In the Antebellum period radical pro

In the Antebellum period radical pro-slavery groups sometimes used violence against
abolitionists in an effort to ensure their way of life. This violence took many forms. This essay
will use historical newspapers and archives to examine three examples of pro–slavery violence:
the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, and the caning of Senator
Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. It will show that these acts of violence only strengthened
abolitionists’ resolve to end slavery in the United States once and for all.
On May 14, 1838 one of the grandest buildings in Philadelphia was completed. The
Pennsylvania Hall was constructed by a joint-stock company of more than 2,000 people and
carried the motto: “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.” Each person paid either $20.00 per stock
or donated time and material to build a place where abolitionists could hold meetings and where
freedom of speech could be expressed. The first floor of the Hall contained lecture rooms and an
anti-slavery bookstore, the second floor had larger rooms, and the third floor had galleries. The
meetings and the building itself would soon “come under fire” from a pro-slavery mob.
During the time Pennsylvania Hall was being built, pamphlets were circulating
throughout Pennsylvania. The pamphlets called for “citizens who entertain a proper respect for
the right of property” to “interfere, forcibly if they must, and prevent the violation of these
pledges [abolitionists’ pledges].” But despite the threats of violence, the abolitionists were
determined to hold the meetings that they had scheduled for the new building. From May 14
through May 17, 1838, anti–slavery meetings were held while angry mobs gathered just outside
the doors. Rocks were thrown in through the windows and the shouts from outside drowned out
the speeches of people such as William Lloyd Garrison, Maria W. Chapman, and Angelina
Grimke’ Weld. The threat of violence was so intense that on the fourth day, May 17th, the mayor
locked the front doors and cancelled all further meetings, but it was too late.1
On May 17, 1856 a mob of angry pro-slavery supporters broke into Pennsylvania Hall
after it had been locked for the evening. The mob destroyed the building and set it ablaze.
When the mayor and police officers arrived at the Hall to restore order, they were presented with
a united front determined to see their destructive deed to fruition. Even firefighters were made
targets when they attempted to spray water on the building. They were only allowed to keep the
surrounding buildings from meeting the same fate destined for the grand Hall. It was not long
before the Hall built to house the meetings for free speech and equality was completely
destroyed. Newspaper reports later blamed the abolitionists for inciting the violent reaction from
a mob by the encouragement of “race mixing.”2
With regard to the burning… the evening is to be regretted; but at the same time, it
exhibits the outburst of an indignation, springing from the highest sense of justice and
pride, a feeling worthy of Americans – a sense of what is due to their southern brethren
and to their own dignity. We hail the event, painful as it is, as an index of the proper
state of public sentiment, on the subject of abolition at the north. Philadelphia is quiet –
order prevails – peace is restored – and the abolitionists silenced. – We wish it were
forever. - Richmond Compiler3
Accused of setting the fire, Atram E. Frimer was acquitted and showed no remorse.
Frimer had to pay restitution of $2000 for the riot and $1000 for arson, but he served no jail
time.4 The city paid out $27,943.77 in retribution to the Hall trustees, prompting the Liberator to
comment that “the mob dances, and the city pays the piper.”5 The pro-slavery mob’s attempt to
PBS, “Africana in America”, available from; internet; accessed
“With Regard to the Burning of Pennsylvania Hall,..” The Liberator, 29 June 1838.
“Pennsylvania Hall: A Man Named Atram E. Frimer, was yesterday…,” The Liberator, 26 July 1844; “From the
Hampshire Herald: Burning of Pennsylvania Hall,” The Liberator, 18 April 1845.
“Justice At Last,” The Liberator, 24 June 1847.
intimidate abolitionists back fired. The burning of the Pennsylvania Hall “rekindled the desire”
of abolitionists and stimulated the anti-slavery movement across the land. 6 The Hampshire
Herald reported: “and now justice seems as far removed as ever! Who can wonder that such a
people should be visited by the sorest judgments of the Almighty? That Hall was dedicated to
‘the free discussion of tall subjects, not hostile to religion and morality’.”7
People across the nation called for lines to be drawn between pro–slavery advocates and
abolitionists. The Liberator asked: “freemen of Maine, which side of the alternative will you
take?”8 The New York Herald of Freedom wrote: “it stands before a Nation’s sight, a gravestone over buried Right!”9 The New York Evening Post called the event “utter anarchy.”10
Poems were written describing the offense and calling for action;
Oh! Ye, who have a heart – whose spirit knows
Love’s pure, triumphant life – come, hear me tell,
Until your blood with holy anger glows,
What late on Pennsylvania’s shore befell:
A deed which darken to the depths of hell –
A dastard deed, that wears upon it face
A Judas’ love of gain – a cringing down
Below the fiends, at Mammon’s groveling shrine;
A deed of loyalty to Satan’s crown,…
The Lord is on our side – we cannot fear:
He loves the slave. He hears the bondman’s sigh!
But if he rise, and whet his glittering spear,
Where, Saviour! Where shall the oppressor fly
The terror of thy sword – the lightning of thine eye?11
“Burning of Pennsylvania Hall,” The Liberator, 15 June 1838.
“From the Hampshire Herald: Burning Of Pennsylvania Hall,” The Liberator, 18 April 1845
“Burning of Pennsylvania Hall,” The Liberator, 15 June 1838.
“Pennsylvania Hall,” The Colored American, 17 August 1839.
“From the New York Evening Post,” Rhode-Island Republican, 24 April 1839.
“Poetry. Pennsylvania Hall,” The Liberator, 17 April 1840.
It was clear that the abolitionist cause would not burn out so quickly. However, Pennsylvania
was not the only place where pro–slavery supporters tried to ensure their way of life through
The Kansas Territory was established by the Kansas–Nebraska act in May of 1854.
Under this act, Kansas settlers had the option of creating a slave state or a free state. This would
be determined by popular sovereignty. Lawrence, Kansas was settled in 1854 by abolitionists
with the help of the New England Emigrant Aid Company and named after one of its founders,
Mr. A.A. Lawrence of Boston. Southerners were willing to allow the people of Kansas to decide
whether to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. However, they believed that the New
England Emigrant Aid Company was sending anti-slavery supporters to the new territory to
ensure that Kansas would be admitted as a free state. Southerners believed the New England
settlers were unable to live on the frontier and that the aid was an act of aggression. They
encouraged other southerners to move to the Kansas territory and organize themselves
On the morning of May 21, 1856, Mount Oread’s inhabitants (just outside of Lawrence)
were awakened by a force of two hundred armed pro-slavery men. The townspeople had no
opportunity to arm themselves and were forced to surrender the town’s arsenal to the invaders.
Pro-slavery commanders Atchison, Bufford, Stringfellow, and Titus moved down through the
center of the main street where Atchison delivered a speech to his men:
Boys, this day I am a Kickapee Ranger, by G—d. This day we bar [sic] entered
Lawrence with Southern Rights inscribed on our burner, and not one d—d
abolitionist dared to fire a gun. Now, boys, this is the happiest day of my life. We
have entered that d—d town, and taught the d—d abolitionist a Southern lesson
“Southern Politics,” New York Daily Times, 24 November 1856.
that they will remember till the day they die. And now, boys, we will go in
again…[if] a woman take upon herself the garb of a soldier, by carrying a
Sharpe's rifle, then she is no longer worthy of respect. Trample her under year feet
as you would a snake. Come on, boy. Now to your duty to yourselves and your
Southern friends. duty I know you will do. If woman dare stand before yes, blow
them to hell with a chunk of cold lead.13
This was the beginning of the sacking of Lawrence.
First the Free State Hotel was looted and burned. Then came the newspaper offices of
the Herald of Freedom and the Free State; next came the homes and other businesses of
Lawrence. Most of the people involved in the sacking of Lawrence were not residents of
Kansas; they were border ruffians from Missouri, Georgia, and Alabama.14 The ruffians
destroyed Lawrence, killing one hundred and eighty people and causing over $130,000.00 worth
of property damage.15 Seventy three buildings on the main street and over seventy private
properties and barns were destroyed, and one church was burned.16 The Emigrant Aid Company
inhabitants were forced to leave Kansas under the suspicion of being abolitionists.17 As they left,
the border ruffians once more harassed and robbed them of their belongings.18 By September
1856, thousands of refugees had fled Kansas. In April 1857, Secretary Stanton, the acting
Governor of Kansas, announced his intention to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state.19
This sparked a feud between Kansas and Missouri. Loyal anti-slavery supporters in Missouri
vowed to avenge those lost in the massacre at Lawrence.20
“From the Missouri Democrat of June 2: The Sacking of Lawrence,” The Liberator, 4 July 1856; “The Lawrence
Massacre,” The Civil War: The New York Herald, 24 August 1863.
“Kansas Matters,” Farmer’s Cabinet, 5 June 1856.
“Kansas, The Missouri – Kansas Ruffians have everything their…,” The Liberator, 6 June 1856.
“From Lawrence, Kansas. A Correspondent of the Missouri Democrat,“ The Liberator, 16 October 1863.
“Kansas. The Lawrence (Kansas) papers state that several of the…,” The Liberator, 20 July 1855.
“Kansas Matters,” Farmer’s Cabinet, 5 June 1856.
“Secretary Stanton at Lawrence, K.T.,” The Civil War: Weekly Vincennes Gazette, 6 May 1857.
“Kansas and Missouri – The Troubles of the Kansas-Missouri,” African American Newspapers: The Christian
Recorder, 26 September 1863.
There were many views on how best to settle the on-going turmoil. U.S. Congressman
and abolitionist Colonel James Henry Lane said, “discord still existed peace is not at hand. It
will be settled through freedom of discussion, speech and action. Kansas should be a free
state.”21 Senator Wilson of Massachusetts called for, “anti-slavery not through force but through
prayers and noble encouragements. Not from the North’s jealousy, but from a place of love.”
He hoped that “the scenes of sacking Lawrence would not be repeated.”22 Mr. Perrin of
Tennessee said, “the problem facing Kansas can only be settled by the people of Kansas and no
other outside organization or institution. Never permit a minority of the people to dictate a
constitution against the known wishes of the majority.”23 In November of 1857, the United
States government reported: “the constitution and the Union are secure, the north and the south
both faithfully carried out their mutual plan to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”24 Republicans were
not willing to speak of the troubles openly; they wanted to use the conflict as a campaigning
issue in the upcoming 1860 elections.25 The New York Times reported the southern Democratic
views; “the rights of the south had been encroached upon, and her institutions not only menaced,
but directly attacked by the federal government. People of the territory should be left free to
decide for themselves.”26 However, abolitionists were determined to establish Kansas as a free
state. Civil war seemed inevitable. With the threat of war in the air, abolitionists were resolved
to answer the call by saying, “we are ready.”27 They were intent on not allowing pro–slavery
“Important from Kansas: On the Way to Kansas – Speeches of Senator Wilson and E.O. Perrin,” New York Daily
Times, 4 June 1857.
“A Southern Democratic View of the Kansas Question,” The New York Times, 24 November 1857.
“Important from Kansas: On the Way to Kansas – Speeches of Senator Wilson and E.O. Perrin,” New York Daily
Times, 4 June 1857.
“A Southern Democratic View of the Kansas Question,” The New York Times, 24 November 1857.
“Kansas. The Lawrence (Kansas) papers state that several of the…,” The Liberator, 20 July 1855.
violence to crush their ambitious dreams of equality for every man. However, not even the
highest court in the land was safe from violence.
Shortly after Lawrence, Kansas found itself under attack, so did abolitionist Senator
Charles Sumner. On May 19th and 20th, 1856 Sumner concluded his address: The Crime Against
Kansas.28 The address described the outrages committed in “Bleeding Kansas;”
the wrongs of Kansas, where the very shrines of popular institutions…have been
desecrated; where the ballot box…has been plundered; and where the cry “I am an
American citizen” has been interposed in vain against outrage of every kind, even upon
life itself… It is the rape of virgin Territory, compelling it to the hatful embrace of
Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to depraved longing for a new slave state, the
hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the
National Government… FORCE, has been openly employed in compelling Kansas to this
pollution, and all for the sake of political power… the strife is no longer local, but
Sumner placed the responsibility for “Bleeding Kansas” on Senators Stephen A. Douglas of
Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. During the speech, Sumner mocked Senator
Butler’s stuttering problem and said he was: “a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal… not a
proper model for an American senator.” Sumner also said Butler was: “taking a mistress…the
harlot slavery.”30
On May 22, 1856 Preston Brooks, Senator Butler’s nephew, attacked Sumner at his desk
in the house of the Senate.31 Brooks beat Sumner with a light, metal topped cane until the
Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, “Sumner and Brooks, available from, internet; accessed 11 February 2010.
“The Crime Against Kansas: The Apologies for the Crime: The True Remedy: Speech of Charles Sumner, of
Massachusetts, in the Senate of the United States, May 18, 1856”; available from; internet; accessed 11 March 2010.
Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, “Sumner and Brooks, available from, internet; accessed 11 February 2010.
Senator was unconscious, proving just how wide the sectional divide had become.32 Mr. Wilson,
an eye witness to the account, reported:
My colleague remained in his seat engaged in public duties… Mr. Preston S. Brooks, a
member of the House from South Carolina, approached him unobserved, and abruptly
addressed him. Looking up... he received a stunning blow on the head from the cane in
the hands of Mr. Brooks, which made him almost senseless and unconscious…in rising
from his chair, his desk was overthrown; and while in that powerless condition he was
beaten upon the head and shoulders by repeated blows…he sank upon the floor of the
Senate, exhausted, unconscious and covered with his own blood.33
No other Senator in the house rose in the defense of Sumner that day.34 A Dr. Bunting of
Montreal, Canada, was sitting in the Senate gallery on the day of the assault. He witnessed
Preston Brooks approaching Senator Sumner and speaking to him in a low tone of voice. When
Sumner raised his head to listen to Brooks, he received “numerous blows…laying bare his skull
with wounds three to five inches long.” Dr. Bunting also witnessed the complicity of Mr. Keitt:
“while the assault was progressing Mr. Keitt stood with one hand flourishing a large cane to keep
off any person disposed to interface, with the other hand holding a pistol behind him partially
under the flap of his coat.”35 A special committee was formed to investigate the assault, but
every member of the committee was politically opposed to Senator Sumner’s speech. One
investigator was the Mr. Keitt, alleged accomplice to the assault.36 On July 8, 1856 a grand jury
indicted Preston Brooks for the assault of Senator Charles Sumner. After pleading guilty,
Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, “Sumner and Brooks, available from, internet; accessed 11 February 2010.
No headline, Farmer’s Cabinet, 29 May 1856.
Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, “Sumner and Brooks, available from, internet; accessed 11 February 2010.
“Statement of an Eye Witness,” The Liberator, 6 June 1856.
“U.S. Senate: Committee: Senator Sumner; House; Mr. Herbert; California,” Farmer’s Cabinet, 29 May 1856.
Brooks was charged a $300.00 fine.37 Brooks resigned from the House and was unanimously reelected sixteen days later.38 Sumner was unable to return to his duties.39
Preston Brooks’ assault on Senator Charles Sumner may have been privately motivated,
but because of tensions between pro-slavery supporters and anti-slavery supporters, the assault
had larger implications. Of course, most Southern sentiments were favorable of Preston Brooks’
actions. The Richmond Enquirer reported:
At Charleston, testimonials have been ordered by the friends of Mr. Brooks, and the cane,
it is said, is to bear the inscription, 'Hit him again!'At the Columbia meeting, which
appears to have been participated in by prominent cavaliers, one Bellinger, whose speech
is much praised, said that 'he considered the castigation applied at the right time, in the
right place, on the right individual, by the right man, and with the right instrument— that
instrument with which we chastise the objects of Senator Sumner's false-hearted
benevolence and hypocritical humanity, when they become insolvent.40
However, not all Southerners shared these sentiments. The Charlottesville (Va.) Advocate
We regard the whole affair…to be an outrage of all propriety of conduct, whether
regarded as a public act, or simply as a personal assault by a private citizen. We can
never endorse by our voice, much less by a formal presentation of silver plate, anyone
who would so outrage the dignity of official position or so disregard fair play, as to make
a violent assault with a cane upon an unarmed man whilst sitting at his desk, totally
unprepared to defend himself, and unwarned of the meditated attack. We cannot believe
that the South…will do otherwise than condemn the act. If Mr. Brooks had been a
Northern man, and Mr. Sumner from a slave State, not one voice would be found in the
whole South to justify the same conduct which many of us are approving is pubic,
meeting, and by the presentation of silver plates.41
Once again pro-slavery violence had incited a national debate and kept the abolitionists moving
forward in their quest to rid slavery in every state.
Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, “Sumner and Brooks, available from, internet; accessed 11 February 2010.
“Refuge of Oppression. From the Richmond Enquirer, June 2. It Sumner Discipline – The Needful Remedy,” The
Liberator, 13 June 1856.
“The Charlottesville (Va.) Advocate, commenting upon the…,” The Liberator, 29 August 1856.
In retrospect, radical pro-slavery violence only increased the determination of
abolitionists. Each violent act perpetrated against the anti–slavery movement was met with
unwavering tenacity to end the slaveholders’ inhumane treatment of the African American
population. Despite burnings, sackings, and beatings, abolitionists remained steadfast in their
resolve. Ultimately pro–slavery violence and intimidation did not win out.