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Chapter 5: the school of mobs

All this was, however, but the peaceful early stage of the antislavery moment; the mob period was approaching. It was a time peculiarly trying to those who had been bred in the non-resistance theory, and had to choose for themselves among the three alternatives, resistance, endurance, and flight. Those who in later years read the fine dramatic delineations in the poem “Barclay of Ury” do not quite appreciate the school in which Whittier learned what life meant to Barclay. The first time that actual violence came near Whittier, in his own town of Haverhill, though it missed him, was after there had been established (on April 3, 1834) an antislavery society of which he was secretary. A year or so later, in August, 1835, the Rev. Samuel J. May of Syracuse, N. Y., preached in the Unitarian pulpit at Haverhill and announced that he should give an antislavery address in the evening. The result is thus described by the historian of Haverhill:--

The evening meeting was entirely broken up by a mob outside, who threw sand and gravel and small stones against the windows, breaking the glass, and by their hootings frightened the female portion of the audience, and led to the fear on the part of all, that more serious assaults would follow if the meeting was continued. It was therefore [57] summarily dissolved. It was perhaps fortunate that this course was adopted, as a loaded cannon was then being drawn to the spot, to add its thunderings to the already disgraceful tumults of that otherwise quiet Sabbath evening.

Chase's History of Haverhill, p. 505.

The preacher thus mobbed was, by universal admission, the most moderate, disarming, and courteous of all antislavery lecturers, indeed so eminent for these particular virtues as almost to constitute a class by himself. His reception shows how absolutely unjust was the charge that the abolitionists brought upon themselves, by their mere manner, the persecution they often received. In this case the meeting was broken up in uproar, and Mr. May was roughly handled as he went out, but as he had Elizabeth Whittier on one arm and her friend Harriet Minot on the other, he escaped actual violence. Less fortunate was George Thompson, the distinguished English antislavery orator, who had been the leader of the agitation for the abolition of slavery in the English colonies, and who came to America by invitation of Garrison. He acted on the fine principle laid down for all time by the so-called infidel Thomas Paine, who, when some one quoted to him the Latin motto, “Where liberty is, there is my country” (Ubi libertas, ibi patria) replied that this was a coward's phrase, since the brave man's watchword would be, “Where liberty is not, there is my country.” Thompson was of course received with peculiar hostility as a foreigner, a feeling not yet extinct, for it is not many years since I saw him disdainfully classed as “a foreign carpet-bagger,” and that by one of the most eminent of Boston philanthropists. [58] He had been mobbed, accordingly, in one place after another, including Salem, whence he had escaped with difficulty and had been afterward secreted by Whittier for two weeks in East Haverhill. He and Whittier had personally undertaken a few antislavery meetings, and had set out for that purpose. I take what followed from the excellent description of their friend, Mrs. Cartland:--

... Thinking themselves secure because personally unknown, the two friends drove to Plymouth, N. H., to visit Nathaniel P. Rogers, a prominent abolitionist. On their way they stopped for the night in Concord at the house of George Kent, who was a brother-in-law of Rogers. After they had gone on their way, Kent attempted to make preparations for an antislavery meeting to be held when they should return. There was furious excitement, and neither church, chapel, nor hall could be hired for the purpose. On their arrival Whittier walked out with a friend in the twilight, leaving Thompson in the house, and soon found himself and friend surrounded by a mob of several hundred persons, who assailed them with stones and bruised them somewhat severely. They took refuge in the house of Colonel Kent, who, though not an abolitionist, protected them and baffled the mob. From thence Whittier made his way with some difficulty to George Kent's, where Thompson was. The mob soon surrounded the house and demanded that Thompson and “the Quaker” should be given up. Through a clever stratagem the mob was decoyed away for a while, but, soon discovering the trick, it returned, reenforced with muskets and a cannon, and threatened to blow up the house if the abolitionists were not surrendered.

A small company of antislavery men and women had met that evening at George Kent's, among whom were two nieces of Daniel Webster, daughters of his brother Ezekiel. All agreed that the lives of Whittier and Thompson were in danger, and advised that an effort should be made to escape. The mob filled the street, a short distance below the gate [59] leading to Kent's house. A horse was quietly harnessed in the stable, and was led out with the vehicle under the shadow of the house, where Whittier and Thompson stood ready. It was bright moonlight, and they could see the gun-barrels gleaming in the street below them. The gate was suddenly opened, the horse was started at a furious gallop, and the two friends drove off amidst the yells and shots of the infuriated crowd. They left the city by the way of Hookset Bridge, the other avenues being guarded, and hurried in the direction of Haverhill. In the morning they stopped to refresh themselves and their tired horse. While at breakfast they found that “ill news travels fast,” and gets worse as it goes; for the landlord told them that there had been an abolition meeting at Haverhill the night before, and that George Thompson, the Englishman, and a young Quaker named Whittier, who had brought him, were both so roughly handled that they would never wish to talk abolition again. When the guests were about to leave, Whittier, just as he was stepping into the carriage, said to the landlord, “My name is Whittier, and this is George Thompson.” The man opened his eyes and mouth with wonder as they drove away.

When they arrived at Haverhill they learned of the doings of the mob there, and the fortunate escape of their friend May.

Underwood's Whittier, pp. 116-18.

Another of these Thompson mobs, at which Whittier was not present, is thus described by Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, who was there. I insert her account, because it describes the period better than any other narrative I know, and gives the essential atmosphere of the life amid which Whittier was reared.

My most vivid recollection of George Thompson is of his speaking at Julian Hall on a memorable occasion. Mr. Stetson, then keeper of the Tremont House, was present, with a large number of his slaveholding guests, who had [60] come to Boston to make their annual purchases of the merchants. Their presence seemed to inspire Mr. Thompson. Never, even from his eloquent lips, did I hear such scathing denunciations of slavery. The exasperated Southerners could not contain their wrath. Their lips were tightly compressed, their hands clinched; and now and then a muttered curse was audible. Finally, one of them shouted, ‘If we had you down South, we'd cut off your ears.’ Mr. Thompson folded his arms in his characteristic manner, looked calmly at the speaker, and replied, “Well, sir, if you did cut off my ears, I should still cry aloud, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.””

Meanwhile my heart was thumping like a sledge-hammer; for, before the speaking began, Samuel J. May had come to me, and said in a very low tone: “ Do you see how the walls are lined by stout truckmen, brandishing their whips? They are part of a large mob around the entrance in Federal Street, employed by the Southerners to seize George Thompson and carry him to a South Carolina vessel in waiting at Long Wharf. A carriage with swift horses is at the door, and these Southerners are now exulting in the anticipation of lynching him. But behind that large green curtain at the back of the platform there is a door leading to the chamber of a warehouse. We have the key to that door, which leads to a rear entrance of the building on Milk Street. There the abolitionists have stationed a carriage with swift horses and a coloured driver, who of course will do his best for George Thompson. Now, as soon as Mr. Thompson ceases speaking, we want antislavery women to gather round him and appear to detain him in eager conversation. He will listen and reply, but keep imperceptibly moving backward toward the green curtain. You will all follow him, and when he vanishes behind the curtain you will continue to stand close together, and appear to be still talking with him.”

At the close of the meeting twenty-five or thirty of us women clustered around Mr. Thompson and obeyed the instructions we had received. When he had disappeared from our midst there was quiet for two or three minutes, [61] interrupted only by our busy talking. But the Southerners soon began to stand on tiptoe and survey the platform anxiously. Soon a loud oath was heard, accompanied by the exclamation, “He's gone!” Then such a thundering stampede as there was down the front stairs I have never heard. We remained in the hall, and presently Samuel J. May came to us, so agitated that he was pale to the very lips. “ Thank God, he is saved!” he exclaimed; and we wrung his hands with hearts too full for speech.

The Boston newspaper press, as usual, presented a united front in sympathy with the slaveholders. . . . But they were all in the dark concerning the manner of his escape; for as the door behind the curtain was known to very few, it remained a mystery to all except the abolitionists.

Underwood's Whittier, pp. 118-20.

Garrison wrote of the Concord mob to his brother-in-law, Sept. 12, 1835, “Our brother Thompson had a narrow escape from the mob at Concord, and Whittier was pelted with mud and stones, but he escaped bodily damage.” Thompson wrote to Garrison, Sept. 15:--

You would have been delighted to have shared our adventures in Concord (?) on the memorable night of the 4th inst. The mirthful and the melancholy were so strangely and equally blended throughout, that I scarcely know which had the advantage, and certainly could not tell the story of our ‘hairbreadth 'scapes ’ without exciting your risibility. However, my escape from the ignorant and murderous rabble that clamoured and thirsted for my blood was very providential, and I desire to feel grateful to Him who I believe watches over our persons and our cause, and will restrain the malice of our foes, or cause our sufferings to advance His glory.

Poor Whittier was compelled to receive a tithe of the vengeance accumulated for me. I had really little expectation and less desire to be stoned by proxy, but such is the fruit of keeping bad company.

Garrison's life, I. 520.


Next followed the Garrison mob, properly so called, during which Whittier happened to be in Boston, in attendance at an extra session of the state legislature, of which he was then a member. His sister being at the women's antislavery convention, he went in search of her, and found that the meeting had been broken up by a mob, or dispersed by the mayor to quiet those outside, and that the rioters had been allowed by the mayor to take down the very sign, “Female antislavery Society” and break it to pieces, thus lynching George Thompson by proxy, as he expresses it, in a bit of harmless board. Whittier saw Garrison hurried through the street with a rope round him, and taken for safety to jail, where Whittier and May visited him in his cell; then, being warned that the house which was their own stopping-place might also be attacked, they removed Elizabeth Whittier without her knowing the reason, while they themselves mounted guard all night. This was the ordeal by which Whittier's Quaker training was tested, but it rang true. He would not arm himself, but he did not flinch where others were arming.

His courage was to be once more tested, however, in Philadelphia, while he edited the Pennsylvania Freeman. A hall had been erected by the antislavery people and other reformers, and was first opened on May 15, 1838. There was an address by the eminent lawyer, David Paul Brown, and a poem of a hundred and fifty lines by Whittier, whose publishing office was in the building. It was not one of his best poems, and he excluded it from his complete edition; but it was enough, with other things, to call out the gradually increasing wrath of a mob which hooted, yelled, [63] and broke windows. On the third day the president of the Pennsylvania Hall Association called for the intervention of the mayor and sheriff. About sunset the mayor replied that, if the building were vacated and given into his possession, he would disperse the rioters. The keys were given up to him, and he addressed the mob as “Fellow-citizens.” Deprecating disorder in general terms, he added: “There will be no meeting here this evening. The house has been given up to me. The managers had the right to hold the meeting, but as good citizens they have, at my request, suspended their meeting for this evening. We never call out the military here. We do not need such measures. Indeed, I would, fellow-citizens, look upon you as my police! I trust you will abide by the laws and keep order. I now bid you farewell for the night.”

Since mob law began on this planet there probably was never a more dastardly invitation to outrage. Three cheers were given for the mayor, and the mob went at once to its work. Ransacking the antislavery bookstore and office, they carried all combustibles to the platform and set the building on fire. Two Southern witnesses will best tell the tale.

A Southern account of the fire appeared in a New Orleans paper, as follows:--

At 8.30 P. M. the people, feeling themselves able and willing to do their duty, burst open the doors of the house, entered the Abolition book-store, and made complete havoc of all within. They then beat out all the windows, and, gathering a pile of window-blinds and a pile of abolition books together, they placed them under the pulpit, and set fire to them and the building. . . . The multitude, as soon as they saw the building on fire, gave a loud shout of joy. [64] A large number of splendid fire-engines were immediately on the spot, many of which could throw water more than a hundred feet high; but the noble firemen, to a man, of all the companies present, refused to throw one drop of water on the consuming building. All they did was to direct their engines to play upon the private buildings in the immediate vicinity of the blazing hall, some of which were in danger, as they were nearly joining the hall. . . . Such conduct in the Philadelphia fire companies deserves the highest praise and gratitude of all friends of the Union, and of all Southerners in particular; and I hope and trust the fire companies of New Orleans will hold a meeting, and testify in some suitable manner to the Philadelphia fire companies their sincere approbation of their noble conduct on this occasion.

Another Southerner wrote to a Georgian paper how he and a friend helped, and enjoyed the spectacle:--

We lent our feeble efforts to effect the demolition of this castle of iniquity. . . . The fire companies repaired tardily to the scene of action, and not a drop of water did they pour upon that accursed Moloch until it was a heap of ruins. Sir! it would have gladdened your heart to have beheld that lofty tower of mischief enveloped in flames. The devouring element seemed to wear, combined with its terrible majesty, beauty and delight. To witness those beautiful spires of flame gave undoubted assurance to the heart of the Southron that in his brethren of the North he has friends.

Linton's Whittier, pp. 74-76.

This shows what the mob discipline was. It did not drive Whittier from his non-resistant principles, as was the case with most of the men of that stamp who went nearly thirty years later to Kansas; it only made him more absolutely sure and resolute in proclaiming the antislavery gospel.

Nor was this the whole story. The next day a “Shelter for coloured Orphans” was burned, and a church of the [65] coloured people attacked and damaged. The day before the first attack the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society had announced a meeting at the hall for the election of officers, and at the appointed hour it met by the smoking ruins and went through its business amid the howling of the mob. The tumults lasted a week, and at the end of this time the mayor offered a reward for the arrest of the rioters, from which nothing followed. The summary of the whole affair in the Pennsylvania Freeman was written by Whittier and Charles Burleigh. It was practically the record of the poet's baptism into the second degree of reform — the period of mob violence.

Years after, Whittier had a curious memorial of this period--

Once when he was passing through Portland, Me., a man, seeing him go by, stepped out of his shop and asked if his name were Whittier, and if he were not the man who was stoned, years ago, by a mob at Concord. The answer being in the affirmative, he said he believed a devil possessed him that night; for he had no reason to wish evil either to Whittier or Thompson, yet he was filled with a desire to kill them, and he thought he should have done so if they had not escaped. He added that the mob was like a crowd of demons, and he knew one man who had mixed a black dye to dip them [the abolitionists] in, which would be almost impossible to get off. He could not explain to himself or to another the state of mind he was in.

Fields's Whittier, p. 47.

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