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Radical Mainers: Abolitionist & Colonizationist Square Off for the the Great Portland Colonization Debate of 1833Radical Mainers:

by Andy O’Brien

General Samuel Fessenden became radicalized after meeting the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in the fall of 1832, in Portland. Garrison’s compelling words stoked an intense passion in the militia commander’s heart. He was more determined than ever to fight for the immediate abolition of slavery.

Fessenden had once favored the American Colonization Society’s scheme of sending free Black Americans to the colony of Liberia in an effort to address the “race problem.” But in time he became convinced the ACS was not only misguided — it was complicit in the sinful institution of slavery. In a letter to Garrison in December of 1832, Fessenden described the abolitionist crusade as “the holiest, and most important in which mortal man ever engaged.” He spread the message with evangelical zeal, passing out copies of Garrison’s book, Thoughts on African Colonization, to all his friends. While some likely rolled their eyes, others listened. Writing to Garrison, he proudly informed him that one of his first converts was Judge Prentice Mellen, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court.

The following March, Fessenden and a group of prominent men launched the Portland Anti-Slavery Society. Among the men were Judge Mellen, humorist and writer Seba Smith, Methodist minister Gershom F. Cox, Quaker businessman Nathan Winslow, and Daniel C. Colesworthy, a bookseller, poet and printer who published the Black Maine author Robert Benjamin Lewis. The society’s constitution invoked the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty [here italicized] and the pursuits of happiness.” Despite the enormous challenge of ending slavery, Winslow, the businessman, was confident that moral suasion would win the day. 

“The seeds of Anti-Slavery are sown in this place,” he wrote to Garrison on March 10, 1833, “and I trust that the cause of truth, righteousness, and freedom, will ultimately prevail over error, deception, and hypocrisy…”

As the Garrisonians saw it, the biggest threat to their movement was the ACS, which had also been diligently organizing in Maine. On June 28, 1833, an ACS agent, the Rev. Joshua N. Danforth, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the Third Parish Church’s meeting house in Portland. Immediately following the speech, attorney John D. Kinsman made a motion from the floor to recommend the immediate formation of an auxiliary ACS society in Portland.

As soon as the speaker finished repeating Kinsman’s motion, General Fessenden shot to his feet to challenge it. He pleaded with the room to pause and reflect before making such a hasty decision. He argued that there should first be a full discussion about the merits of forming a society. Kinsman was fine with having a debate, even though he figured everyone in the room had made up their mind. Even the colorful writer and arch anti-abolitionist John Neal agreed to let the abolitionists be heard. He moved that a committee be appointed to prepare a society constitution to present at the next meeting. Neal opposed slavery, but favored a more “gradual emancipation” whereby the federal government would compensate

slave masters for the purchase of enslaved people’s freedom. 

“Sudden emancipation,” he argued, was “impossible,” because it would only solidify African Americans’ status as “a much-to-be-dreaded caste” in the U.S. Neal was also in an acrimonious feud with Garrison in those days, a feud that wouldn’t be resolved until the end of the Civil War, when Neal admitted, “I was wrong … and Mr. Garrison was right.”

The colonization meeting reconvened on July 8. Portlanders packed into the Third Parish Church to watch some of the city’s greatest debaters face off. Fessenden, a seasoned attorney, was eager to utilize his talent for persuasion. And he’d brought a secret weapon: the Reverend William C. Munroe.

Born in Maryland, Munroe described himself as “neither a black man nor a white man, but between them,” a reference to his mixed-race lineage. Little is known about his early life, but he arrived in Portland sometime around 1833. Regarded for his plainspoken and powerful sermons, Munroe was an ardent abolitionist and civil rights leader. While in Portland, he lived with fellow Baptist minister George H. Black, on Union Street. In addition to serving as a guest preacher for the Black congregation at the Abyssinian Congregational Church, Munroe led a short-lived Baptist mission called the First Baptist Society for Colored People in the city.

Munroe and Fessenden sat patiently, with a group of other abolitionists, awaiting what became known as the Great Portland Colonization Debate of 1833. Neal began the meeting with a reading of the proposed colonization society’s draft constitution. Then it was time for the anti-colonizationists to have their say.

Hardware merchant Henry Goddard spoke first. He argued that the colonization scheme “served to give false security to the masters” and was an “impracticable” way to bring about full emancipation of African Americans. After all, the ACS had only helped 3,000 African Americans emigrate to Liberia since 1820, and just a few hundred of them were emancipated former slaves. At the same time, he noted, the slave population in the U.S. was growing by over 20 percent every year.

When he was finished, General Fessenden stood up and introduced Rev. Munroe, who took the floor and addressed the crowd with “much zeal,” according to the Baptist newspaper Zion’s Herald. The ACS, he argued, was founded in prejudice. 

“In the last war when the blacks were needed to fight for their country, then we were all American citizens, brave soldiers,”Munroe told the crowd, “but when that was over, then we were all Africans and we must all be sent out of the country.” He stressed that he was not prejudiced against the whites, for they had “as large a place in his heart as the black man.” He didn’t even begrudge adherents to colonization, as they had simply been misled by the organization’s traveling lecturers.  “The Colonization Society says the black men are degraded — well, whose fault is it? Those that keep them in ignorance and bondage,” Monroe said. “Colonization agents say slave holders are to be pitied —that they are good Christians. But they are not Christians…” 

He described the beatings, torture, family separations and other atrocities committed against African Americans by these supposedly benevolent Christian slave masters. He pointed to scars on his head inflicted by his former enslavers, and said his half brother, who was apparently white, had abused him and tried to sell him into slavery. The Colonization Society, he argued, was a racist conspiracy to get rid of the free Black population. The room erupted violently in response to these allegations, and General Fessenden took to the floor to restore order. 

When the hubbub subsided, white ACS supporter and businessman William Cutter acerbically remarked that he had just witnessed an example of how “itinerant lecturers … could tell a story.” While he professed to “abhor” slavery, Cutter didn’t think it was appropriate to characterize all slave masters as cruel. After all, he reasoned, there were cases in New England “where parents abuse their children, masters their servants; but it was unfair to represent all New England as cruel and abusive.”

Solomon Adams felt Monroe was being unfair to Christian slave owners, arguing that it was “generally frowned upon,” especially by Christians, to mistreat enslaved people. He added that he had stayed with a Southern family who kept African Americans in bondage and had seen with his own eyes that they were not overworked. They even ate the “same kind of food” and “slept on as good a bed” as he did.

This dismissive attitude was typical of ACS supporters and Fessenden was infuriated. If he were to believe Cutter and Adams, he retorted, he should not consider slavery a “great evil,” as the two men claimed enslaved people were treated as well as “our children [and] … as well as himself.” But it was a great evil — “a sin against God!” Fessenden thundered, then quoted ACS founder Dr. Robert Finley, who once wrote: “Could [African Americans] be sent back to Africa a three fold benefit would arise. We should be cleared of them — we should send to Africa a population partly civilized and partly christianized for its benefit, and our blacks themselves would be placed in better circumstances.”

“‘We should be cleared of them.’ How very benevolent!!” scoffed Fessenden. “This was their first motive, but secondly it would remove a population ‘partly civilized’ that is semi-civilized and semi-barbarous for the benefit of Africa…. But the third benefit would be to ‘put our blacks,’ that is, our slaves, in ‘a better situation.’ It would render the slaves more secure in the hands of the masters, take away their temptations to insurrection, and make them more valuable.”

By the time Fessenden was finished, it was about 10 p.m., so Chairman Neal adjourned the meeting and the debate was to continue the next evening. But Fessenden and Munroe didn’t return the next night. No minds were changed. Both sides were more dug in than ever.

The colonizationists did form a society in Portland that year, but it quickly fizzled. The abolitionists, on the other hand, were making gradual progress, with activists steadily organizing small anti-slavery auxiliaries in little towns across the Maine countryside. A year later, there would be enough organizational support to finally launch the Maine Anti-Slavery Society.

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