MHS News

“Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land” Opens at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Manuscripts, broadsides, artifacts, and portraits from the Society’s collections illustrate the role of Massachusetts in the national debate over slavery

Proclaim Liberty bannerIn the decades leading up to the Civil War, Boston became a center of the national antislavery movement, and in 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, "all on fire" for the cause, began publication of The Liberator, the country's leading abolitionist newspaper. There was strong resistance to the radical movement  not only in the slave-holding South, but among Northerners as well. Open at the MHS through May 24, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land": Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865, features manuscripts, broadsides, artifacts—including the imposing stone for The Liberator—and portraits of key players to illustrate the role of Massachusetts in the national debate over slavery, and to demonstrate how the movement was communicated and followed.

While Garrison played a central role in the abolitionist movement in Boston, his efforts were part of a larger—sometimes uneasy—alliance of black and white Bostonians in a crusade for freedom and equality that already was underway when The Liberator first appeared.  Even in the “cradle of liberty,” abolitionists faced the hostility of fellow citizens who did not share their egalitarian ideals, or thought that antislavery agitation would lead to civil war. The Society’s recently acquired maquette of a sculpture of Garrison by Anne Whitney is on display as well as the first issue of the paper in which Garrison wrote, “—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch.—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Through the pages of The Liberator and other local antislavery publications, and lecture tours by visiting American and English abolitionists, Boston became the hub of the national and international antislavery movements. A year after the 1834 New York anti-abolition riots, Garrison was mobbed and almost lynched when he attempted to address the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Boston. In a letter dated October 24, 1835, Garrison wrote to Samuel E. Sewall, one of his closest allies, and pondered whether he could continue to live in Boston and edit The Liberator.

Photography, introduced to America in the 1840s, was quickly enlisted in the abolitionist cause. A daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes shows the right hand of Captain Jonathan W. Walker, an ardent abolitionist. He was branded with the letters, "S.S.," for slave stealer, for attempting to help Florida slaves escape to freedom. In 1850, as the national debate over slavery became ever more intense and angry, Harriet Beecher Stowe  began composing what would become arguably the most influential work of fiction in American history—Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On March 2, 1852, she wrote to educator and reformer Horace Mann and announces that she completed the novel.

The Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850, left it to federal magistrates to determine whether slaves who had escaped to free states should be returned to bondage.  Massachusetts had a personal liberty law—the “Latimer Law”—to protect runaway slaves, but when it proved ineffective, Boston abolitionists prepared to take direct action. Visitors can examine a diagram showing the drill developed by the secret Anti-Man-Hunting League to run off slave catchers.

While some slaves were liberated, others were captured and returned to bondage. In 1854, the rendition of Anthony Burns, a fugitive from Virginia, galvanized Boston. In a letter to her father, Benjamin Seaver, Mary Blanchard described the crowds gathered in Boston on June 4, 1854 to watch the procession that marched Burns from the courthouse to the waterfront and back to slavery in Virginia. After his return to bondage, Burns wrote an anguished plea to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. asking for help in securing his freedom. Visitors can read this letter and see two checks totaling $1,300 used to purchase his freedom.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 broke the Missouri Compromise by leaving it to a vote of the inhabitants whether a state formed from the Kansas territory would be slave or free.  Boston emigrant aid societies publicly appealed for colonists who would win the battle for the territory at the ballot box, but in secret members shipped “special supplies”—Colt revolvers and Sharps rifles—to Kansas. The legend of “Captain” John Brown, murderous fanatic and/or heroic defender of the antislavery cause, was born in “Bleeding Kansas.”  By 1859, with financial support from Northern abolitionists Brown began to plan direct action against the South—an attack on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

After the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified—and 35 years of publication—Garrison printed the final issue of The Liberator at the end of 1865. He set some of the type himself on the same imposing stone used in 1831 when the paper began. Though many of his readers and supporters thought the battle for civil rights was just beginning, they flooded the paper with congratulatory messages forcing Garrison to print an “extra” final issue.

Visit, a companion website featuring manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts of the antislavery movement from the Society’s collections.

Published: Friday, 22 February, 2013, 12:00 AM