The Atheneum Celebrates Nantucketâs Anti-Slavery Movement and Local Abolitionists
By Caitlin Kelley, Atheneum Reference Department
The Atheneum has had the great privilege of working with PBSâs American Experience program to put Nantucketâs rich abolitionist history on the map, literally. In conjunctionÂ with the release of their new television series, The Abolitionists, American Experience has developed a digital map of the country on which places and events important to the Anti-Slavery movement have been âpinnedâ or marked.Â Each pin includes a photograph, a description of the event or location, and a place for users to write comments.
While conducting research for this project, we found a rich trove of information on the three anti-slavery conventions held at the Atheneum, Frederick Douglassâ speeches in the Great Hall, and of the riotous mob that attacked the library with eggs and stones. The paragraphs included below are just a few of the many examples of Nantucketâs great history.
Frederick Douglassâ First Atheneum Speech at the Anti-Slavery Convention
Proprietors of the Nantucket Atheneum, including founders, Charles G. Coffin and fervent abolitionist, David Joy, had voted to allow the Anti-Slavery Convention to take place at their sanctuary of learning and culture. The event was held in August over a three day period. Abolitionist orators came from various parts of New England and New York to attend one of the first mixed-race, anti-slavery assemblies in the country. Among them were William Lloyd Garrison, William M. Chase, Charles B. Ray, John A. Collins, James N. Buffum, Paul C. Boward, and Edmund Quincy.
In the evening of the second day of the convention, Frederick Douglass was urged to give a speech. Having never given a full address before, Douglass described the request for him to discourse as âa severe cross,â which he âtook up reluctantlyâ (Douglass 119). In an autobiography he wrote, âThe truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me downâ (Douglass 119).While Douglass may have trembled with nerves over the course of his speech, one man who witnessed the event noted that Douglass spoke with âsuch intellectual power-wisdom as well as wit-that all present were astonishedâ (May 294).
At the conclusion of Douglassâ speech, William Lloyd Garrison, who was slated to speak next, leapt to his feet to address the audience. âHave we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?â he asked (Starbuck 625). A crowd of five hundred people resoundingly shouted âA man! A manâ (625) âShall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?ââ he asked (625) ââNo!â âNo!â again shouted the audience, in a voice that seemed to make the rafters ring. Raising his tones to their fullest power, he again exclaimed. âShall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of old Massachusetts?â With a tremendous roar the whole assembly sprang to their feet and continued shouting âNo!â âNo!â âNo!â and Garrisonâs voice was drownedâ (626)
Second Anti-Slavery Convention, Stephen Fosterâs âBrotherhood of Thievesâ Speech, and Mobs on Nantucket
Nantucketâs second Anti-Slavery Convention was held in 1842. This assembly, like the first, was held at the islandâs Atheneum. Early in the convention radical abolitionist Rev. Stephen Foster delivered a speech of âgreat energy and vigor,â which incited great anger among a small group of Nantucketers (Austin 2). The contents of his speech were published in a pamphlet the following year titled: The Brotherhood of Thieves; or a True Picture of the American Church and Clergy. Both speech and publication lambasted the clergy for their inaction against slavery, calling them, âa generation of vipersâ and their followers, a âbrotherhood of thievesâ News of his harsh proclamations quickly spread through Nantucket (Foster 6, Woodward Section C).
The following evening William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Stephen Foster sought to address to the assembly once more, but were prevented from being heard when the Atheneum was beset upon by an angry, riotous mob who, amid hoots and âhideousâ screeches, pelted the handsome structure with rotten eggs, bricks, and stones (Austin 2). The Convention was forced to leave the Atheneum the following day, lest the group take up financial responsibility for damages done to the building. A handful of other venues, including the Town Hall, were also set upon by the mob. On the last day of the convention attendees âwere consequently obliged to avail themselves of the liberal offer, by its proprietor, of a large boat-builderâs shop, on the outskirts of town,â called Big Shop (photo below). (2)
Nantucketâs Third Anti-Slavery ConventionÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Nantucketâs third Anti-Slavery Convention, held over a weekend in June, 1843, was attended by Frederick Douglass, Cyrus Peirce, famed Nantucket educator and president of the islandâs Anti-Slavery Society, Rev. Stephen Foster, George Bradburn, David Joy, and many others. This convention lacked the mob drama, which plagued the second one, and aside from some heated disagreements between attendees, was deemed to âon the whole to have given general satisfactionâ (âLiberatorâ).
During the conventionâs sessions board members were appointed, attendees debated the word choice to be used in the groupâs resolutions, and lamentations were made over a fellow abolitionistâs arrest. Though Rev. Foster again made harsh allegations against the clergy, it was voted that clergymen from the community should be invited to the convention so that they may have the opportunity to âparticipate in its proceedings so far as they may feel interested” (Pierce). It is unclear, however, as to whether or not any church officials chose to do so.
The last speeches of the weekend included one by Frederick Douglass, on the appropriateness of the Sabbath as a day to devote oneself to the âdissuasion of American slaveryâ and some by Rev. Foster (Pierce). The first of his speeches posited that âpublic prayers and church ceremonies, are in direct violation of the spirit and letter of Christâs teachings; that living a life of impartial and universal love, and serving our fellow beings is the worship most acceptable to Godâ (Pierce). Many attendees were opposed to portions of this speech. In the last speech of the convention Foster told of his experience in being imprisoned for âattempting to speak in churches without permission from authoritiesâ and his reasoning for doing so (Pierce).
Frederick Douglassâ 1850 Speech at the New Atheneum
In 1850 Frederick Douglass lectured with J. C. Hathaway at Nantucketâs recently re-built Atheneum, the first having been consumed by the Great Fire of 1846. The two spoke to a large assembly of the evils of the Fugitive Slave Law. According to the Weekly Mirror, Mr. Hathaway had a âgood voiceâ and spoke âwith forceâ (âWeekly Mirrorâ). They reported too that, âDouglass came down upon the audience with the strength of his native eloquence, and put the Fugitive Slave Law in such a light as to convince one that the breaking of that law was really a virtueâ (âWeekly Mirrorâ). A number of resolutions were passed over the course of the meeting condemning the new law as cruel, unjust, and in violation of the Constitution. It was decided that submitting to such laws was cowardly and that those in attendance would do all they could to repeal it.
Frederick Douglassâ Last Visit to Nantucket and His Final Speech at the Atheneum
Word of Frederick Douglassâ visit spread quickly through the island. He had not visited the island in thirty-five years, a period of time during which Nantucket had changed very much. Â Â Â Â Â Â The aging abolitionist spoke first at the Unitarian Church. After being introduced to the assembly, Douglass asserted, âhe had not come to ask a hearing, but to stand once more on the island of Nantucketâ (âNantucket Journalâ 2). âHe proposed to show in the course of his remarks the progress of events since he [first] came to Nantucket forty-four years ago, untaught and unlettered from the plantationâ (2). He endeavored to speak on the history of the Netherlands, with the intention of drawing parallels between âthe people of the Netherlands and the slaves of the South,â but soon realized that his audience had little interest in this topic (2). He switched the course of his speech and told instead of the dedicated work of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and others. He emphasized that without their efforts, slavery would not have been abolished and Lincoln would not have been made president. He encouraged people of the assembly to be patient with recently freed slaves, many of whom struggled to make their way in a land that was hostile to them. He spoke of improvements in the way that he has been treated in America and abroad, noting that now his is a respected American citizen. He expressed his sadness âto find so few of my old friends left.â At the âclose of the meeting hundreds pressed forward to shake hands with the distinguished speakerâ (2).
Douglassâ last speech on Nantucket was held at the Atheneum. He began his talk by reminiscing about the path of his early life, âhis escape from slavery, and his subsequent careerâ (âNantucket Journalâ 2) The remainder of his speech focused on the sacrifices of radical abolitionist John Brown, whose unsuccessful raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, in West Virginia, led to his capture and subsequent hanging. His lecture âwas acknowledged to be one of the most interesting of the courseâ (âInquirer and Mirrorâ 2).
“A Distinguished Visitor Hon, Frederick Douglas Revisits Nantucket, the Scene of His Debut as a Public Speaker.”Â Nantucket JournalÂ 20 Aug 1885, Morning. 2. Print
“Atheneum Lecture Course.”Â Nantucket JournalÂ [Nantucket] 27 Aug 1885, Morning 2. Print.
Douglass, Frederick.Â Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. 2nd. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 119. Print.
Foster, Stephen.Â The Brotherhood of Thieves: or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy: A Letter to Nathaniel Barney, of Nantucket.Â . 2. Concord, NH: Parker Pillsbury, 1884. Web. <http://medicolegal.tripod.com/thieves.htm>
“Fugitive Slave Bill.”Â Weekly MirrorÂ [Nantucket] 19 Oct. 1850, Print.
“Lecture.”Â Inquirer and MirrorÂ [Nantucket] 29 Aug 1885, 2. Print
May, Samuel J. Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict. Boston: Fields, Osgood, & CO., 1869: 294-295. Print.
Pierce, Cyrus. “Proceedings of an Anti-Slavery Convention in Nantucket.”Â LiberatorÂ [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, Print.
“Reflections, Suggested by and Anti-Slavery Meeting.”LiberatorÂ [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, n. pag. Print
Starbuck, Alexander.Â The History of Nantucket Country, Island, and Town. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1969. 625-626. Print.
Woodward, Hobson. “Island Celebrates Career of Frederick Douglas.” Inquirer and Mirror [Nantucket] 8 Aug 1991, Sec. C. Print.