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Chapter 2: Germs of contention among brethren.—1836.

Ill health cripples Garrison's activity during this year, which he spends mostly at Brooklyn, Conn. He joins the Massachusetts remonstrants against legislative suppression of the abolitionists, at the State House, and attends the conference of the seventy Agents in New York City, where he meets the Grimke sisters, of South Carolina. In criticizing Lyman Beecher's discourse on the Sabbath, he reveals his own views regarding the sanctity of that day, and alarms many of his orthodox associates.

It is fortunate for the country that the good sense, the1 generous feeling, and the deep-rooted attachment of the people of the non-slaveholding States to the Union, and to their fellow-citizens of the same blood in the South, have given so strong and impressive a tone to the sentiments entertained against the proceedings of the misguided persons who have engaged in these unconstitutional and wicked attempts [‘to circulate through the mails inflammatory appeals addressed to the passions of the slaves, in prints’], and especially against the emissaries from foreign parts who have dared to interfere in this matter, as to authorize the hope that those attempts will no longer be persisted in. . . . I would. . . . respectfully suggest the propriety of passing such a law as will prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.

In these terms President Jackson, in his message to Congress, December 7, 1835, introduced, for the first time in such documents, an allusion to abolitionism. His allegations were cruelly false; his implicit approval of the mob violence of the past summer and autumn, as infamous in a chief magistrate as it was short-sighted in a statesman; and his proposition to close the mails against anti-slavery publications, audaciously unconstitutional and despotic.2 Nevertheless, they gave the keynote to the policy of repression which, during the next year, was sought to be enforced by continued popular outrages, by State legislative and Federal Congressional [74] enactments. Above all, they fixed the political character of the agitation against which they were directed. The Southern delegates in Congress could not agree as to modes of repression; they even had still some respect for Constitutional principles. Calhoun would3 not trust Congress with the power to determine what was incendiary, and what tended to excite insurrection: the abolitionists would in time form a great political party, and might thus become the judges of their own incendiarism. Moreover, he admitted that ‘to prohibit circulation is in effect to prohibit publication,’ and hence an abridgment of the liberty of the press. He therefore insisted on the ‘historically reserved’ rights of the State4 to preserve internal peace, and reported a bill5 making it penal for postmasters knowingly to receive any letter, paper, or pictorial representation addressed to a State where it was prohibited. But the Senate threw it out by a majority of six, with Benton, Clay, and 6 Crittenden among them. Meantime the debate had been raging over the treatment of petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District. The honester Southern members acknowledged the power of Congress in the premises; others, following the lead of Calhoun, denied it, and were for summarily rejecting the petitions—in7 other words, suppressing the right of petition on that subject. The South Carolinian was again defeated, by a majority of twenty-five, but the Senate readily adopted the practice of rejecting the petitions in question without reference to a committee. In the House, Mr. Pinckney, of South Carolina, incurred the bitter8 wrath of his colleagues and of his section9 by originating [75] and reporting resolutions not more peremptory10 than that Congress had no authority to interfere in any way with slavery in the States;11 that (though it might have the power) it ought not to interfere with it in the District; and that all resolutions to that end should be (not rejected, but) laid on the table without printing. Still, in the large majority who joined him in placing this ineffectual gag upon Northern freemen, the South had many representatives.

Northern governors and legislatures differed with the South as to the lawfulness of the measures of repression demanded of them, and among themselves as to their willingness to try what they could do. Governor Marcy, of New York, refused his assent to the constitutional gloss12 by which Governor Gayle, of Alabama, made requisition for Ransom G. Williams, publishing agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society at New York, under an act of Congress concerning ‘fugitives from justice.’ Williams had been indicted as ‘late of said [Tuscaloosa] County’; and Governor Gayle, while not pretending that he had been in the State ‘when his crime was committed,’ or had ‘fled therefrom,’ nevertheless held that he had ‘evaded the justice of our laws,’ and hence was a fugitive to be delivered up. Governor Marcy, however,13 mingled with his admirable exposure of this attempt on the ‘sovereignty’ of New York some hearty abuse of the abolitionists. Shortly afterwards, in transmitting the requisition and his response to the New York Legislature, with resolutions adopted by the Legislature of14 South Carolina, asking for penal enactments against the abolitionists, he expressed his belief that these might properly be framed, to prevent ‘the citizens of this State and residents within it from availing themselves with impunity of the protection of its sovereignty and laws, while they are actually employed in exciting insurrection [76] and sedition in a sister State, or engaged in treasonable enterprises, intended to be executed therein.’

Governor Everett, of Massachusetts, was even more obsequious, proclaiming his belief that ‘whatever by direct and necessary operation is calculated to excite insurrection among the slaves may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor at common law.’ No Northern governor was left unsupplied with resolutions from the Carolinas,15 from Alabama, from Georgia, from Virginia. But the result was not encouraging. Mr. Garrison, writing from Newport, June 22, 1836, of the abandonment of the attempt to pass in the Rhode Island Legislature 16 resolutions advising punishment of the abolition ‘conspirators,’ reviewed the situation at that date:

A gentleman from Dover informs me, that the committee17 appointed by the New Hampshire Legislature to consider and report upon the pro-slavery documents from the South, have not been able to agree, and the whole subject has been postponed to the next session, which is tantamount to an indefinite postponement.18 The legislatures of Maine and New York have adopted some weak resolutions, censuring the abolitionists; Massachusetts and Connecticut have refused to act upon the Southern documents; Vermont is yet to act, and no doubt her Legislature will imitate that of Pennsylvania,19 viz., by 20 vindicating the right of free discussion, and maintaining the duty of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The Legislature of this State [Rhode Island] resolves to do nothing upon the subject. What will the South say now?

South Carolina said, speaking through Governor Mc-Duffie's message, that but three of the States in which21 abolition societies had been formed had even condescended [77] to notice her appeal, while not one had ‘taken any step towards suppressing the injurious practices of which we so justly complained.’ She regarded this ‘entire neglect’ as a ‘silent but significant indication of the alarming state of public opinion’ in the nonslavehold-ing States, and thought it now time for discussion and entreaty to cease. Virginia, too, was disheartened, 22 having got response only from Maine, New York, and Ohio, and satisfaction from no quarter; but was disposed to make a last appeal.

Repression by popular violence—‘the reign of terror’ —continued unabated, in spite of its notorious effect in multiplying anti-slavery organizations upon the very heels of the mob. Typical cases were the town-meeting appointment of a vigilance committee to prevent 23 antislavery meetings in Canaan, N. H.; the arrest of the Rev. George Storrs, at Northfield, in the same State, in a friendly pulpit, at the close of a discourse on slavery, as24 a ‘common brawler,’ and his subsequent sentence by a ‘justice of the peace’ to hard labor in the House of Correction for three months (not sustained on appeal); and the repeated destruction of Birney's Philanthropist25 printing-office by the ‘gentlemen of property and standing’ in Cincinnati—an outrage bearing a close resemblance to that engendered by the Faneuil Hall meeting, and ending in a midnight raid upon the colored homes of the city, with the connivance of the mayor. As in the case of Boston there was no ‘mob.’ According to the distinction so well formulated by Judge Lawless, of Missouri, when a colored man had been burnt26 at the stake, it was ‘not the act of numerable and ascertainable malefactors, but of congregated thousands,’ seized by a ‘mysterious, metaphysical and almost electric phrenzy,’ and therefore not indictable. Well did Emerson write to Carlyle, October 7, 1835: ‘We have had27 in different parts of the country mobs and moblike legislation, and even moblike judicature, which have betrayed an almost godless state of society.’ [78]

The churches were deeply engrossed in putting down anti-slavery sentiment within and without—the Southern religious bodies with a common voice holding up28 the abolitionists to public reprobation. A reputed vicegerent of the Almighty, Alexander Campbell, founder of the ‘Christian’ sect, proclaimed the divine right of29 slavery and the impiety of interference with it. The Northern churches were divided, but the weight of expression was on the side of the slave-driver. The Methodist General Conference at Cincinnati met some mild30 reprobation of slavery transmitted by the English Wesleyan Conference with unqualified repudiation of ‘modern abolitionists,’ and particular censure of two of its own delegates who had lectured on the ‘agitating topic’ of slavery; and earned from the editor of the Liberator31 the characterization of ‘a cage of unclean birds, and synagogue of Satan.’ The Presbyterian General Assembly at Pittsburgh found it inexpedient to express any opinion32 upon slavery, regarding it as a purely political institution; yet, for failing to call it divine, nearly lost its Southern members. The

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