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SIGNS OF THE TIMES IN MASSACHUSETTS. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 3.
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SIGNS OF THE TIMES IN MASSACHUSETTS.
“Il no faut pas une bien grande force d'esprit pour comprendre que ni le's richesses ni le pouvoir ne rendent hemeux. Assez de gens sentent cette vérité. Mais de ceux qui la connoissent pleinement et se conduisent en conséquence, le nombre en est si petit qu'il semble que ce soit là l'effort le plus rare de la raison humaine.”
Paul Louis Courier.
Some few years hence it will be difficult to believe what the state of the times was in some parts of the United States, and even in the maritime cities, in 1835. The system of terrorism seems now to be over. It did not answer its purpose, and is dropped: but in 1835 it was new and dreadful. One of the most hideous features of the times was the ignorance, and unconcern of a large portion of society about what was being done and suffered by other divisions of its members. I suppose while Luther was toiling and thundering, German ladies and gentlemen were supping and dancing as usual; and while the Lollards were burning, perhaps little was known or cared about it in warehouses and upon farms. So it was in America. The gentry with whom I chiefly associated in New York knew little of the troubles of the abolitionists in that city, and nothing about the state of the anti-slavery question in their own region. In Boston, I heard very striking facts which had taken place in broad daylight, vehemently and honestly denied by many who happened to be ignorant of what had been done in their very streets. Not a few persons applied to me, a stranger, for information about the grand revolution of the time which was being transacted, not only on their own soil, but in the very city of their residence. A brief sketch of what I saw and experienced in Boston, during the autumn of 1835, will afford some little information as to what the state of society actually was.
At the end of August, a grand meeting was held at Faneuil Hall, in Boston. The hall was completely filled with the gentry of the city; and some of the leading citizens took the responsibility, and conducted the proceedings of the day. The object of the meeting was to soothe the South, by directing public indignation upon the abolitionists. The pretext of the assembly was, that the Union was in danger; and though the preamble to the resolutions declared disapprobation of the institution of slavery, the resolutions themselves were all inspired by fear of, or sympathy with slave-holders. They reprobated all agitation of the question, and held out assurances to the South, that every consideration should be made subordinate to the grand one of preserving the Union. The speeches were a disgrace to the constituents of a democratic republic; pointed as they were against those rights of free discussion and association at the time acted upon by fellow-citizens, and imbued with deference for the South. In the crowded assembly, no voice was raised in disapprobation, except when a speaker pointed to the portrait of Washington as “that slave-holder;” and even then the murmur soon died into silence. The gentlemen went home, trusting that they had put down the abolitionists, and conciliated the South. In how short a time did the new legislature of the State pass, in that very city, a series of thoroughgoing abolition resolutions, sixteen constituting the minority! while the South had already been long despising the half and half doctrine of the Faneuil Hall meeting!
Meantime, the immediate result of the proceeding was the mob of which I have elsewhere given an account* . After that mob, the regular meetings of the abolitionists were suspended, for want of a place to meet in. Incessant attempts were made to hire any kind of public building; but no one would take the risk of having his property destroyed by letting it to so obnoxious a set of people. For six weeks exertions were made in vain. At last, a Boston merchant, who had built a pleasant house for himself and his family, said that while he had a roof over his head, his neighbours should not want a place in which to hold a legal meeting for honest objects; and he sent an offer of his house to the ladies of the Anti-slavery Society. They appointed their meeting for three o'clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, November 18th. They were obliged to make known their intentions as they best could; for no newspaper would admit their advertisements; and the clergy rarely ventured to give out their notices, among others, from the pulpit.
I was, at this time, slightly acquainted with three or four abolitionists; and I was distrusted by most or all of the body who look any interest in me at all. My feelings were very different from theirs about the slave-holders of the South;—naturally enough, as these southern slave-holders were nothing else in the eyes of abolitionists; while to me they were, in some cases, personal friends, and in more, hospitable entertainers. It was known, however, that I had declared my intention of attending an abolition meeting. This was no new resolution. From the outset of my inquiry into the question, I had declared that, having attended colonization meetings, and heard all that the slave-holders had to say for themselves and against the abolitionists, I felt myself bound to listen to the other side of the question. I always professed my intention of seeking acquaintance with the abolitionists, though I then fully and involuntarily believed two or three charges against them which I found to be wholly groundless. The time was now come for discharging this duty.
On the Monday, two friends, then only new acquaintances, called on me at the house of a clergyman where I was staying, three miles from Boston. A late riot at Salem was talked over.—a riot in which the family of Mr. Thompson had been driven from one house to another three times in one night, the children being snatched from their beds, carried abroad in the cold, and injuriously terrified. It was mentioned that the ladies of the Anti-slavery Society were going to attempt a meeting on the next Wednesday, and I was asked whether I was in earnest in saying that I would attend one of their meetings. Would I go to this one if I should be invited? I replied that it depended entirely on the nature of the meeting. If it was merely a meeting for the settlement of accounts, and the despatch of business, where I should not learn what I wanted, I should wait for a less perilous time: if it was a bená fide public meeting, a true reflection of the spirit and circumstances of the time and the cause, I would go. The matter was presently decided by the arrival of a regular official invitation to me to attend the meeting, and to carry with me the friend who was my travelling companion, and any one else who might be disposed to accompany me.
Trifling as these circumstances may now appear, they were no trifles at the time; and many considerations were involved in the smallest movement a stranger made on the question. The two first things I had to take care of were to avoid involving my host in any trouble I might get into, and to afford opportunity to my companion to judge for herself what she would do. My host had been reviled in the newspapers already for having read a notice, (among several others) of an anti-slavery meeting from Dr. Channing's pulpit, where he was accidentally preaching. My object was to prevent his giving an opinion on any thing that I should do; that he might not be made more or less responsible for my proceedings. I handed the invitation to my companion, with a hint not to speak of it. We separately made up our minds to go, and announced our determination to our host and hostess. Between joke and earnest, they told us we should be mobbed; and the same thing was repeated by many who were not in joke at all.
At two o'clock on the Wednesday, we arrived at the house of a gentleman where we were to meet a few of the leading abolitionists, and dine, previous to the meeting. Our host was miserably ill that day,—unfit to be out of his chamber: but he exerted himself to the utmost, being resolved to escort his wife to the meeting. During dinner, the conversation was all about the southern gentry; in whose, favour I said all I could, and much more than the party could readily receive; which was natural enough, considering that they and I looked at the people of the South from different points of view. Before we issued forth on our expedition, I was warned, once more, that exertions had been made to get up a mob, and that it was possible we might be dispersed by violence. When we turned into the street where the house of meeting stood, there were about a dozen boys hooting before the door, as they saw ladies of colour entering. We were admitted without having to wait an instant on the steps; and the door was secured behind us.
The ladies assembled in two drawing-rooms, thrown into one, by the folding-doors being opened. The total number was a hundred and thirty. The President sat at a small table by the folding-doors: and before her was a large bible, paper, pens, and ink, and the secretary's papers. There were only three gentlemen in the house,—its inhabitant, the gentleman who escorted us, and a clergyman who had dined with us. They remained in the hall, keeping the front door fastened, and the back way clear for our retreat, if retreat should be necessary. But the number of hooters in the streets at no time exceeded thirty, and they treated us to nothing worse than a few yells.
A lady who sat next me amused me by inquiring, with kindness, whether it revolted my feelings to meet thus in assembly with people of colour. She was as much surprised as pleased with my English deficiency of all feeling on the subject. My next neighbour on the other hand was Mrs. Thompson, the wife of the anti-slavery lecturer, who had just effected his escape, and was then on the sea. The proceedings began with the reading of a few texts of Scripture by the President. My first impression was that the selection of these texts gave out a little vain-glory about the endurance of persecution; but when I remembered that this was the re-union of persons who had been dispersed by a mob, and when I afterwards became aware how cruelly many of the members had been wounded in their moral sense, their domestic affections, and their prospects in life. I was quite ready to yield my too nice criticism. A prayer then followed, the spirit of which appeared to me perfect in hopefulness, meekness, and gentleness. While the secretary was afterwards reading her report, a note was handed to me, the contents of which sunk my spirits fathom deep for the hour. It was a short pencil note from one of the gentlemen in the hall; and it asked me whether I had any objection to give a word of sympathy to the meeting, fellow-labourers as we had long been in behalf of the principles in whose defence they were met. The case was clear as daylight to my conscience. If I had been a mere stranger, attending with a mere stranger's interest to the proceedings of a party of natives, I might and ought to have declined mixing myself up with their proceedings. But I had long before published against slavery, and always declared my conviction that this was a question of humanity, not of country or race; a moral, not a merely political question; a general affair, and not one of city, state, party, or nation. Having thus declared on the safe side of the Atlantic, I was bound to act up to my declaration on the unsafe side, if called upon. I thought it a pity that the call had been made, though I am now very glad that it was, as it was the means of teaching me more of the temper and affairs of the times than I could have known by any other means; and as it ripened the regard which subsisted between myself and the writer of the note into a substantial, profitable, and delightful friendship: but at the moment, I foresaw none of these good consequences, but a formidable array of very unpleasant ones. I foresaw that almost every house in Boston, except those of the abolitionists, would be shut against me; that my relation to the country would be completely changed, as I should be suddenly transformed from being a guest and an observer to being considered a missionary or a spy: and results even more serious than this might reasonably be anticipated. During the few minutes I had for consideration, the wife of the writer of the note came to me, and asked what I thought of it, begging me to feel quite at liberty to attend to it or not, as I liked. I felt that I had no such liberty. I was presently introduced to the meeting, when I offered the note as my reason for breaking the silence of a stranger, and made the same declarations of my abhorrence of slavery and my agreement in the principles of the abolitionists which I had expressed throughout the whole of my travels through the South.
Of the consequences of this simple affair it is not my intention to give any account; chiefly because it would be impossible to convey to my English readers my conviction of the smallness of the portion of American society which was concerned in the treatment inflicted upon me. The hubbub was so great, and the modes of insult were so various, as to justify distant observers in concluding that the whole nation had risen against me. I soon found how few can make a great noise, while the many are careless or ignorant of what is going on about a person or a party with whom they have nothing to do; and while not a few are rendered more hearty in their regard, and more generous in their hospitality, by the disgraces of the individual who is under the oppression of public censure. All that I anticipated at the moment of reading the note came to pass; but only for a time. Eventually nothing remained which in the slightest degree modified my opinions or impaired my hopes of the society I was investigating.
The Secretary's Report was drawn up with remarkable ability, and some animating and beautiful letters were read from distant members of the Association. The business which had been interrupted by violence was put in train again; and when the meeting broke up, a strong feeling of satisfaction visibly pervaded it. The right of meeting was vindicated; righteous pertinacity had conquered violence, and no immediate check to the efforts of the Society was to be apprehended.
The trials of the abolitionists of Boston were, however, not yet over. Two months before, the Attorney General of the State bad advocated in Council the expected demand of the South, that abolitionists should be delivered up to the Slave States for trial and punishment under Southern laws. This fact is credible to those, and perhaps to those only, who have seen the pamphlet in reply to Dr. Channing's work on Slavery, attributed to this gentleman. The South was not long in making the demand. Letters arrived from the Governors of Southern States to the new Governor of Massachusetts, demanding the passing of laws against abolitionism in all its forms. The Governor, as was his business, laid these letters before the legislature of his State. This was the only thing he could do on this occasion. Just before, at his entrance upon his office, he had aimed his blow at the abolitionists, in the following passages of his Address. The same delusion (if it be mere delusion) is visible here that is shared by all persons in power, who cannot deny that an evil exists, but have not courage to remove it,—a vague hope that “fate, or Providence, or something,” will do the work which men are created to perform,—men of principle, and men of peace, like the abolitionists;—victims, not perpetrators of violence. “As the genius of our institutions and the character of our people are entirely repugnant to laws impairing the liberty of speech and of the press, even for the sake of repressing its abuses, the patriotism of all classes of citizens must be invoked, to abstain from a discussion, which, by exasperating the master, can have no other effect than to render more oppressive the condition of the slave; and which, if not abandoned, there is great reason to fear, will prove the rock on which the Union will split.”... “A conciliatory forbearance,” he proceeds to say, “would leave this whole painful subject where the Constitution leaves it, with the States where it exists, and in the hands of an all-wise Providence, who in his own good time, is able to cause it to disappear, like the slavery of the ancient world, under the gradual operation of the gentle spirit of Christianity.” The time is at hand. The “gradual operation of the gentle spirit of Christianity” had already educated the minds and hearts of the abolitionists for the work they are doing, but which the Governor would fain have put off. It thus appears that they had the Governor and Attorney General of the State against them; and the wealth, learning, and power of their city. It will be seen how their legislature was affected towards them.
As soon as they were aware of the demands of the southern governors, they petitioned their legislature for a hearing; according to the invariable practice of persons who believe that they may be injured by the passing of any proposed law. The hearing was granted as a matter of course: and a committee of five members of the legislature was appointed to hear what the abolitionists had to say. The place and time appointed were the Senate Chamber, on the afternoon of Friday, the 4th of March.
The expectation had been that few or none but the parties immediately concerned would be present at the discussion of such “a low subject:” but the event proved that more curiosity was abroad than had been supposed. I went just before the appointed hour, and took my scat, with my party, in the empty gallery of the Senate Chamber. The abolitionists dropped in, one by one,—Garrison, May, Goodell, Follen, E. G. Loring, and others. The committee treated them with ostentatious neglect, dawdling away the time, and keeping them waiting a full hour beyond the appointed time. The gallery filled rapidly, and more and more citizens entered the room below. To our great delight, Dr. Channing made his appearance there. At length it was manifest that the Senate Chamber was not large enough; and we adjourned to the Hall of Representatives, which was soon about two-thirds filled.
I could not have conceived that such conduct could have been ventured upon, as that of the chairman of the committee. It was so insulting as to disgust the citizens present, whatever might be their way of thinking on the question which brought them together. The chairman and another of the five were evidently predetermined. They spared no pains in showing it, twisting the meaning of expressions employed by the pleaders, noting down any disjointed phrase which could be made to tell against those who used it, conveying sarcasms in their questions, and insult in their remarks. Two others evidenced a desire to fulfil their function,—to hear what the abolitionists had to say. Dr. Channing took his seat behind the pleaders; and I saw with pleasure that he was handing them notes, acting on their side as decisively, and almost as publicly as if he had spoken. After several unanswerable defences against charges had been made, and Mr. Loring had extorted the respect of the committee, by a speech in which he showed that a legislative censure is more injurious than penal laws, it was Dr. Follen's turn to speak. He was presently stopped by the chairman, with a command that he should be respectful to the committee; with an intimation that the gentlemen were heard only as a matter of favor. They protested against this, their hearing having been demanded as a matter of right: they refused to proceed, and broke up the conference.
Much good was done by this afternoon's proceedings. The feeling of the bystanders was, on the whole, decidedly in favour of the pleaders; and the issue of the affair was watched with much interest. The next day, the abolitionists demanded a hearing as a matter of right: and it was granted likewise as an affair of course. The second hearing was appointed for Tuesday the 8th, at the same place and hour.
Some well-meaning friends of the abolitionists had in the interval advised that the most accomplishcd, popular, and gentlemanly of the abolitionists should conduct, the business of the second day; that the speeches should be made by Dr. Follen, Messrs. Loring and Sewall, and one or two more; and that Garrison and Goodell, the homely, primitive, and eminently suffering men of the apostleship, should be induced to remain in the background. The advice was righteously rejected; and, as it happened, theirs were the speeches that went furthest in winning over the feeling of the audience to their side. I shall never forget the swimming eye and tremulous voice with which a noble lady of the persecuted party answered such a suggestion as I have mentioned. “O,” said she, “above all things, we must be just and faithful to Garrison. You do not know what we know,—that unless we put him, on every occasion, into the midst of the gentlemen of the party, he will be torn to pieces. Nothing can save him but his being made one with those whom his enemies will not dare to touch.” As for Mr. Goodell, he had been frequently stoned. “He was used to it.” They appeared in the midst of the professional gentlemen of the Association, and did the most eminent service of the day.
The hall was crowded, and shouts of applause broke forth, as the pleaders demolished an accusation, or successfully rebutted the insolence of the chairman. Dr. Follen was again stopped, as he was showing that mobs had been the invariable consequence of censures of abolitionism passed by public meetings in the absence of gag-laws. He was desired to hold his tongue, or to be respectful to the committee: to which he replied in his gentlest and most musical voice, “Am I then to understand that in speaking ill of mobs, I am disrespectful to the committee?” The chairman looked foolish enough during the applauses which followed this question. Dr. Follen fought his ground, inch by inch, and got out all he had to say. The conduct of the chairman became at last so insufferable that several spectators attempted a remonstrance. A merchant was silenced; a physician was listened to, his speech being seasoned with wit so irresistible as to put all parties into good humour.
The loudly expressed opinion of the spectators, as they dispersed, was that the chairman had ruined his political career, and probably filled the chair of a committee of the legislature for the last time. The result of the affair was that the Report of the committee “spoke disrespectfully” of the exertions of the abolitionists, but rejected the suggestion of penal laws being passed to control their operations. The letters from the South therefore remained unanswered.
The abolitionists held a consultation whether they should complain to the legislature of the treatment their statements had received, and of the impediments thrown in the way of their self-justification. They decided to let the matter rest, trusting that there were witnesses enough of their case to enlighten the public mind on their position. A member of the legislature declared in his place what he had witnessed of the treatment of the appellants by the chairman, and proposed that the committee should be censured. As the aggrieved persons made no formal complaint, however, the matter was dropped. But the faith of the abolitionists was justified. The people were enlightened as to their position; and in the next election they returned a set of representatives, one of whose earliest acts was to pass a series of anti-slavery resolutions by a majority of 378 to 16.
These were a few of the signs of the times in Massachusetts when I was there. They proved that while the aristocracy of the great cities were not to be trusted to maintain the great principles on which their society was based, the body of the people were sound.
[*]Society in America, vol. i. pp. 169–176.