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Modern Voices
David Blight on Pennsylvania Hall
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Q: What is the impact of mob violence on the abolitionist movement?
David Blight

A: By 1838, when, Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia is burned -- an overt attack on an abolitionist meeting and an abolitionist site -- the organized anti-slavery movement, both in terms of organizations and with newspapers and so on, is now seven and eight years old across the North. It's been around long enough, it's been involved in petition campaigns by now in Congress, it's been around long enough to stimulate a popular reaction. And what occurs by 1836 through 1838 is increasingly anti-abolitionist mob violence.

The case in Philadelphia is one of the best examples, but it's also the time when Garrison was attacked in Boston and dragged through the streets, when other abolitionists were attacked on trains and thrown off of railroad cars. And perhaps one of the most famous examples is when Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist in Alton, Illinois, was attacked and assassinated, and became, in effect, the first great martyr of the anti-slavery movement.

But this moment in the history of abolitionism is important because it demonstrates that the anti-slavery movement by the late 1830s had, in the perception of many, many Northern whites, become a true threat to the social order. Abolitionists were now seen by many whites as radicals who were going to create disorder. They were going to create that disorder because they were bad for business. They were going to ruin the prosperity out in an Alton, Illinois, and the kind of trade that merchants were engaged in on the Mississippi River, and across the river with Missouri.

They were bringing women to the platform and having women speak in public, which was a brand-new affair and a threat to the order as people understood it. And perhaps most notably, they brought black abolitionists on to platforms, speaking in public, telling their own stories, in their own voices. All of this now, to many white Northerners, was a threat to the social order as they understood it.

Anti-abolitionist violence is a very interesting turning point for the abolitionists themselves -- black and white -- because they now realize they're not only up against a deep Southern intransigence and an increasingly organized defense of slavery from the South. They've been reading that and hearing that since the 1820s. Now what they realize is that they are faced with violent reaction to their movement within their own Northern communities.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
Amherst College

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