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Feb 10, 2017

Abolitionism, Violence, and How William Lloyd Garrison was Almost Killed by a Mob

Smith discusses the prevalence of violence against abolitionists during the 1830s, and how Wendell Phillips became an abolitionist. 

Readers probably expect this essay to be a continuation of my last. They probably expect to find an account of the booklet by Wendell Phillips, Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? Readers probably expect this because this is what I said I would do in the conclusion of the preceding essay. But there has been a change of plan. I decided that I should discuss some general features of the abolitionist movement before proceeding to arguments advanced by specific abolitionists. I shall resume my discussion of Phillips’s critique of voting at a later time.

In 1835, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society announced that a celebrated British abolitionist, George Thompson, would speak at a meeting on October 14. Local newspapers denounced the event; one predicted that the women would not be able to protect themselves from retaliation by the righteously indignant members of the Boston community, who would surely attempt to stop Thompson from speaking. The certainty of mob violence, which was par for the course whenever abolitionists spoke in public, led some female abolitionists to gather at the home of the redoubtable Maria Weston Chapman, where they considered what to do. They decided to postpone the meeting for a week.

The fear of property damage made it impossible to find a meeting place in Boston, so the lecture would be held at the headquarters of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Meanwhile, because of the many threats against Thompson, it was decided that he should be replaced by William Lloyd Garrison—the firebrand abolitionist who had founded The Liberator four years earlier. But the women were adamant that the meeting would still take place. They told hostile papers that they had a right to free speech and would not back down from their efforts to advance “the holy cause of human rights.”

It was not widely known that Garrison instead of Thompson would be speaking, so the editor of the Commercial Gazette arranged the printing and distribution of 500 handbills that urged “friends of the Union” to rally and “snake out…the infamous foreign scoundrel Thompson.” This handbill informed Bostonians that a reward of $100 had been offered to the first man who laid “violent hands on Thompson, so that he may be brought to the tar-kettle before dark.”

On October 21, as a crowd gathered outside the meeting hall, word spread that Garrison, not Thompson, would be the featured speaker. If anything Garrison was more hated than Thompson, so the change did nothing to quell the desire to teach abolitionists a violent lesson in good citizenship. One member of the crowd offered to pay $5000 for the capture of Garrison and for his transportation to Savannah, where he would get what he so richly deserved. As indicated by this large sum of money, most of the well-dressed mob were shopkeepers and other respectable Bostonians.

Around thirty women were present when Garrison arrived at the meeting hall, despite efforts to block his entrance. Around 100 women were expected to attend, but many turned back after being menaced by a crowd that was growing into the thousands. The mob became increasingly agitated and threatening—“a troop of ravenous wolves,” in the words of one observer—so Mary Parker (president of the society) told Garrison, the primary target of the mob, to forget about his talk and seek refuge in a safe place where the mob could not find him. Otherwise, he would almost certainly suffer serious injuries or possibly killed.  

 After Garrison was no longer in the lecture room, Parker started the meeting. She said that “while there were many [women] to molest there were none that could make them afraid.” Garrison later called this a “sublime and soul-thrilling moment,” and he praised the “Christian heroine” who spoke “above the growls of the ruffians.”

When another speaker, Mary Bell, began her address, the Boston mayor burst into the room demanding that the women go home. He and his constables could not control the huge crowd, so he could guarantee the safety of the attendees only if they dispersed immediately. The women were suspicious—with good reason, given how city officials throughout the North typically despised abolitionists and made only token efforts, if any efforts at all, to protect abolitionist meetings from being disrupted. Earlier, when Maria Chapmen asked the mayor’s office for additional protection, her request was refused and she was told, “You give us too much trouble.” Then, after the women were ordered to end the meeting and go home, a skeptical Mary Parker asked why the meeting could not proceed; the mayor said he would explain later. And when Parker followed up by asking if the mayor’s personal friends “are the instigators of the mob,” the mayor replied that he was merely performing his official duty. “It is dangerous to remain,” he added.

The mob had not yet broken into the hall, but the sound of boards being ripped from the doorway suggested that this would not take much longer. Some courageous women nevertheless called for the meeting to continue, whatever the danger may be. If they must die to promote freedom for slaves, they said, then they may as well die then and there. The mayor responded in a condescending manner, saying: “At any rate you cannot die here.” Left with no realistic choice except to obey the mayor’s order, the women voted to move the meeting to the home of Maria Chapman. As these female abolitionists, surrounded by constables, pushed their way through seven blocks of angry onlookers amid hisses, catcalls, and racial epithets (some of women were black), their numbers doubled. Sympathetic women in the crowd had decided to join them.

During this exodus to safety, none of the female abolitionists noticed the absence of William Lloyd Garrison. He was stranded in the original building, which had no rear exit. A young abolitionist, John Reid Campbell, led Garrison to a rear window and managed to drop his hero and himself from the second floor to the roof of an adjacent shed. The alley below was jammed with predators looking for their prey, so all the pair could do was to duck into the shop of a carpenter sympathetic to Garrison’s plight. The carpenter hid the fugitives in a corner of his loft and covered the corner with lumber. Not long afterwards the mob broke down the door to the shop and demanded to know where Garrison was hiding. The carpenter was beaten after refusing to answer, but still he said nothing. Unfortunately, a young apprentice pointed to the loft, after which the mob used a ladder to reach Garrison, wrap a rope three times around his chest, and pull him down. The rope served as a leash as Garrison was dragged through a Boston street to cries of “Hang him on the Commons!”  

Garrison might very well have been killed on that day had not two beefy brothers, Daniel and Buff Cooley, intervened. These men grabbed Garrison by the arms and took him to the mayor’s office while fending off the mob. The mayor protested that his building was unsafe so long as Garrison was on the premises, so he insisted that the abolitionist, with his clothes in tatters and with his spectacles smashed, must spend the night in jail for his own protection. The immediate danger was not yet over, however. Some members of the mob, having learned of Garrison’s trip to jail, attempted to stop the coach by throwing themselves on the wheels or by cutting the reins. The heroic driver of the coach—a black man whose name has been lost to history—saved the day by repeatedly striking the crowd with a whip as he sped away.

This dramatic story is surely the stuff of movies, but it is not an especially unusual one by abolitionist standards of the 1830s. Many similar stories have been recorded during this decade of intense mob violence against abolitionists. Garrison was nearly killed by a mob on at least one other occasion, whereas some other abolitionists—such as the writer, editor, and newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy—were not lucky enough to be rescued. Lovejoy was shot and killed in 1837 while attempting to prevent an armed mob in Alton, Illinois from destroying his printing press for the fourth time.

I have related the story about Garrison’s close call for a particular reason. A young attorney named Wendell Phillips saw Garrison as he was being mobbed and hauled through the street, and this incident affected Phillips greatly. The scion of a family of Boston Brahmins, Phillips was highly educated, having graduated Harvard College and Harvard Law School. At this time Phillips, who had the look and bearing of an aristocrat, was a conservative Whig who apparently had not given much thought to the slavery issue. But he was horrified by the treatment of Garrison, viewing it as an attempt to suppress an unpopular viewpoint whose defenders should enjoy the fundamental right of free speech.

Phillips was not alone in this reaction. Other Americans, including many who were not abolitionists, came to view widespread mob violence during the 1830s as a threat to the civil liberties of all Americans. However these people viewed abolitionism, they felt that their own freedoms were under attack, especially the rights of free speech and a free press. As a result, abolitionism became more than a crusade for the immediate emancipation of slaves. It became a living symbol for the exercise and protection of civil liberties in general.

It was not long after witnessing the violence against Garrison that Phillips was won over to abolitionism. (He was persuaded by his wife, a fervent and articulate Garrisonian.) Phillips became one of the movement’s most effective speakers and writers—and perhaps its best theoretician—and he worked closely with Garrison for years, only to split with his mentor over Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  

The Garrisonians were highly suspicious and severely critical of Abraham Lincoln from the beginning of his presidency. Lincoln advocated a number of key doctrines that the Garrisonians despised, most notably colonization and gradualism; and he opposed repealing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—a draconian piece of legislation that even many political moderates condemned as loathsome. In addition, the Garrisonians believed Lincoln when he repeatedly proclaimed that he was fighting the war not to end slavery—indeed, not to free even a single slave—but solely to preserve the Union. Although the Garrisonians knew that Lincoln opposed slavery, they tended to view him as a political opportunist who valued political expediency over moral principles. And this attitude was precisely what the Garrisonians had excoriated for many years.

Nevertheless, most Garrisonians believed that as the war wore on and as the North suffered one major defeat after another, Lincoln would eventually be compelled to emancipate slaves as a necessary war measure. But Garrison and Phillips differed on how supportive abolitionists should be of Lincoln. Garrison was inclined to be more tolerant of Lincoln’s policies than Phillips could endorse.  

Garrison became a war hawk, in effect, on behalf of the Northern cause, thereby appearing to mangle the principles of pacifism and disunionism that he had defended for decades. Although Phillips (who was never a pacifist) also supported the North, he retained his moral aversion to war and never succumbed to the belief that a Northern victory, even if slavery were abolished as a result, would usher in an era of peace and harmony in America.

Like other cataclysmic events, the Civil War generated serious divisions within the ranks of people who had previously subscribed to the same overall ideology. Most historians have concluded that Garrison simply betrayed or abandoned his principles of pacifism and disunionism when he supported the Northern war effort to preserve the Union. But this is not how Garrison viewed the matter. He offered interesting and complex explanations of how his early principles were consistent with his support of the Union cause. As convoluted as these explanations have appeared to some historians, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as insincere or foolish on their face. Garrison, a brilliant thinker and strategist who for decades had struggled tirelessly on behalf of immediate emancipation, deserves better. Garrison was doubtless inconsistent at times, but he never lost his high regard for moral principles, especially those principle codified in the Declaration of Independence, which Garrison regarded as the greatest political document in history. I shall explore these and related matters in future installments of this series. 

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