“Persecution Makes Converts.” Despite how we embrace them today, abolitionists were fringe actors in their day, resisted even by neighbors as “fanatics” and “monomaniacs.” My book Embattled Freedom gives some examples of the hostility. Recently I came upon a fresh example during an author trip up to Northeastern Pennsylvania. This account was written up by the Bradford County (Pa.) Historical Society, in a 2004 journal devoted to the county’s black history. The article described an ugly incident that occurred in 1839 in the county seat of Towanda. It seems that some fifty members of “the rowdy class” crashed a meeting that the newborn Bradford County Anti-Slavery Society was holding right inside the county courthouse. An old-timer, who’d attended as a boy, gave an account of it in 1913. He said the rowdies stood in the back heckling and producing grating noise with a crooked stick that they rolled back and forth with their feet. Soon a basket of rotten apples was produced from the rear. The rowdies took dead aim at the abolitionists and then at the candles lighting the room. He said one victim who was hit in the face with an apple felt the attackers “were helping our cause along” because “persecution makes converts. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The meeting devolved—and the courthouse locked its doors to future abolitionist meetings. Local churches also turned down the society’s requests to use their sanctuaries. “The friends of liberty” would resort to meeting in a member’s barn, sitting on planks and in the hayloft. They persisted, and history would see them through.
“The Instincts of Nature Rebel.” It was good to hear the widespread condemnation of white supremacy in the wake of the Charlottesville horrors, but I found some of it to be historically naïve. “You are anything but a patriot,” Virginia’s governor said of the alt-righters. AG Jeff Sessions said the violent racists “betray our core values.”
Actually, fellows, for much of U.S. history white supremacy ruled the land, politically and socially, north and south. Even where slavery was in disfavor, even in “polite society” where the supremacists weren’t militant, white superiority was a core value. In the decades before the Civil War, belief in an American “white republic” gained political force. That was certainly the case in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the epicenter of Embattled Freedom. In 1838, for instance, the region’s delegates pressed to repeal black voting rights in the state constitution by declaring “the Government was made by white men, and it must be preserved by white men.” Black people “are a caste, and to confer suffrage on them would be political amalgamation. Against amalgamation in all its monstrous and hideous aspects the instincts of nature rebel.” In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1863—in the middle of the Civil War—the region’s powerful Democratic organ said the party stood for “continuing this government as framed by their fathers—a government of whites for the benefit of themselves and their posterity forever.” It’s taken dogged reformers, federal laws, and occasional martyrs to bend us toward justice. But across much of our nation’s history, white supremacy was considered mainstream and patriotic.
Book News. As summer winds down, speaking season gears up again. Below is my upcoming author schedule through next February—sixteen events and counting. Hope to see you at one of them! Also, please share with friends who might be interested. And if your school, congregation, civic group or even book club is interested in a booking, let me know.
-SEPT. 6 (Wednesday), 7:30 p.m. – Rydal Park Senior Center, 1515 The Fairway, Jenkintown, Pa. 19046
-SEPT. 10 (Sunday), 3:30 p.m. – Forty Fort Meeting House lecture series, River Street and Wyoming Avenue, Forty Fort, Pa. 18704
-SEPT. 23 (Saturday), 10:30 a.m. – Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa. 18657
-SEPT. 26 (Tuesday), 7 p.m. – First United Presbyterian Church of Lackawanna County, 1557 Main St., Peckville, Pa. 18452
-SEPT. 27 (Wednesday), noon – The Gathering Place for Community, Arts and Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
-SEPT. 28 (Thursday), 12:10 p.m. – Rotary Club of the Abingtons, at Ramada Inn, 820 Northern Blvd., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
-OCT. 5 (Thursday), 7 p.m. – Abington Community Library, 1200 W. Grove St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
-OCT. 6 (Friday), 1:30 p.m. – Annual Northeast Pennsylvania History Conference, at Luzerne County Community College, Educational Conference Center, 1333 S. Prospect St., Nanticoke, Pa. 18634
-OCT. 7 (Saturday), 10 a.m.-4 p.m. – Collingswood Book Festival, downtown Collingswood, N.J. 08108
-NOV. 21 (Tuesday), 2:30 p.m. – Presby’s Inspired Life Senior Community, 404 Cheswick Place, Rosemont, Pa. 19010
-NOV. 29 (Wednesday), 5:30 p.m. – University of Scranton Schemel Forum lecture series, Weinberg Memorial Library, 815 Linden St, Scranton, Pa. 18510
-FEB. 4 (Sunday), 1:30 p.m. – Black History Month talk, G.A.R. Museum and Library, 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia 19124
-FEB. 6 (Tuesday), 6:30 p.m. – Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania, at Holiday Inn Conference Center, 7736 Adrienne Drive, Breinigsville, Pa. 18031
-FEB. 7 (Wednesday), 1 p.m. – Wallenpaupack Historical Society, at Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center, 126 PPL Drive, Hawley, Pa. 18428
-FEB. 8 (Thursday), 7:15 p.m. – Old Baldy Civil War Roundtable, at Camden County College, Connector Bldg., 200 College Drive, Blackwood, N.J. 08012
-FEB. 15 (Thursday), 6 p.m. — Luzerne County Historical Society, 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18701