The anti-slavery riots of 1835
Vermont Historical Society photo
J.P. Miller was the hero of the Greek war for independence and the man who stood up to the mob that threatened Rev. Samuel May.
Editor’s note: In honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday today, a Vermont historian looks back at a key civil rights moment in the state’s past.
By PAUL HELLER
FOR THE RUTLAND HERALD
MONTPELIER — Capt. Timothy Hubbard rose from his pew in Montpelier’s old Congregational Church and demanded silence from the Unitarian minister.
Rev. Samuel May was advocating the immediate abolition of slavery and had been the object of scorn and intimidation at the hands of some of Montpelier’s most influential citizens in late October 1835. The Vermont Anti-Slavery Society had been formed in April of the preceding year, and the new organization had invited May to give a series of lectures throughout the state.
May, a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, had the distinction of being the first Unitarian minister to take a stand against the “peculiar institution” that was to ultimately divide the union.
During his lecture tour through the state, May was mobbed five times. “Mobbing” had become the preferred form of protest of the anti-slavery foes. On the previous day, Oct. 21, opponents of the anti-slavery movement interrupted a meeting led by Garrison in Boston. A memoir by his children recounts the event: “In spite of the endeavors of the mayor to quell the excitement and preserve peace, Mr. Garrison was discovered, seized, a rope put around him, his clothes torn from his body, and was dragged through the streets, until he was rescued by the mayor and his forces.”
On the same day in Utica, N.Y., 600 delegates who attempted to form a State Anti-slavery Society were driven from their meeting place and followed to a church where an angry mob assaulted delegates on the street after the meeting was disrupted.
A similar fate awaited May in Montpelier. Permission was granted to use the House chamber in the old Statehouse, and while there was evidence of disapproval outside the building, the lecture was delivered as scheduled.
“During the discourse eggs and stones were thrown through the open window before which the speaker was standing. He only paused to say, as they passed by: ‘Ah, we are contending with evils greater then these.’”
Montpelier’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Watchman and State Journal, reported the events surrounding May’s visit to the capital city.
May was asked to make a second presentation the following night, this time at the Congregational Church, a brick structure that stood on Main Street until 1866 when it was torn down to make room for Bethany Church. In advance of the lecture, signs were posted with this warning.
“The people generally, and ladies in particular should not attend the anti-slavery meeting proposed to be held this evening, as the person who is advertised to speak will certainly be prevented, by violence if necessary.”
That afternoon a brief letter was delivered to May:
“Mr. May — Sir:
We, the undersigned, are requested by a large number of the inhabitants of the town, also many members of the legislature, to inform you that by leaving town without any attempt to hold forth the absurd doctrine of anti-slavery, you will confer a favor, and save them the trouble of using any other means to that effect.”
(Signed) Timothy Hubbard, S.B. Flint, Hugh Gourly, J.T. Marston, Geo. W. Hill, D.P. Russell, Moses E. Hale.
Undeterred, May arrived at the church and made ready to deliver his oration. He had only just begun his speech when Hubbard stood in his pew and ordered the reverend to be quiet and cease his “ungospel and anti-union harangue.”
The minister replied, “Is this the respect paid to liberty of speech by the free people of Vermont? Let any one of your number step forward and give reasons, if he can, why his fellow citizens who wish, should not be permitted to hear the lecture I have been invited here to deliver. If I cannot show these reasons to be false, I will yield to your demand.”
With no reply from Hubbard, May proceeded with his talk. “As soon as he attempted to go on, cries of ‘Down with him,’ ‘Throw him over,’ and ‘Choke him,’ filled the air. The ladies were requested to retire, and preparations seem to have made for an overwhelming resistance to the friends of the meeting.”
As May attempted a third time to speak, a mob rushed the lectern.
At this, J.P. Miller, a highly regarded Montpelier attorney, put himself between the mob and May and roared “in a voice of thunder, ‘Mr. Hubbard, if you do not stop this outrage now, I will knock you down!’” This courageous act stopped the mob and the pause in the proceedings allowed the pews to empty into the street, with the lecture canceled.
At this moment two of Montpelier’s leading citizens stood toe to toe in a contest of wills. The dispute in the northern states over slavery was sharply defined in the arguments championed by these two citizens of the capital city.
Hubbard was an early inhabitant and successful businessman in Montpelier who married a daughter of Jacob Davis, the first settler of Montpelier and holder of its initial charter. Hubbard organized the “Governor’s Guards” a company of militia that fought under his command at the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. D.P. Thompson’s History of the Town of Montpelier notes that although he was “sometimes harsh in rebuking the faults of others,” he was “often chosen to fill the most important of town offices.” He also served as president of the Bank of Montpelier. Yet, while Hubbard was most likely opposed to the institution of slavery, he was equally opposed to the radical demands of the abolitionists, despite the fact that Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery. Col. Jonathan Peckham Miller had also answered the call for the defense of Plattsburgh and following the end of hostilities entered first Dartmouth and then the University of Vermont, leaving before completing the requirements for a degree. The struggle for Greek independence captured his imagination and, with the support of friends in Boston, he travelled to Malta with other Americans who were ready to fight for the cause of Greece.
Miller joined the brigade of the recently deceased Lord Byron and was promoted to the rank of colonel in the Greek army. He distinguished himself through numerous acts of bravery that led him to be known as the “American Dare-Devil.” (Miller was further honored with the gift of Lord Byron’s sword, an artifact that is presently on display at the Vermont History Center in Barre.) He was a founding member of the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society in the previous year. It was the first such state body organized in the country. Elected to the Vermont House of Representatives from Berlin, Miller introduced a resolution to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, the first act against slavery brought before the Vermont Legislature. Although the bill was ultimately dismissed by a majority of his peers, it indicates his commitment to the anti-slavery cause.
Many Vermonters, presumably Timothy Hubbard as well, believed in the remedy of colonization — the practice of returning slaves (whose freedom had been purchased) to Africa, specifically Liberia, a country that had been founded with this idea in mind. The tenets of the colonization faction would today sound racist and demeaning. They believed that the slaves were not prepared for immediate freedom and that the abolitionists were interfering with the constitutional rights of slave owners.
The anti-slavery cause proposed the immediate elimination of slavery with the inculcation of the newly freed blacks into society. This proposition was considered radical by many, even those who were in opposition to involuntary servitude. These two positions on the overarching conflict of the time were fostered by Vermont churches, and specific denominations championed different points of view. The Congregational Church, for example, was an early advocate for colonization while the anti-slavery cause was the preferred remedy of the Baptists and Methodists.
The differing opinions had been argued as a philosophical exercise in the Vermont newspapers that had taken sides on the matter. But in 1835, protests against proselytizers such as May became more strident when mobs like the one in Montpelier took matters into their own hands to prevent the idea of immediate abolition from being disseminated. Frederick Douglass lamented the violent protests in Vermont stating, “Vermont was surprisingly under the influence of slave power. Her proud boast that within her borders no slave has ever been delivered up to his master, did not hinder her hatred to anti-slavery.”
May, whose name was to become synonymous with the cause of anti-slavery, faced confrontations from the colonizationists in five different Vermont towns in which he was scheduled to speak in the fall of 1835. The colonization society believed that, in their eyes, the radical approach of immediate abolition was a threat to the stability of the nation. Many also believed that forcing the emancipation of slaves was unconstitutional.
The anti-slavery advocates decried the obstruction of free speech by the mobs as a threat to personal liberty. This was an argument that Vermonters took to heart and, as a consequence, many were persuaded to the anti-slavery cause. In fact, subsequent to Hubbard’s mob interrupting the speech of May, Hubbard was fired from his position as president of the Bank of Montpelier. The foes of the anti-slavery movement were soon to realize that their tactic of confrontation was not in their best interests and the incidence of mobs attacking speakers ceased.
By 1837 another leading proponent of the anti-slavery movement, James Birney, was able to lecture in Montpelier with scant opposition. The general acceptance of the anti-slavery cause by the citizens of Vermont was duplicated throughout New England and the North, as the general population grew to endorse a position that was once perceived as too radical. By 1837, Garrison’s Liberator noted that “mobs are quite out of fashion in Vermont.”
Not only were the mobs of the colonialists out of fashion, the position of anti-slavery soon became the norm north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
An 1877 account of the riot in the Green Mountain Freeman ascribed the difficulties facing anti-slavery to the inherent unwillingness of Vermonters to accept change. But the same may be said of the population at large in the United States. The newspaper noted that: “Not a single church could be obtained in Boston for a meeting or a lecture on slavery.”
As difficult as its initial reception was in Vermont, it is amazing how quickly the anti-slavery proponents won the day.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.