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The Abolitionist Movement

The Atheneum Celebrates Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Movement and Local Abolitionists

By Caitlin Kelley, Atheneum Reference Department

The Atheneum had the great privilege of working with PBS’s American Experience to include Nantucket’s rich abolitionist history in their television series, The Abolitionists.

While conducting research for this project, we found a rich trove of information on the three anti-slavery conventions held at the Atheneum, Frederick Douglass’ 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 Nantucket’s great history.

Frederick Douglass’ First Atheneum Speech at the Anti-Slavery Convention

In the spring of 1841, during an anti-slavery meeting at the Black Episcopal Methodist Zion chapel of New Bedford, William C. Coffin, a Nantucket banker, heard a young Frederick Douglass briefly describe his experience as a slave. Coffin was so impressed with the man’s oratorical ability that he invited Douglass to visit the island and be a guest at Nantucket’s first Anti-Slavery Convention.

Nantucket Atheneum when it was built in 1834

Figure 1. The Nantucket Atheneum as it looked when it was founded in 1834.

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 “a severe cross,” which he “took up reluctantly” (Douglass 119). In an autobiography he wrote, “The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down” (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 “such intellectual power-wisdom as well as wit-that all present were astonished” (May 294).

Video: John Stauffer On Picturing Frederick Douglass

Recorded Aug. 11, 2016, the 175th anniversary of Douglass’ first public speech, which he delivered at the Nantucket Atheneum.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

At the conclusion of Douglass’ speech, William Lloyd Garrison, who was slated to speak next, leapt to his feet to address the audience. “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” he asked (Starbuck 625). A crowd of five hundred people resoundingly shouted “A man! A man” (625) “Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?’” he asked (625) “’No!’ ‘No!’ again shouted the audience, in a voice that seemed to make the rafters ring. Raising his tones to their fullest power, he again exclaimed. ‘Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of old Massachusetts?’ With a tremendous roar the whole assembly sprang to their feet and continued shouting ‘No!’ ‘No!’ ‘No!’ and Garrison’s voice was drowned” (626).

Second Anti-Slavery Convention, Stephen Foster’s “Brotherhood of Thieves” Speech, and Mobs on Nantucket

Nantucket’s second Anti-Slavery Convention was held in 1842. This assembly, like the first, was held at the island’s Atheneum. Early in the convention radical abolitionist Rev. Stephen Foster delivered a speech of “great energy and vigor,” 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, “a generation of vipers” and their followers, a “brotherhood of thieves.” News of his harsh proclamations quickly spread through Nantucket (Foster 6, Woodward Section C).

The Big Shop, Nantucket

The “Big Shop” as it appeared after the south half was converted into a dwelling in 1848.

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 “hideous” 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 “were consequently obliged to avail themselves of the liberal offer, by its proprietor, of a large boat-builder’s shop, on the outskirts of town,” called Big Shop. (2)

Nantucket’s Third Anti-Slavery Convention

Nantucket’s 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 island’s 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 “on the whole to have given general satisfaction” (“Liberator”).

During the convention’s sessions board members were appointed, attendees debated the word choice to be used in the group’s resolutions, and lamentations were made over a fellow abolitionist’s 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 “participate 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 “dissuasion of American slavery” and some by Rev. Foster (Pierce). The first of his speeches posited that “public prayers and church ceremonies, are in direct violation of the spirit and letter of Christ’s teachings; that living a life of impartial and universal love, and serving our fellow beings is the worship most acceptable to God” (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 “attempting to speak in churches without permission from authorities” and his reasoning for doing so (Pierce).

Frederick Douglass’ 1850 Speech at the New Atheneum

In 1850 Frederick Douglass lectured with J. C. Hathaway at Nantucket’s 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 “good voice” and spoke “with force” (“Weekly Mirror”). They reported too that, “Douglass 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 virtue” (“Weekly Mirror”). 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 Douglass’ Last Visit to Nantucket and His Final Speech at the Atheneum

Nantucket Atheneum 1885, Harry C. Platt Photographer

Figure 2. The Atheneum photographed in 1885 by Harry C. Platt

Word of Frederick Douglass’ 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.  The aging abolitionist spoke first at the Unitarian Church. After being introduced to the assembly, Douglass asserted, “he had not come to ask a hearing, but to stand once more on the island of Nantucket” (“Nantucket Journal” 2). “He 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 plantation” (2). He endeavored to speak on the history of the Netherlands, with the intention of drawing parallels between “the people of the Netherlands and the slaves of the South,” 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 “to find so few of my old friends left.” At the “close of the meeting hundreds pressed forward to shake hands with the distinguished speaker” (2).

Douglass’ last speech on Nantucket was held at the Atheneum. He began his talk by reminiscing about the path of his early life, “his escape from slavery, and his subsequent career” (“Nantucket Journal” 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 “was acknowledged to be one of the most interesting of the course” (“Inquirer and Mirror” 2).

Works Cited:

“A Distinguished Visitor Hon, Frederick Douglas Revisits Nantucket, the Scene of His Debut as a Public Speaker.” Nantucket Journal 20 Aug 1885, Morning. 2. Print

“Atheneum Lecture Course.” Nantucket Journal [Nantucket] 27 Aug 1885, Morning 2. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. 2nd. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 119. Print.

Foster, Stephen. The Brotherhood of Thieves: or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy: A Letter to Nathaniel Barney, of Nantucket.  2. Concord, NH: Parker Pillsbury, 1884. Web.

“Fugitive Slave Bill.” Weekly Mirror [Nantucket] 19 Oct. 1850, Print.

“Lecture.” Inquirer and Mirror [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.” Liberator [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, Print.

“Reflections, Suggested by and Anti-Slavery Meeting.” Liberator [Boston] 14 Jul 1843, n. pag. Print

Starbuck, Alexander. 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 Douglass.” Inquirer and Mirror [Nantucket] 8 Aug 1991, Sec. C. Print.