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An essay by George William Curtis

The Reunion Of Antislavery Veterans. 1884

Title:     The Reunion Of Antislavery Veterans. 1884
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

On a pleasant day and evening during the autumn a few venerable graybeards and bald-heads met in a church in the city, and sang and spoke, and told old tales of former meetings, and rejoiced that they had not died before their eyes had seen the glory. The meeting produced no ripple upon the surface of the city life. The newspapers printed brief reports of it among the other city news. But the return of the Philadelphia baseball players, and the "mill" between Sullivan and other bruisers, challenged very much more space and a very much more public attention.

Yet fifty years before, when those gray beards were brown, and those bald heads were shaggy as Samson's, their meeting convulsed the city, and occasioned a riot which was the precursor of similar desperate disturbances, and the forerunner of one of the greatest of civil wars. The meeting was then denounced in advance in double-leaded editorials, which were the direct, and doubtless the intentional incitements to bloodshed and the subversion of popular rights; for the popular right which is the foundation of all other rights is that of free speech. The mere announcement of the meeting drew a vast and excited throng to prevent it. Men of standing in the community made themselves leaders of the mob, and occupied in advance the entrance to the hall where it was to take place. The proprietors of the hall, appalled by the evidences of furious hostility to the meeting and its purposes, refused to open it to those who had engaged it, and they went elsewhere.

But the obstructing mob did not relax their purpose. They hastened to another hall where men of respected and even noted names harangued them violently, introducing resolutions decrying the purpose of the original meeting; and suddenly hearing that the projectors were assembled elsewhere, the crowd rushed wildly to the place, which was a small chapel, and, swarming in eager for crime, found the chapel deserted. The holders of the meeting had accomplished their object and retired from the rear of the building as the mob burst in through the front doors. The press of the city, with one or two notable exceptions, the next morning celebrated the intended suppression of a peaceful meeting by an angry mob as if it had been a national victory over piratical invaders. It denounced the leaders of the meeting with a malignant bitterness with which the familiars of the Inquisition might have anathematized Luther and his friends, and the few voices in the papers which protested against treating the holders of the meeting with violence, yet spoke of them in a strain of abhorrence which virtually branded them as public enemies.

Who were these dangerous and desperate men whose mere proposal to meet and organize themselves for a purpose which was plainly declared, and which was to be sought by legal methods only, had so profoundly disturbed the city and startled the press into sounding a furious alarm? They were a few persons who asserted the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and demanded that all Americans should enjoy the rights which the Declaration affirmed to belong to all men. The object of the meeting was the formation of a city antislavery society, and those who assembled in October of this year were the survivors of that meeting. Their object has been accomplished, and the views whose announcement fifty years ago convulsed the city are now common-places of universal acceptance. It would be incredible that the sentiment of the city within easy memory of men living was so hostile to the American principle and its fundamental guarantees if a still later experience had not illustrated the same hostility.

It seems almost cruel to recall the names of those who spoke of the purposes of men who proposed to appeal to public opinion against a monstrous public wrong, and of the men themselves, as "the folly, madness, and mischief of these bold and dangerous men," and as "persons who owe what notoriety they have to their love of meddling with agitating subjects." This was the way in which those who thought themselves to be in the van of freedom and of civilization spoke of the beginning of one of the great historic movements in the progress of the race, and of men who took up the work of the fathers of the country only to carry it further and logically forward. It was with this stupid and insolent contempt that the press, which prided itself upon its liberty, and in a country which guaranteed the right of free peaceful assembly and free speech, struck at both of them as fatal to the common welfare. Had Philip II. and the sanguinary Alva controlled a press in the Netherlands three centuries ago, they would have denounced the beginning of the great contest with the black despotism of the Inquisition in the same tone of vindictive hatred and disdain with which that little meeting at the Chatham Street chapel was assailed by the press of New York in 1833.

It is no wonder that the pioneers of that famous evening wished to come together upon its fiftieth anniversary to rejoice that they had entered into the promised land. The fact that their meeting excited no general interest, and was almost unobserved, was the evidence of the completeness of their triumph. Their "folly, madness, and mischief" have become patriotic wisdom. The "bold and dangerous men" have grown into a mighty nation. And for the brethren of the press that anniversary has some very significant suggestions. First and chief is the consideration that the spirit of the newspapers, and not of the meeting in Chatham Street chapel, was the dangerous spirit. There is no blacker traitor to popular institutions than the man who incites an angry mob against peaceful meetings and free speech. Free speech is precious not for popular but for unpopular opinions. It is to secure in the land of the Inquisition a voice against the inquisition; in the land of slavery, a voice for liberty. That freedom has overthrown those two tyrants by developing a public opinion which has made them impossible. The first duty of a free press is to defend the right of the free assertion of unpopular opinions, however dangerous they may seem to government or to society; and it is but just to record that the only paper in New York which, "when this old coat was new," stated clearly and conclusively the true principle upon this subject was the Journal of Commerce.

If, among the exulting crowd that welcomed King William of glorious and happy memory to England, a spectator had seen the flowing white locks of some old soldier of Cromwell's Ironsides, as the men of Hadley were fabled to have seen the venerable head of Goffe, the regicide, suddenly appearing as their deliverer, he would have felt his heart throbbing with gratitude at the vision of one of the heroes who founded the liberty which William came to complete. So some musing observer in the church where the reverend graybeards met to renew their friendship and to tell their story might well have gazed with gratitude, amid the peace and prosperity of the country, upon the thinned and thinning remnant of that old guard whose constancy and devotion made that peace and prosperity possible.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Reunion Of Antislavery Veterans. 1884