The Tormented Rise of Abolition in 1830’s America
In 1835 Among the ongoing onslaught of violence directed at abolitionists—much of it coordinated by Southerners and their sympathizers in the North—the silk merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan realized the anti-slavery A new direction was needed for movement. He and his brother Arthur couldn’t use bricks and bludgeons like their enemies did, but they could use words potentially as fearsome as any weapons.
In the middle of 1830s, America was at crossroads. Abolitionists were vilified in the national media, denigrated by demagogs and attacked by mobs. They also faced unimaginable hostility from the South and the sympathizers of the North. In this climate, the silk merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan—who provided the financial muscle behind abolition in the Northeast and had helped bring it to prominence through the recently formed American Anti-Slavery Society— realized the anti-slavery A new direction was needed for movement. They couldn’t use bricks and bludgeons like their enemies did, but they could use words potentially as fearsome as any weapons.
They were forced to take action quickly. While the vast majority of Americans disapprove of the movement, a growing number of people began to consider abolitionists. In the last two years, hundreds of new anti-slavery groups had formed in the Northeast and out to the Great Lakes—from Augusta, Maine, to Windham, Ohio—run by men and women, Black and white, laity and clergy, moderates and radicals. They were motivated by their hatred of plantation slavery. Lewis Tappan had to prove to them that abolition has gained momentum or even attracted some attention in order to keep their momentum.
Elizur Wright was the secretary of American Anti-Slavery Society. He offered him a compelling opportunity. They could flood the South, at an economically affordable cost, with pamphlets against slavery. This would incite a reaction and generate more publicity for abolition. Lewis endorsed the plan, but he knew the Society’s publications would have to be more readable and compelling to succeed. Lewis became the Chairman of Publications, revamped newspapers and sought out new recipients. Lewis had set the goal to raise $30,000 Fund a National Distribution Plan—to send them to every corner of the United States, but especially the South, by printing 25,000 to 50,000 copies a week. In order to raise money and recruit volunteers, The Society recruited people who would research names and addresses for potential recipients. This included politicians, ministers, businessmen and key figures.
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Lewis had previously worked with evangelical tract printing so was familiar with mass distribution. He used cheap steam-press printing as well the U.S. post network to mail 175,000 materials from New York in a span of five weeks during the summer 1835. For the four publications, the Society sent more than one million pieces of mail. It was the biggest persuasion campaign that abolitionists ever launched.
These publications had a striking visual appeal and were filled with images and stories that showed the cruelty and depravity of the plantation system. These publications were meant to encourage readers to think critically about the information they are reading. The periodical was not the only one. The Slave’s FriendThe images were aimed at children and featured Black men in chains, being whipped, abused, and other disturbing scenes.
Although Lewis was aware that the mailers would prove explosive, he saw them as an opportunity for abolitionists and to go on the offensive against those who opposed him. The rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison’s groundbreaking newspaper The LiberatorThe message was similar, but was intended for a larger audience. Lewis risked sending such material and provoked in South a response that exceeded any of the abolitionists.
On the evening of July 29th, the steamship Columbia arrived at Charleston with mailbags containing pamphlets from the American Anti-Slavery Society. The mailbags contained pamphlets sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society were loaded onto the Columbia and brought to Charleston. They broke into the mailbox through a window, and took all mail that they could. The next day the white town folk held a meeting and, with their clergy’s blessing, resolved to burn all mail concerning abolition. They went through every newspaper in the bag, looking for any suspicious articles. Then they gathered their resources to destroy them.
Three thousand Charlestonians gathered at the parade ground to light a bonfire and incinerate all the literature when it was dark. The celebration was festive, featuring a balloon rising to the heavens and various effigies. Famous abolitionistsThey were to be burned along with their newspapers. The city council justified the destruction of newspapers by claiming they “would be likely to produce incalculable evil” if people could read them and begin to question the slave-labor system the region was built upon.
Four men, including a former governor, formed soon a committee to inspect steamships in order to catch any literature that was not permitted. South Carolina: How to get thereThey reserve the right to dispose of anything they find objectionable. Amos Kendall was asked by the Charleston postmaster what to do. Kendall told him to use his own judgment, because “We owe an obligation to the laws, but we owe a higher one to the communities in which we live.” In other words, censoring the mail might just be necessary.
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Also following the riot, reports begun appearing in the Southern press claiming that the abolition papers were turning up everywhere—in Mobile, Alabama, at a post office; trundled into Virginia by an antislavery agent; received en masse in Savannah; found along a roadside in Enfield, North Carolina. We have the following to respond:To suppress mail and track down any unauthorized copies, vigilance teams were formed. They also threatened those in possession of it. Those suspected of sympathizing with abolition were publicly defamed, put on trial, or expelled from their communities—even jailed, assaulted, or murdered. Demonstrations and torchlight marches were ablaze with protesters condemning the propagandism of the North and vowing prosecution for those who sent it. These vigilance groups, which had virtually unlimited power, invaded the homes of Black people, accusing them of being accomplices. Then they searched through steamships, post offices and stagecoaches for evidence. Several white people found guilty of “association with Negroes” were executed in South Carolina and Georgia.
The conspiracy theories of the Northern abolitionists were becoming increasingly fanciful. They had the power to infuse the South with slave rebellions and to prepare the ground for civil War, as well as seeding it with agents. Politicians claimed Enslaved Blacks had read and received the literature necessary to plan insurrections.Ministers and lanters held large meetings where they vented hatred at anyone who dare to question slavery. They launched into diatribes about white Southerners’ supposed constitutional right to own Black human beings, and biblical justifications for slavery. They pledged to fight the North, demanding that legislatures and governors ban any offensive literature.
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Southern media reported that Arthur Tappan, Lewis, and Arthur Tappan are capable of creating havoc wherever they choose. Bounties were offered, including one from a Norfolk rally that promised $50,000 for Arthur’s delivery to Virginia, dead or alive. An entire member of the American Anti-Slavery Society was charged by the state grand jury with the hopes that they would be extradited and punished. Some activists were afraid that there was a Savannah pilot boat waiting to kidnap Arthur or other abolitionists. With Lydia Child, his fellow abolitionist Lydia Child, he wrote of assassins lurking in the city to stab him, “like the times of the French Revolution, when no man dared trust his neighbor.” In the pages of the Courier and Enquirer, the editor James Watson Webb warned of civil war, “with all its kindred horrors of rape, sack, and slaughter.”
Southern businessmen joined the boycott of Arthur Tappan and Company and refused to buy from this notorious black friend. The boycott expanded from South Carolina to Tennessee and Virginia, with pressure groups demanding Southerners stop buying or importing their delicate parasols, gloves, hats, and other niceties from such “fanatics,” admonishing fellow citizens that, “It is you who have enriched these miscreants.”
Fear of reprisals began to haunt scores of Wall Street merchants and bankers. The Tappans were urged to reduce their support of abolition so that New York’s entire trading industry would not be affected. But Arthur was unswayed, since his brother’s bold publishing gambit had made national headlines and drawn more attention to the cause than it had ever received. He answered his critics with uncharacteristic fury: “You demand that I shall cease my anti-slavery labors, give up my connection with the Anti-Slavery Society, or make some apology or recantation—I will be hung first!”
Lewis Tappan was more peaceful, but just as determined. In a letter to a South Carolina Vigilance Committee, he wrote, “We will persevere, come life or death, if any fall by the hand of violence, others will continue the blessed work.”
This article was adapted from The Republic of Violence: The Tormented Rise of Abolition in Andrew Jackson’s America J. D. Dickey. Copyright © 2022. Pegasus Books.