On September 24, 1832, the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison arrived in Portland, Maine, to begin a speaking tour through the state. Garrison, who had recently started his influential abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, had come to advocate for the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States. He made his case primarily on moral and religious grounds, and his tour also took him to meetinghouses in Hallowell, Waterville, Augusta and Bangor.
Garrison had to contend not only with defenders of slavery, but also with those who supported the “colonization” movement. The American Colonization Society had been founded in 1816 for the purpose of encouraging free Blacks to migrate to Africa. In 1822, it founded the Colony of Liberia, in West Africa, for this very purpose. The Colonization Society had the support of slave owners who feared the free Black population, as well as some who may have had moral objections to slavery but nonetheless believed Blacks and whites either could not, or should not, coexist. Many prominent Americans were members of the Colonization Society, and former U.S. President James Madison even served as the Society’s president in the early 1830s.
In Maine, the Colonization Society found a friendly outlet in the Christian Mirror, a Congregationalist newspaper published in Portland by the Rev. Asa Cummings. In 1829, Cummings wrote, “No Society in the land has juster or stronger claims upon the benevolence and cooperation of our countrymen, than this.” Maine writer and reformer John Neal also supported the movement. Though Neal considered himself resolutely opposed to slavery, he did not believe immediate emancipation was possible and considered Garrison an extremist. (Many years later, in 1865, Neal is said to have admitted, “I was wrong … and Mr. Garrison was right.”)
It was this growing influence of colonization among clergymen and other moral leaders that Garrison sought to combat during his 1832 tour. Earlier that year he had published Thoughts on African Colonization, in which he outlined his objections to the scheme. Garrison disputed the claim made by supporters of the Society that the encouragement of migration was “voluntary.” He pointed out that the vast majority of free Blacks were opposed to the idea, and that the claims of Colonizers denied the possibility of the “moral, political and social advancement of the free people of color in this, their only legitimate home.”
The Colonization Society had agents working in Maine, and they quickly worked to counteract the influence of Garrison and other radical abolitionists. Word got back to Garrison that the General Agent of the Colonization Society for New England had written to various clergymen in New England urging them not to allow the President of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, Arnold Buffum, the use of their pulpits. This caused Garrison to speculate that similar efforts had probably been made against him in Maine. In Bangor, Garrison wrote that he “was able to procure a meeting-house, in which to address the people on the subject of slavery, only by promising not to make any allusions to the Colonization Society.”
In Augusta, Garrison sparred with Colonization Society agent Rev. Cyril Pearl when he attended a meeting called by Pearl in aid of the Society. His sons Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison wrote in William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879: The Story of His Life Told by His Children that he “so embarrassed the agent by his questions and impressed the audience by his appeal in opposition, that the vote was emphatically in the negative.”
Despite this noteworthy kerfuffle, the audiences who attended Garrison’s talks were probably small — after all, abolition remained a fringe cause. Edward O. Schriver concluded his survey of the movement, Go Free: The Antislavery Impulse in Maine, 1833-1855, by writing, “Few would contest the assertion that the antislavery impulse in Maine — humanitarian, political, and religious — was a feeble instrument. It failed to convince the citizens of Maine of its major premise that slaveholding was the worst of all possible crimes — a heinous sin against God and man.”
Garrison and his sympathizers in Maine were uncompromising. Universal, immediate emancipation was the only way. Some early abolitionists were remarkably advanced in their views, even believing that Blacks could and should be given not just freedom, but full political equality. Writing to The Liberator of May 21, 1831, one “gentleman in Maine” remarked:
You inquire, “What is the condition of the blacks here?” Much, sir, as every where in New England — they need to be emancipated. I do not indeed see them bleeding under the lash, nor chafed with irons, nor galled with the yoke; but there are chains which “eat deeper into the soul,” and such chains they feel.
Such sympathies were not to be found among the general populace. However Schriver is perhaps too dismissive of these early efforts. Anti-slavery advocates were building a powerful moral case for a movement that, once tied to shifting economic and political conditions, would eventually bend the arc of history, even if, as Schriver wrote, “it did not take the exact course they would have charted.”
In an earlier series of columns, we wrote about the gradual end of slavery in Maine. We turn now to the role Mainers played in the movement to end slavery in the entire nation. This took many forms. Mainers were present during the founding convention of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, and of the American Anti-Slavery Society two years later. In 1834, the Maine Anti-Slavery Society was organized at a convention in Augusta, and numerous local and county-level anti-slavery societies were formed throughout the 1830s. Although they received less attention in newspaper accounts, Black abolitionists, many of whom were connected with Portland’s Abyssinian Meeting House, played a key role in several of these.
Maine families, both white and Black, harbored runaways from slavery. According to H. H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, Portland’s “foremost African American underground railroad conductor” was William W. Ruby. Ruby hosted Garrison at his Portland home during the activist’s 1832 speaking tour.
Mainer Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a radical abolitionist born in Albion and educated at Waterville College (now Colby), published an anti-slavery newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri, and later in Alton, Illinois, until the day he was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. Lovejoy’s martyrdom further stoked the passions of Maine abolitionists, and to advance the cause, they established their own newspaper, The Advocate of Freedom, published in Brunswick beginning in 1838.
In 1841, the Maine Liberty Party was organized as a state-level affiliate of the national Liberty Party, which had been founded the year before, and went on to contest eight gubernatorial elections. Later, in 1848, a Maine branch was formed of the Free Soil Party.
In addition to Garrison, many notable speakers toured the state to denounce slavery, including several formerly enslaved people and other prominent Black abolitionists. Frederick Douglass had many friends in Maine and visited numerous times. A less remembered but no less impressive speaker was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist and suffragist who was one of the first Black women to be published in the United States.
However, it was not until an economic and political case against the slave-owning class emerged that a coalition could be forged which would set the country on a course toward the ultimate destruction of slavery. As historian Matt Karp writes, “By linking the moral battle against slavery to the material concerns of millions of Northern voters — through participation in concrete electoral campaigns — Republicans elevated and sharpened the collision between ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ in America.”
By the middle of the 19th century, Northerners were growing increasingly concerned with the threat of the “slave power” and the disproportionate political influence wielded by the Southern aristocracy. The infamous “three-fifths clause” of the Constitution gave the South extra representatives in Congress, which allowed them to force through unpopular policies. They likely went too far when they instituted the “gag rule,” a series of resolutions that blocked the House of Representatives from even discussing anti-slavery petitions between 1836 and 1844.
The “free soil” ideology was closely connected with the appeal of homesteading. Even some Northerners who might otherwise be content to let the southern states maintain slavery could be persuaded to oppose the extension of slavery into new states and territories, which they believed should be reserved for white settlers. With land in their home states growing ever scarcer and more expensive, they saw economic promise in the possibility that free land could be obtained out West. (As Karp points out, “this idea, of course, depended on an assumption that the North American West rightly belonged to Euro-American settlers, not its indigenous inhabitants.”)
Several Mainers joined in the effort to settle Kansas as a free state and participated in the events of “Bleeding Kansas,” opposing the attacks of pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri. Among the Kansas “Jayhawkers” was a fearless young militant named Silas Soule from Bath, Maine. Soule took part in a covert action to rescue an anti-slavery physician from a Missouri jail. He later distinguished himself in the Civil War and further proved his moral courage by refusing an order compelling his company to attack a group of Cheyenne who were attempting to surrender. His testimony about what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre led to his assassination.
On the eve of the Civil War, youth and paramilitary organizations known as “Wide Awake Clubs” were formed to support the election of Abraham Lincoln. Maine had several Wide Awake Clubs, in Portland, Saco, and other places, and sent delegations to participate in larger parades in cities such as Boston. Although the Republican Party’s 1860 platform did not explicitly call for the abolition of slavery, it did oppose the further extension of slavery, and the Wide Awakes — composed of the party’s youngest and most enthusiastic supporters — were likely ahead of party officialdom in their views.
Over the next several months, we will tell these stories, and others, in greater detail. In so doing, we will trace the course of anti-slavery politics in Maine from a vanguard led by a small group of morally resolute but isolated radicals, to the participation of Mainers in the mass movement that finally brought about an end to the great evil.
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.