In 1833, the Reverend Charles C. Cone was commissioned by the newly formed American Antislavery Society to go to Maine and “stir up the people on the great subject of American slavery.” The Methodist minister from New Hampshire certainly “stirred” things up, though not as he had intended. “If I had come as an avowed incendiary with torch in hand, I don’t know as I should have created greater excitement, or met with more determined opposition,” he recalled 50 years later.
There were no anti-slavery organizations in the state at the time Rev. Cone visited, and few Mainers even considered joining such a radical movement. There were also plenty of politicians, businessmen and ministers who did not take kindly to outside rabble-rousers coming here to whip up anti-slavery sentiment.
Not long after Rev. Cone’s first tour, anti-slavery activists organized another meeting, this one at a little hall on Washington Street in Bath, near the Central Congregational Church. This time, he wrote, the anti-abolitionist mob was waiting for them, and all hell broke loose:
… [T]hey were assailed by a mob which broke in the doors and windows, and made it necessary for the meeting to escape for their lives. The papers notified the community that the “n——- folks” took to hold a meeting, when the “men of property and standing” drove them out; and all the people were notified that such an assemblage would not be tolerated in the loyal city of Bath. Loyal to slavery, they meant, for at that time the religion, politics, and trade of Bath were under the control of slavery.
Rev. Cone was part of a tiny cadre of radical preachers and reformers who formed the nucleus of Maine’s anti-slavery movement in the 1830s. The movement started very gradually, with the formation of the state’s first anti-slavery society at the home of Deacon Ebenezer Dole, in Hallowell, on Nov. 18, 1833. Another society formed in Augusta the following month. And on Oct. 15, 1834, a group of more than 170 abolitionists met in Augusta to form the Maine Antislavery Society.
The men unanimously approved a constitution based on the American Antislavery Society’s founding document, of which the new organization was to be an auxiliary. “The fundamental principles of this society,” the constitution read, “are, that slaveholding is a heinous sin against God, and, therefore, that immediate emancipation, without the condition of expatriation, is the duty of the master and the right of the slave.”
Then came the hard work of movement-building. While most Mainers probably felt that slavery was wrong on some level, few were prepared to take any action, much less make any sacrifices toward ending it. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s speaking tour of Maine in 1832 helped fire up a small base of activists, but the work of forming auxiliary committees, commissioning abolitionist lecturers and organizing speaking tours throughout rural Maine was a real slog, by most accounts.
To most everyday Mainers, the abolitionists were probably seen as an eccentric bunch. They usually addressed tiny audiences and were often met with apathy and ambivalence. Neither of the two major political parties wanted anything to do with this fringe movement. And to partisan Democrats, textile merchants and maritime traders, abolitionists were a serious threat to the economic cooperation between the northern and southern economies. The South supplied cotton to northern manufacturers, which in turn sold cheap “Negro cloth” to slave owners.
When the eminent British abolitionist George Thompson came to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, “he was interrupted by stamping vociferation and hisses, from persons just without the door; and a brick-bat, thrown through the window behind him, passed over within a foot or two of his head,” according to an account in a local newspaper. Lowell was the largest supplier of “Negro cloth.”
Thompson also faced similar attacks in Maine. In abolitionist Austin Willey’s book, The History of the Antislavery Cause in State and Nation, he quotes a Mrs. Simon Page, of Hallowell:
I well recollect Mr. Thompson’s coming to Augusta, and not allowed to speak there, he was hid in Dr. Tappan’s house; and then to speak here in the evening they took him from one of the back windows and brought him down privately. But the roughs assailed the house, broke some glass — then followed him here, stationed themselves in the gallery of the Baptist church armed with stones and eggs, but the police cleared them out.
Maine abolitionist politician John J. Perry later recalled that the slave power “had the entire control of the nation, the church, the press, the general public sentiment, and the conscience of the people.” “To question the divinity of slavery was to subject one to the charge of infidelity, and as being in opposition to the welfare of the church and state, and the progress of civilization,” Perry wrote.
Aside from the Quakers and Free Will Baptists, most churches wouldn’t even allow space for abolitionists to hold meetings and events in the 1830s and ’40s. “Darkness, gross darkness, covered the people,” wrote Rev. Cone, recalling that time, “and the cries, groans, and bitter tears of more than three [million] slaves were going up to Heaven unheeded by both church and state; and yet there was a remnant left who would not bow the knee to Baal. [The abolitionists] were men and women who believed the Bible, and who gave full credence to its unqualified condemnation of slavery in all its forms.”
Most prominent among the early Maine abolitionists were Samuel Fessenden, a major-general in the Maine militia; the Rev. David Thurston, a Winthrop preacher; William Smyth, a professor of mathematics at Bowdoin College; and the aforementioned Austin Willey, a preacher, author and newspaper editor.
Fessenden, who was also a distinguished Portland attorney, was active in local and state politics, and was generally well respected among professional men in Maine, even if they didn’t agree with his radical abolitionism. He was the father of William Pitt Fessenden, who later became a leading anti-slavery politician in the U.S. House and Senate, and eventually Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln.
Rev. Thurston had been present at the founding of the American Antislavery Society in December of 1833. He was not only one of the most active members in organizing the Maine Society, but he also led prayers at many of its meetings and became one of its most prolific speakers. At the 1838 convention, he reported having given 54 lectures in seven counties.
Professor Smyth became the first editor of The Advocate of Freedom, the Society’s newspaper, which was established in Brunswick on March 8, 1838. His son told a story that an attempt was once made to get his father fired because of his anti-slavery advocacy. As a pretext, a committee was formed to examine his students with the hope that unsatisfactory marks would prove he’d been neglecting his duties as a professor. His students got wind of the scheme, however, and they rallied behind him. Not a single one failed the exam.
Given the angry and occasionally violent responses to their work, one might assume the abolitionists were proposing something truly revolutionary. In fact, for all their radicalism, the anti-slavery crusaders had a very limited plan of action to bring about their goal of “immediate emancipation.” The Maine Antislavery Society’s stated goal was to “do what it can by moral and religious means, and by no other, to secure the immediate and entire emancipation of our enslaved brethren and sisters” [emphasis added] and they further stated, “this society … will never countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by physical force.” They were highly religious men and morally resolute, but generally mild in temperament, pacifistic and law-abiding.
Military intervention to free enslaved people was out of the question; it wouldn’t be widely discussed until the eve of the Civil War. Abolitionists also explicitly accepted the argument that the Constitution protected the right of the states to make their own laws regarding slavery. The Maine Antislavery Society actually shunned electoral politics and staunchly opposed the idea of forming a new political party to further its aims. Instead, it maintained that its anti-slavery work be “done when the public sentiment is in harmony with the law of God on this subject.”
Having seen gradual emancipation come to pass, state by state, both the northern abolitionists and those who opposed them widely shared the assumption that slavery would eventually fall out of favor in the South, as well. What actually happened was very different. In response to the forming of abolitionist societies — as well as to revolts by enslaved people, such as the 1831 rebellion led by Nat Turner — many southern states tightened slavery laws in the 1830s. They also passed new laws prohibiting the teaching of Black people to read.
Responding to threats against slavery, real and perceived, southerners defended it even more stridently. Although slavery had been practiced throughout human civilization, it was usually considered the right of military conquerors, or justified as a “necessary evil.” Southerners developed novel “positive good” philosophies of slavery that are uniquely odious in history. They supported these arguments with pseudoscientific theories about race and biology that have had long-lasting consequences for American society.
The Maine abolitionists who strove to rely purely on moral suasion had no idea what they were up against, as even Willey would later have to admit. Of those in attendance at the first meeting of the Maine Antislavery Society, Willey wrote:
The state had no abler thinkers or speakers. But they were far from comprehending the conflict in which they had enlisted, the power to be overcome, the condition of the country, or the measures to be demanded. Such lessons had to be learned in the field. But they vowed to “immediate emancipation” and boldly went forward.
They would find out soon enough just how intractable the problem was, and that realization would push many Society members to adopt strategies, such as the formation of political parties, that they had previously rejected as too severe.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.