The collection contains a number of cases relating to abolitionists, including "The Constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society" and the 1836 "Annual Report" of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. One theme that emerges from these documents is the clear link between churches and the abolition movement. Yet it is also clear that not all churches or church-goers favored what was seen as a radical position. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society’s report includes, among other things, several outraged letters to the editor that appeared in the Boston Centinel and Gazette after an announcement of one of the Society’s meetings was read aloud in church. Also of interest in this document are hints of the women’s rights movement that would eventually emerge from abolitionism:
We sometimes, but not often, hear it said--'It is such an odd, unladylike thing to do.' We concede that the human soul, in the full exercise of its most God-like power of self-denial and exertion for the good of others, is, emphatically, a very unladylike thing. We have never heard this objection, but from that sort of a woman who is dead while she lives, or to be pitied as the victim of domestic tyranny. The woman who makes it, is generally one who has struggled from childhood up to womanhood, through a process of spiritual suffocation. Her infancy was passed in serving as a convenience for the display of elegant baby linen. Her youth, in training for a more public display of braiding the hair, and wearing of gold, and putting on of apparel; while 'the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, the hidden man of the heart,' is not deemed worthy the attainment. Her summers fly away in changes of air and water; her winters in changes of flimsy garments, in inhaling lamp-smoke, and drinking champagne at midnight with the most dissipated men in the community. This is the woman who tells us it is unladylike to ask that children may no longer be sold away from their parents, or wives from their husbands, in the District of Columbia, and adds, 'they ought to be mobbed who ask it.' We present her the only argument she can comprehend — the fact that 80,000 of the noblest among the matronage of England, have annually entreated of their government, to do all in its power for the extinctions of slavery, till they prevailed.
Read the entire Annual Report of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (you may want to divide the report among several people and then share information from what you have read) and consider the following questions:
- List as many of the Society’s activities as you can identify from the report. Into what categories did their activities fall? What were the purposes of the various categories of activities? Which activities do you think were most likely to be effective?
- According to the report, what was the relationship between abolitionist societies and churches? What actions did the abolitionists take to strengthen the involvement of churches in their work?
- How did people respond when an announcement of an abolitionist meeting was read at the Federal Street Society (a church)? How did the members of the Anti-Slavery Society respond? Do you agree with their position that "a word may sometimes be a deed"? Explain your answer.
- What was the Society’s view of women who thought abolitionism was "unladylike"? Based on this document, what predictions would you make about the future directions of the women involved in the Society?
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech emerged as legal and constitutional issues when ministers were charged with crimes as a result of their sermons. In a case in which future Chief Justice Roger Taney served as one of the attorneys for the defendant, Methodist Episcopal minister Jacob Gruber was charged with inciting a slave insurrection. Taney, in opening Gruber’s case, remarked:
No man can be prosecuted for preaching the articles of his religious creed; unless, indeed, his doctrine is immoral, and calculated to disturb the peace and order of society. And on subjects of national policy may, at all times, be freely and fully discussed in the pulpit, or elsewhere, without limitation or restraint. Therefore, the Reverend gentleman, whose cause I am now advocating, cannot be liable to prosecution in any form of proceeding, for the sermon mentioned by the District Attorney, unless his doctrines were immoral, and calculated to disturb the peace and order of society. The sermon, in itself, could in no other way be an offence against the laws. If his doctrines were not immoral, if the principles he maintained were not contrary to the peace and good order of society, he had an undoubted right to preach them, and to clothe them in such language, and to enforce them by such facts and arguments, as to him seemed proper. It would be nothing to the purpose, to say, that he offended or that he alarmed some, or all of his hearers. Their feelings, or their fears, would not alter the character of his doctrine, or take from him a right secured to him by the constitution and laws of the state.
Those who published in the abolitionist cause were also subject to prosecution, as in the case of William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was charged with libel for publishing an article criticizing two people for engaging in domestic slave trading. At his trial, described in "A Brief Sketch of the Trial of William Lloyd Garrison," his lawyer declared "the law of libel a drain through which had circulated every thing that was putrid, vile, and unseemly. It was the last and most successful engine of tyranny; and had done more to perpetuate public abuses, and to check the march of reform, than any other agent."
One of the more infamous cases involving attempts to keep editors from publishing anti-slavery material arose in Alton, Illinois. Editor and minister Elijah P. Lovejoy had relocated to Alton from St. Louis, where he had been persecuted for what were perceived to be abolitionist leanings. In Alton, several presses were destroyed by pro-slavery residents. On the night of November 7, 1837, word got around that a group would be attempting to destroy the latest press, kept in a warehouse owned by a man named Godfrey Gilman. Gilman and others decided to defend the press.
A riot resulted, Reverend Lovejoy was killed, and men on both sides were indicted for crimes. The collection contains two accounts of these events. “Alton Trials” presents accounts of the trials made from notes taken by a local attorney at the trials of both groups of men. “History of the Rise and Progress of the Alton Riots” was written many years after the fact by one of the men who defended the press.
- How do the two accounts differ? On what facts do they agree?
- Which source is more informative?
- Which source is more reliable? Why?
Abolitionists' reports on their activities raise issues related to civil disobedience. Daniel Drayton, who helped slaves escape by taking them north in his boat, commented on the importance of both words and actions:
The satisfaction that I have is this: What I did, and what I attempted to do, was my protest, — a protest which resounded from one end of the Union to the other, and which, I hope, by the dissemination of this, my narrative, to renew and repeat it, — it was my protest against the infamous and atrocious doctrine that there can be any such thing as property in man! We can only do according to our power, and the capacity, gifts and talents, that we have. Others, more fortunate than I, may record their protest against this wicked doctrine more safely and comfortably for themselves than I did. They may embody it in burning words and eloquent speeches; they may write it out in books; they may preach it in sermons. I could not do that. I have as many thoughts as another, but, for want of education, I lack the power to express them in speech or writing… If I had believed, as the slave-holders do, that men can be owned; if I had really attempted, as they falsely and meanly charged me with doing, to steal; had I actually sought to appropriate men as property to my own use; had that been all, does anybody imagine that I should ever have been pursued with such persevering enmity and personal virulence? Do they get up a debate in Congress, and a riot in the city of Washington, every time a theft is committed or attempted in the District? It was purely because I was not a thief; because, in helping men, women and children, claimed as chattels, to escape, I bore my testimony against robbing human beings of their liberty; this was the very thing that excited the slave-holders against me, just as a strong anti-slavery speech excites them against Mr. Hale, or Mr. Giddings, or Mr. Mann, or Mr. Sumner. Those gentlemen have words at command; they can speak, and can do good service by doing so. As for me, it was impossible that I should ever be able to make myself heard in Congress, or by the nation at large, except in the way of action. The opportunity occurring, I did not hesitate to improve it; nor have I ever yet seen occasion to regret having done so.
(Pages 121-122, "Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton")
- Why did Daniel Drayton decide to take action? What does he compare his actions to?
- Drayton argued that slave-holders were angry about his actions because they knew he was not a thief, but someone acting against slavery because of deeply held beliefs. Do you think this argument is logical? Why or why not?
- Drayton said that his actions were like a speech, while the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society said words were like actions. Are both words and actions needed to change laws and traditions? Think of other examples from history that would support your position.