White, Green, and Black

Just as debauchery, drunkenness, and Sabbath desecration were impediments to fashioning a heavenly city, so too was Catholicism, in evangelical eyes. Popery was idolatrous, theocratic, and despotic, and any further spread of its pernicious doctrines would hinder the Second Coming of Christ. Given the growing presence and power of Catholics in New York City, such a stance resonated widely within Protestant communities. Not only did the evangelicals’ nativist denunciations of immigrant Irish win them plaudits from citizens who in other respects were put off by the pious crusaders, but they touched off violent sectarian confrontations in the streets.

At the same time the evangelicals were stirring up anti-Catholic bigots, they were denouncing slavery as an evil, one America had to purge if it were ever to attain a state of grace. Abolitionism, like nativism, would rouse rage in the city. Those who believed that tampering with the South’s peculiar institution menaced Manhattan took to the streets, hell bent on suppressing antislavery.


When Thomas Addis Emmet died in 1828, he was perhaps the foremost lawyer in New York, ranked by many with Massachusetts’s Daniel Webster, and his funeral, by some accounts, was the largest ever seen in the city. Emmet’s death, though deeply mourned within the Irish community, coincided with the waning of support for his ideas and values. Together with the other distinguished middle-class emigres who had arrived in the aftermath of the failed 1798 United Irishmen uprising, Emmet had staunchly opposed religious sectarianism. He, his fellow Protestant attorney William Sampson, and Catholic physician William James MacNeven had organized the Association of the Friends of Ireland in New-York. The group had raised funds and rallied support for Daniel O’Connell’s civil rights movement in Ireland and helped win emancipation for British Catholics in 1829. The Friends of Ireland, however, like the allied Society for Civil and Religious Liberties, was vigorously ecumenical. So was the Shamrock, or Hibernian Chronicle, New York’s first Irish-American paper (1810-17), which reflected the exiles’ values. The Shamrock Friendly Association of New York (1816), too, sought to create a united Protestant and Catholic Irish-American community imbued with American and republican values. By forging alliances with highly placed Manhattan sympathizers of varying religious persuasions, the United Irishmen served as links between New York’s growing numbers of laboring Catholics and the city’s Protestant elite.

Over the 1820s, however, the nonsectarian integrationist vision of the ‘98ers came to seem less compelling to the Irish working class packing into the Five Points. Feeling engulfed and unwanted, they were drawn instead to a defensive ethnic separatism. They preferred the pages of the newly founded and distinctly pro-Catholic weekly, the Truth Teller (1825), which routinely excoriated Protestants who viewed the urban newcomers “with the most determined hostility, hatred and contempt.” They liked the paper’s bold attacks on the American Bible Society, which distributed only Protestant versions of the Scriptures, even though Catholics indignantly refused them. Immigrants purchased their Bibles instead, patronizing newly established Catholic publishing firms like John Doyle’s on Broadway, which put out the popular edition of 1833 known as the Doyle Octavo.

Foreswearing the Shamrock Friendly Association, they turned to groups like the Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society (HUBS), organized by small businessmen and artisans of radical republican bent. Each July fourth, Hibernian painters, coopers, tailors, and cordwainers paraded proudly, displaying their ethnic insignias. Until 1830 the HUBS celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a procession that wended its through the city’s Irish neighborhood from Harmony Hall to old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After that its destination was Father Varela’s church on Ann Street (though a Cuban, Varela was hailed as a fellow nationalist and appointed as chaplain of the HUBS). After the parade and church services, celebrants moved on to the plebeian McDermott’s Sixth Ward Hotel for open house festivities (covered in the Truth Teller) that were in sharp contrast to the more exclusive dinners of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick at Bank’s Coffee House or Niblo’s Garden.

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the marchers’ ranks were rapidly reinforced. In 1827, when Britain repealed all restrictions on emigration, over twenty thousand Irish had flocked to the new world. By 1835 over thirty thousand Irish were arriving in New York each year, the majority of them poor, unskilled, male, young, and—for the first time in New York City’s long history of Gaelic immigration—Catholic. Fed by this influx, the Church expanded at an unprecedented pace. “The Catholics have a considerable establishment in New-York,” Tocqueville noted. It included such new additions as St. Mary (1826) on Grand Street, for the shipyard workers, and St. Joseph (1829) on Sixth Avenue, which served Greenwich Village contractors and builders. By 1833 Felix Varela’s mission church to the Irish had evolved into two parishes, St. James and Transfiguration—the latter centered from 1836 in a former Presbyterian church on Chambers Street. (St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was completed the same year.) The diocese also established a “national” parish, a multiethnic response to a multinational city. In 1833 Bishop John Dubois approved construction of the tiny but quasi-autonomous St. Nicholas Church on East 2nd Street for the three thousand resi­dent Catholic Germans who had up till then had worshiped, unhappily, with the Irish and French.

Newly fortified, the Catholic community displayed a new feistiness in its relations with the Protestant majority. In 1834, for instance, Bishop Dubois suggested to the Public School Society that at least in PSS No. 5 (on Mott Street near St. Pat’s) it remove defamatory language from schoolbooks and allow after-hours use of the building for religious instruction, in order to “ensure the confidence of Catholic parents.” Dubois promised the trustees he had no sectarian motives, no desire to proselytize, but the PSS insisted that its pan-Protestantism was truly “nonsectarian” and refused any accommodation. Balked, the hierarchy continued its piecemeal construction of an alternative parochial school system.


As New York’s Catholic Church changed during the 1820s—became more working class, more militant, more Irish, less middle class, less French and Spanish, less respectable—anxieties and resentments rose in various Protestant quarters. These concerns were heightened at decade’s end by a particular confluence of events. Catholic emancipation in England (1829) generated a flood of antipopery books and tracts decrying the new license; many of these were exported to New York, where they agitated local activists. The advent of Finney’s revivals exacerbated tensions by generating millennial enthusiasm and heightening denominational aggressiveness. The sudden spurt of Irish Catholic immigration seemed menacing too, in the light of Vatican support for various reactionary European governments. Some believed it signaled an attempt by monarchists and despots to establish a beachhead in New York City, as a step toward infiltrating and overthrowing the republic.

In January 1830, accordingly, a small group of clerical and lay militants established the Protestant, an avowedly anti-Catholic weekly. In its initial number of January 2, 1830, the Rev. George Bourne declared that the paper’s goal would be to expose the papacy’s “present enterprising efforts to recover and extend its unholy dominion, especially on the western continent.” This initiative was followed, in January 1831, by formation of the New York Protestant Association under the leadership of the Rev W. C. Brownlee, a Dutch Reformed pastor. The group began disseminating anti-Catholic literature and, in 1832, sponsoring public meetings to discuss the history and character of popery. Attendance at these biweekly gatherings soon swelled from three hundred to fifteen hundred (not counting the spinoffs in Brooklyn), in part because Catholics began showing up as well, to cheer on their spokesmen. Brownlee, somewhat incautiously, had dared Catholic priests to come debate the issues, only to find that Felix Várela and other apologists proved formidable opponents.

These battles spilled over into the sectarian press, with the Truth Teller leading the Catholic camp, and the Protestant side upheld in Brownlee’s new biweekly, the American Protestant Vindicator and Defender of Civil and Religious Liberty Against the Inroads of Popery (1834). The Vindicator’s prospectus (endorsed by twelve clergymen) announced that as “Popery ought always to be loathed and execrated,” Brownlee would lay bare its “detestable impieties, corruptions and mischiefs.” Agents fanned out across the country, offering lectures, selling Vindicatorsubscriptions, and inspiring local imitations of the New York Protestant Association.

Also in 1834, Samuel F. B. Morse, just back from Europe, published a series of let­ters in the New York Observer, an evangelical paper, concerning a “Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States.” The artist announced that in Vienna he had discovered the existence of a plot by European monarchs leagued in the Holy Alliance to flood the United States with Catholics. In another Morse series, issued as a pamphlet in 1835, the newly appointed NYU professor warned of “foreign turbulence imported by ship-loads” at the behest of “priest-controlled machines” and rhetorically demanded: “Can one throw mud into pure water and not disturb its clearness?” The answer was clear: Morse called on all New York patriots to stand tall against the growing power of the Catholic hierarchy and the onrushing influx of Irish.


By March 1835 the Irish were in a fury. When the New York Protestant Association sponsored a meeting at Broadway Hall to discuss the question “Is Popery Compatible with Civil Liberty?” a crowd of Catholics forced their way in, broke up furniture, and destroyed the fixtures while the speakers escaped through the back passageway.

Catholic clergymen disavowed the Broadway Hall riot, but nativists seized on it as justification of their concerns. In June, with James Watson Webb, pugnacious editor of the Courier and Enquirer, serving as a prime mover, the Native American Democratic Association was organized—the first explicitly nativist political party in the United States. It established ward committees, set up its own newspaper (the Spirit of ‘76), and warned Anglo-American voters, chiefly small masters and journeymen, of the “swarms of foreign artisans who are more destructive to native American industry than the locusts and lice were to the Egyptian fields.”

Violence erupted again in 1835 when a Bowery saloon keeper announced plans to form an Irish militia company, to be called the O’Connell Guards in honor of the Irish patriot. The nativist press shrieked about a “foreign armed force stationed among us,” and on June 21, 1835, the American Guards, a Bowery gang proclaiming native ancestry, clashed with Irishmen in Chatham Square. The battle, fought with clubs and brickbats, took the life of a passerby—a physician, struck by a brick, fell to the sidewalk and was trampled by struggling combatants. Rioting spread throughout the Five Points and elsewhere in the city, until subdued by Mayor Lawrence and two hundred policemen.

That fall, the Native American Democratic Association ran its first ticket, on a platform demanding that only native-born Americans be permitted to hold office, but the new party, snarled in internal divisions, had little impact. Philip Hone wrote gloomily in his diary that December that “low Irishmen”—“the most ignorant, and consequently the most obstinate white men in the world”—were now able to “decide the elections in the city of New York.” In time, he feared, “the same brogue which they have instructed to shout ‘Hurrah for Jackson!’ shall be used to impart additional horror to the cry of ‘Down with the natives!’”

Nativists emerged in Brooklyn too; its populace, friendly to the Irish in the 1820s, had grown alarmed by the 1830s, their fears played on by politicians and editors (like Alden Spooner, who raised a hue and cry against “foreigners”). Here, too, Native American candidates did poorly and moderates remained in command: the Rev. Evan Johnson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal, used his 1835 Thanksgiving Day sermon to preach against nativism.

Seeking a more combustible issue, nativists spiced their theology with sex. In January 1836 Harper Brothers published Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, by one Maria Monk. (The Harpers, though nativists themselves, were concerned enough about their firm’s reputation to set up a dummy company to bring Awful out.) In the book, which Benjamin Day excerpted in the Sun, Monk told of her Protestant upbringing, her embrace of Catholicism, and her arrival at the Canadian convent, where she discovered that nuns were forced to have intercourse with lustful priests (those who refused were executed). Children born of these criminal unions were baptized, then strangled and thrown into a large hole in the basement. Monk, impregnated by one Father Phelan, escaped to New York City, tried to commit suicide, was taken to a charity hospital, and confessed all to a kindly Protestant clergyman.

The anti-Catholic press gave Awful Disclosures complete credence. Indeed the Rev. George Bourne of the Protestant Association capitalized on the furor to launch a new organization, the Protestant Reformation Society, and more ministers joined the antipopery crusade. Catholic clerics, led by Father Várela, charged that the “revelations” were a manufactured smear, and so they proved to be. Maria’s mother came forward to say her daughter’s tale was the product of a brain injured in infancy when the child had run a slate pencil into her head. Growing up wild, Maria had been confined in a Catholic Magdalen asylum. She had escaped, with the aid of a former lover, and come to New York, where leading nativist ministers—including the Rev. Bourne—had written up her “disclosures.”

Many nativists doggedly refused to doubt Monk’s story until Colonel William Leete Stone, the mildly antipapist editor of the Commercial Advertiser, examined the convent in the fall of 1836 and pronounced the priests and nuns completely innocent. Monk’s star now faded quickly, but not before it had helped spark another outburst in the streets.

In 1836, with excitement still running high, a nativist crowd resolved to attack St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Forewarned, the faithful rallied. The church’s cemetery had just been enclosed by a high brick wall, in which loopholes were now cut for muskets. More armed men lined Prince Street, the expected avenue of attack. Others tore up cobblestones and hoisted baskets full of them to the upper stories along the route. As the anti Catholic army roiled up the Bowery, its advance scouts reported back on the fearsomeness of the Gaels’ military preparations and the fortress-like impregnability of their walled cathedral. Disheartened, the nativists retreated, and their movement, for the moment, subsided.


On July 4, 1827—Emancipation Day—all the city’s black churches held services of prayer and thanksgiving. The largest celebration was in African Zion Church (at Church and Leonard). In his oration, church trustee William Hamilton placed the day in historical context, recalling the bloody events of 1741, the complex relation of blacks to the Revolution of ‘76, and the years of postwar degradation. Then he joyously proclaimed that “this day we stand redeemed from a bitter thralldom.” “No more,” he rolled on, “shall the accursed name of slave be attached to us—no more shall negro and slave be synonimous [sic].”

Then the celebrants quietly dispersed, refraining from a more public jubilation lest they be assaulted by whites hard at their Independence Day revels. Instead they gathered the next day, four thousand strong, near St. John’s Park. Then they paraded through the principal streets to Zion Church and on to City Hall, where the grand marshal, with drawn sword, saluted the mayor as the crowd roared cheers.

The city’s blacks called for making July fifth their annual day of commemoration and reserving the fourth for bitter reflection on the continuing disparity between America’s rhetoric and its reality. For as the Rev. Peter Williams Jr. said: “Alas! the freedom to which we have attained is defective.” It remained the case, he sadly observed, that in New York City “the rights of men are decided by the colour of their skin.” Even the briefest of strolls around segregated Manhattan would have quickly confirmed the accuracy of Williams’s assessment.

All the new forms of transport drew the color line. Blacks were banned from cabins on Hudson River steamers and restricted to the exposed deck, on spring day and stormy night alike. The Rev. Williams himself had been refused passage on an American packet bound for Europe and been forced to sail on an English vessel. Blacks were not allowed on street stages, and when a black man hailed one of the new omnibuses going up Broadway, the driver warded him off with a whip, convulsing white bystanders with laughter.

Many commercial facilities were also off limits to African-American New Yorkers. Vauxhall Gardens flatly denied them admission; the Park Theater sequestered them in a roped-off section. An English visitor in 1819, questioning a black barber as to why he had rejected a prospective black customer, was told that if he hadn’t the shop would have lost all its white patrons. A black minister was refused a cup of tea by a “foreigner in a cellar cookroom” as the “customers would not put up with it”—customers who included agents of the American Bible Society.

Blacks were barred from the Free School Society’s institutions, as well as the charity schools of most denominations. A light-skinned African-American Presbyterian minister found his children rejected from Presbyterian schools “on account of their complexion, they being mixed blood, a few shades below the pure white.” The Quakerrun African Free School was exclusively for blacks and provided a good education, but as one graduate noted, the diploma wasn’t much help. “What are my prospects?” he asked. “To what shall I turn my head? Shall I be a mechanic? No one will employ me; white boys won’t work with me. Shall I be a merchant? No one will have me in his office; white clerks won’t associate with me. Drudgery and servitude, then, are my prospective portion.”

Even servitude couldn’t be taken for granted. Irish women were rapidly displacing black women in domestic service jobs, driving some to the streets to hawk fruits or vegetables, or themselves. Most black men found work as waiters, coachmen, servants, or unskilled laborers, though their political powerlessness barred them from most licensed trades (notably jobs as cartmen) and public offices (such as weighers and measurers). Hackney drivers and chimney sweeps were an exception, as their ranks had been opened to blacks by grateful Federalists.

Many black men still took to the sea, as sailors, stewards, or cooks, so many that in the late 1820s the African Free School added navigation to its curriculum. Though wages and working conditions were miserable as ever, foredeck gangs were substantially integrated, forecastles (the cramped bunkrooms below decks in a ship’s forward end) maintained a rough equality, freedmen could get wages equal to those of whites, a ship’s job came complete with room and board, and often one’s compatriots constituted the majority. In 1835 nearly 25 percent of the black men sailing out of New York City were members of predominantly black crews.

Although blacks formed mutual aid societies—like the African Clarkson Association (1829)—to provide sick benefits, burial allowances, and widows’ allotments, with economic options so pinched, many nevertheless wound up in public institutions. Here too they received “special” treatment. The almshouse was segregated. Until 1833 the House of Refuge refused to accept black juvenile delinquents. And blacks landed in jail more readily than whites, in part because authorities arrested them for minor infractions ignored when committed by Caucasians.

Things were no better in most churches. Trinity had actively encouraged formation of St. Philip’s as a separate (though closely watched) institution, but the General Theological Seminary continued to reject black applicants, and when the New York Diocese did vote to admit a black man to candidacy in holy orders, it stipulated that neither he nor any congregation he might head would be entitled to a seat in the diocesan convention. White churches that received blacks at all sent them aloft to “Nigger Heaven” or shunted them to a “Nigger Pew” (with seats marked B.M. for Black Members). Whites who deeded pews to their children generally covenanted that blacks never be permitted to purchase them, lest this depreciate the value of adjacent pews.

Finally, of course, there was the all but total exclusion from the polls.

Some whites, unsatisfied with this segregated status quo, wanted blacks out of the city altogether. The American Colonization Society (ACS, 1817), whose New York branch was run by the cream of Manhattan society, advocated shipping blacks to Liberia in Africa, or elsewhere out of the country. David Hale, editor of the Journal of Commerce, declared that New York City would be much better off without its black population, and Tammany spokesman Mordecai Noah agreed. After all, he asked in 1826, “what do our colored citizens do but fill our almshouses and prisons and congest our streets as beggars?”

As late as the latter 1820s, leading evangelicals like Arthur Tappan and Anson Phelps backed the American Colonization Society’s efforts, with Phelps actually serving as president of the organization’s New York branch. In Brooklyn, Adrian Van Sinderen, president of the Long Island Bible Society and the Brooklyn Temperance Society, also headed the Brooklyn branch of the ACS (founded in 1830). It was only when Arthur Tappan realized how deeply the New York African-American community detested the back-to- Africa project that he swung the evangelical battalions in a radically different direction, and that realization, in turn, came through his affiliation with the city’s black Presbyterian community.

During the 1820s prosperous evangelicals, dismayed by what they saw as the ignorance and viciousness of poor African Americans, helped found and finance a black congregation. In the process, they cultivated some outstanding African leaders, most notably Samuel Cornish. Born free in Delaware in 1795, Cornish had moved to Pennsylvania in 1815, where he was tutored for the ministry by members of the Philadelphia Presbytery. Licensed to preach, he was recruited by New York evangelicals to missionize poor blacks in the Bancker Street area. In 1821 Cornish set up a rough-hewn church, held two or three services there on Sunday, conducted a Sunday school, gave Bible lectures, held prayer meetings, and visited families in their homes. The next year he drew together the twenty-four initial members of the First Colored Presbyterian Church. In 1824, with loans from the presbytery and financial aid from Jacob Lorillard, tobacco merchant and real estate investor, the group built and settled into a brick home on Elm Street near Canal, with Cornish formally installed as pastor. (It would later relocate to Duane and Hudson, then to Frankfort and William, where it would remain for the next twenty years.)

Samuel Cornish soon tested the limits of denominational support by refusing to draw sharp lines between the black community’s theological and political concerns. He began by speaking out against the American Colonization Society and then, in 1827, took an even more decisive step. For almost ten years, the city’s white press had cooperated with the ACS by refusing to print the anticolonization resolutions passed by black gatherings in New York and across the country. Cornish now met with a small group that included the Jamaican-born John Russwurm, recently graduated from Bowdoin College (only the second black college graduate in the United States), and church leaders William Hamilton of AME Zion and Peter Williams Jr. of St. Philip’s. In March 1827 they launched Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. By the summer it had well over twelve hundred subscribers, with perhaps several thousand reading at least parts of each weekly issue.

Freedom’s Journal, as edited by Cornish and Russwurm, covered activities in the African-American community, both the extraordinary (like Emancipation Day) and the everyday (marriages; funerals; the doings of mutual relief, literary, temperance, and fraternal societies), together with advertisements from local black businessmen. Its pages presented a portrait of the community strikingly at variance with the negative picture promulgated by the ACS. Not that the paper denied the existence of a rougher element. But Cornish noted that whites constituted, proportionately, a substantially larger percentage of almshouse residents than blacks. And while he conceded that the per capita number of blacks in prison was higher than whites, he argued that “the coloured man’s offence, three times out of four, grows out of the circumstances of his condition, while the white man’s, most generally, is premeditated and vicious.” Cornish did deplore coarse conduct by unrefined and uneducated blacks—which he attributed to slavery, not emancipation—but believed they should be uplifted, not exiled. Freedom’s Journal exhorted its readers to eschew “loose and depraved habits” and cultivate sobriety, industry, honesty, and self-discipline; like Fanny Wright, the editors hailed education as the way to overcome economic deprivation. They also ran inspirational biographies, published articles on the black revolution in Haiti, of which they were intensely proud, and proclaimed that “every thing that relates to Africa, shall find a ready admission into our columns.”

Freedom’s Journal did not hesitate to lash whites and denounce racism. The paper called for the abolition of property requirements for black voters, denounced the colonization project, and condemned fellow Presbyterians for excluding blacks from church-connected academies. Most critically, Freedom’s Journal demanded the immediate abolition of slavery. While Cornish and Russwurm did not advocate a slave rebellion in the South—though their Boston agent, David Walker, would do so in 1829—their call for the immediate confiscation of property in slaves was an extremely advanced position, one that not even William Lloyd Garrison would adopt until 1830.

Influential white Presbyterian clergymen were upset by Cornish’s denunciations of the American Colonization Society and by what they deemed his insufficient appreciation for their altruism. This created an awkward situation at a time when Cornish was visiting white churches to solicit funds for First Colored Presbyterian. In September 1827, therefore, having completed his agreed-upon six months, Cornish resigned as editor and accepted instead a position as agent of the African Free Schools. (Working with black women who formed the African Dorcas Association in 1828, he managed to double pupil enrollment in a few years by opening four new schools nearer the black community and by mending and providing clothes for children to go to class in.)


John Russwurm, left, and the Rev. Samuel Cornish with the masthead of Freedom’s Journal— the first African-American newspaper in the United States, famous for its pioneering, no-holds-barred attacks on both slavery and racism. (Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

In 1828 Cornish also withdrew as pastor of First Colored Presbyterian and was succeeded by Theodore Wright. Born in 1797 in New Jersey—his father was from Madagascar—Wright had attended the African Free School and in 1825 been admitted to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he served as one of Freedom’s Journal’s fifteen agents, getting many students and faculty to subscribe. On graduating in 1828—the first Afro-American alumnus of a theological seminary—Wright was engaged by the Presbytery of New York. He rapidly expanded First Colored Presbyterian’s membership, was installed in 1830 as its pastor, and would go on to transform a small struggling institution into the second largest black church in the city, one heavily involved in educational, reform, and protest efforts.

Freedom’s Journal, meanwhile, had fared poorly under Russwurm’s sole control. The young man had been won over to the support of the American Colonization Society, and he began printing articles (usually by whites) in favor of colonization, though still including articles (usually by blacks) opposing it. Finally, on March 28, 1829, repu­diated by his community, Russwurm resigned; the ACS sent him to Liberia as superintendent of public schools, and the paper ceased publication. Cornish started a new one to replace it, but the Rights of All lasted only a few months, and for much of the next decade, the black community’s newfound voice fell silent.


Before doing so, however, it had won some powerful converts. Editor Samuel Cornish’s anticolonization broadsides had unsettled Arthur Tappan. So had the staunch opposition of Peter Williams Jr., rector of St. Philip’s, who in an Independence Day speech in 1830 pointedly evoked anti-immigrant sympathies by noting: “We are natives of this country, we ask only to be treated as well as foreigners.”

White evangelicals could hear the black antislavery ministers in part because they felt quite comfortable with them. They shared religious values, after all, as well as a belief in temperance and self-improvement. In 1833, for example, the Revs. Cornish and Wright founded the Phoenix Society of New York, declaring that the condition of “people of colour” could “only be meliorated by their being improved in morals, litera-ture, and the mechanic arts.” Such acceptance of the need to refine, educate, and employ New York’s African Americans appealed to Tappan, who signed on as treasurer and donated the funds to hire Cornish as general agent.

This extremely unusual degree of association—in some cases outright friendship—between middle-class blacks and whites in New York City helped galvanize an antislavery movement. Tappan reversed course on colonization, as did Garrison up in Boston, where he started the Liberator, an antislavery paper, in 1831. Soon Garrison came out with a sharp attack on the American Colonization Society, a polemic that received wide circulation with the help of financial assistance from Arthur Tappan.

Before long the silk merchant essayed bolder interventions, urged on by Charles Finney, who declared slavery one of the evils America had to shed if it were to attain the millennium. Tappan set out to form an integrated antislavery organization. He secured the collaboration of black ministers Williams, Wright, and Cornish, and he also recruited youthful white evangelicals from the Third Presbytery, seat of Yankeedom in New York. William Goodell, editor of the Genius of Temperance, signed on. Joshua Leavitt, editor of the New York Evangelist (and, like Garrison and Tappan, a sometime resident at the Grahamite Boardinghouse), also saw the abolitionist light. So did the Rev. George Bourne, editor of the anti-Catholic Protestant Vindicator, and Presbyterian minister Samuel H. Cox, a close friend of Cornish and Wright and, like Bourne, a religious bigot, though he focused his ire on Quakerism (“infidelity in drab”).

In the spring of 1833 Tappan launched the Emancipator, a newspaper devoted solely to abolition, and underwrote its distribution to clergymen across the North. Next, he and his associates set about organizing a New York Anti-Slavery Society. They decided they would formally inaugurate it whenever English abolitionists succeeded in their campaign to end slavery in the British West Indies. Such a transatlantic linkage would underscore the fact that the abolitionists’ views, rather than those of slaveholders and their apologists, were becoming the norm of the “civilized” world. When news reached New York in September 1833 that Parliament had voted for emancipation, Tappan announced an organizational meeting for 7:30 Wednesday evening, October 2, at Clinton Hall.

On October 1 a worried group of colonizationists met in the office of James Watson Webb, editor of the Courier and Enquirer. The American Colonization Society was in deep financial trouble. Its Liberian colony was faring poorly. It was smarting from rebukes (by Arthur Tappan and other temperancites) about its importation of liquor. And now abolitionist rivals were poised to take the field.

For Webb, the abolitionists presented a clear and present danger not just to the ACS but to New York City itself. Though he proudly traced his lineage to Puritan Massachusetts, Webb was an ardent Episcopalian and a member (by marriage) of New York’s wealthy mercantile class. A staunch traditionalist, he had appointed himself the journalistic defender of the city’s patriciate. Webb was particularly concerned to guard against any dilution of old American bloodlines by inferior breeds—above all, blacks—and to his way of thinking, Tappan’s newest venture threatened just such miscegenation. If slaves were emancipated but not exiled, they would have to be assimilated. Given that many freed slaves would move north, the abolitionist enterprise might mulattoize New York society.

On the morning of Tappan’s planned meeting, Webb’s Courier and Enquirer fulminated: “Are we tamely to look on, and see this most dangerous species of fanaticism extending itself through society? . . . Or shall we, by promptly and fearlessly crushing this many-headed hydra in the bud, expose the weakness as well as the folly, madness, and mischief of these bold and dangerous men?” He urged “patriots” to assemble at Clinton Hall a half hour before meeting time to take remedial action. During the day placards went up around town, addressed (ostensibly) TO ALL PERSONS FROM THE SOUTH(and signed “Many Southerners”), summoning people to Clinton Hall to show their displeasure. Tempers flared yet higher when it was learned that William Lloyd Garrison planned to attend.

That evening at least fifteen hundred New Yorkers arrived at Clinton Hall, yelling for the blood of Tappan and Garrison, only to find the building locked. The trustees of Clinton Hall, having learned of the proposed onslaught, had withdrawn permission to use it, and Tappan’s troops had surreptitiously shifted uptown to Finney’s Chatham Street Chapel. By the time the crowd of “highly respectable citizens” (in the words of a later newspaper report) learned of the new venue and arrived to storm the building, the New York Anti-Slavery Society had whipped through its organizational meeting, elected Arthur Tappan president, and slipped out the back door. The abolitionists were in business.

Indeed New Yorkers now seized the mantle of national antislavery leadership from the Garrisonians in Boston. On December 4, 1833, sixty black and white delegates founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), establishing its national headquarters at 143 Nassau Street and requiring all members of the Executive Committee to be residents of New York City. Arthur Tappan was named president. His brother, Lewis, joined the Executive Committee, along with some white merchants and the black ministerial trio of Cornish, Wright and Williams.

The worst fears of negrophobes had been realized. New York had become a center of antislavery agitation—at who knew what cost to the city’s business links with the South. Worse, the integrated organization had put blacks in positions of responsibility and signaled an assault on local segregation by inviting blacks into white evangelical churches (though continuing to seat them separately). Tappan and team—having told New York it had problems with drink and sex—now informed the city it had a racial problem, which it would not be allowed to ignore.


Abolitionists hoped to win support from New York’s white working class. Most radical leaders were disciples of Tom Paine and Robert Owen, both of whom were ardent enemies of servitude. Fanny Wright was antislavery. So was George Henry Evans, editor of the Workingman’s Advocate.Evans, indeed, specifically opposed colonization, defended free speech for abolitionists, and urged workers to support their project, insisting that “EQUAL RIGHTS can never be enjoyed, even by those who are free, in a nation which contains slaveites enough to hold in bondage two millions of human beings.”

Many white workers agreed with Evans that slavery was unjust: republican artisans considered chattel slavery the antipode of liberty. Many artisans and shopkeepers were among the three thousand who signed an abolitionist petition submitted to Congress in 1830, calling for an end to slavery in the District of Columbia. The plebeian-oriented Sun occasionally printed antislavery material, and the Transcript defended abolitionists’ right to speak.

Nevertheless, most New York laborers hated the men in command of the abolitionist apparatus and refused to separate the message from the messengers. Abolitionism was inextricably linked to other evangelical initiatives that many workers found objectionable. Evans, a freethinker, rejected Tappan’s revivalism and Sabbatarianism and wondered if the abolitionists weren’t “actuated by a species of theological fanaticism” in hoping “to free the slaves more for the purpose of adding them to their religious sect, than for love of liberty and justice.”

Worse, many of the wealthy merchants who championed black slaves were in the front ranks of those condemning workers who rallied to defend their rights (the Tappan-initiated Journal of Commerce had led the assault on Workie-ism). Tappan and his colleagues drew a sharp line between slavery and capitalism. Under slavery, the misery and poverty of working people was clearly attributable to the slaveocrats who owned them. Under capitalism—given the evangelical premise that ascribed success or failure wholly to individual character—a working person’s poverty could not be laid at his employer’s door.

The absolute clarity of this evangelical distinction between free and unfree labor seemed a good deal muddier to those whose lives had been abraded by capitalist development. To such men, setting the plight of distant slaves above that of local workers seemed hypocritical. Some labor radicals, including George Henry Evans, were drawn for a time to the metaphor of “wage slavery” (or “white slavery”) as a linguistic device for emphasizing the analogies between their own sinking condition and that of already submerged bondsmen.

True, New York laborers had their political independence, no trifling matter. But the Revolution had been fought for economic independence as well, and by that criterion, the growth of wage-work, the declining respect for manual labor, the rise of renttenantry, the transformation of proud craftsmen into “hirelings”—all these together constituted a disturbing trajectory, whose end point might yet be dependency, even bondage, for whites as well as blacks.

For most New York artisans and laborers, however, the metaphorical equation of Northern wage-work and Southern slavery was not simply overdrawn but psychologically intolerable. Such men opted for a different linguistic strategy, one that sharply differentiated their condition from that of slaves by referring to capitalist employers as “bosses” rather than “masters” (reserving the older term for the small workshops where an owner was master of his craft, not his men).

There was another, uglier vocabulary that could be used to underscore the gulf between free and unfree labor: the language of racism, which insisted on the difference between “white men” and “niggers.” The problem was, the emancipation of New York City slaves made it more difficult to sustain such a sharp symbolic separation between whites and blacks. Emancipation had erased any grounds for assuming that the black person one passed on the street was of inferior legal status. True, white supremacy had been written back into the state constitution, denying nearly all black men the right to vote, at just the time all white males were being awarded the franchise. Unfortunately the argument used to justify that denial was not per se racist but rather the assertion that African Americans were dependent, powerless, and therefore easy pawns of the rich and powerful. But this was uncomfortably close to Chancellor Kent’s grounds for seeking to deny the suffrage to economically dependent white wage-workers. Once the provision was in place, however, it was but a short step to arguing that it rested on blacks’ inherent incapacity for self-government, just as some southerners were busily justifying slavery itself as the result of an innate black “slavishness” rather than of any forcible imposition of unfreedom.

White workers who rejected the evangelical gentry’s insistence that the poor were responsible for their own poverty accepted the premise when applied to blacks. If slavishness and slavery were attributes of blackness, and citizenship a function of whiteness, then whites were at least guaranteed that declining economic status would never lead to political disfranchisement. Such a position further undercut the appeal of “wage slave” imagery: one could not easily boast of being a citizen while claiming to be a slave.

Whites relied on more than language to distance themselves from unfreedom: they insisted that worksites be segregated on race lines. Few white artisans faced a direct challenge from African Americans: skilled black craftsmen were increasingly rare, a situation guaranteed by white refusal to accept black apprentices. Laborers, unskilled workmen, and servants were in more direct competition, though in most categories whites clearly held the upper hand. Still, it was increasingly felt that the mere presence of blacks degraded a job category (the expression “to work like a nigger” entered American English at this time). Only their complete expulsion from a trade could truly preserve its dignity, one reason New York’s blacks were being steadily driven from all but the most “servile” occupations.

Segregation in living arrangements served the same differentiating function: whites received psychic reassurance from not having to share schools, churches, playhouses, or pleasure grounds with blacks. There was, however, a yawning loophole in New York’s system of urban apartheid: neighborhoods were not segregated. Low-waged, or intermittently employed, or widowed, or orphaned, or unskilled whites, could and did easily find themselves domiciled in the same slum quarters as blacks. Living next door to African Americans (occasionally even in the same household) effectively stripped away all the hard-earned badges of racial difference. This was humiliatingly underscored when the gentry—including abolitionists like Arthur Tappan—moved to lily-white enclaves where it was all but certain that any black faces in evidence belonged to domestic servants, not residents. Even this was less and less the case, as Irish domestics replaced African Americans in gentry households and as black women in domestic service opted for living with their own families.

Nothing undermined the separation of colors as rapidly as sexual fraternization, raising as it did the dreaded specter of what the era called “amalgamation.” The growing hysteria over amalgamation was exacerbated by the attenuated patriarchal power of laboring males. Not only were they seldom in a position to govern an independent household, but their generic gender authority had been put in question. Nothing rubbed this in more painfully than seeing “their” women have sexual relations with black men—or worse, bear black men’s children, thus mulattoizing “their” posterity.

Nowhere did these fears flame more fiercely than in the densely integrated Five Points, where interracial sex was a common fact of life. Four working-class wards contained over half the black population and had the highest black-to-white ratios in the city. Interracial liaisons came easily, moreover, in an area where, unlike in gentry enclaves, women like men were constantly out-of-doors. Especially galling was the fact that numerous Five Points saloons and brothels housed both black and white prostitutes, accommodated a mixed clientele, and in some cases specifically featured miscegenational sex; many blacks with leading roles in the city’s vice economy had white wives or mistresses. As had been true since Dutch days, it was in the urban underworld that New York’s races mixed with greatest abandon.

One solution to this blurring of racial borders was to violently reinscribe them. The same Callithumpian bands that roistered through upper-class neighborhoods on New Year’s also paid their disrespects to blacks. They singled out for attack the sites where blacks and whites indulged in common sensual pleasures: brothels, taverns, the homes of interracial couples. They also policed places where African Americans had managed to create community institutions that signaled their aspirations to dignity and demonstrated their moral equality. In 1828 a Callithumpian procession paused at the African Church in Elizabeth Street, where the congregation was holding a “Watch Night.” They smashed the windows, demolished the doors, tried (unsuccessfully) to pull down the building, solaced themselves by beating churchgoers with sticks, then resumed their march. Such assaults weren’t limited to holidays: rowdies routinely disrupted services at St. Philip’s, knowing that unsympathetic magistrates wouldn’t intervene, and butcher boys from the Centre Street Market delighted in setting dogs on students at the nearby African Free School.

Racial anxieties ran particularly high in the city’s Irish-American community. More than any other white group, they lived side by side with Africans. They took on the same jobs—“nigger work”—laboring as degraded apprentices, domestic servants, prostitutes, seamen, and casual laborers. When they submitted (of necessity) to oppressive and despotic treatment, they were derided for “slaving like a nigger.”

The advent of abolitionism, moreover, created particular problems—and possibilities—for Irish Americans. The Irish at home had never been particularly race-conscious, and some of their greatest champions, like Daniel O’Connell, would strongly support the abolitionist cause. But evangelicals and employers condemned the Irish for drinking, brawling, and irregular work habits in much the same way they condemned black behavior, labeling both groups alike lazy, improvident, and irresponsible. Some New York gentry placed ads in the Herald for cooks, washers, and ironers that specified “any color or country except Irish.” Anti-Tammany nativists challenged the immigrants’ right to citizenship, which, given the new-forged connections between race and nationality, was tantamount to questioning their whiteness. And just as the English had long characterized their neighboring islanders more harshly than they had Africans, plenty of Anglo New Yorkers routinely used adjectives like low-browed, savage, bestial, wild, and simian to describe the Catholic Irish “race.” More disturbingly, the Irish were sometimes referred to as “niggers turned inside out,” as, conversely, blacks were occasionally termed “smoked Irish.”

One way to avoid the taint of blackness was to loudly assert whiteness, and the Irish quickly learned that in New York City blacks could be despised with impunity. Another route to permanent certification as members of an Anglo-Celtic racial majority was through affiliation with Tammany Hall. Northern Democrats had bonded with southern planters in a common negrophobia; now racism would do similar duty on the home front, smoothing divisions between New York’s Angles and Celts, allowing the party to swell its ranks from both sides. The theater, too, allowed white working people of all backgrounds to come together as an audience to laugh at derogatory representations of black “others.” Not surprisingly, minstrel songs singled out abolitionists—particularly Arthur Tappan—for merciless ridicule. Indeed abolitionism and blackface ascended the political stage arm in arm.


In May and June of 1834, Arthur and Lewis Tappan stepped up their abolitionist drive. Among other initiatives, they underwrote formation of a Female Anti-Slavery Society. The participation of white ladies in a mixed-race movement jangled the nerves of New York racists—which were soon further tautened by pronouncements from the Rev. Samuel Cox, the antislavery (and anti-Catholic) cleric.

Arthur Tappan was a pewholder in Cox’s Laight Street Church. One Sunday morning on his way to church, Tappan encountered Samuel Cornish on the street. As Cox’s institution was nearby—two miles closer to Cornish’s home than where the black clergyman usually worshiped—Tappan invited him in, and the two sat together in Tappan’s pew. This led to a tremendous row, with some church members threatening to resign and the elders insisting that Tappan not repeat the offense. (Arthur would never again be seen in public with any of his African-American associates, even one as light-skinned as Cornish.) Cox, however, chided his congregation for its intolerance. Arguing that as Christ was probably of a dark Syrian hue, he might well have been ejected along with Cornish, Cox denounced “nigger pews” and called for church integration. He was instantly subjected to city wide attack. As one merchant spluttered, “And would you believe it? he called my Saviour a nigger! God damn him!”

By June lurid rumors were flying around town (recycled by colonizationalist champion James Watson Webb in his Courier and Enquirer). The abolitionists—so the stories went—had told their daughters to marry blacks. Arthur Tappan had divorced his wife and married a Negress. Presbyterian minister Henry Ludlow was conducting interracial marriages. Abolitionists were encouraging black dandies to parade up and down Broadway on horseback to seek white wives. William Leete Stone, secretary of the New York Colonization Society and editor of the Commercial Advertiser, joined in stoking popular fury, assuring his readers that amalgamation appealed only to those of “morbid or vicious tastes.” A startled English traveler reported that even the “nicest people” talked about “sexual passion, with a vehemence of manner, and in a tone of earnestness, utterly abhorrent from the generally received notions of propriety.”

By July racial tensions were at full boil. On the fourth, an integrated group met at Chatham Street Chapel to celebrate New York’s emancipation of its slaves seven years earlier. Angry spectators complained the meeting looked like “the keys of a piano forte,” and rioters proceeded to break up the assembly with hoots, stamps, and shouts of “Treason.”

The celebration was rescheduled for July 7. The chapel’s sexton gave the mostly black group permission to use the building’s large hall. Normally it was used on Monday evenings by the New York Sacred Music Society, but the society’s president had agreed to use a smaller room. The sexton, however, had not explained to the chorister the racial composition of the supplanting group. When the musicians arrived they were enraged to find a black choir seated in their stalls. Hotly ordering the intruders out, they also tried to drag the speaker from the stage. This triggered a full-scale brawl, which the outnumbered whites lost; indeed, they were pitched out of doors and windows.

The police came and arrested six African Americans. A large white crowd forced the remaining blacks to flee. Excited rumors flamed through the city, fanned by the colonizationist press. Webb described the incident as a Negro riot, in which innocent whites had been beaten, and blamed it all on “Arthur Tappan’s mad impertinence.” Stone’s Commercial Advertiser reported that gangs of blacks were threatening to burn the city. “If this state of things is to be suffered to continue,” Stone shrilly declared, “neither white men nor women can much longer leave their doors in safety.”

On Wednesday evening, July 9, one of the hottest nights of the year, three interconnected riots broke out. Early on, two or three thousand whites gathered at Finney’s Chatham Street Chapel to break up a planned antislavery meeting. When the abolitionists, forewarned, failed to show, the crowd broke in and passed resolutions calling for black deportation. One young white man preached in a “mock negro style” (so the newspaper Man reported), and his fellows “struck up a Jim Crow chorus” in the style of Daddy Rice’s popular Bowery act.

At about the same time, another crowd, composed chiefly of butcher boys and day laborers, converged on Lewis Tappan’s Rose Street home (he and his family had fled to Harlem). Spurred on by well-dressed merchants, the rioters smashed windows and doors, demolished the interior, dragged Tappan’s artwork and furniture to the street, piled it high, and set it ablaze. A Gilbert Stuart portrait of Tappan’s father-in-law was being carted to the bonfire when one rioter shouted, “It’s Washington! For God’s sake don’t burn Washington!”—and the republican hero (as they supposed) was borne safely off. Mayor Lawrence arrived with the watch but was shouted down, three cheers were raised for Webb, and the police were driven off with brickbats.

Some of the anti-Tappan group, joined by rioters from Chatham Street, now descended on the Bowery Theater, where a benefit performance was underway for George Farren, the playhouse’s English stage manager. The Britisher had allegedly cussed out Yankees and called them jackasses. In addition, the English were associated with the antislavery cause. Four thousand people stormed the theater. Perhaps a quarter of them broke in and drove Edwin Forrest and the cast from the stage. The riot was quelled only when Thomas Hamblin, the Bowery’s manager, came out waving two American flap, apologized for the Farren benefit, then summoned a performer to sing “Yankee Doodle” and “Zip Coon,” popular anthems of country and color.

Violence escalated over the next two days. Crowds moved methodically through the city assaulting precise targets. Messengers darted to and fro, keeping rioters apprized of the whereabouts of the forces of order. Battle plans were advertised in handbills or spread verbally in marketplaces. At some points the belligerents formed up into squares, putting smaller men armed with stones on the inside, and sturdier clubwielding ones on the outside to ward off the military, which they believed had been forbidden to fire at them.

The crowds went after the homes, businesses, and churches of white “amalgamators.” Throngs stoned Arthur Tappan’s Pearl Street store until his employees, armed with muskets, drove them away with the help of a troop of one hundred watchmen. At the Laight Street Church, on the corner of Varick, rioters began smashing windows as one shouted, “Dr. Cox says our Savior is a nigger, and [damn] me if I don’t think his church should be torn down!” Another contingent broke into Cox’s home on Charlton Street. When the police and two squadrons of cavalry showed up, rioters ripped down fences for clubs and hurled paving stones but were driven off. Later in the evening, several thousand headed to Spring Street, where they attacked Henry Ludlow’s church, demolishing its organ and pews and tearing down its galleries. To ward off a cavalry charge, they carried out the wreckage and built a barricade, which they bolstered by chaining carts together. The Twenty-seventh National Guard Regiment hacked its way through with axes and dispersed the crowd—which then reassembled on Thompson Street to trash Ludlow’s home.

A second set of targets consisted of churches and institutions associated with black abolitionists. The African Baptist Church on Anthony Street was among those pelted with rocks, the African schoolhouse on Orange Street was heavily damaged, and a huge crowd totally demolished Peter Williams’s St. Philip’s African Episcopal Church (and his home as well).

The greatest ferocity was reserved for the black community in the Five Points area—though isolating it from the white community with which it was so intermixed proved challenging. Taking a cue from Exodus, rioters spread the word that white families should keep lit candles in their windows and stand before them, so their homes might be passed over. Households with dark windows or dark faces were sacked, torn down, or burned. All night long, individual blacks were caught and beaten. Roughly five hundred fled their homes, many to the watch house in the Park. No one was killed, however, and guns were kept under wraps (though a black barber on Orange Street did fire off his pistol as whites stormed in).

On Friday, Mayor Lawrence, himself an active colonizationist, weakly urged citizens to refrain from further violence, while agreeing that the abolitionists’ program was “repugnant.” By that evening, however, Lewis Tappan sensed that “the ‘respectable’ portion of the community, that had, thus far, looked on with indifference, or a willingness to see the hated band of abolitionists punished to a certain extent by popular violence, began to be alarmed for the safety of their own property.”

And indeed the Twenty-seventh, which had handled the nativist outbreaks easily enough, was having serious trouble dealing with these upheavals. It didn’t even try to intervene in the Five Points, where the rioting was heaviest. Saturday promised worse. Mayor Lawrence, deluged with desperate communications from citizens, estimated that sixty-two sites had been slated for destruction, including businesses, churches, schools, newspapers, the prison, and the state arsenal. With violence threatening to spread, the press demanded bringing it to an immediate end—by firing on the crowd if necessary.

Lawrence now issued a second, stronger proclamation and swore in one thousand volunteers as special constables. Irish laborers, who had been noticeably absent from the affray, now volunteered in the hundreds to aid in suppressing rioters perceived to be nativists. The New York First Division was ordered out and its officers authorized to hand out ammunition. Troops paraded through the streets and took up stations at such key sites as St. John’s Park and the arsenal. Cavalry squadrons patrolled all through the night. The upheaval tapered down. By Tuesday evening it was over.

When it came time to apportion blame, some denounced scaremongers Webb and Stone for whipping up the crowds. Some denounced the rioters and declared civil disorder intolerable, no matter what its cause. But the bulk of respectable and popular opinion alike argued that the abolitionists had brought it on themselves.

In this repressive atmosphere, abolitionists made some tactical retreats. The American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) plastered handbills around the city, denying it encouraged intermarriage. It sent an official disavowal of amalgamationist proclivities to the mayor. Lewis Tappan, who left his house on Rose Street unrepaired as “a silent Anti-Slavery preacher,” was criticized by fellow abolitionists for allowing black and white choirs to sing in the same church, even though seated separately. And when Tappan later requested that a black minister address an antislavery gathering, nervous colleagues insisted that “the time has not come to mix with people of color in public.”

Abolitionists also suffered some defections. Under strong pressure from Bishop Onderdonk, Peter Williams Jr., pastor of the ruined St. Philip’s, resigned from the AASS—though he refused to recant his principles and declared the abolitionists “good men, and good Christians, and true lovers of their country, and of all mankind.” Charles Grandison Finney, shocked at New York Christian businessmen’s approval of racist outrages, resigned the country’s leading pulpit and retired to Oberlin College, a Tappan-backed institution in northern Ohio.

After a year of lying low, however, the abolitionists aggressively expanded their operations—albeit outside the city itself. In May 1835, employing the skills and resources they had used in fashioning the benevolent empire, the Tappans set out to inundate the entire United States—South as well as North—with antislavery propaganda. In 1834 the AASS had distributed 122,000 pieces of literature. In 1835 its highspeed presses pumped out over a million tracts—graphically illustrated exposés of slavery’s horrors. The AASS also circulated newspapers, plaster statuettes of slaves in chains, handkerchiefs, medals, emblems, and blue chocolate wrappers. Mixing business and politics, Lewis also advertised the sale of silk prints depicting “The Poor Slave.”

This amazing mass communication machine provoked anxiety throughout the North and outrage throughout the South. Mainstream northern opinion had not been overly worried about the impact on the Union of ravings by a few fiery Bostonians. But now the abolitionist movement was being directed from New York City by masters of the new media, possessed of awesome organizational skills. Within four years the AASS would boast 1,350 auxiliaries and a million members nationwide. Conservative regional elites in Illinois or Ohio could handle local radicals: gentry-directed riots to suppress home-grown abolitionists multiplied throughout the North. But competing with New Yorkers presented a more formidable challenge. Indeed Manhattanites’ newfound ability to disseminate a political gospel, coupled with their command over capital and credit, was positively alarming.

White Southerners were infuriated. Inflamed by the torrent of tracts that began reaching their ports, by mid-August of 1835 they were hysterical. Vigilantes stopped, boarded, and searched ships and stages, hunting for subversive literature; they patrolled slave quarters to make sure none had gotten through. They denounced the New Yorkers in blazing speeches at torchlit parades. A band of men broke into the Charleston post office, carried off mailbags newly arrived from the Hudson, and used the intercepted abolitionist tracts and magazines to kindle a huge bonfire. In it they burned effigies of Arthur Tappan and Samuel Cox, as thousands cheered.

Some southerners were not satisfied with symbolic gestures. East Feliciana, Louisiana, posted a fifty-thousand-dollar reward for the delivery of Arthur Tappan, dead or alive. Some demanded the Tappans be extradited. This, however, got New Yorkers’ backs up, angering even those opposed to antislavery agitation. “I do not choose,” said Philip Hone, “to surrender the power of executing justice into the hands of the slaveowners.” Governor Marcy flatly refused to consider such requests.

Balked, southerners organized an economic campaign against Tappan’s firm—one of the first attempts to bankrupt a national business. Some called for a boycott of all New York City goods. Alarmed delegations from the Chamber of Commerce pleaded with Arthur to call off his campaign. “You demand that I shall cease my anti-slavery labors,” he responded fiercely, “I will be hungfirst!” Webb in the Courier and Enquirer seemed quite prepared to oblige him, demanding that “modern haberdashers of murderous negro tracts” be crushed like “reptilian eggs.”

By mid-August, excitement was so intense that the AASS barricaded its doors with inch-thick planks. The mayor of Brooklyn instituted sundown-to-sunup patrols in Arthur Tappan’s new neighborhood (he had moved across the East River after the riot of 1834). “I have not ventured into the city,” wrote abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. “‘Tis like the times of the French Revolution, when no man dare to trust his neighbors.”

The abolitionists were spared another dose of violence, for two reasons: city authorities wanted no repetition of the previous year’s lawlessness, and federal authorities intervened to quash the AASS outreach effort. Charleston’s postmaster had asked New York City’s postmaster, Samuel Gouveneur, to extract antislavery tracts from his southbound mail. Gouveneur agreed and informed the postmaster general that he planned to deny postal access to Tappan and his colleagues. The issue went up to Andrew Jackson, who informally authorized Gouveneur’s embargo on “offensive papers” and explicitly denounced the AASS in his Annual Message. For the moment, the abolitionists were stymied.


The mercantile elite were not prepared to turn Arthur Tappan over to planter justice, no matter how much they despised his politics. But they did not yet contest the right of southern slaveocrats to reach into New York City itself when their intended targets had black skins.

Since emancipation, New York had become a haven for fugitive slaves—and slavehunters. Under the provisions of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, anyone claiming that a person residing in the North was a runaway from the South had only to appear before a local magistrate, personally or represented by counsel, and submit “proof” of ownership; an affidavit would do.

“Blackbirders”—stalkers who were not above seizing free blacks and shipping them into slavery—began prowling the city on a regular basis. Their only opposition consisted of sporadic and spontaneous riots by local African Americans. In 1819 forty blacks on Barclay Street tried and failed to rescue a man being taken by a slavecatcher and a city marshal to a Hudson River steamboat dock. In 1826 blacks bombarded a slavecatcher giving evidence at City Hall with bricks, sticks, and stones but were suppressed by the police and given severe sentences.

By the 1830s bounty hunting had become big business. One lawyer, F. H. Pettis, offered to search for and return runaway slaves for $250 a head. Blackbirders Elias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash ran an operation known as the New York Kidnapping Club, notorious for snapping up victims. Straight-out kidnapping was illegal, but if blackbirders brought a captive before City Recorder Riker and produced (paid) witnesses to swear he or she was a recent runaway, Riker usually authorized deportation.

With young girls being snatched on trips to the water pump, black parents began keeping their children off the streets after dark. Then, with white abolitionists on the defensive or concentrated on their national campaign, the city’s African Americans formally organized for their own protection. On November 20, 1835, David Ruggles led in setting up a New York Committee of Vigilance. Ruggles, a migrant from Norwich, Connecticut, had opened a bookshop and circulating library at 67 Lispenard Street, specializing in antislavery publications. Now he became the eyes and ears of the black community.

Ruggles identified slavecatchers by name in the Emancipator. He pointed them out to blacks on the street. He publicized descriptions of missing Afro-Americans. He went door to door in fashionable neighborhoods inquiring as to the status of black domestics, implementing a New York law that freed any imported slave after a residence of nine months. At hearings of accused runaways before Recorder Riker, Ruggles presented counterwitnesses, though, as they were usually black, their testimony seldom helped. He also boarded incoming ships, to see if slaves were being smuggled in, and on one occasion won an indictment against a Frenchman from Guadeloupe. (Such actions were denounced by the New York Express, a militant Whig organ, as an embarrassment to trade.) Ruggles had to change lodgings repeatedly to foil efforts at kidnapping him.

The Vigilance Committee also aided those they called “persons arriving from the South.” They explained to fugitives their rights, protected them from blackbirders, and established them in new locations. In his first annual report, presented at Theodore Wright’s church in 1837, Ruggles announced that the group had protected 335 persons from slavery. The following year he sheltered the young Frederick Douglass for two weeks, before sending the penniless fugitive on to New Bedford, Massachusetts.1 The bulk of funds for the Committee of Vigilance’s work—efforts Lewis Tappan later praised as crucial to the developing Underground Railroad—was (Ruggles acknowledged) “obtained by the efforts of the Ladies, who collect from their friends one penny a week.” In Brooklyn, Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Wesleyan became a major underground station, eventually providing refuge, food, and clothing for hundreds of escaped slaves. Some whites too took serious risks: Quaker Isaac T. Hopper’s home, at no Second Avenue, became a noted way station, and in 1835 Hopper was accused of harboring a fugitive slave in his store on Pearl Street.

The Vigilance Committee was not always successful. On July 23, 1836, George Jones, a “respectable” free black man, was arrested at his workplace, an attorney’s office at 21 Broadway, supposedly for assault and battery. At first he refused to go along with his captors, but his employers advised him to submit, promising they would help. However, once in custody, Jones was whisked before Recorder Riker, where several notorious blackbirders declared him a runaway, a proposition to which Riker assented. Less than three hours after his arrest, Jones, bound in chains, was dragged through the streets of New York “like a beast to the shambles” and carried south. Ruggles described the kidnapping in the Sun. The piece, widely reprinted, helped Ruggles win public support for granting accused “fugitives” a trial by jury—a right secured five years later.

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