There were several frightening aspects to the mob violence against Negroes and their antislavery friends. Committees of vigilance, composed of prominent citizens -- bankers, lawyers, merchants, newspaper editors, preachers, public officials -- were formed to sit in judgment and to inflict punishment upon men and women who had violated no law. These committees gathered to themselves ruffians, sadists, and scoundrels of every sort. Such people are ever present, ever eager to satisfy their own perverted instincts, and ever scornful of both human and divine law. The respectable men went as far as necessary to identify the objects of their displeasure and then remained in the shadows while peaceable assemblages of men and women were disrupted, distinguished visitors were driven from the community, printing presses were destroyed, schools were closed, churches, private homes, and public buildings were burned, the mails were pillaged, and men were beaten, stoned, hanged, and shot. This was lynch law; it was unrestrained sadism on a grand scale; it was anarchy; it was a complete annihilation of the basic principles of democracy; it was desecration of the most sacred guarantees of the Constitution, both federal and state.
On January 2, 1833, Reverend William Peabody made a remarkably cogent statement in Boston: "It is not an easy thing, nor a trifling privilege, to be free. What is a free state? It is one which lives under the government of laws and not of men; it is one in which all are equal, as respects their civil rights; it is one, in which the liberty of each is abridged as little as possible, and his responsibility extended as far as possible; it is one, which gives the widest range to the moral and intellectual powers, while it restrains and governs injurious passions; it is one, in which the prosperity of the state depends upon the conduct and character of its individual members.--1
One of the most important functions of the President of the United States, indeed of all public officials to a degree commensurate with the importance of their office, is to provide leadership in the discussion of important issues and in the formulation of public policy. The prestige of their office adds great weight to their opinions. They must lead in the definition of public policy -- that is, in enacting laws. Here is a case in which they gave a diabolical twist to the final step of this democratic process, and instead of upholding the majesty of the law by requesting legislation they urged the people to supply the deficiencies of existing law by mob violence. They called this strong, or emphatic, or unmistakable expressions of public sentiment -- the will of the community. They rationalized their own cowardly evasions of responsibility to protect persons and property by saying that there are times when officers of the law have an obligation to the community in which they live superior to those of the law itself.
These men sought to ease their own consciences and to justify their actions before the public, perhaps even in the annals of history, by charging the guilt of a mob to its victims. This was almost universal, from the President and senators, on through governors, judges, mayors, and police of-