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Sordid Mercantile Souls

When labor found a common cause — and enemy — with the abolition movement.

Pennsylvania Hall, by John Caspar Wild, 1838. [Library of Congress]

On the evening of Thursday, May 17, 1838, Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall was burned to the ground. One of the largest and most architecturally distinguished buildings in the city, built at a cost of more than $40,000, the hall had been open only a few days when it was destroyed in an arson attack by an antiabolitionist mob. Intended to serve as “a Temple to Free Discussion,” the building instead became a symbol of the violent attempts to silence free speech by antiabolitionist forces. Six months earlier, abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy had been murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, his printing press thrown into the Mississippi River. A few years before, in the summer of 1834, a series of antiabolitionist riots had torn through New York and other Northern cities, leaving a trail of destruction that targeted Black communities, churches, and meeting halls, and the homes of abolitionists. In October 1835, William Lloyd Garrison was dragged through the streets of Boston by an angry mob — on the same day that Gerrit Smith witnessed another mob, this time in Utica, New York, forcibly break up an antislavery convention there. Other groups of white Northerners petitioned to make disseminating abolitionist materials a criminal offense; vandalized and forced the closure of Prudence Crandall’s integrated boarding school in Canterbury, Connecticut; and rioted to prevent the founding of a “manual labor school” for free Blacks in New Haven.

Destruction by Fire of Pennsylvania Hall, by John Caspar Wild, 1838. [Library of Congress]

The role of working men and women in this orgy of anti-Black and anti-abolitionist violence has long been disputed. Wage workers, journeymen, and skilled artisans were surely among the crowd that hurled rocks to smash the windows of Pennsylvania Hall while Angelina Grimké was speaking inside, before torching the building on the following day. But as a contemporary account noted, of those who subscribed to pay for the cost of erecting the building, a “majority” were also “mechanics, or working men.” On the afternoon before its destruction, Pennsylvania Hall had been the site of the Requited Labor Convention organized by Lewis C. Gunn and other abolitionists associated with Philadelphia’s free produce movement. The movement, which sought to develop producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives for the exchange of non-slave produced goods, was dominated by local Quakers from the radical Hicksite sect. But Gunn and others worked hard, with some success, to attract supports from artisans and wage workers, asserting that “ARTICLES PRODUCED BY SLAVE-LABOR ARE STOLEN GOODS, because every man has an inalienable right to the fruits of his own toil.”

Research into the composition of antiabolitionist mobs in the 1830s, meanwhile, has shown that “gentlemen of property and standing” were more likely to have been both the organizers of antiabolitionist mobs and the largest occupational grouping within them. Contemporaries like William Goodell, an evangelical convert to abolitionism who grew up poor in Connecticut and suffered through financial difficulties throughout his life, echoed this point. Goodell, an early supporter of labor reform, believed that antiabolitionist mobs were led and directed by an “aristocracy,” who “love to trample upon the laboring classes” and “grind the faces of the poor.” The hidden hand behind such outbursts was the “thousands of Northern merchants, manufacturers, and others” who shared an economic interest with Southern masters in the “unjust gains of slavery.” Thomas Brothers, the editor of the Philadelphia Radical Reformer and Working Man’s Advocate, described the “prime movers” behind the antiabolitionist agitation as “a few sordid mercantile souls who feared that their business with the South would be injured.” Perhaps Philadelphia lawyer David Paul Brown, who witnessed the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, came closest to the truth when he claimed that “the last and lowest class” was responsible: “I do not mean the mechanical or laboring classes … but the mob, made up of the refuse of all the other classes, and preying upon all.” Just as importantly, the evidence points to the conclusion that in many parts of the North, artisans, wage workers, and men of little or modest wealth made up the bulk of the antislavery rank-and-file. One study has found that the “overwhelming majority” (60-70%) of petition signers in half a dozen industrializing cities in New York and Massachusetts in the 1830s owned little or no taxable property. The propertyless also made up the majority of the abolitionist society members in Boston, while those who owned only modest property formed the majority in Providence, Rhode Island, and Lynn, Massachusetts. 

Whatever the actual class composition of those who took part in antiabolitionist violence, workingmen also took the lead in denouncing it. In 1834, two working printer-editors, George Henry Evans, editor of the labor newspapers the Working Man’s Advocate and The Man, and William Leggett, of the radically Democratic Evening Post, were nearly alone among New York newspaper editors of either party affiliation in condemning the rioters that summer.

Such denunciations did not necessarily translate into support for immediate abolitionism. Evans complained that the Garrisonian immediatists were “actuated by a fanatical enthusiasm,” and he blamed the riots on “Bank wigs [sic],” the conservative press, and the influence of “Southern money,” among other factors. But he nonetheless believed that abolitionists were “honest in their principles and the measures they propose are just,” contrasting the immediatists favorably to the colonizationists of the American Colonization Society, whose measures “tend to perpetuate” slavery while distracting attention from more “practicable ways of abolishing it.” A few days later, The Man gave column space to members of the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and published a lengthy explication of the abolitionists’ views.

Evans had launched his weekly, the Working Man’s Advocate, at the height of the Working Men’s movement in 1829. The Working Men’s parties had emerged in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as dozens of smaller towns in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Old Northwest, in response to the rapid economic changes of the 1820s. Emphasizing pragmatic reforms like mechanics’ lien laws and public education, and ideologically opposed to banks, chartered corporations, and all forms of “monopoly,’ the Workies attempted to steer an independent path before being largely absorbed into the Jacksonian coalition in the early 1830s. 

After the Working Men’s electoral defeat across northeastern cities during this period, Evans helped steer the remainder of the party toward support for Jackson and the Democrats. Unlike many Northern Democrats, however, Evans never reconciled himself to the Jacksonian alliance between Northern workingmen and Southern slaveholders. Rather, he was conspicuous for the striking if somewhat inconsistent arguments he made against chattel slavery and in favor of Black equality. Throughout the 1830s, in the columns of the Working Man’s Advocate and The Man, Evans railed against the internal slave trade, defended abolitionists’ right to free speech, printed notices of antislavery meetings, and stood up for the rights of oppressed people of color, whether enslaved or free. “We believe it is our duty to take the part of the oppressed, against the oppressor, whatever may be the kindred or country of the oppressor and the oppressed,” the Working Man’s Advocate declared. “In relation to the question of slavery our kindred are mankind — our color is the color of freedom.”

Perhaps the most striking indication of Evans’ willingness to offer support on behalf of the oppressed, regardless of race, came in August 1831. That month, Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher who claimed to be guided by religious visions, led a group of perhaps 100 fellow slaves in a bloody massacre of local whites in the area around Southampton, Virginia. The incident, which resulted in the deaths of some 60 whites and caused widespread panic throughout the South, became known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Astonishingly, the Working Man’s Advocate, almost alone among the country’s newspapers, defended the enslaved insurrectionaries. “However absurd or cruel” the Turner rebels had been, Evans wrote, “if their object was to obtain their freedom … their cause was just.” Like Garrison’s Liberator, Evans laid the blame for the massacre squarely at the feet of Southern slaveholders (who, he alleged, had failed to take the necessary steps to abolish slavery), compared the Turner rebels to freedom fighters, and heaped scorn on Northern editors, like the Courier and Enquirer’s James Watson Webb, who reserved their outrage for white victims while doubling down on defenses of slavery. To Evans, the events in Southampton proved that slavery operated to the detriment of both Blacks and whites, although he emphasized that, while some 58 whites and been killed, “ONE HUNDRED or more with dark skins” were put to death in the rebellion’s aftermath, “for crimes of which most of them were entirely innocent.” His defense of the rebellion earned Evans the enmity of Jacksonian editor Duff Green, who referred to him in the Washington Telegram as a “miscreant … dangerous to society, [who] deserves to be treated as an incendiary or an outlaw.” But Evans remained defiant, refusing to retract a word of his original statement and turning the charge of “fanatic” against proslavery Democrats like Green. In a moment of self-criticism, Evans also castigated the labor reform movement as having been “negligent” in advancing the cause of enslaved Blacks. Labor reformers, Evans admitted, “might … have done more for the cause of emancipation” than they had done so far. “Our only excuse is, that the class to which we belong, and whose rights we endeavor to advocate, are threatened with evils only inferior to those of slavery, which evils it has been our principal object to endeavor to eradicate … [but] we are now convinced that our interest demands that we should do more, for EQUAL RIGHTS can never be enjoyed, even by those who are free, in a nation which contains slaveites enough to hold in bondage two millions of human beings.”

Such statements aside, what may have been Evans’ most important contribution to the antislavery tradition is less obvious. The Turner Rebellion and the claim put forth by James Watson Webb (whose Courier and Enquirer would fan the flames of the 1834 antiabolition riots a few years later) that “property in slaves in guaranteed to their masters by the Constitution” had prompted Evans to rethink this conventional wisdom. The Founders had purposely omitted the word “slave” from the Constitution, Evans pointed out in the Advocate. Although the three-fifths and fugitive slave clauses recognized the existence of slavery, nowhere did the Constitution offer specific protections for slave property or define a “right” to property in human beings. The federal government might be obligated to prevent slave insurrections, like the one that had just occurred in Virginia, but it could best do that by providing funds to emancipate slaves, not by contributing to the development of a permanent “standing army.” “The idea is too absurd for belief,” Evans concluded, “that the framers intended even to recognize the right of the minority of the people of any state to hold the majority as property,” and it was “monstrously absurd” to imagine that they intended to guarantee the right to such “property.” Slavery could be abolished within a decade, Evans suggested; the primary obstacles were the “pecuniary interest” of slaveholders and their claims that the Constitution guaranteed their right to hold human beings as property, a doctrine that should be “exploded, and slaves should be emancipated as soon as they can be with safety to themselves and to those who hold them in bondage.” Although he believed, in keeping with the dominant interpretation of the Constitution, that the federal government, could not abolish slavery in the states without a constitutional amendment, Evans was alarmed by what he labeled the “new and abominable Tory-Whig doctrine” that even the states could not constitutionally abolish slavery within their own borders. Moreover, if slavery could not be abolished by the federal government outright, it could be abolished “by means of the general government, or by the general government withholding the means of perpetuating it.” Here, Evans anticipated the idea that the federal government could “divorce” itself from slavery, thereby depriving it of any means of support — an idea that would later become central to the Republican Party.

Excerpt adapted from The Root and the Branch: Working-Class Reform and Antislavery, 1790–1860 by Sean Griffin. Copyright © 2024 by The University of Pennsylvania Press. Used by permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.







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