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Chapter 6: Anti-slavery pioneers

The early Abolitionists were denounced as fanatics, or “fan-a-tics,” according to the pronunciation of some of their detractors. They were treated as if partially insane. The writer when a boy attended the trial of a cause between two neighbors in a court of low grade. It was what was called a “cow case,” and involved property worth, perhaps, as much as twenty dollars. One of the witnesses on the stand was asked by a lawyer, who wanted to embarrass or discredit him, if he were not an Abolitionist. Objection came from the other side on the ground that the inquiry was irrelevant; but the learned justice-of-the-peace who presided held that, as it related to the witness's sanity, and that would affect his credibility, the question was admissible. It is not, perhaps, so very strange that in those days, in view of the disreputableness of those whose cause they espoused, and the apparently utter hopelessness of anything ever coming out of it, the supporters of Anti-Slaveryism should be suspected of being “out of their heads.”

Although Don Quixote, who, according to the veracious Cervantes, set out with his unaided strong right arm to upset things, including wind-mills and [50] obnoxious dynasties, has long been looked upon as the world's best specimen of a “fanatic,” he would ordinarily be set down as a very Solomon beside the man who would undertake single-handed to overthrow such an institution as American slavery used to be. Such a man there was, however. He really entered on the job of abolishing that institution, and without a solitary assistant. Strange to say, he was neither a giant nor a millionaire.

According to Horace Greeley, “Benjamin Lundy deserves the high honor of ranking as the pioneer of direct and distinctive Anti-Slaveryism in America.”

He was slight in frame and below the medium height, and unassuming in manner. He had, it is said, neither eloquence nor shining ability of any sort.

At nineteen years of age he went to Wheeling, Virginia, to learn the trade of a saddler. He learned more than that. Wheeling, as he tells us, was then a great thoroughfare for the traffickers in human flesh. Their coffles passed through the place frequently. “My heart,” he continues, “was grieved at the great abomination. I heard the wail of the captive, I felt his pang of distress, and the iron entered into my soul.”

But much as Lundy loathed the business of the slave-dealers and slave-drivers, he then had no idea of attempting its abolishment. He married and settled down to the prosecution of his trade, and had he been like other people generally he would have been content. But he could not shut the pictures of those street scenes in Wheeling out of his mind and out of his heart. [51]

The first thing in the reformatory line he did was to organize a local Anti-Slavery society in the village in which he was then living in Ohio; at the first meeting of this society only five persons were present.

About this time Lundy made some important discoveries. He learned that he could write what the newspapers would print, and give expression to words that the people would listen to. He was quick to realize the fact that the best way to reach the people of this country was through the press. He started a very small paper with a very large name. It was ambitiously nominated The Genius of Universal Emancipation. He began with only six subscribers and without a press or other publishing material. Moreover, he had no money. He was not then a practical printer, though later he learned the art of type-setting. At this time he had his newspaper printed twenty miles from his home, and carried the edition for that distance on his back.

But insignificant as Lundy's paper was, it had the high distinction of being the only exclusively Anti-Slavery journal in the country, and its editor and proprietor was the only professional Abolition lecturer and agitator of that time.

Afterwards, in speaking of his journalistic undertaking, Mr. Lundy said: “I began this work without a dollar of funds, trusting to the sacredness of the cause.” Another saying of his was that he did not stop to calculate “how soon his efforts would be crowned with success.”

As Lundy spent the greater part of his time in traveling from place to place, procuring subscriptions [52] to his journal and lecturing on slavery, he could not issue his paper regularly at any one point. In some instances he carried the head-rules, column-rules, and subscription-book of his journal with him, and when he came to a town where he found a printing-press he would stop long enough to print and mail a number of his periodical. He traveled for the most part on foot, carrying a heavy pack. In ten years in that way he covered twenty-five thousand miles, five thousand on foot.

He decided to invade the enemy's country by going where slavery was. He went to Tennessee, making the journey of eight hundred miles, one half by water, and one half on foot. That was, of course, before the day of railroads.

He continued to issue his paper, although often threatened with personal violence. Once two bullies locked him in a room and, with revolvers in hand, tried to frighten him into a promise to discontinue his work. He did not frighten to any extent.

Seeking what seemed to be the most inviting field for his operations, he decided to move his establishment to Baltimore, going most of the way on foot and lecturing as he went whenever he could find an audience.

His residence in Baltimore came near proving fatal. A slave-trader, whom he had offended, attacked and brutally beat him on the street. The consolation he got from the court that tried the ruffian, who was “honorably discharged,” was that he (Lundy) had got “nothing more than he deserved.” Soon afterwards his printing material and other property was burned by a mob. [53]

He went to Mexico to select a location for a projected colony of colored people. He traveled almost altogether afoot, observing the strictest economy and supporting himself by occasional jobs of saddlery and harness mending. In his journal he tells us that he often slept in the open air, the country traversed being mostly new and unsettled. He was in constant danger from panthers, alligators, and rattlesnakes, while he was cruelly beset by gnats and mosquitoes. His clothes in the morning, he tells us, would be as wet from heavy dews as if he had fallen into the river.

Intellectually, Lundy was not a great man, but his heart was beyond measurement. The torch that he carried in the midst of the all but universal darkness of that period emitted but a feeble ray, but he kept it burning, and it possessed the almost invaluable property of being able to transmit its flame to other torches. It kindled the brand that was wielded by William Lloyd Garrison, and which possessed a wonderful power of illumination.

Garrison was beyond all question a remarkable man. In the qualities that endow a successful leader in a desperate cause he has never been surpassed. He had an iron will that was directed by an inflexible conscience. “To him,” says James Freeman Clarke, “right was right, and wrong was wrong, and he saw no half lights or half shadows between them.” He was a natural orator. I never heard him talk, either on or off the platform, but I have heard those who had listened to him, speak of the singular gift he possessed in stating or combating a proposition. One person who had heard him, [54] often compared him, when dealing with an adversary, to a butcher engaged in dissecting a carcass, and who knew just where to strike every time,--a homely, but expressive illustration. His addresses in England on a certain notable occasion, which is dealt with somewhat at length elsewhere, were declared by the first British orators to be models of perfect eloquence.

Lundy and Garrison met by accident. They were boarding at the same house in Boston, and became acquainted. Lundy's mind was full of the subject of slavery, and Garrison's proved to be receptive soil. They decided to join forces, and we have the singular spectacle of two poor mechanics --a journeyman saddler and a journeyman printer-conspiring to revolutionize the domestic institutions of half of the country.

They decided to continue the Baltimore newspaper. Garrison's plain-spokenness, however, soon got him into trouble in that city. He was prosecuted for libelling a shipmaster for transporting slaves, was convicted and fined fifty dollars. The amount, so far as his ability to pay was involved, might as well have been a million. He went to prison, being incarcerated in a cell just vacated by a man who had been hanged for murder, and there he remained for seven weeks. At the end of that time Arthur Tappan, the big-hearted merchant of New York, learning the facts of the case, advanced the money needed to set Garrison free.

Undeterred by his experience as a martyr, Garrison — who had returned to Boston-resolved to establish a journal of his own in that city, which [55] was to be devoted to the cause of the slave. The Liberator appeared on the 1st of January, 1831.

In entering upon this venture, Garrison had not a subscriber nor a dollar of money. Being a printer, he set up the type and struck off the first issue with his own hands.

In the initial number the proprietor of the Liberator outlined his proposed policy in these words: “I will be as harsh as truth; as uncompromising as justice. I am in earnest. I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.”

The first issue of the paper brought in a contribution of fifty dollars from a colored man and twenty-five subscribers. It was not, therefore, a failure, but its continuance involved a terrible strain. Garrison and one co-worker occupied one room for work-shop, dining-room, and bedroom. They cooked their own meals and slept upon the floor. It was almost literally true, as pictured by Lowell, the poet:

In a small chamber, friendless and unseen,
     Toiled o'er his types one poor unlearned young man.
The place was dark, unfurnitured and mean,
     Yet there the freedom of a race began.

The effects produced by Garrison's unique production were simply wonderful. In October of its first year the Vigilance Association of South Carolina offered a reward of fifteen hundred dollars for the apprehension and prosecution to conviction of any white person who might be detected in distributing or circulating the Liberator. Georgia went farther than that. Less than a year after [56] Garrison had established his paper, the Legislature of that State passed an act offering a reward of five thousand dollars to whomsoever should arrest, bring to trial, and prosecute its publisher to conviction. The Liberator was excluded from the United States mails in all the slave States, illegal as such a proceeding was.

There was, however, opposition nearer home. The Liberator establishment was wrecked by a mob, and Garrison, after having been stripped of nearly all his clothing, was dragged, bareheaded, by a rope round his body through the streets of Boston until, to save his life, the authorities thrust him into jail.

No man in this country was so cordially hated by the slaveholders as Garrison. Of the big men up North--the leaders of politics and society-they had no apprehension. They knew how to manage them. It was the little fellows like the editor of the Liberator that gave them trouble. These men had no money, but they could not be bought. They had no fear of mobs. They cared nothing for the scoldings of the church and the press. An adverse public sentiment never disturbed their equanimity or caused them to turn a hair's breadth in their course.

It is true that Lundy and Garrison had very little to lose. They had neither property nor social position. That, however, cannot be said of another early Abolitionist, who, in some respects, is entitled to more consideration than any of his co-workers.

James Gillespie Birney was a Southerner by birth. He belonged to a family of financial and social prominence. He was a gentleman of education and [57] culture, having graduated from a leading college and being a lawyer of recognized ability. He was a slave-owner. For a time he conducted a plantation with slave labor. He lived in Alabama, where he filled several important official positions, and was talked of for the governorship of the State. But having been led to think about the moral, and other aspects of slaveholding, he decided that it was wrong and he would wash his hands of it. He could not in Alabama legally manumit his slaves. Moreover, his neighbors had risen up against him and threatened his forcible expulsion. He removed to Kentucky, where he thought a more liberal sentiment prevailed. There he freed his slaves and made liberal provision for their comfortable sustenance. But the slave power was on his track. He was warned to betake himself out of the State. The infliction of personal violence was meditated, and a party of his opposers came together for that purpose. They were engaged in discussing ways and means when a young man of commanding presence and strength, who happened to be present, announced that while he lived Mr. Birney would not be molested. His opposition broke up the plot. That young man became a leading clergyman and was subsequently for a time Chaplain of the United States Senate.

Birney went with his belongings to Ohio, thinking that upon the soil of a free State he would be safe from molestation. He established a newspaper in Cincinnati to advocate emancipation. A mob promptly destroyed his press and other property, and it was with difficulty that he escaped with his life. [58]

More sagacious, although not more zealous, than Lundy and Garrison and a good many of their followers, Birney early saw the necessity of political action in the interest of freedom. He was the real founder of the old “Liberty” party, of which he was the presidential candidate in 1840 and in 1844.

Of course, there were other early laborers for emancipation that, in this connection, ought to be mentioned and remembered. They were pioneers in the truest sense. The writer would gladly make a record of their services, and pay a tribute, especially, to the memories of such as have gone to the spirit land, where the great majority are now mustered, but space at this point forbids.

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