During the 1830s, the newly formed American Antislavery Society sent speakers to the hinterlands of New England to “electrify the mass wherever they move,” in the words of Massachusetts abolitionist Elizur Wright, Jr. For these traveling agents who toured throughout Maine in that decade, these events served not only to preach the message, but also to fundraise and organize local Antislavery Society chapters.
In the mid-1830s, the two most prominent Antislavery Society agents on the Maine circuit were the Rev. David Thurston, of Winthrop, and Charles Lenox Remond, of Salem, Massachusetts. Journalist and attorney Henry B. Stanton, the husband of renowned women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, also made numerous appearances in Maine beginning in 1836. In those days, abolitionists were still considered troublemakers by most Mainers. They often faced hecklers and, occasionally, mobs. As historian Edward Schriver notes, Rev. Thurston didn’t have to deal with any violence during his several dozen speeches in Maine, but he didn’t convince many people, either. Often the speakers were lucky if even a handful of meeting attendees signed up with the Society.
Stanton, on the other hand, caused quite a stir when he arrived in Portland on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 1836. Described by the Lynn Record as a “young man of very youthful and prepossessing appearance … [and] surpassing eloquence,” Stanton was known to “electrify” audiences with his appeals to the cause. However, as researcher John L. Myers has written, as soon as Stanton began his speech at the Friends’ Meetinghouse in Portland, a horn suddenly blared and a mob surrounded the building, hurling mud and rocks through the windows. The shouts and the hail of projectiles reportedly didn’t cease until he finished his address. The following day, another mob gathered and constables had to come in to provide protection, as even Mayor Levi Cutter couldn’t calm them down.
That October, Stanton returned for the Maine Antislavery Society’s two-year anniversary, but Cutter reneged on his agreement to allow the group to use City Hall for its meeting after an uproar from the organization’s opponents. They ended up gathering in a private home that night.
Expecting mob violence again, the group had previously written to the mayor asking for police protection, but Cutter replied that such a deployment would “only increase the evil, & that it was his settled belief that we could not be protected.” Predictably, a riot broke out that evening, and according to Myers, “the determination of the elite of the city to restore order prompted [Cutter] to change his mind,” so constables were sent out to quell the disturbance. Stanton later described the ebb and flow of the popularity of Maine’s antislavery movement as “twice dead.” He expressed hope for a “resurrection,” but believed it would take a “strong shakeout, a judicious one” to wake Mainers up.
In the fall 1839, Remond had a particularly challenging assignment. The 29-year-old from Salem had become the first Black agent of the American Antislavery Society and was known as a compelling and passionate orator. In previous years, the distinguished Portland attorney and militiaman Samuel Fessenden, Stanton, the Rev. Charles Cone, British abolitionist George Thompson and the fiery publisher William Lloyd Garrison had done lecture tours of the state, but seldom had the predominantly white audiences had an actual African-American lecturer speak before them.
Remond knew the dangers of carrying out his mission. Even white abolitionist speakers often faced hostile audiences and occasional violence. For a “colored” speaker, the risks were even higher, especially because it’s probable that most Mainers had never interacted with a person of color. At the time, there were only 1,355 free Black residents in Maine, out of a total of 22,634 in New England. But Remond was undeterred, driving his horse and wagon through backcountry dirt roads to cities, towns and rural hamlets in the sparsely populated, heavily wooded state, from Saco, Portland and Bangor to Alfred, Moderation Village (Hollis), Farmington, Gilead, Bethel, Bowdoin, Bristol, Union and Camden.
As Remond recounted in a letter to the Augusta abolitionist newspaper Advocate of Freedom, dated Oct. 27, 1839, it was on tour through Hampden and Orrington where he encountered some of his most belligerent audiences. The first incident occurred when he was pelted with eggs on his way into Hampden Academy one Thursday evening to deliver a speech. Ignoring the antagonists, Remond went into the meeting, where he was challenged to a debate by none other than Democratic State Representative Hannibal Hamlin, the future Vice President of the United States under Lincoln. Remond rose to recount the incident he had just experienced outside when suddenly a commotion broke out.
At this moment some inhuman fellows aimed a number of stones and eggs at my head — which thank GOD, missed the mark, and passed with great swiftness through the window behind me. Immediately there was screaming and a simultaneous rush for the door — the ladies were apparently much alarmed. Without moving from position, I requested the audience to resume their seats, as there was no harm intended to any person but myself; and if in order to put down the cause in which I was engaged, it was necessary I should be pelted with eggs, be it so; that if I must be stoned, be it so; that if they must walk over my prostrate and bleeding body, be it so; for while I lived, and a single slave clanks his chain upon the soil which gave me birth, I will exercise the prerogative of thinking and speaking in his behalf, though slaveholders, mobocrats, eggs and brickbats multiply as fast and thick as locusts of Egypt.
Remond then proceeded to spend a half hour laying out his case for the formation of a local Antislavery Society. Rep. Hamlin countered with an hour-long rebuttal in which he brought up the typical anti-abolitionist talking point that freeing enslaved people would constitute a “gross violation” of the U.S. Constitution, and concluded with the conviction that the ultimate goal of the abolitionists was to promote equality and race mixing. Another opponent claimed emancipation was just a few years away, but that the radical abolitionists were going to set it back 50 years, as antislavery societies “completely defeated the objects and wishes of the friends of emancipation in Kentucky.”
The next night, in Orrington, Remond’s speech was enthusiastically received, and the locals immediately got to work drafting a constitution for a new Antislavery Society. However, while Remond was inside the building, “some evil minded persons” wearing black face had sabotaged his horse-drawn carriage by cutting his harness and the top lining of the chaise, thus preventing his return to Bangor. The repairs cost him roughly $1,000 in today’s money.
“It was ascertained that these mischievous beings crossed the river from Hampden, with their faces painted black, and were doubtless the same who insulted me the evening before; but for each offense I can forgive them,” wrote Remond. “If the friends of order and truth in Orrington will detect the perpetrators, and thus fix the stigma where it belongs, the cause of the poor slave will be advanced.”
Despite the harassment he endured, Remond made many friends in Maine, and the following year women in Bangor raised money to send him to the World Antislavery Society Convention in London.
The attacks and intimidation Remond faced were very common during the Jacksonian Age, and not just at abolitionist meetings. Mass uprisings had been a familiar occurence in the 18th century United States. As we wrote in an earlier column, such actions were often viewed as a quasi-legitimate form of protest against British rule, and were accepted by local authorities as long as they didn’t go too far. By contrast, the early years of the republic were a time of relative restraint. According to historian David Grimstead, there were few such incidents in the first decades of the 19th century, but from the late 1820s to the late 1830s the number of riots in the U.S. dramatically resurged.
During this period, participation in political affairs was becoming far more universal among white males as more states dropped property qualifications and taxes for voting, and voter turnout climbed. Although most historians now agree that such changes were underway even before his presidency, Andrew Jackson’s lack of formal education and denunciations of aristocrats dramatically symbolized the ascent of the “common man.” Imbued with a sense of their natural right to participate in the democratic process, these newly politicized individuals were often impatient with the slowness of the legal system and with such concepts as civil liberties and due process. Why, they asked, should agitators be allowed to come and sow discord in their communities?
“Defenders of specific riots in the period talked of the action not as revolution or even illegality,” Grimstead wrote, “but as an enforcement of justice within the bonds of society — an immediate redressing of moral wrongs or a removal of social dangers that for various reasons could not be handled by ordinary legal process.”
Even though President Jackson disliked mobs, his authoritarian style of governance likely influenced mob actions. “King Andrew,” as he was called by his Whig opponents, would justify rewarding friends with political appointments and ignoring Supreme Court decisions he didn’t like by claiming that he was acting directly according to the will of the people. By the same token, would-be upholders of the law used democratic rhetoric, emphasizing majority rule, to crush the Constitutionally protected rights of unpopular minorities. These “mobocrats” involved in attacks on abolitionists saw themselves as enforcing law and order, not as disrupting it. While some may have sympathized with the slaveholding South, many were simply worried the abolitionists were too radical and that their calls for “immediate emancipation” would break the young country apart.
Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.