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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

American Social Reformer

1815-1902

A selection from
EIGHTY YEARS AND MORE: REMINISCENCES 1815-1897

Narrated by Kimberly Schraf

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Reforms and Mobs

In the winter of 1861, just after the election of Lincoln, the abolitionists decided to hold a series of conventions in the chief cities of the North. All their available speakers were pledged for active service. The Republican party, having absorbed the political abolitionists within its ranks by its declared hostility to the extension of slavery, had come into power with overwhelming majorities. Hence the Garrisonian abolitionists, opposed to all compromises, felt that this was the opportune moment to rouse the people to the necessity of holding that party to its declared principles, and pushing it, if possible, a step or two forward.

I was invited to accompany Miss Anthony and Beriah Green to a few points in Central New York. But we soon found, by the concerted action of Republicans all over the country, that anti-slavery conventions would not be tolerated. Thus Republicans and Democrats made common cause against the abolitionists. The John Brown raid, the year before, had intimidated Northern politicians as much as Southern slaveholders, and the general feeling was that the discussion of the question at the North should be altogether suppressed.

From Buffalo to Albany our experience was the same, varied only by the fertile resources of the actors and their surroundings. Thirty years of education had somewhat changed the character of Northern mobs. They no longer dragged men through the streets with ropes around their necks, nor broke up women's prayer meetings; they no longer threw eggs and brickbats at the apostles of reform, nor dipped them in barrels of tar and feathers, they simply crowded the halls, and, with laughing, groaning, clapping, and cheering, effectually interrupted the proceedings. Such was our experience during the two days we attempted to hold a convention in St. James' Hall, Buffalo. As we paid for the hall, the mob enjoyed themselves, at our expense, in more ways than one. Every session, at the appointed time, we took our places on the platform, making, at various intervals of silence, renewed efforts to speak. Not succeeding, we sat and conversed with each other and the many friends who crowded the platform and anterooms. Thus, among ourselves, we had a pleasant reception and a discussion of many phases of the question that brought us together. The mob not only vouchsafed to us the privilege of talking to our friends without interruption, but delegations of their own came behind the scenes, from time to time, to discuss with us the right of free speech and the constitutionality of slavery.

These Buffalo rowdies were headed by ex-Justice Hinson, aided by younger members of the Fillmore and Seymour families, and the chief of police and fifty subordinates, who were admitted to the hall free, for the express purpose of protecting our right of free speech, but who, in defiance of the mayor's orders, made not the slightest effort in our defense. At Lockport there was a feeble attempt in the same direction. At Albion neither hall, church, nor schoolhouse could be obtained, so we held small meetings in the dining room of the hotel. At Rochester, Corinthian Hall was packed long before the hour advertised. This was a delicately appreciative, jocose mob. At this point Aaron Powell joined us. As he had just risen from a bed of sickness, looking pale and emaciated, he slowly mounted the platform. The mob at once took in his look of exhaustion, and, as he seated himself, they gave an audible simultaneous sigh, as if to say, what a relief it is to be seated! So completely did the tender manifestation reflect Mr. Powell's apparent condition that the whole audience burst into a roar of laughter. Here, too, all attempts to speak were futile. At Port Byron a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper on the stove soon cut short all constitutional arguments and paeans to liberty.

And so it was all the way to Albany. The whole State was aflame with the mob spirit, and from Boston and various points in other States the same news reached us. As the legislature was in session, and we were advertised in Albany, a radical member sarcastically moved "That as Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony were about to move on Albany, the militia be ordered out for the protection of the city." Happily, Albany could then boast of a Democratic mayor, a man of courage and conscience, who said the right of free speech should never be trodden under foot where he had the right to prevent it. And grandly did that one determined man maintain order in his jurisdiction. Through all the sessions of the convention Mayor Thatcher sat on the platform, his police stationed in different parts of the hall and outside the building, to disperse the crowd as fast as it collected. If a man or boy hissed or made the slightest interruption, he was immediately ejected. And not only did the mayor preserve order in the meetings, but, with a company of armed police, he escorted us, every time, to and from the Delevan House. The last night Gerrit Smith addressed the mob from the steps of the hotel, after which they gave him three cheers and dispersed in good order.

When proposing for the Mayor a vote of thanks, at the close of the convention, Mr. Smith expressed his fears that it had been a severe ordeal for him to listen to these prolonged anti-slavery discussions. He smiled, and said: "I have really been deeply interested and instructed. I rather congratulate myself that a convention of this character has, at last, come in the line of my business; otherwise I should have probably remained in ignorance of many important facts and opinions I now understand and appreciate."

While all this was going on publicly, an equally trying experience was progressing, day by day, behind the scenes. Miss Anthony had been instrumental in helping a much abused mother, with her child, to escape from a husband who had immured her in an insane asylum. The wife belonged to one of the first families of New York, her brother being a United States senator, and the husband, also, a man of position; a large circle of friends and acquaintances was interested in the result. Though she was incarcerated in an insane asylum for eighteen months, yet members of her own family again and again testified that she was not insane. Miss Anthony, knowing that she was not, and believing fully that the unhappy mother was the victim of a conspiracy, would not reveal her hiding place.

Knowing the confidence Miss Anthony felt in the wisdom of Mr. Garrison and Mr. Phillips, they were implored to use their influence with her to give up the fugitives. Letters and telegrams, persuasions, arguments, and warnings from Mr. Garrison, Mr. Phillips, and the Senator on the one side, and from Lydia Mott, Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellet, and Abby Hopper Gibbons, on the other, poured in upon her, day after day; but Miss Anthony remained immovable, although she knew that she was defying and violating the law and might be arrested any moment on the platform. We had known so many aggravated cases of this kind that, in daily counsel, we resolved that this woman should not be recaptured if it were possible to prevent it. To us it looked as imperative a duty to shield a sane mother, who had been torn from a family of little children and doomed to the companionship of lunatics, and to aid her in fleeing to a place of safety, as to help a fugitive from slavery to Canada. In both cases an unjust law was violated; in both cases the supposed owners of the victims were defied; hence, in point of law and morals, the act was the same in both cases. The result proved the wisdom of Miss Anthony's decision, as all with whom Mrs. P. came in contact for years afterward, expressed the opinion that she was, and always had been, perfectly sane. Could the dark secrets of insane asylums be brought to light we should be shocked to know the great number of rebellious wives, sisters, and daughters who are thus sacrificed to false customs and barbarous laws made by men for women.

More information about Elizabeth Cady Stanton from Wikipedia

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