Monday, December 3, 1860
To commemorate the execution of John Brown, which took place December 2, 1859, abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, held a widely advertised meeting in Boston’s Tremont Temple.
John Brown, thinking himself “an instrument in the hands of providence,” on October 16, 1859, attempted to seize the Harpers Ferry arsenal to arm a slave uprising. The assault failed, leaving ten of his own men and six civilians (several of them slaves) dead. Brown himself was wounded and captured. The United States Marines were called in and commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.
The general assumption at the time was that Brown was insane. Virginia’s governor, Henry Wise, met with him before the execution. Wise, a very partisan southerner, was furious over the incident and insisted upon talking to John Brown himself. The southerner described Brown not as insane, but as “cool, collected and indomitable.” He continued saying that Brown was “a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, truthful and intelligent.” That’s a far cry from insane.
Anyway, that was why the abolitionists were gathering in Boston on Monday morning – to celebrate the life and martyrdom of John Brown.
As the meeting started, The Tremont Temple was slow to fill. At first mostly black abolitionists made up the crowd. By the time the meeting was called to order and the first speaker was to take the stand, anti-Lincoln and anti-abolition whites made up a large portion of the audience. Many of these lawyers and merchants who would attempt to break up the meeting held mortgages on slaves and other southern interests.
J. Stella Martin, a black reverend, called the meeting to order. At first, the opposition seemed only to want to harass the meeting, hissing when a speaker was called to the podium. The chief of police and a small force were there to supposedly keep the peace. This worked for a time.
As abolitionist Frederick Douglass was about to take the platform, some “well dressed men who wished to break up the meeting” resolved that one of their own, Richard Fay, a wealthy Boston lawyer, be allowed to speak in opposition. Douglass, trying to keep his cool, handed the man a glass of water and said, adapting a verse from Proverbs, “If thine enemy thirst, give him drink.”1
“Thine enemy” then commenced to make “resolutions” denouncing John Brown and his supporters. Fay played the patriotism card, imploring every man who loves his country and the Union to support slavery. He thanked Virginia for dealing with the John Brown situation. Lastly, he resolved that self-defense was the only means of stopping meetings such as this one.
Douglass sat there, allowing this lawyer to speak his piece, hoping that this would quell the disruptions. It did not.
As Douglass’s chair was taken from him by one man, another called out a racist slur to him. Douglass pointed at the racist and said loudly, “If I were a slave-driver and had hold of that man… I would let more daylight through his skin than ever got there before!”
Hoping the disruptive elements would leave, Douglass called for the Brown supporters to remain. Another abolitionist speaker attempted to talk, but a fight broke out on the platform and the police attempted to eject everyone, but failed. The Union men roughly handled the abolitionists, throwing Douglass down the stairs leading up to the stage.
The police then cleared the hall.2
That night, the abolitionists met at the Negro Baptist Church on Joy Street. Several hundred less-than-joyous Union men congregated out front. Frederick Douglass gave a fiery speech denouncing the events of the morning and calling for slaves to rise up.3
As they exited the church, they were assaulted with rocks and clubs by the Union mob waiting for them.4
The South may have been seceding for reasons surrounding slavery, but the North, even progressive Boston, wasn’t yet ready to fight for the abolition of the slaves.
Speaking of clattering mobs, the US Congress convened on this day. President Buchanan was to present his State of the Union Address to them. However, it was delayed and then delayed again. Committees were officially formed to wait for the President and then it was postponed until tomorrow.
- From Creating the John Brown Legend by Janet Kemper Beck, McFarland, 2009. [↩]
- Much of this is taken from the New York Times, December 4, 1860 as well as Beck’s book. [↩]
- This speech is in a collection of Douglass’s speeches and is described as “Delivered in Tremont Temple,” but it was actually delivered at the church on Joy Street that night. It’s a good idea to track down this speech and read it. [↩]
- From The Struggle for Equality by James M. McPherson, Princeton University Press, 1964. [↩]