Persons of Color
1840s: The Defiant Decade
the weeks and months that followed the adjournment of the 1837 Harrisburg
much was published regarding what was allegedly said and done inside
the walls of Shakespeare Hall. There had been a lot of interest in town
about “the zeal, nearly akin to fanaticism” said to characterize
such gatherings, and as a result, the halls of the convention were packed
with a considerable number of spectators hoping for a good show.
they saw, depending upon their point of view, was civil, reasoned debate
featuring several “smart fellows,” and “a number
of speeches…delivered on sundry ‘high pressure’ resolutions.” What
they did not see, and which many locals had hoped to see, was a disruption
of the proceedings by those who held opposing views. Two Harrisburg newspapers
that were neither zealously anti-slavery nor rabidly anti-abolitionist
in their politics and reporting remarked on the “utmost good order” that
prevailed the entire time, a note they seemed to find very reassuring.
Pennsylvania Reporter, though it disapproved of the goals of the abolitionists
as “interference with the rights of others,” asserted, “We
disapprove, with equal warmth, of any attempt to disturb their proceedings,
or create any confusion in their meetings. The friends of immediate abolition
have the right of choosing their own course in relation to this question.” Even
stronger sentiments regarding “free discussion” were expressed
by the editor of the Harrisburg Chronicle, who wrote:
We contend that colonizationists and abolitionists enjoy, alike, the
privilege of free discussion. And so far as our feeble efforts can avail,
they shall continue to enjoy this privilege. We should not call it a
privilege; it is a right, belonging to both, and they should enjoy it;
nay, they must enjoy it, or we are not free.76
Free discussion was on the
minds of the anti-abolitionists, too, who held their own meetings in
response to the much-publicized anti-slavery
convention. A few weeks after the anti-slavery convention finished its
business, notices were posted around town and in Susquehanna Township
that a public meeting would be held in the schoolhouse near Benjamin
Hailman’s property. The meeting, which was well attended by citizens
of that township, was ostensibly billed as a means of electing trustees
to manage and care for the schoolhouse, which was recognized as community
were elected, “so that the object of the erection
of the school-house may be kept in view and promoted.” A subsequent
resolution, which gave the trustees the power to “permit preaching
in the said school-house by any of the various christian denominations,” went
on to reveal the underlying motives of the organizers, with the further
stipulation “but in no event shall they open the door to lectures
on abolitionism, negroism, and amalgamationism.” The resolution
did allow the trustees to allow such banned lectures, but only with the
permission of a majority of the subscribers—an unlikely event
considering that the next resolution, like the previous, was unanimously
by those in attendance.
stated the beliefs of those opposed to abolition, saying, “The
attempts now making to raise an excitement in Pennsylvania on the subject
of an immediate abolition of slaves, have their origin among foreign
enemies to the Union of these states, to our republican institutions,
and the tranquility of the people, and are enforced by hired emissaries
from neighboring states to lecture in Pennsylvania for the wicked and
dangerous purpose of making the ‘Key-Stone’ of the federal
arch appear falsely to southern sisters as an enemy to their peace and
rights, contrary to the principle and feelings of her citizens.”77 So much for the value of “free discussion” and keeping
in view the purpose of education.
hosted another state convention a few months later, in May, but this
was a formally announced anti-abolition convention,
as the Integrity of the Union Convention. Local anti-abolition
supporters met in the Unitarian Church on the south side of Locust
evening, 4 March 1837, to elect delegates to the state meeting.
Those delegates joined others from around the state at the convention,
held the first week of May at the Dauphin County Courthouse.
purpose of the state convention appears to have been to ease the fears
of slaveholders in the Southern states regarding
and beliefs of Pennsylvania’s citizens. A number of resolutions
were passed, in general opposition to the aims of the anti-slavery crowd,
but the culminating tone, when all were considered as a whole, was as
stated by a convention correspondent to the Pennsylvania
assure our brethren of the Southern States, that we, as a state, are
opposed to the schemes of the immediate abolitionists, and that we will
to the utmost of our ability defend and sustain the constitution of the
United States, and that compact by which we are united as one people.”78
one of the delegates to the Integrity of the Union Convention was anti-slavery
advocate Thaddeus Stevens. Taking
a cue from previous
colonizationist infiltrations of anti-slavery meetings, Stevens
and numerous advocates of free discussion in Gettysburg showed
an April anti-abolition organizational
meeting to send delegates to the Harrisburg convention. He
had enough friendly votes to get himself elected as a delegate from
so in the first week of May, he showed up at the courthouse
take part in the convention to oppose immediate abolition,
anti-abolition delegates from around Pennsylvania.
in attending, however, differed greatly from the rest of the delegates.
Stevens was determined to derail as
as he could. He may not have been in attendance on the opening
the convention, as the published proceedings do not show
any remarks from Stevens. In light of the opening remarks from
a Monroe County
delegate expressing the belief that “We come not here to examine the merits
or demerits of Slavery…We come here, sir, to oppose the scheme
of the immediate Abolitionists, which, if carried into effect, must produce
the dissolution of this Union, bring on the horrors of a servile war,
and deluge the land with blood.” The same speaker then
launched into a vile, racist tirade. It is difficult to imagine
quiet in the face of such remarks.
He made his
presence strongly known on the second day of the convention, however,
as his appearance in the hall was
a cause of
considerable concern by many of the delegates. A delegate,
the Reverend T. W.
Haynes, moved for the passage of a resolution stating that
it was “inconsistent
for any person who believes in the doctrine of immediate Abolition to
hold a seat in this Convention.” This resolution was clearly aimed
at the presence of Thaddeus Stevens, and Haynes felt it necessary to
clarify his intent, by noting “He did not mean to point out any
individuals by this resolution…He could not believe that any man
would be so lost to all sense of honor, as to come there under a mask,
while he knew himself to hold to the mad schemes of the Abolitionists…yet
he thought it well some such resolution should be passed, lest any thing
might occur to prove it was necessary.” The reverend’s premonition
of trouble was correct, and Stevens, seeing his opening, immediately
seized the moment. In reading the following exchange, one can sense the
chairman’s frustration as he saw control of the convention slipping
away to one of his most bitter opponents:
Mr. STEVENS, of Adams
county, here rose and attempted to speak. The Chair had hastily
the Convention were ready for the question,--had
taken the affirmative, and was just calling for the contrary minds,
when Mr. Stevens said—
Mr. President—(some confusion among the members) have I not
Chair. The vote was carried, I think.
Two members at once. The negative was not called. The vote had not been
declared by the Chair if it had been taken.
Chair. Then I suppose you will proceed.
Mr. Stevens. I do not wish to proceed unless I am in order. Will the
Chair inform me whether I am?
Chair. Go on, go on; you are on the floor?
Mr. Stevens. Am I in order?
Chair. Go on.
wrestled a grudging recognition through his skillful manipulation of
parliamentary procedure, Stevens then verbally sparred with Reverend
Haynes, with Stevens commanding most of the time and Haynes becoming
obviously irritated to the point that his speech became highly agitated,
until the Committee on Resolutions returned to the hall from their work,
and prepared to make their report. Stevens remained a thorn in the side
of the anti-abolitionists during the rest of the convention, challenging
resolutions with subtle changes that divided the delegates and generally
mocking, with self-deprecating humor, their attempts at passing workable
At one point,
Stevens proposed a resolution asking whether Congress had the right
to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He asked for
a vote of yeas and nays, as opposed to a general vote. The convention
managers, who did not want to take up the more tedious and time demanding
yeas and nays vote, denied his request as impossible because, as they
were informed by the Clerk, the list of delegates present had already
been given to the printer.
in his most theatrically indignant voice “Sir,
this will never do. This ‘Glorious Union’ is at stake.” He
then asked that the sergeant-at-arms be sent to retrieve the list, noting
that they could all bide their time until his return, but the clerk protested, “The
list cannot possibly be had. It is positively gone.” At this reply,
Stevens lamented, “Alas for the ‘Integrity of the Union’ here
then. Have we nothing to prevent the Convention from crumbling to pieces?” He
then proposed that a new list be made up, causing a general uproar.79 It went like that through the rest of the day, and by the time the convention
adjourned, it had produced practically nothing of value and certainly
nothing to comfort the fears of Pennsylvania’s “Southern
sisters.” The anti-slavery cause moved onward.
The first statewide meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society
was held in January 1838 in Harrisburg, at almost exactly the one-year
anniversary of its founding, and again in Shakespeare Hall. It featured
many of the same speakers and personalities, and like the organizing
convention, was not interrupted by opponents of the cause. Nor was
it subject to the theatrics that occurred at the anti-abolition convention
the previous year. For those reasons, it attracted far less attention
and far fewer spectators than had the previous year’s anti-slavery
convention. The charges of fanaticism by its detractors, it seems,
were becoming passé. Local minister Nathan Stem was busy at
the convention, having been appointed the previous year as a vice president
to the state society. The Telegraph reported on the presence of several
females at the hall, “whom we take also to be delegates.” It
is not apparent, however, that African American delegates shared in
any increased responsibilities.
local person in attendance was attorney Charles C. Rawn, who had been
giving increased thought to the questions of abolition and
African American rights. Once a sturdy supporter of the local colonization
movement, with its attendant ideas that immediate emancipation would
lead to a race war, Rawn seemed by this time to be seriously questioning
tenets. He dealt with local African American residents and workers
daily, and employed an African American woman to clean his home. In
practice, he represented African American clients from time to time.
Although the colonizationists and anti-abolitionists remained strong
in Harrisburg and published resolutions for presentation to Congress,
Rawn’s name ceased appearing on those documents after he heard
Jonathan Blanchard speak at the Masonic Hall back in November 1836.
than a year later, he devoted parts of three successive evenings, on
16, 17, and 18 January, to attend the convention, listening to the
speech of William Burleigh, and staying on two nights until the nine
o’clock adjournment. All this while his former colonizationist
associates, in the pages of the Keystone lambasted the proceedings as
promoting “a doctrine, the consequence of which obviously must
be a general massacre of the negro race, or a practical amalgamation
with them, either of which every sensitive mind regards with loathing
and horror.” Rawn’s sensitive mind, however, seems to have
been perceiving things much differently.
from the Pennsylvania Reporter and the Harrisburg Chronicle reported
in Friend of Man, 15 February 1837.
from the Keystone, published in Liberator, 18 March
12 May 1837.
of the proceedings were published in the Harrisburg Telegraph, which
had taken a relatively neutral stance on the abolition-versus-colonization
question. Those transcripts were reprinted verbatim in the pro-abolition
Gettysburg Star. Star and Republican Banner, 15 May 1837.