By Andy O’Brien
Originally appeared in the April, 2023 issue of The Bollard.
Late one evening in September, 1832, the rabble-rousing abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison disembarked from a ship in Portland Harbor. Garrison was fired up and ready to take on his bitter enemies, the American Colonization Society (ACS), which had been trying to establish a beachhead in Maine. Two years earlier, Garrison had founded the provocative abolitionist newspaper The Liberator to crusade against the evils of slavery. A year after that, he launched the New England Anti-Slavery Society at the African Meeting House in Boston to organize for the immediate abolition of slavery by appealing to the moral conscience of white citizens.
Garrison was viewed as a dangerous fanatic by most Americans, who feared he would provoke slave insurgencies or even a civil war. Most ACS members saw free Black Americans as a problem that needed to be removed. After slavery was abolished in the North, the free Black population in the U.S. exploded from nearly 60,000 in 1790 to over 300,000 by 1830. This phenomenon coincided with a rise in Black militancy as Black leaders like David Walker of Boston began spreading ideas about abolition and revolt in pamphlets distributed throughout the South. These ideas had already been catching on.
First came Denmark Vesey’s failed plot to ignite a mass slave insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. Then, in August of 1831, the revolutionary preacher Nat Turner led a four-day rebellion of more than 70 enslaved Black workers in Southampton County, Virginia, to free their brothers and sisters in bondage. As terrified white residents panicked throughout the countryside, 3,000 white soldiers, militia men and vigilantes killed over a hundred suspected rebels. By the time it was over, the Black militia had killed between 55 and 65 white people, making it the deadliest slave revolt in American history. Nat Turner managed to hide out for two months before being discovered. On Nov. 11, 1831, he was hanged and his body was skinned for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.”
The Virginia General Assembly actually debated ending slavery in the aftermath of the insurrection, but ultimately responded by cracking down on what few liberties African Americans enjoyed. They had learned that Black literacy could be dangerous, so they joined other slave states in prohibiting the teaching of Black people to read and write. Slave states restricted the rights of both free and enslaved workers to travel, preach and gather in groups. Virginia also allocated more colonization funding to encourage the return of African Americans to Africa in an attempt to reduce the threat emancipated Black people posed to the slavocracy.
Garrison seethed that Northern Christians were making common cause with the odious slaveholders in the ACS. But he suspected the organization was becoming “more and more abhorrent to the moral sense of community,” writing from Portland,
The veil has been torn from the brow of the monster, and his gorgon features are seen without disguise. He must die! Already he bleeds — he roars — he shakes the earth — his resistance is mighty — but he is doomed to die! The friends of justice and of bleeding humanity are surrounding him, and soon their spears shall reach his vitals.
To slay this beast, Garrison needed to build a powerful movement. He urged his audiences to subscribe to the Liberator and become members of the New England Anti-Slavery Society to support its organizing work. If there were more than five or six abolitionists in a town, he encouraged them to form their own auxiliary anti-slavery societies.
“The life and usefulness of the Parent Society must depend mainly upon the number and efficiency of auxiliaries,” Garrison wrote. “These, by their regular contributions to the general fund, furnish the life-blood that gives vitality to this whole system.”
During his 1832 tour, Garrison set up his headquarters at the home of Quaker businessman Nathan Winslow and his wife, Comfort, who were known as courageous abolitionist organizers. Nathan later attended the 1833 meeting of the American Antislavery Society in Philadelphia. Comfort would entertain touring abolitionist speakers in their home and host meetings of the Portland Female Anti-Slavery Society.
The following Thursday, Garrison met up with Black activist and businessman Reuben Ruby — “a colored gentleman held in much esteem in this city,” Garrison observed — who took him on a tour of the city in his coach. Ruby also invited Garrison for a night of “handsome entertainment” at his home on Preble Street that Saturday. It was there that Garrison met “twenty colored gentlemen of good intelligence and reputable character.”
“As a mark of their respect for my person and gratitude for my labors, I shall long cherish it in my memory; and I beg them to accept this public acknowledgement of their kindness as some evidence of appreciation,” he later wrote.
Garrison invited his new friends to a packed lecture the next day at the Friends’ meeting house on the corner of Federal and Pearl streets. “A very respectable number of men and women attended, with several [Quakers], and listened with breathless attention and evident satisfaction,” wrote Garrison. “I was surprised to witness so large a collection, as only a few hours had been allowed for notice, and the evening was very dark and stormy.”
On Sunday afternoon, Garrison addressed a large crowd of Black residents in the basement of the Abyssinian Meeting House, as the second-floor nave had not yet been finished. Ruby had donated a piece of his land at the base of Munjoy Hill, between Newbury Street and Eastern Cemetery, to build the Abyssinian Congregational Church. The church founders scraped together what little money they could from congregants and also received some support from local white philanthropists, like the famous writer and Quaker reformer John Neal. As Neal wrote, “Instead of sending abroad our thousands and tens of thousands of dollars to build churches within the heart of India or along the shores of Africa we look about us here and see what may be done for our next door neighbors.”
A committee of Black congregants that included Richard Dickson, Charles Green, Ephraim Small and Titus Skillings was appointed to oversee the completion of the second floor. According to church records, its early membership tended to draw from the Black middle class, including businessmen, artisans, tradesmen and various service providers. Many of them were of mixed-race lineage, then known as mulatto. As a strict Calvinist denomination, the Abyssinian dismissed members for inappropriate behavior like “vice and degradation” and condemned them for attending dances, theaters and circuses.
Garrison described the audience at his Abyssinian talk as “attentive listeners” who were “dressed in a neat and genteel manner.”
“I am persuaded they will treasure up my advice in their hearts, and carry into effect some of the measures proposed for their benefit,” he wrote. “One of these was the immediate formation of a temperance society, in imitation of their brethren and sisters in other places.”
Garrison was probably preaching to the converted at the Abyssinian on the subject of the ACS, but he did manage to change the mind of at least one prominent ACS supporter: General Samuel Fessenden. Fessenden was a lawyer, militia general, former legislator and Whig Party leader who became a strong advocate for Portland’s Black community. He would often visit them in their homes, and many Black Portlanders, like Ruby, joined him as members of the National Republican Party and, later, the Whigs, which held meetings at the Abyssinian. Fessenden was “moved to tears” by one of Garrison’s lectures and was immediately converted. He waited for Garrison after the talk and the two men went back to the Winslows’ house to discuss the evils of colonization late into the night.
From Portland, Garrison took a stage coach up to Hallowell, where he stayed with merchant Ebenezer Dole, the first life-member of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison wrote that Dole was a “friend of the poor and needy” and a supporter of various benevolent causes. Dole had also sent a check for $100 to Garrison in 1830 when he was jailed in Baltimore for “criminal libel” after denouncing New Englanders Francis Todd and Capt. Nicholas Brown for transporting 75 slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans on the ship Francis.
Garrison wrote that Hallowell was second only to Portland in its political weight, and that its residents were fiercely opposed to the Democratic administrations of the slave-driving populist Andrew Jackson and Maine Governor Samuel E. Smith. “It has an intelligent, clear-headed and industrious population, whom it is not easy to mislead by any political impostures,” Garrison wrote, “and who are fully aware that the protection of American industry is the life-blood of the nation.”
After his speaking engagements in Hallowell, Garrison took a jolting, rough ride over the “formidable” Dixmont Hills — “Up and down — up, up, up — down, down, ’way down,” — all the way to Bangor. Rev. Joseph C. Lovejoy, brother of the abolitionist martyr Elijah P. Lovejoy and co-author of his murdered brother’s biography, had been distributing the Liberator in the Queen City as early as 1831. Garrison stayed in the city as the guest of Rev. Swan Pomroy, minister of the Congregational church and later delegate to the American Anti-Slavery Society Convention. Garrison spoke to a “good crowd” there, and the following evening he delivered a sermon at the Unitarian Church to a “large audience” at the invitation of the liberal-minded Rev. Benjamin Huntoon. However, Garrison later claimed he’d only been allowed to speak in Bangor if he didn’t mention the ACS, and blamed one of the organization’s agents for warning clergy about his speech ahead of time.
Garrison regretted that he could not visit the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, but he also revealed his anti-Catholic prejudices. “They are all Papists, and have a small mass-house in which a priest occasionally officiates,” he wrote of the Penobscots. “Is it not owing to the prejudices and neglect of Protestant Christians that these benighted creatures have fallen prey to the superstition and idolatry of Popery? Can no systematic measures be formed to rescue them or their children from this thralldom?”
Garrison then took another bumpy ride to Waterville College (now Colby), where he was the guest of its president, Rev. Jeremiah Chaplin. He met with college students and must have made an impression, because they formed an anti-slavery society the following year.
Finally, Garrison arrived in Augusta to debate his bitter opponent, ACS agent Rev. Cyril Pearl, who had traveled to Maine to counteract the influence of abolitionist ideas. During Pearl’s speech, Garrison stood up and, according to his two sons, Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, “so embarrassed the agent by his questions and impressed the audience by his appeal in opposition, that the vote was emphatically in the negative.”
The seeds of abolition had been firmly planted. During the next several years, Anti-Slavery Society affiliates would sprout up from Portland to the Canadian border.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.