American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Riots Hatching Resistance

Against Abolitionists and in Aid of Fugitive Slaves

Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news Hath but a losing office.

-- Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II

If Garrison could have been answered, he had never been mobbed.

-- Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Letters, and Lectures

In early 1836 Kentucky-born James A. Thome, agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was invited to a debate by the Akron Lyceum, its members confident of their oratorical skill and the wrong-headedness of the "fanatics." Pleased with this forum, Thome extemporized his initial remarks around the falsity of much of what was said about abolitionism. A young lawyer made the first reply:

He expressed astonishment at the disclaimers which I had made. Said he didn't know but he was ready to go all lengths with me, but he protested I was a NEW abolitionist and had disowned every distinguishing feature of modern abolitionism. He proceeded then to give his view of abolition, and after he had dressed it up in a bearskin, he fell upon it like a whole kennel of hell-hounds, and he tore it to pieces most adroitly. I complimented him for his skill and voraciousness and hoped that he would have a happy digestion of his bearskin and straw.

Thome answered by saying what abolition was: "I blazed and threw sky-rockets, talked of human rights, touched upon the American revolution and threw heaven and earth together." His successive opponents, equally disinclined to deny human rights, "emulated the first dog, in barking at the man of straw and trading bear skins." After three hours of debate, the audience of sixty or seventy people decided to continue the next evening, Tuesday. By Wednesday evening the straw man had lost much of his stuffing, and the members of the Akron Lyceum called for the question. They repudiated their own champions and voted 12 to 9 in favor of abolition; the audience voted 40 to 22 in its support. And James Thome reported the formation of an Anti-Slavery Society of fifteen members. 1

Yet the nation did not go as the Akron Lyceum. The abolitionist straw man of irresponsible fanatic was to remain a comforting fiction until the Civil War, providing some excuse or camouflage for the eighteen riots in Ohio alone in the mid-1830s against abolitionists. Yet other riots suggested how Northerners sometimes re-

-33-

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