Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 43



LECTURE 43

 

4 JULY 1854, TUESDAY; CA. 3:30 P.M.
Framingham, Massachusetts; Harmony (Also
“Framingham” and “Island”) Grove
“SLAVERY IN MASSACHUSETTS”

 

 NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In September 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which granted slaveholders the right to seize runaway slaves anywhere in the U.S. and carry them back to the South. The first attempt at rendition in February of 1851 failed when abolitionists rescued a runaway named Shadrach from his captors in Boston and sent him on to safety in Canada. Less than two months later, however, another runaway, Thomas Sims, was seized in Boston, but on that occasion local, state, and federal troops ensured that Sims’ owners were able to carry him back to Georgia.
 Thoreau and hundreds of thousands of others in the North were outraged by the Fugitive Slave Law and the Sims rendition, which seemed to them flagrant violations by the federal government of the rights guaranteed to states under the U.S. Constitution. As a consequence of these and similar actions by the federal government, the Nullification movement, which posited that a state had a right to nullify laws mandated by the federal government, garnered more serious attention in the North than it had before been accorded.
 Two key events immediately preceded and helped set the stage for the meeting sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on 4 July 1854. On 24 May, Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave working in a Boston clothing store, was arrested and slated to be shipped back to Virginia. Abolitionists protested at Faneuil Hall, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson led a failed attempt to rescue Burns from the Boston jail. Burns was escorted under heavy guard by the militia to a revenue cutter, which returned him to slavery. The second key event was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which became law on 30 May One provision of the Act was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, an action that removed the explicit prohibition of slavery in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase.
 Thoreau was incensed over the Anthony Burns affair. On 29 May, he began a long, scathing journal entry with these two sentences, the second of which would echo again in “Slavery in Massachusetts“: “These days it is left to one Mr. Loring to say whether a citizen of Massachusetts is a slave or not. Does anyone think that Justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision?” (J, 6:313). The arrangements by which Thoreau joined Garrison, Phillips, and the others on the podium at Framingham are not known. The absence of his name from announcements of the event suggests that he was a last-minute addition, but we do not know whether he was asked to speak or sought the opportunity. In view of his aroused emotions at the moment and of his apparent difficulty getting Concordians to talk about the North rather than the South, it is certainly possible that the announced rally struck him as an ideal forum to get things off his chest. Minimal time to prepare was not really a problem because on the issue of slavery and Massachusetts his long-stewing thought and rhetoric had already reached the boiling point. Indeed, in writing “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he essentially mined his still fresh journal entries on Burns and earlier passages on the Thomas Sims case.
 The Fourth of July in 1854 was a scorcher. On 6 July the Springfield Daily Republican began a wrap-up story of Fourth of July events around Massachusetts (including the Harmony Grove “pic-nic”) with the following testimonial to the miserable heat: “July 4, 1775, tried men’s souls. Seventy-nine years later, July 4, 1854, men’s bodies were tried. The heat on ‘the day we celebrate’ was intense; and many evil and sad effects flowed from it….” Among the sad effects cited was the demise of a Worcester merchant who “was fatally affected, while mowing at a friend’s near the city, and was very soon a corpse.” Stories in the Boston Daily Bee and Boston Daily Atlas on 6 July added to the litany of woe, including sunstroke casualties and dead horses in Boston, where it was 101 degrees in the shade, and on the same day the Salem Register reported that seventy-five hogs had died in railroad cars. On such a hot day, even the usually beckoning recreational and meeting facilities at Harmony Grove must have looked daunting to the four-hundred to two-thousand (estimates vary) ralliers who arrived by foot, horseback, carriages, and special trains from Boston, Milford, and Worcester.
 Harmony Grove was located on the shores of Farm Pond in the southern section of Framingham. It had boating facilities and areas for strolling, for playing games, and for holding large outdoor meetings—a combination making it a popular spot for gatherings of temperance, abolition, and other social reform societies active at the time. From 1846 to 1865 the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society celebrated the Fourth of July with a picnic and rally at this spot, also referred to as Island Grove and Framingham Grove. In 1909 a local shoe manufacturer named Moses N. Arnold affixed to a boulder on the site of the speaker’s stand a bronze tablet commemorating Garrison and the abolitionists.1
 The meeting in Harmony Grove’s shady amphitheater that hot Fourth of July in 1854 was called to order at 10:45 a.m. by Charles Jackson Francis.2 The first order of business was the election of officers: elected president of the day was Garrison; elected vice presidents were Francis Jackson of Boston, William Whiting of Concord, Effingham L. Capron of Worcester, Dora M. Taft of Framingham, Charles L. Remond of Salem, John Pierpont of Medford, Charles F. Hovey of Gloucester, Jonathan Buffum of Lynn, Asa Cutler of Connecticut, and Andrew T. Foss of New Hampshire; elected secretaries were Samuel May, Jr., of Leicester, William H. Fish of Milford, and R. F. Wallcut of Boston; elected to the Finance Committee were Abby Kelley Foster, Ebenezer D. Draper, Lewis Ford, Mrs. Olds of Ohio, Lucy Stone, and Nathaniel B. Spooner. Garrison then “read appropriate passages of Scripture, and an anti-slavery hymn was sung by the whole assembly,” after which Dr. Henry O. Stone welcomed those assembled to Framingham, to “that beautiful grove, and to the duties and high privileges of the cause” they espoused.
 After a few other introductory remarks by Stone alluding to the mottoes and insignia on the platform, and “inviting all discontented with the present position of affairs to stand on the anti-slavery platform,” Garrison delivered a lengthy address to the assembly, extolling the revolutionary spirit of the Declaration of Independence and surveying the dismal “story of American influence upon the liberties of the world”: “We have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands; so that, instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom, we have mightily served the cause of tyranny throughout the world.” Garrison then spoke about the prospects for the success of the revolutionary spirit within the nation, prospects he regarded as dismal because of the insatiable greed, boundless rapacity, and profligate disregard of justice prevalent at the time. He concluded his speech by asserting, “Such is our condition, such are our prospects, as a people, on the 4th of July, 1854!” Setting aside his manuscript, he told the assembly that “he should now proceed to perform an action which would be the testimony of his own soul to all present, of the estimation in which he held the pro-slavery laws and deeds of the nation”:

Producing a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, he set fire to it, and it burst to ashes. Using an old and well-known phrase, he said, “And let all the people say, Amen”; and a unanimous cheer and shout of “Amen” burst from the vast audience. In like manner, Mr. Garrison burned the decision of Edward G. Loring in the case of Anthony Burns, and the late charge of Judge Benjamin R. Curtis to the United States Grand Jury in reference to the “treasonable” assault upon the Court House for the rescue of the fugitive—the multitude ratifying the fiery immolation with shouts of applause. Then holding up the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as the source and parent of all the other atrocities,—“a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,”—and consumed it to ashes on the spot, exclaiming, “So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen!” A tremendous shout of “Amen!” went up to heaven in ratification of the deed, mingled with a few hisses and wrathful exclamations from some who were evidently in a rowdyish state of mind, but who were at once cowed by the popular feeling.

This account of Garrison’s actions, from the Liberator of 7 July 1854, was likely provided by Garrison himself, who edited the newspaper and thus was able to put his own spin on the proceedings. At least three other sources suggest that the burning of the Constitution was not so well received. According to the Boston Evening Traveller of 5 July 1854, just as Garrison “was proceeding to burn the Constitution … Mr. Mellen asked that the paper might be laid on the table till the question as to whether it countenanced slavery was settled. He was refused leave to proceed, and the [C]onstitution was burned in silence, followed by applause, although there were many hisses, and repeated cries of shame.” Likewise, the Boston Commonwealth of 5 July 1854 reported that Garrison’s “burning of the Constitution was witnessed with disgust and indignation by a large number of those who were assembled, some of whom vented their feelings by hisses and outcries.” A third report is from Thoreau’s Virginian friend and Harvard Divinity School student Moncure Daniel Conway, who addressed the assembly later in the day and who afterward wrote of Garrison’s action, “There were mingled ‘Amens’ and hisses, and some voices of protest….”3
 In any case, after Garrison’s dramatic act, the African-American anti-slavery orator Charles Remond stood up “as the humble representative of the American colored people, to give his hearty approbation” of Garrison’s action and to declare those who had expressed their indignation “as negro-haters, and their sentiments not worth a farthing.” John C. Cluer then rose and “said he had been somewhat amused, and a little pained, to hear the remarks of some of the very great lovers of liberty” in the audience; then Cluer, who had been arrested and thrown in jail for attempting to free Anthony Burns, recounted and reflected on some of his rescue—and jail—related experiences. It may have been at this time that, as Moncure Conway later related:

a young Southerner rose in the audience and began to talk fiercely. There were cries of “Platform,” and Garrison, who presided, invited the youth to come up and speak freely. The young man complied, and in the course of his defense of slavery and affirming his sincerity, twice exclaimed, “As God is my witness!” “Young man,” cried Sojourner Truth,4 “I don’t believe God Almighty even hearn tell of you!” Her shrill voice sounded through the grove like a bugle; shouts of laughter responded, and the poor Southerner could not recover from that only interruption.5

At one o’clock, either after this event or after Cluer’s address, Garrison came forward, led the audience in another hymn, and called for a one-hour recess. During the recess the assembled auditors dispersed around the Grove, laid blankets on the grass, and ate their picnic luncheons. Some of them went sailing on the lake, but very likely most of them discussed the events that had occurred during the morning session—and particularly Garrison’s burning of the Constitution, which many newspaper editors across the country would soon hear about and excoriate in their columns, many of them in the most scathing terms.
 The meeting resumed at two o’clock with the singing of a hymn, followed by the introduction of Moncure Conway. As recounted in the 14 July 1854 Liberator, Conway stated that in Virginia, “every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave.” This statement by Conway was, of course, the Virginia counterpart to what Thoreau would later say about “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Nor indeed were they the only ones that day who argued that citizens of a government condoning slavery are themselves enslaved by their very citizenship. Clearly, this was a concept very much in the air at the time. The account of Conway’s speech in the Liberator continued: “Slaveholders, he found were not confined to Virginia; he had found them wherever he had gone two feet in Massachusetts; and he believed he could go back to Virginia, and find as many freemen there as he had found in Massachusetts. As soon as each man had resolved to abolish slavery in his heart, the work would be done…. They had no right, until all men had their rights; he sincerely believed that no man could be a slave in America to-day, if they were not slaves.”
 After Conway, the platform was taken by Sojourner Truth. Part of her brief speech reported in the Liberator said, “The white people owed the colored race a big debt, and if they paid it all back, they wouldn’t have any thing left for seed. (Laughter.) All they could do was to repent, and have the debt forgiven them.”
 As reported in the Liberator, the next speaker, Wendell Phillips, argued against the notion of Massachusetts and the non-South being somehow anti-slavery. “We shall never get any better, until we see ourselves in an honest glass; until we get out of this habit of praising ourselves. The people of Massachusetts are not Abolitionists—but a very small portion of them. The State is a pro-slavery State, as a whole. The Fourth of July is a pro-slavery day—a day meant to commemorate the independence of thirteen States, in every one of which there were slaves when the Declaration was issued; and not one of which took the slightest measure, for years afterwards, to free a slave.”
 Next to speak was Stephen S. Foster. According to the 7 July Liberator, “There are, he said, two parties in this country, and but two. One is on Slavery’s side, the other on the side of Liberty; and the time is come, when men should either put a thorough anti-slavery interpretation upon the Constitution, and practically carry out that interpretation, or take a stand with us outside of the Constitution.” Foster “called on the friends of liberty every where to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, each one with such weapons as he thought right and proper; and to nullify that law, not only over United States laws, but over the laws of Massachusetts also.”
 At this point Garrison introduced Thoreau to the crowd. Stepping to the podium, Thoreau looked out at his audience and intoned, “You have my sympathy; it is all I have to give you, but you may find it important to you.” He then went on to deliver what the Liberator of 7 July called portions of his “racy and ably written address.”
 Thoreau was followed by Lucy Stone, who “held her great audience in almost breathless silence” with an indictment of the “low state of morals prevalent among the people.” Next, with yet another message closely akin to Thoreau’s, John Pierpont contended that “it is not in the power of man, nor, indeed, in the power of any number of men, to enact any law, or to enter into any agreement, that does, in its nature, antagonise with the laws of Almighty God.” Pierpont assured his auditors that “if a legislature enact a law which is contrary to the law of God,—as, for example, enact a law demanding of a subject to murder a fellow-subject,—we are bound to disobey this law.” The Fugitive Slave Law, he said, was such an ungodly law.
 Next, at about five o’clock, came closing remarks by Garrison, who declared, as reported in the 14 July Liberator, that “The only remedy in our case is A DISSOLUTION OF THE UNION.” A toast was then offered to the health of abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, who was ailing in England, and, after a final hymn, the meeting adjourned. Said the 7 July Liberator account, “It was a day well-spent.”
 A day well spent, indeed. The Framingham rally culminated, in a sense, the Anthony Burns affair, which turned into a catalytic propaganda event that ultimately made Massachusetts abolitionists out of many former apathists and apologists of slavery. Commissioner Edward G. Loring, who had ordered Burns’ rendition to Virginia and whom Thoreau severely castigated in his speech, was subsequently removed from office and scorned by both students and fellow faculty at Harvard College. In addition, a Personal Liberty Law passed by the state legislature made the Fugitive Slave Law effectively unenforceable in Massachusetts. As for Anthony Bums himself, fortunately, if ironically, his political freedom was secured by the very institution that had taken it away: Northern philanthropists succeeded in purchasing Burns from his Virginia master, whereupon he was set free and sent to study for the ministry at Oberlin College (Days, p. 317).
 ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The following advertisement appeared in the 28 June 1854 Worcester Palladium, and ones almost identical to it appeared in the Boston Commonwealth on 30 June and the Boston Daily Evening Traveller on 1 July:

Meeting for True Freedom
ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.

THE Managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society invite, without distinction of party or sect, and without reference to varieties of opinion, ALL who mean to be known as on LIBERTY’S side, in the great struggle which is now upon us, to meet in full and earnest convention, at
THE GROVE IN FRAMINGHAM,
 On the approaching FOURTH OF JULY, there to pass the day in no idle and deceptive glorying in our country’s liberties, but in deep humiliation for her Disgrace and Shame, and in resolute purpose—God being our leader—to rescue old Massachusetts at least from being bound forever to the car of Slavery.  SPECIAL TRAINS will run on that day, to the Grove, from Boston, Worcester, and Milford—leaving each place at 9.25 A.M. Returning—leave the Grove about 5 1-2 P.M. FARE, by all these trains, to the Grove and back, FIFTY CENTS.
 The beauty of the Grove, and the completeness and excellence of its accommodations, are well known. Eminent speakers, from different quarters of the State, will be present.
 By order of the Committee of Arrangements

 Accounts of the Harmony Grove meeting were published in many newspapers, the fullest and most flattering in Garrison’s own anti-slavery Liberator. Horace Greeley’s New-York Daily Tribune offered this straight summary on 6 July: “Abolition Meeting in Massachusetts.—A gathering of five or six hundred abolitionists took place in Framingham, yesterday. Speeches were made by Messrs. Garrison, Phillips, Remond and others. Mr. Garrison concluded his speech by burning the Constitution of the United States; also copies of the Fugitive Slave Law, the decision of Judge Loring, and Judge Curtis’s charge to the United States Grand Jury. The act was followed by applause and cries of shame, &c.”
 On 5 July the Boston Commonwealth reported that “about two thousand persons were present” at the Framingham meeting, a much higher estimate than that given by most other sources. The Commonwealth story took exception to Garrison’s burning of the Constitution: “We take the occasion, speaking as we have no doubt we do, in behalf of a very large majority of the ‘friends of impartial freedom and universal emancipation,’ in this community, to repudiate this act of Mr. Garrison’s, and say that they have no sympathy with it or approval of it.” Some other papers were plainly contemptuous. The Boston Atlas declared Garrison’s burning of documents “a very silly piece of business” and said, “The speeches were in the usual style of such gatherings, ultra in the extreme.” Warming to the task, the Boston Daily Courier said in a 7 July article: “The ultra Abolitionists had a fine time at their gathering at Framingham on the 4th, the heat of the weather coinciding with the warmth of their passions, and the altitude of the mercury of the thermometer with the height of their folly…. The talk was as crazy as the doings were, and is not worth republication. The Garrisonites were declared to be the only opponents of slavery….”
 Notably, only in the Liberator was mention made of Thoreau’s speech, and that briefly. In its 7 July issue, the paper reported, “Henry Thoreau, of Concord, read portions of a racy and ably written address, the whole of which will be published in the LIBERATOR.” Indeed, the full text of “Slavery in Massachusetts” was published in the Liberator on 21 July, and Horace Greeley used that publication as the basis for his republication in the New-York Daily Tribune on 2 August (RP, p. 331). The following Greeley editorial, entitled “A Higher-Law Speech,” accompanied the Tribune publication:

 The lower-law journals so often make ado about the speeches in Congress of those whom they designate champions of the Higher Law, that we shall enlighten and edify them, undoubtedly, by the report we publish this morning of a genuine Higher Law Speech—that of Henry D. Thoreau at the late celebration of our National Anniversary in Framingham, Mass., when Wm. Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Federal Constitution. No one can read this speech without realizing that the claims of Messrs. Sumner, Seward and Chase to be recognized as Higher-Law champions are of a very questionable validity. Mr. Thoreau is the Simon-Pure article, and his remarks have a racy piquancy and telling point which none but a man thoroughly in earnest and regardless of self in his fidelity to a deep conviction ever fully attains. The humor here so signally evinced is born of pathos—it is the lightning which reveals to hearers and readers the speaker’s profound abhorrence of the sacrifice or subordination of one human being to the pleasure or convenience of another. A great many will read this speech with unction who will pretend to blame us for printing it; but our back is broad and can bear censure. Let each and all be fairly heard.

On 12 August, a slightly abbreviated version of Thoreau’s speech, also derived from the Liberator, appeared under the title “Words That Burn” in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Wendell Glick, editor of RP, has pointed out that the editor of the Standard termed “as ‘little better than profanity’ the ‘imputations’ that Thoreau was a ‘mere satellite and imitator’ of Emerson, and [apologized] for having initially overlooked the speech. In the issue of September 8, 1854 … as if to make further amends, the Standard printed a favorable review of Walden, attributed to the Christian Register, and alluded again to Thoreau’s Framingham address” (RP, p. 332).
 Also impressed by “Slavery in Massachusetts” was Higginson, who had led the effort to rescue Anthony Burns from his Boston prison cell. In a 13 August letter from his home in Newburyport, Higginson wrote to Thoreau: “Let me thank you heartily for your paper on the present condition of Massachusetts, read at Framingham and printed in the Liberator. As a literary statement of the truth, which every day is making more manifest, it surpasses everything else (so I think), which the terrible week in Boston has called out”
(C, p. 336). A response penned much later but by one who had actually been at Framingham is found in Conway’s 1904 autobiography. Conway remembered:

 Thoreau had come all the way from Concord, and though he sometimes lectured in the Lyceum there, he had probably never spoken on a platform. He was now clamoured for and made a brief and quaint speech…. It was impossible to associate egotism with Thoreau; we all felt that the time and trouble he had taken at that crisis to proclaim his sympathy with the “Disunionists” was indeed important. He was there a representative of Concord, of science and letters, which could not quietly pursue their tasks while slavery was trampling down the rights of mankind. Alluding to the Boston commissioner who had surrendered Anthony Burns, Edward G. Loring, Thoreau said, “The fugitive’s case was already decided by God,—not Edward G. God, but simple God.” This was said with such serene unconsciousness of anything shocking in it that we were but mildly startled.6

Conway’s words represent well Thoreau’s own view of his limited engagement in the anti-slavery crusade. Never a member of an anti-slavery society, he too saw himself as a representative of science and letters compelled to interrupt his principal tasks by the moral urgency of the situation. However, as suggested by this passage from Proceedings of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society at the Annual Meetings Held in 1854, 1855, &1856, the anti-slavery organization itself construed Thoreau’s presence on the podium as his public consecration to the cause: “In addition to the speakers whose names have become more familiar to Anti-Slavery ears and hearts, we had the pleasure, on the Fourth of July, to welcome HENRY D. THOREAU to the public advocacy of our cause….”7
 Finally, an unidentified review of A Yankee in Canada by someone signing himself or herself “O. M.” states, with reference to “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “The space allotted me forbids a retrospect of that scene at Framingham, twelve years ago, of one free man wielding the scourge of unminced truth over a million New England slaves—‘free white male citizens’ of the Puritan State, but slaves still—willing or unknowing slaves of a statutory cabal of banditti known as The United States of America!”8
 DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The Liberator of 7 July 1854 indicates that Thoreau read only portions of his lecture manuscript in Framingham and states that “the whole of [Thoreau’s address] will be published in the LIBERATOR,” which it was, on 21 July 1854. Aside from the single sentence that Moncure Conway recalled and quoted (actually paraphrased) in his autobiography, we have located no evidence to indicate which portions of “Slavery in Massachusetts” Thoreau read at Harmony Grove, but for two reasons we speculate that Thoreau read from the same manuscript Garrison, editor of the Liberator, used as printer’s copy for the essay. First, in advertisements for the celebration, Thoreau was not mentioned as one of the principal speakers, which suggests that his appearance was not arranged very much ahead of time and which in turn suggests that he had relatively little time to prepare his manuscript. Also, as Wendell Glick, editor of RP, has pointed out, “The speed with which Thoreau prepared this lecture, and the lack of variation between the [journal sources of material in the printed essay] and [the essay itself in] the Liberator, make remote the possibility of [Thoreau’s] having prepared an intermediate version between the journal and printer’s copy” (RP, p. 229).



 1. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, ed. Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971-81), 4:341n5.
 2. Unless otherwise specified, the narrative elements that follow are taken from the lengthy descriptions of the Fourth of July celebration in the Liberator of 7 and 14 July 1854.
 3. Moncure D. Conway, Autobiography, Memories, and Experiences, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), 1:185.
 4. Conway described Sojourner Truth as a “lank, shrivelled, but picturesque” and “very aged negro woman” (1:184). Born into slavery in 1797 New York, she was set free after 1827 with the end of slavery there. As a free woman, she used the courts to reclaim her son Peter, who had been illegally sold into the South. After living in New York City for several years, the six-foot-tall woman left in 1843 “to travel up and down the land,” at the same time changing her name from Isabella Van Wagener, the surname of the last of her owners, to Sojourner Truth. After spending some time at a communitarian settlement in
Northampton, Massachusetts, where she became personally acquainted with several abolitionists, she traveled throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest, speaking against slavery. During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed her “Counselor” to the freed slaves in Washington, D.C.
 5. Conway, Autobiography, Memories, and Experiences, 1:184.
 6. Conway, Autobiography, Memories, and Experiences, 1:184-805.
 7. Quoted from the facsimile reprint of a selection from the volume in “Notes & Queries,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 117 (Fall 1971): 7.
 8. Unidentified review of Yankee in Canada pasted into Sophia Thoreau’s scrapbook, Collection of Mrs. Raymond Adams.