Abolitionist Meeting Broken Up by Pro-Union Men

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!”

This set the racist audience aflame. They attacked the stage. Fay, now in charge of the meeting, called for it to dissolve, though it was far from over.

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.

  1. From Creating the John Brown Legend by Janet Kemper Beck, McFarland, 2009. []
  2. Much of this is taken from the New York Times, December 4, 1860 as well as Beck’s book. []
  3. 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. []
  4. From The Struggle for Equality by James M. McPherson, Princeton University Press, 1964. []
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7 thoughts on “Abolitionist Meeting Broken Up by Pro-Union Men

  1. “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me…”

    Two of my great heroes in this post, John Brown and Frederick Douglass. I love that in speeches Douglass would often refer to John Brown reverentially, like he was a saint.

    If you come up here to NY to visit, we can go to the Lake Placid farm where he lived for years. It’s a national historic site.

    Also, Strong Hearts cafe has vegan milkshakes named John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Deliciously revolutionary!

    1. I’d love to see the place where he lived. I visited the Kennedy Farm near Harper’s Ferry where he (badly) planned the raid. While I’m a huge Douglass fan, I’m just not sure how I feel about Brown. I don’t believe he was crazy though. Which actually doesn’t help in this matter.

      The vegan milkshakes sound pretty amazing though, I’ll say that.

      1. Yeah Brown had some issues, but he wasn’t crazy. Surprisingly, after watching most of his kids and wife die, fighting in militias in Kansas…

        I really like Brown’s intensity, though. I love how on his farm he would have dinner with blacks, shocking even the abolitionists… many of whom thought slavery was bad, but blacks and whites should still keep apart. He didn’t see greys, though. Totally black and white. Which would make him damn annoying– but pretty fascinating. I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. But I wouldn’t cross him either. I admire that.

        1. Meaning: he saw his kids and wife die, AND he fought in Kansas. They weren’t killed in Kansas. (Actually maybe one was… mostly it was disease I think…)

        2. He was quite intense, it’s true. I really need to read more on his life. This project picked up after he died and while I’ve read a bit about pre-war happenings, he was just one of the many intense things that was happening. Must delve a bit more into it.

          I do find it interesting how not progressive most abolitionists were (by our standards).

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I was unaware of this incident, though I don’t think we should be too surprised about the tense nature of the meeting and the overall controversy surrounding Brown’s legacy (even in Boston).

    Brown’s actions flamed passions on all sides during a time when the country was splitting apart over questions regarding slavery and its expansion out west and fundamental questions regarding slavery’s place within the Union as it was at that point in time.

    Brown’s raid was the epitome of the very fears that many southerners had about abolitionists and their allies.

    The fact that Republicans could win the presidency after being in existence for such a short time says a lot for the volatility of the 1850s. Genuine fear of these “new” Republicans and their intentions seems easier to understand if you’re trying to get in the minds of southern secessionists and their allies (especially since Lincoln was not even on the ballot for most or all deep south states).

    To many white southerners in 1860, there was no distinction between someone like Lincoln with his more moderate “antislavery” views vs. someone like John Brown or Frederick Douglass. Southerners remembered his famous “House Divided” speech and they took that to heart.

    We’ve posted this resolution from the SC General Assembly on our TAH website a few years back. See the link below in case you’d be interested in reading an official Palmetto State response to John Brown’s Raid:


    Please keep us the good work, and I appreciate the opportunity to ramble on here. My only question to you regarding this post is why you didn’t supply a link to the New York Times article for December 4, 1860. Is it not readily available online?

    1. Thank you so much. It’s a great point you made about the fears in the South. They really didn’t know who Lincoln was.

      And many thanks for the link to SC’s resolutions. So many say that slavery was just one of many issues and that it was just going to die out anyway, so Southerners didn’t care much about it. I even thought that way before beginning this project. I was incredibly wrong.

      I’ve decided not to give links for sources, as some are split between books and the internet, but if you ever want more info, I’d be more than happy to provide. The New York Times sight is searchable, but not intuitively so.

      The link for that article is here.


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