouse which he opened became a Democratic [204] rendezvous and the headquarters of the Empire Club, an organization of roughs and desperadoes who acknowledged his ‘captaincy.’ His campaigning in behalf of Polk and Dallas in 1844 secured him the friendly patronage of the successful candidate for Vice-President, and he took office as Weigher in the Custom-house of the metropolis. He found time, while thus employed, to engineer the Astor Place riot on behalf of the actor Forrest against his English rival Macready, on May Io, 1849, and the year 1850 opened with his trial for this atrocity and his successful defense by John Van Buren. On February 16 he and his Club broke up an anti-Wilmot-Proviso meeting in New York — a seeming inconsistency, but it was charged against Rynders that he had offered to ‘give the State of New York to Clay’ in the election of 1844 for $30,000, and had met with reluctant refusal. In March he was arrested for a brutal assault on a gentleman in a hotel, but the victim and the witnesses found it prudent not to appear against a ruffian who did not hesitate to threaten the district-attorney in open court. Meanwhile, the new Whig Administration quite justifiably discharged Rynders from the Custom-house, leaving him free to pose [205] as a savior of the Union against traitorsa savior of society against blasphemers and infidels wherever encountered. . .”

When the meeting was brought to order Mr. Garrison, as an opening exercise, read certain passages of the Bible, chosen with reference to their bearing upon the slave trade: “The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people .. . What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of Hosts . ... Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. . . . They all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net. . . . Hide the outcasts, bewray not him that wandereth; let mine outcasts dwell with thee; be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler.”

To Dr. Furness, who sat beside Mr. Garrison, these selections (in full, not in our abstract) seemed “ most admirably adapted to the existing state of our country. His reading, however, was not remarkably effective. It was like the ordinary reading of the pulpit,” --and hence not calculated to stir the wrath of the ungodly.

The reading of the Treasurer's report [206] followed, and then Mr. Garrison, resigning the chair to Francis Jackson, proceeded to make the first speech of the day.

“He began,” says Dr. Furness, “ with stating that they, the members of the Anti-Slavery Society, regarded the Anti-slavery cause as emphatically the Christian movement of the day. Nothing could be more explicit than his recognition of the truth and divine authority of the Christianity of the New Testament. He went on to examine the popular tests of religion, and to show their defectiveness. In so doing, his manner was grave and dignified. There was no bitterness, no levity. His manner of speaking was simple, clerical, and Christian. His subject was, substantially, that we have, over and over again, in all the pulpits of the land --the inconsistency of our profession and practice — although not with the same application. . . . Mr. Garrison said great importance was attached to a belief in Jesus. We were told that we must believe in Jesus. And yet this faith in Jesus had no vitality, no practical bearing on conduct and character. He had previously, however, passed in rapid review the chief religious denominations, showing that they uttered no protest against the sins of the nation. He spoke [207] first in this connection of the Roman Catholic Church, stating that its priests and members held slaves without incurring the rebuke of the Church.

Up to this time the only symptoms of opposition had been some ill-timed and senseless applause — or what seemed such. And as it came from one little portion of the audience, Dr. Furness asked Wendell Phillips at his side what it meant. ‘It means,’ he said, ‘that there is to be a row.’ The reference to the Catholic Church gave the first opening to the leader of the gang.

The following is from the New York Herald's account of the meeting:

Captain Rynders (who occupied a position in the background, at one side of the organ-loft, and commanding a bird's-eye view of the whole scene beneath) here said: Will you allow me to ask you a question? (Excitement and confusion.)

Mr. Garrison--Yes, sir.

Captain Rynders--The question I would ask is, whether there are no other churches as well as the Catholic Church, whose clergy and lay members hold slaves?

Mr. Garrison-Will the friend wait for a moment, and I will answer him in reference to other churches. (Cheers.)


Dr. Furness says that Mr. Garrison expressed no surprise at the interruption. There was not the slightest change in his manner or his voice. He simply said: “My friend, if you will wait a moment, your question shall be answered,” or something to that effect. There instantly arose a loud clapping around the stranger in the gallery, and from the outskirts of the audience, at different points.)

Captain Rynders then resumed his seat. Mr. Garrison thus proceeded:

Shall we look to the Episcopal Church for hope? It was the boast of John C. Calhoun, shortly before his death, that that church was impregnable to Anti-slavery. That vaunt was founded on truth, for the Episcopal clergy and laity are buyers and sellers of human flesh. We cannot, therefore, look to them. Shall we look to the Presbyterian Church? The whole weight of it is on the side of oppression. Ministers and people buy and sell slaves, apparently without ,any compunctious visitings of conscience. We cannot, therefore, look to them, nor to the Baptists, nor the Methodists; for they, too, are against the slave, and all the sects are combined to prevent that jubilee which it is the will of God should come. . . [209]

Be not startled when I say that a belief in Jesus is no evidence of goodness (hisses); no, friends.

Voice — Yes it is.

Mr. Garrison--Our friend says ‘yes’; my position is “no.” It is worthless as a test, for the reason I have already assigned in reference to the other tests. His praises are sung in Louisiana, Alabama, and the other Southern States just as well as in Massachusetts.

Captain Rynders--Are you aware that the slaves in the South have their prayermeetings in honor of Christ?

Mr. Garrison--Not a slaveholding or a slave-breeding Jesus. (Sensation.) The slaves believe in a Jesus that strikes off chains. In this country, Jesus has become obsolete. A profession in him is no longer a test. Who objects to his course in Judaea? The old Pharisees are extinct, and may safely be denounced. Jesus is the most respectable person in the United States. (Great sensation, and murmurs of disapprobation.) Jesus sits in the President's chair of the United States. (A thrill of horror here seemed to run through the assembly.) Zachary Taylor sits there, which is the same thing, for he believes in Jesus. [210] He believes in war, and the Jesus “that gave the Mexicans hell.” (Sensation, uproar, and confusion.)

The name of Zachary Taylor had scarcely passed Mr. Garrison's lips when Captain Rynders, with something like a howl, forsaking his strategic position on the border-line of the gallery and the platform, dashed headlong down towards the speaker's desk, followed, with shouting and imprecations and a terrifying noise, by the mass of his backers. The audience, despite a natural agitation, gave way to no panic. The Abolitionist leaders upon the platform remained imperturbable. “I was not aware,” writes Dr. Furness, “of being under any apprehension of personal violence. We were all like General Jackson's cotton-bales at New Orleans. Our demeanor made it impossible for the rioters to use any physical force against us.” Rynders found himself in the midst of Francis and Edmund Jackson, of Wendell Phillips, of Edmund Quincy, of Charles F. Hovey, of William H. Furness, of Samuel May, Jr., of Sydney Howard Gay, of Isaac T. Hopper, of Henry C. Wright, of Abby Kelley Foster, of Frederick Douglass, of Mr. Garrison--against whom his menaces were specially directed. [211] Never was a human being more out of his element.

The following, according to the Herald, was what greeted Mr. Garrison's ear:

Captain Rynders (clenching his fist)--I will not allow you to assail the President of the United States. You shan't do it (shaking his fist at Mr. Garrison).

Many voices — Turn him out, turn him out!

Captain Rynders--If a million of you were there, I would not allow the President of the United States to be insulted. As long as you confined yourself to your subject, I did not interfere; but I will not permit you or any other man to misrepresent the President.

Mr. Garrison, as the Rev. Samuel May testifies, “calmly replied that he had simply quoted some recent words of General Taylor, and appealed to the audience if he had said aught in disrespect of him.” “You ought not to interrupt us,” he continued to Rynders — in the quietest manner conceivable, as Dr. Furness relates. “We go upon the principle of hearing everybody. If you wish to speak, I will keep order, and you shall be heard.” The din, however, increased. “The Hutchinsons,” continues Dr. [212] Furness, “who were wont to sing at the Anti-slavery meetings, were in the gallery, and they attempted to raise a song, to soothe the savages with music. But it was of no avail. Rynders drowned their fine voices with noise and shouting.” Still, a knockdown argument with a live combatant would have suited him better than mere Bedlamitish disturbance. He was almost gratified by young Thomas L. Kane, son of Judge Kane of Philadelphia, who, seeing the rush of the mob upon the platform, had himself leaped there, to protect his townsman, Dr. Furness. “They shall not touch a hair of your head,” he said in a tone of great excitement; and, as the strain became more intense, he rushed up to Rynders and shook his fist in his face. “He said to me [Dr. Furness] with the deepest emphasis: ‘If he touches Mr. Garrison I'll kill him.’ ” But Mr. Garrison's composure was more than a coat of mail.

The knot was cut by Francis Jackson's formal offer of the floor to Rynders as soon as Mr. Garrison had finished his remarks; with an invitation meanwhile to take a seat on the platform. This, says Mr. May, he scoutingly refused; but, seeing the manifest fairness of the president's offer, drew back a [213] little, and stood, with folded arms, waiting for Mr. Garrison to conclude, which soon he did — offering a resolution in these terms:

Resolved, That the Anti-slavery movement, instead of being ‘infidel,’ in an evil sense (as is falsely alleged), is truly Christian, in the primitive meaning of that term, and the special embodiment in this country of whatever is loyal to God and benevolent to man; and that, in view of the palpable enormity of slavery-of the religious and political professions of the people — of the age in which we live, blazing with the concentrated light of many centuriesindifference or hostility to this movement indicates a state of mind more culpable than was manifested by the Jewish nation in rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, eighteen hundred years ago.

With these words the speaker retired, to resume the presidency of the meeting.

“The close of Mr. Garrison's address,” says Dr. Furness, “brought down Rynders again, who vociferated and harangued, at one time on the platform, and then pushing down into the aisles, like a madman followed by his keepers. Through the whole, nothing could be more patient and serene than the bearing of Mr. Garrison. I have always [214] revered Mr. Garrison for his devoted, uncompromising fidelity to his great cause. To-day I was touched to the heart by his calm and gentle manners. There was no agitation, no scorn, no heat, but the quietness of a man engaged in simple duties.”

After some parleying, it appeared that Rynders had a spokesman who preferred to speak after Dr. Furness.

“ Accordingly,” says the latter, “I spoke my little, anxiously prepared word. I never recall that hour without blessing myself that I was called to speak precisely at that moment. At any other stage of the proceedings, it would have been wretchedly out of place. As it was, my speech fitted in almost as well as if it had been impromptu, although a sharp eye might easily have discovered that I was speaking memoriter. Rynders interrupted me again and again, exclaiming that I lied, that I was personal; but he ended with applauding me!”

No greater contrast to what was to follow could possibly be imagined than the genial manner, firm tones, and self-possession, the refined discourse, of this Unitarian clergyman, who was felt to have turned the current of the meeting. There uprose, as per agreement, one “ProfessorGrant, a seedylooking [215] personage, having one hand tied round with a dirty cotton cloth. Mr. Garrison recognized him as a former pressman in the Liberator office. His thesis was that the blacks were not men, but belonged to the monkey tribe. His speech proved dull and tiresome, and was made sport of by his own set, whom Mr. Garrison had to call to order. There were now loud cries for Frederick Douglass, who came forward to where Rynders stood in the conspicuous position he had taken when he thought the meeting was his, and who remained in it, too mortified even to creep away, when he found it was somebody else's. “Now you can speak,” said he to Douglass; “but mind what I say: if you speak disrespectfully (of the South, or Washington, or Patrick Henry) I'll knock you off the stage.” Nothing daunted, the ex-fugitive from greater terrors began:

The gentleman who has just spoken has undertaken to prove that the blacks are not human beings. He has examined our whole conformation, from top to toe. I cannot follow him in his argument. I will assist him in it, however. I offer myself for your examination. Am I a man?

The audience responded with a thunderous affirmative, which Captain Rynders [216] sought to break by exclaiming: “You are not a black man; you are only half a nigger.” “Then,” replied Mr. Douglass, turning upon him with the blandest of smiles and an almost affectionate obeisance, “I am half-brother to Captain Rynders!” He would not deny that he was the son of a slaveholder, born of Southern “amalgamation” ; a fugitive, too, like Kossuth--“another half-brother of mine” (to Rynders). He spoke of the difficulties thrown in the way of industrious colored people at the North, as he had himself experiencedthis by way of answer to Horace Greeley, who had recently complained of their inefficiency and dependence. Criticism of the editor of the Tribune being grateful to Rynders, a political adversary, “he added a word to Douglass's against Greeley. ‘I am happy,’ said Douglass, ‘to have the assent of my half-brother here,’ pointing to Rynders, and convulsing the audience with laughter. After this, Rynders, finding how he was played with, took care to hold his peace; but someone of Rynders' company in the gallery undertook to interrupt the speaker. ‘It's of no use,’ said Mr. Douglass, ‘I've Captain Rynders here to back me.’ ” “We were born here,” he said [217] finally, “we are not dying out, and we mean to stay here. We made the clothes you have on, the sugar you put into your tea. We would do more if allowed.” “Yes,” said a voice in the crowd, “you would cut our throats for us.” “No,” was the quick response, “but we would cut your hair for you.”

Douglass concluded his triumphant remarks by calling upon the Rev. Samuel R. Ward, editor of the Impartial Citizen, to succeed him. “All eyes,” says Dr. Furness, “were instantly turned to the back of the platform, or stage rather, so dramatic was the scene; and there, amidst a group, stood a large man, so black that, as Wendell Phillips said, when he shut his eyes you could not see him. As he approached, Rynders exclaimed: ‘Well, this is the original nigger.’ ‘ I've heard of the magnanimity of Captain Rynders,’ said Ward, ‘but the half has not been told me!’ And then he went on with a noble voice and his speech was such a strain of eloquence as I never heard excelled before or since.” The mob had to applaud him, too, and it is the highest praise to record that his unpremeditated utterance maintained the level of Douglass's, and ended the meeting with a sense [218] of climax — demonstrating alike the humanity and the capacity of the full-blooded negro.

“When he ceased speaking, the time had expired for which the Tabernacle was engaged, and we had to adjourn. Never,” continues Dr. Furness, “was there a grander triumph of intelligence, of mind, over brute force. Two colored men, whose claim to be considered human was denied, had, by mere force of intellect, overwhelmed their maligners with confusion. As the audience was thinning out, I went down on the floor to see some friends there. Rynders came by. I could not help saying to him: ‘How shall I thank you for what you have done for us to-day?’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I do not like to hear my country abused, but that last thing that you said, that's the truth.’ That last thing was, I believe, a simple assertion of the right of the people to think and speak freely.”

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