Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Harwich Port Race Riot of 1848

"The church is responsible for the persistence of slavery. It has shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity," said Frederick Douglas (1852).

"One more riotous demonstration should have place in these chronicles, but space and time must make it both brief and the last. It occurred in Harwich, Mass, on Sunday, the fourth and last day of a grand anti-slavery convention, held in a beautiful grove, in September of the year 1848.

No building on the Cape could have held half the attendance. Cape Cod at that time was the birth-place and nursery of more sea-captains than any other portion, of equal extent, on the whole Atlantic coast. And many of the most eminent of them were early able and faithful friends and supporters of the anti-slavery enterprise.

But sea-captains were not all abolitionists, else the Harwich Sunday tumult, in defense of the church as "the bulwark of slavery," would not have transpired.

The constitution of the country, the courts, the political parties, the commerce and trade, had all been shown to be conducted in the interest of slavery, and no riotous demonstration appeared. But not so on Sunday, when the churches and clergy were arraigned as the bulwark and forlorn hope of the accursed institution. The mob at Harwich was the result of an exposure of a diabolical deed by the captain of a coaster, sailing between Norfolk and New York, and other northern ports. I am glad to have forgotten his name, and do not care ever to hear it spoken again.

But while in Norfolk, not long before our convention, a slave came on board and asked this captain what he would charge to carry him and another to New York or Boston. A contract was made for one hundred dollars—paid in advance. The captain pocketed the cash, then went on shore, betrayed the poor slave, had him arrested, imprisoned and advertised, and then sailed north, bringing the hundred dollars.

We who knew the slave system, could imagine the fate of the imprisoned victim, though we never heard what it was. The cruel captain never told us that, though undoubtedly he knew, for when he went back to Norfolk he carried the money, found the owner. paid him over the hundred dollars, and received back twenty-five as his reward !

Twenty-five dollars for a deed that no Modoc nor Apache Indian under heaven would ever have done! In cold, unprovoked blood—-never !

Sunday was the fourth and last day of our convention, and not less than three thousand people were on the ground. Some estimated them at four thousand.

I learned all the facts I have just given, from the captain himself, early in the day. In the afternoon, when the crowd was the greatest. I made a full statement of the case, in words as fitting as were then at my command. Of course the effect on the audience was intense, but dependent on the estimate which different persons placed on the transaction between the captain and his helpless victim.

In the tumult, the captain came to the platform, and not having heard my statement, he demanded, in great wrath, who it was that accused him of stealing! He said somebody had just told him he had been accused of stealing. He was answered that his name had not been mentioned there ; and that nothing had been said about stealing. He said he had a right to be heard, and wished to be heard. We cheerfully accorded him the platform. He came forward, and in the frankest, blandest manner, stated his own case ' in his own words. When he concluded, we invited him to a seat on the platform, which he accepted.

Stephen Foster spoke next. He began in quite a conversational tone to say : Mr. Chairman—We have now heard from his own mouth, what our friend had to say of the matter in hand. And he confirms every statement of Mr. Pillsbury, excepting one : he has not told us that he is a member in good and regular standing of the Baptist church, as Mr. Pillsbury assured us he was. Now I wish to ask him if that is also true. He admitted that with the rest. Foster then opened his argument. And those who ever heard him can more easily imagine than I can describe, its power. Every eye kindled, every heart throbbed, with admiration, or with rage and wrath. I had often heard him called "a son of thunder," before. At that moment, he seemed Father of the seven thunders of Patmos, with all their bolts at command. He swayed those hundreds and thousands as prairie cyclones, the vast fields of corn. And yet the captain, really on trial, listened to every word with respect and attention. I knew he heard a voice within, louder, more eloquent than the utterances of Foster, and whose rebuke he could not resist.

The mob spirits now rushed for the platform, and with oaths and curses of stunning power, called on the captain to pitch him down to them. Their number seemed legion ; and their nature and spirit like that other legion, known of old. The captain mildly replied to them that he wished none of their interference nor defense. He left the platform soon after, and moved out of the crowd, and held a long conversation with some Boston abolitionists, who had come down on purpose to attend the convention. And he very frankly told them that he had no fault to find whatever with our treatment of the matter, nor of him. Nor did he ever after complain, that we heard. Mr. Foster kept his feet and held the crowd at bay, showing our religion to be falsehood and hypocrisy, when a member of the orthodox church, who had just come from his meeting, (and it was said from the sacrament), leaped like a lion on to the platform. His eyes flashed fury if not fire ; his teeth and fists were clenched, and he seemed a spirit from the pit, who might have been commissioned to lead its myrmidons in a deadly fray, for such a faith and such a church as his, that a dozen years before had been proved by one of its most eminent members,

"The Bulwark Of American Slavery."

He asked no leave to speak ; paid no respect to president or rules. His first note was a shriek. "It's a lie ; what you say is a lie ; a damned lie ! and I'll defend the church !"

But he was immediately out-voiced by the yelling troop, who leaped like tigers at his heels, as into the arena, and added fearful deeds to his not less fearful words.

What became of my platform companions I did not see. I was immediately seized, and with kicks, blows, and dilapidated clothing, hurled to the ground.

There lay Captain Chase and Captain Smith, of Harwich, both old men, who, with many others, had sprung to our defense. There the two lay, their faces covered with blood ! They were both radical peace men, and only remonstrated with our remorseless assailants. But both of them would willingly have died in our stead, or in our defense. Truer, nobler men, never lived.

Havoc was soon made of our platform and what it contained. It was roofed over, but a temporary structure, for officers and speakers, and aged persons who sought its convenience and comfort. William Wells Brown, one of our eloquent fugitive slave lecturers, was roughly seized up and pitched over back of the platform by the infuriated crowd, down some six or eight feet, and left to his fate. Mr. Foster was rescued and taken away from danger—his Sunday frock coat rent in twain from bottom to top, and his body considerably battered and bruised.

Lucy Stone stood heroically with the rest of us, ready for any fate. But her serene, quiet bearing disarmed the vulgar villainy of our assailants, and she escaped unharmed.

I have seen many mobs and riots in my more than forty years of humble service in the cause of freedom and humanity, but I never encountered one more desperate in determination, nor fiendish in spirit, than was that in Harwich, in the year 1848.

And that mob was wholly, directly and undeniably in defense of the American church. " I'll defend the church," was the wild shout of the baptized ruffian who led the hordes, as he vaulted unbidden to our platform of moral and peaceful agitation and argument in behalf of our enslaved millions. "I'll defend the church," and his infuriated, yelling and blaspheming troop followed him, and commenced their fell work.

Yes, to save the church was that dire scene enacted. The church that Judge Birney had proved out of her own mouth was the " bulwark of American slavery in everyone of her largest, most popular denominations !" Church, clergy, and theological seminary, every thing, indeed, under ecclesiastical control. And Hon. James G. Birney was surely among her choicest leaders and brightest lights.

To my own account of this remarkable scene, perhaps should be subjoined at least an excerpt of the official proceedings of the convention. The following is the close of it :

Parker Pillsbury related a fact illustrative of the truth of the resolution under discussion of a sea-captain, of Cape Cod, a member of the Baptist church.

Immediately the captain's friends reported to him that he had been slandered, upon the platform, and in due time the captain presented himself and demanded why he had slandered him, on that platform ? He was assured that his name had not been spoken by any one on the platform, and that if he would watt for the speaker to conclude his remarks he should have opportunity to say all he wished.

Accordingly, when the speaker sat down, the captain took the platform, and stated the facts precisely as Pillsbury had done, so it was manifest that there was no slander, nor even contradiction between them.

S. S. Foster then proceeded to dissect the transaction, as stated by the captain himself, and to find its moral quality.

It was a process which he well understood, nor did he fail to expose the deformity of the deed, and cause its infamy to stand out in fearful blackness before that great assembly. The captain said he had nothing to reply, and left the platform as quietly as he had come upon it, saying he had not come there to make any disturbance. Foster then held up to the audience, in its true character, the religion, under whose cherishing influence such crimes take root and grow, and asked who would defend such a church? At that moment Captain Stillman Snow, a member of the Congregational church under the pastoral care of Rev. Cyrus Stone, (who we are credibly informed, went about among his people and advised them to stay away from our meeting), this Captain Snow, steaming from his own meeting, rushed through the crowd in front of Foster, screaming at the top of his voice, " I'll defend the church. What you say is a lie, a damned lie ! " His lips trembled, his head shook upon its socket, like a leaf rattled by the winter tempest, while his countenance looked as if the genius of rage had his dwelling there. He made a leap at Foster, which was a signal for his allies. In a twinkling, there was a rush upon the platform. W. W. Brown, a fugitive slave, was seized and thrown over the high back of the platform, where he was trampled on by the throng gathered there. Pillsbury, with torn clothes, was dragged from the platform, receiving as he went, kicks and blows from those behind him. Those in front of him were harmless, awed by his fearless words, and undaunted look.

Again and again, some desperate spirits, with clenched uplifted lists, swore vengeance and destruction, but like the old Roman, Pillsbury calmly replied "strike, but hear me." While he was thus beset on every hand, S. S. Foster was assailed in another direction no less violently. At the first onset he hastened Lucy Stone from the platform, but had scarcely time to turn about, when the mob, thirsting for his blood, closed in around him, seizing him with desperate violence, wherever they could lay their hands upon him, and though they did not " part his garments among them," they quite divided his coat. For a few moments the most terrible confusion prevailed—all ran, without knowing whither they went—so great was the excitement that neither friends nor foes recognized each other. One friend would take hold of the arm of Foster for his protection, and another friend would pull him off. supposing him an enemy.

One friend would step forward to stay an uplifted blow, and another friend would push him aside, supposing that he intended himself to strike. The scene baffled all description. At this juncture a shout was raised that they were riding Foster on a rail. This false cry was most opportune for Brown, who, during the whole time, had been dragged and trampled by the mob. Now his tormentors left him to seethe ruin of Foster, and thus he made his escape, rifled by these pious defenders of the nation's religion, of quite a number of his Anti-slavery Harp. Foster, who had been surrounded by the mob, showed no sign of fear or fright. The man who had never quailed in peril's blackest hour, was not the man now to tremble or flee. But the friends, apprehensive for his safety, urgently solicited him to leave the ground ; and when he did not manifest a disposition to go. they took him, with most unpleasant haste, outside the grove, aided by the mob, who were pushing terribly in the rear, and on all sides.

When Pillsbury ascertained that Brown and Foster were safe, and that nothing more could be done, he, too, left, taking the public road towards the house of Captain Small, a well-known friend of the oppressed. The mobocrats, who had returned to the grove howling and yelling in their rage and disappointment, that Foster was out of their clutches, when they found that Pillsbury was leaving, followed in hot pursuit, raising the dust higher than the trees, filling the air with demoniac screams and yells, which were heard at the distance of more than a mile, and frightful enough to make Pandemonium itself pale. They rushed on headlong about thirty rods, and then, though Pillsbury was walking only a short distance in front of them, for reasons best known to themselves, they turned back to the grove, cursing as they went, and proceeded to vent their rage upon the platform, which they soon demolished.

While they were tearing up the planks they were uttering most dreadful oaths, and vowing vengeance on the lecturers, (should they ever make their appearance there again) who, they said, had assailed their laws and their religion, which they were going to defend. The world will judge what kind of laws and what kind of religion need such a defense. It was a proud day for anti-slavery, and one which the friends will long have occasion to remember with gratitude.

The lecturers were not particularly disturbed until all had been said which they wished to say, until every nail was driven in the right place, and then the mob clenched them. They meant their violence for evil,but God meant it for good. The dragon's teeth, which they were then unconsciously sowing, will yet come up, a host of true-hearted anti-slavery men and women, who will redeem Cape Cod from the false religion which now curses and enslaves it. Much praise is due to the friends, who are too numerous to mention, who so nobly stood by those whose lives the hungry mob were seeking. Nor would we fail to make suitable mention of others, who, during the day on Sunday, were active in exciting the mob spirit. Prominent among them was Henry C. Brooks, a merchant of Boston, of the firm of Crowell & Brooks, 38 Commercial street, son of Obed Brooks, Esq., of Harwich.

The good effect of the mob is already manifest in the increased activity and interest of the friends on the Cape, whose liberal contributions to the cause have been nearly doubled, and who see new reasons for girding themselves to more vigorous effort in behalf of human freedom.

Zebina Small, President.

Charles Stearns,

Lucy Stone,


Only time, space and patience of readers prevent insertion of the whole of the able report of the secretaries of that phenomenal convention. Most of the names of the rioters mentioned in the extract given are suppressed.

No other mob or riot will be described in this work. Such as are given are but representative of many, very many ; some less destructive to property and harmful to person, and some others in those respects a great deal worse.

And now, wondrous to tell, with such records, the church and clergy claim and boast that they abolished slavery ! The real, everlasting truth is, we had almost to abolish the church before we could reach the dreadful institution at all. We divided, if we did not destroy. Not to speak of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church at all, we did divide and even subdivided the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal church. The slavery question certainly produced rupture in the American Board of Foreign Missions, the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions and the American Tract Society, as has been, or as will be shown. If it be said that it was their own internal heat that was consuming them, the answer would be it was not light and fire from heaven, the divine illumination of the Holy Ghost, or their differences would not have been so easily reconciled by surrendering the whole ground to the enemy ; the Northern Methodist Conference retaining thousands of slave-holders and tens of thousands of slaves, and six of the very largest of the slave states, besides Delaware and Maryland. The two missionary boards and tract society threatened at one time some separation or purification, but to what purpose will be made to appear

The institution at Oberlin, Ohio, was first to attempt a new standard for freedom in education and religion, irrespective of sex, complexion or race, with a professedly anti-slavery board of teachers and directors. But Oberlin was at once proscribed by the great bodies of ministers and churches, whose fellowship extended to the south. And even Oberlin never so much as contemplated any separation from our unhallowed union with slave-holders. Instead of it, under an assumed idea or pretense that the constitution was anti-slavery and not pro-slavery, an assumption that no president, congress nor supreme court nor state legislature nor court ever believed for an hour, Oberlin continued loyal to the government, swore by itself or elected rulers to support the constitution, and then kept the oath or made a virtue of perjury and violated it by refusing to return the fugitive slave.

And scarcely had the institution reached respectability in the estimation of more declared pro-slavery ecclesiastical associations, north and south, before the Infinite Patience was exhausted, and with the bolts of eternal justice stove down our already blood-besmeared idol, and buried it beneath the untimely graves of half a million men slain in a thousand battles, their massacred commander-in-chief and president of the nation with his own heart's blood, sealing the sacrifice !



It is time to draw this work to a close. It was undertaken with extreme reluctance at the earnest solicitation of those whose wishes it is my delight to obey, even at any cost of personal sacrifice of my latest years, only if the cause of truth and the demands of history be also subserved. And strict truth and justice to everybody concerned, has been, and shall be to the end, my one constant study and care.

The next chapter may be called " Acts of the Pro- Slavery Apostles," and will have respect mainly to the connection of the church and clergy of the country with the slave system. Their hostility to the anti- slavery enterprise was not wakened into fierce and general opposition till slavery was not only declared a Sin ; such sin as that no slave-holder could be a christian, nor worthy to be fellowshipped as such, whether south or north. The abolitionists insisted that every church and pulpit dictating terms of sacramental communion should hold the man-steaier as just so much greater criminal than the felon of the sheep-fold, as a man is better than a sheep, remembering who He was that asked, " How much better is a man than a sheep ?

" And our warrant for this judgment came from the very highest evangelical authority the church could furnish. Long before slavery had reached the proportions of 1834, or developed half its prospective cruelties, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church had officially and authoritatively taught, citing as their scripture basis, the first epistle of Timothy, first chapter, ninth and tenth verses : "

The law is made for manstealers. This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment. Exodus xxi, 16 ; and the apostle classes them with sinners of the first rank. The word he uses, in its original import, comprehends all who are concerned in bringing any of the human race into slavery, or in retaining them in it.

Stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves or freemen, and keep, sell, or buy them. To steal a freeman, says Grotius, is the highest kind of theft. In other instances we only steal human property, but when we steal or retain men in slavery, we seize those who, in common with ourselves, are constituted, by the original grants, lords of the earth."


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