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Chapter 13: Anti-slavery women

My father was a subscriber to the National Era, the Anti-Slavery weekly that was published in Washington City before the war by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey. Being the youngest member of the family, I usually went to the post-office for the paper on the day of its weekly arrival. One day I brought it home and handed it to my father, who, as the day was warm, was seated outside of the house. He was soon apparently very much absorbed in his reading. A call for dinner was sounded, but he paid no attention to it. The meal was delayed a little while and then the call was repeated, but with the same result. At last the meal proceeded without my father's presence, he coming in at the close and swinging the paper in his hand. His explanation, by way of apology, was that he had become very much interested in the opening installment of a story that was begun in the Era, and which he declared would make a sensation. “It will make a renovation,” he repeated several times.

That story, it is almost needless to say, was Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it is altogether needless to say that it fully accomplished my father's prediction as to its sensational effects. Since the appearance of [101] the Bible in a form that brought it home to the common people, there has been no work in the English language so extensively read. The author's name became at once a cynosure the world over. When Henry Ward Beecher, the writer's distinguished brother, delivered his first lecture in England, he was introduced to the audience by the chairman as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher Stowe.

The way in which the idea of writing the book came to the author was significant of the will that produced it. A lady friend wrote Mrs. Stowe a letter in which she said, “If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make the whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” When the letter reached its destination, and Mrs. Stowe came to the passage above quoted, as the story is told by a friend who was present, she sprang to her feet, crushed the letter in her hand in the intensity of her feeling, and with an expression on her face of the utmost determination, exclaimed, “If I live, I will write something that will do that thing.”

The circumstances under which she executed her great task would ordinarily be looked upon as altogether prohibitory. She was the wife of a poor minister and school-teacher. To eke out the family income she took boarders. She had five children of her own, who were too young to be of any material assistance, and, in addition, she occasionally harbored a waif that besought her protection when fleeing from slavery. Necessarily the most of her time was spent in the kitchen. There, surrounded [102] by meats and vegetables and cooking appliances, with just enough of the common deal table cleared away to give space for her writing materials, she composed and made ready for the publisher by far the most remarkable work of fiction this country has produced. Slavery is dead, but Mrs. Stowe's masterpiece lives, and is likely to live with growing luster as long as our free institutions survive, which it is to be hoped will be forever.

One of the most remarkable early workers in the Abolition cause was Mrs. Lucretia Mott, a little Quaker woman of Pennsylvania. The writer saw her for the last time shortly before her death. She was then acting as presiding officer of an “Equal rights” --meaning equal suffrage-meeting. Sitting on one hand was Susan B. Anthony, and on the other Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and next to one of them sat a stately negro.

She was then an aged woman, but her eye seemed to be as bright and her movements as alert as they had ever been. Framed by her becoming Quaker bonnet, which she retained in her official position, the face of the handsome old lady would have been a splendid subject for an artist.

Mrs. Mott gave much of her time and all the means she could control to the cause of the slave. She was an exceedingly spirited and eloquent speaker. On one lecturing tour she traveled twenty-four hundred miles, the most of the way in old-fashioned stage-coaches. By a number of taverns she was denied entertainment.

Like other pioneers in the same movement, Mrs. Mott was the victim of numerous mobbings. One [103] incident shows her courage and resourcefulness. An Anti-Slavery meeting she was attending was broken up by rowdies, and some of the ladies present were greatly frightened. Seeing this Mrs. Mott asked the gentleman who was escorting her, to leave her and assist some of the others who were more timid. “But who will take care of you?” he asked. “This man,” she answered, lightly laying her hand on the arm of one of the roughest of the mob. The man, completely surprised, responded by respectfully conducting her through the tumult to a place of safety.

But before Mrs. Stowe and Mrs. Mott had taken up the work for the bondman, two other remarkable women had become interested in his cause. Their history has some features that the most accomplished novel-writer could not improve upon. They were sisters, known as the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, the latter becoming the wife of Theodore W. Weld, a noted Abolition lecturer. They were daughters of a Judge of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, their early home being in Charleston.

The family was of the highest pretension, being related to the Rhetts, the Barnwells, the Pickenses, and other famous representatives of the Palmetto aristocracy. It was wealthy, and of coarse had many slaves. The girls had their colored attendants, whose only service was to wait upon them and do their bidding. That circumstance finally led to trouble.

At that time there was a statute in South Carolina against teaching slaves to read and write. The penalties were fine and imprisonment. The Grimke [104] girls, however, had little respect for or fear of that law. The story of their offending is told by Sarah.

Her attendant, when she was little more than a child, was a colored girl of about the same age. She says,

“I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long hair. The light was put out, the key-hole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the law of South Carolina.”

South Carolina was long noted for its rebels, but it never had a more interesting one than the author of the above narrative; nor a braver one.

As the sisters grew up, they more and more showed their dislike of slavery and their disposition to aid such colored people as were within their circle. Such conduct could not escape observation, and the result was their banishment from their Southern home. They were given the alternative of “behaving themselves” or going North to live. They were not long in deciding, and they became residents of Philadelphia. Here they joined the Quakers, because of their coincidence of views on the slavery question. They had before been Presbyterians, having been raised as such. They became industrious and noted Anti-Slavery lecturers. To one of them is to be credited a notable oratorical achievement.

Being no longer able to ignore the growing Anti-Slavery sentiment of its constituency, the Massachusetts [105] Legislature in 1838 appointed a committee to consider the part that that State had in the subject of slavery, and especially in connection with slavery in the District of Columbia. The committee asked an expression of their views from those entertaining different sentiments on the subject. The Anti-Slavery people invited Angelina Grimk6 to represent them. The sessions of the committee were to be held in the great hall of the Legislature in the State House, where, up to that time, no woman had ever spoken. The chairman of the committee, however, consented that Miss Grimke should be heard, and the fact that she was a woman probably helped to bring out an immense audience.

She spoke for two hours, and then, being asked to speak again, at the next meeting, she spoke for two hours more. The impression she produced may be inferred from the fact that the chairman of the committee was in tears nearly the whole time she was speaking. The effect upon all who heard her was admitted to be very great.

The sincerity of these women was put to an unusual test. They had a brother who remained in South Carolina, where he was a prominent citizen and a large slave-owner. Like many sharing the privileges of “the institution,” he led a double life. He was married to a white woman by whom he had children. He also had a family by a colored woman who was one of his slaves. In his will he bequeathed his slave family to a son by his lawful wife, with the stipulation that they should not be sold or unkindly treated.

Of these things the Grimke sisters knew nothing [106] until after the war which had freed their illegitimate relatives. Then all the facts came to their knowledge. What should they do about it? was the question that immediately confronted them. Should they-“Carolina's high-souled daughters,” as Whittier describes them, and not without some part in the pride of the family to which they belonged --acknowledge such a disreputable relationship? Not a day nor an hour did they hesitate. They sent for their unfortunate kins-people, accepted them as blood connections, and took upon themselves the duty of promoting their interests as far as it was in their power to do so.

Although a quiet and retiring person, and, moreover, so much of an invalid that the greater part of her time was necessarily passed in a bed of sickness, a New England woman had much to do with publishing the doctrines of Abolitionism, through the lips of the most eloquent man in the country. She was the wife of Wendell Phillips, the noted Anti-Slavery lecturer.

“My wife made me an Abolitionist,” said Phillips. How the work was done is not without its romantic interest.

It was several years before he made his meteoric appearance before the public as a platform talker, and while yet a law student, that Phillips met the lady in question. The interview, as described by one of the parties, certainly had its comical aspect. “I talked Abolitionism to him all the time we were together,” said Mrs. Phillips, as she afterwards related the affair. Phillips listened, and that he was not surfeited nor disgusted appears from the fact [107] that he went again and again for that sort of entertainment.

When Phillips asked for her hand, as the story goes, she asked him if he was fully persuaded to be a friend of the slave, leaving him to infer that their union was otherwise impossible.

“My life shall attest the sincerity of my conversion,” was his gallant reply.

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