I stand before you as a southerner, exiled from the land of my birth, by the sound of the lash, and the piteous cry of the slave.
Angelina Grimké spoke in a voice that had never been heard before in the State House of Boston. It wasn't her words themselves, as many in the legislature were sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, but her very presence. It was a cold day, February 21, 1838, sixty-two years after independence had been declared, and finally a woman was addressing a legislative body in the United States.
Angelina Grimké was indeed not only a southerner, raised in Charleston,
South Carolina, but part of an aristocratic slave-holding family. When
she spoke of the sound of the lash, the cry of the slave, those images
came not from a neighboring plantation but from her own upbringing.
She said: I stand before you as a repentant slaveholder.
A Call to Reform
It was her sister, Sarah, who brought the light of abolition first to Angelina’s eyes. Sarah had traveled north in 1819 with her ailing father to help him find rest and care, and the journey opened her eyes. Befriending Quakers, she decided to stay in Philadelphia, even after her father died, returning to her home only long enough to convince Angelina of slavery's ills before traveling north again.
Angelina did not at first join her. Instead, she felt called to protest within the system itself. Her radical stance found few open ears and drove a deep wedge between Angelina and her own family. By 1829 things had gotten so bad that she moved north to join her sister in Philadelphia.
In 1835 Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and her world soon changed forever.
I stand before you as a moral being, endowed with precious and inalienable rights, which are correlative with solemn duties and high responsibilities. . . .
A Call to Women
For Angelina, her abolitionist views were not just an emotional feeling or a reasoned opinion; they were fully derived from her faith as a Christian woman. Slavery was appalling to God, a sin from which our country needed cleansing and possibly even saving. Revolutionary in her thinking, however, was the notion that it was the nation's women who were duty-bound to end it. In 1836 she penned her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, a sermon-like pamphlet that spelled out her evangelical call. The pamphlet's epigraph was taken directly from the book of Esther and the peasant queen's decision to ask for the deliverance of her people. It was the core scriptural example at the heart of her ministry, her voice, her cause.
And as a moral being I feel that I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crime, built up upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.
The Movement Enlarges
Following her pamphlet, Angelina, joined by her sister Sarah, began speaking on slavery to groups of women throughout New York. As former eyewitnesses, their provocative accounts were hugely engaging, and soon, what had been planned as merely small gatherings became something more. The women toured the northern states appealing with ever-growing boldness for not only the abolition of slavery but the cause of the nation’s women to bring it about.
Their notoriety, fame, and boldness soon brought not only criticism of their antislavery message but a rising tide of sexism as well. Women were not supposed to behave this way. They were overstepping their bounds. They were, many from the pulpit cried, violating the role of the submissive woman so obviously spelled out in the New Testament.
Their cause now became twofold. Defending the cause of freedom on one side and the rights of women on the other, the Grimké sisters were now constantly attacked, even from within their own abolitionist ranks. They had been too bold. Sarah Grimké’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, which demanded equal rights and education and drew parallels between the treatment of women and slaves, was almost universally detested.
At the same time, Angelina managed to find a ray of happiness in all the tumult. For years she had privately loved one of her abolitionist mentors, Theodore Weld, and he finally took the bold act of confessing that he shared her feelings. United in their common cause, they discovered a unity much deeper and were eventually married.
Persevering through Persecution
Just two days after the wedding, Angelina Grimké gave her final speech on May 16, 1838, in Philadelphia. Great protests greeted her, and in the middle of her speech an enormous mob shattered windows and threw rocks. The crowd looked concerned but Angelina pushed on:
"We often hear the question asked: 'What shall we do?' Here is an opportunity for doing something now. Every man and every woman present may do something by showing that we fear not a mob, and, in the midst of threatenings and revilings, by opening our mouths for the dumb and pleading the cause of those who are ready to perish."
Following this speech, Angelina Grimké and Theodore Weld, joined by her sister, Sarah, began a new phase of their abolitionist efforts. In 1839 Weld, with his wife's assistance, wrote American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Voices, a chilling, honest, and brutal look at the deep horrors that slaves faced daily. This foundational book for the antislavery movement inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, motivating even more men and women to the cause. Now seen as mentors for the upcoming generation, Grimké and Weld turned their strengths to teaching others and equipping many for the spreading of both God's Word and the cause of freedom. Together this couple never wavered in leading the cause of abolition. They faced abuse and threats and beatings but continued to find their strength in God’s cause, living with a tenacity that continues to inspire.
From Angelina’s Appeal to Christian Women
We must come back to the good old doctrine of our forefathers who declared to the world, "this self evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.". . . If it is a self-evident truth that all men, everywhere and of every color, are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage and held as a slave, however fair may be the claim of his master or mistress through wills and title-deeds.
But some slave holders have said, "we were never in bondage to any man," and therefore the yoke of bondage would be insufferable to us, but slaves are accustomed to it, their backs are fitted to the burden. Well, I am willing to admit that you who have lived in freedom would find slavery even more oppressive than the poor slave does, but then you may try this question in another form--Am I willing to reduce my little child to slavery? You know that if it is brought up a slave it will never know any contrast, between freedom and bondage, its back will become fitted to the burden just as the negro child’s does—not by nature—but by daily, violent pressure….I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? …Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting? Try yourselves by another of the Divine precepts, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Can we love a man as we love ourselves if we do, and continue to do unto him, what we would not wish any one to do to us?
But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject?
We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power
is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we
wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but
I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters
of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow
slavery, you are greatly mistaken. You can read on this subject. You can
pray over this subject. You can speak on this subject. You can act on
this subject. I have not placed reading before praying because I regard
it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand
what we are praying for; it is only then we can "pray with the understanding
and the spirit also."
--From Angelina E. Grimké’s Appeal To The Christian Women of the South (New York: New York Anti-Slavery Society, 1836)
Abolition: An Inflammatory Issue; Conflagration
In the year 1837, the societies for promoting the abolition of slavery had become sufficiently established to require some better means of enforcing their peculiar doctrines.…It was almost impossible for them to obtain places for holding their meetings without difficulty, and some of the leaders of the party determined that they would have a hall of their own.…They built a fine and capacious building, which they dedicated to free discussion, and called “Pennsylvania Hall.” …The day of the dedication of the hall was the 14th of May .
On the evening of the 15th, written placards were posted in different parts of the city… [which] suggested that citizens should assemble at Pennsylvania Hall on the next morning.… [That] night persons evidently of riotous disposition were in the streets…the mayor endeavoured to persuade the managers of the hall to give up the night meetings…but they refused to comply. Toward the evening of the 17th, crowds began to assemble near the hall.…The mayor with a police force came upon the scene.
Before long the police were assaulted… fires had been kindled in
three places.…The gas pipes had been broken, and gas was leaking
out into the room ready to assist the flames [which] soon attained headway
and became furious. Firemen who repaired to the scene upon the alarm being
given were deterred by threats…under the effect of fire and water
the granite pillars on Sixth Street…crumbled away and the whole
front came down. The managers of the hall estimated their loss at one
hundred thousand dollars.
--from Scharf and Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1884.