Document 7: Harriet Martineau, excerpts from The Martyr Age of the United States (Boston: Weeks, Jordan, 1839). Reprinted in Deborah Anna Logan, ed., Writings on Slavery and the American Civil War (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002), pp. 44-80.
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin.
Original source: Evert A. Duyckinick, Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and
Women in Europe and America (New York: Johnson, Wilson, 1873).
In her book about the American antislavery movement, Harriet Martineau emphasized women's leadership within the American Anti-Slavery Society and their courage in the face of hostile pro-slavery mobs. Such pro-slavery mobs were virtually unknown in England, where Parliament abolished slavery in the British colonies in 1833. Whereas most clergymen in England, Scotland, and Wales opposed slavery, most clergymen in the northern as well as southern United States opposed the anti-slavery movement. Martineau sympathized with women in the American antislavery movement who publicly opposed such strong pro-slavery opinion. Although she may not have known it at the time, Martineau's narration about these antislavery women also described the emergence of the women's rights movement in the United States.
There is a remarkable set of people now living and vigorously acting in the world, with a consonance of will and understanding which has perhaps never been witnessed among so large a number of individuals of such diversified powers, habits, opinions, tastes and circumstances. The body comprehends men and women of every shade of color, of every degree of education, of every variety of religious opinion, of every gradation of rank, bound together by no vow, no pledge, no stipulation but of each preserving his individual liberty; and yet they act as if they were of one heart and of one soul. Such union could be secured by no principle of worldly interest; nor, for a terms of years, by the most stringent fanaticism. A well-grounded faith, directed towards a noble object, is the only principle which can account for such a spectacle as the world is now waking up to contemplate in the abolitionists of the United States.
Before we fix our attention on the history of the body, it may be remarked that it is a totally different thing to be an abolitionist on a soil actually trodden by slaves, and in a far-off country, where opinion is already on the side of emancipation, or ready to be converted; where only a fraction of society, instead of the whole, has to be convicted of guilt; and where no interests are put in jeopardy but pecuniary ones, and those limited and remote. Great honor is due to the first movers in the anti-slavery cause in every land: but those of European countries may take rank with the philanthropists of America who may espouse the cause of the aborigines: while the primary abolitionists of the United States have encountered, with steady purpose, such opposition as might here await assailants of the whole set of aristocratic institutions at once, from the throne to pauper apprenticeship. Slavery is as thoroughly interwoven with American institutions--ramifies as extensively through American society, as the aristocratic spirit pervades Great Britain. The fate of Reformers whose lives are devoted to making war upon either the one or the other must be remarkable.
* * *
We have arrived at the most remarkable period of the great struggle, when an equal share of its responsibility and suffering came to press upon women. We have seen how men first engaged in it, and how young men afterwards, as a separate element, were brought in. Many women had joined from the first, and their numbers had continually increased: but their exertions had hitherto consisted in raising funds, and in testifying sympathy for the colored race and their advocates. Their course of political action, which has never since been checked, began in the autumn of 1835.
The Female Anti-Slavery Society in Boston is composed of women of every rank, and every religious sect, as well as of all complexions. The president is a Presbyterian; the chief secretary is a Unitarian; and among the other officers and members may be found Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Swedenborgians. All sectarian jealousy is lost in the great cause; and these women have, from the first day of their association, preserved, not only harmony, but strong mutual affection, while differing on matters of opinion as freely and almost as widely as if they had kept within the bosom of their respective sects. Upon such a set of women was the responsibility thrown of vindicating the liberty of meeting and of free discussion in Boston; and nobly they sustained it.
Before we proceed, it is necessary to say a few words upon the most remarkable of these women,--the understood author of the books whose title stand at the head of our article. Maria Weston was educated in England, and might have remained here in the enjoyment of wealth, luxury, and fashion: but with these she could not obtain sufficient freedom of thought and action to satisfy her noble nature; and, no natural ties detaining her, she returned to New England, to earn her bread there by teaching, and breathe as freely as she desired. She has paid a heavy tax of persecution for her freedom; but she has it. She is a woman of rare intellectual accomplishment, full of reading, and with strong and well exercised powers of thought. She is beautiful as the day, tall in her person, and noble in her carriage, with a voice as sweet as a silver bell, and speech as clear and sparkling as a running brook. Her accomplishments have expanded in a happy home. She has been for some years the wife of Mr. Henry Chapman, a merchant of Boston, an excellent man, whose spirit of self-denial is equal to his wife's, and is shown no less nobly in the same cause. A woman of genius like her's cannot but take the lead wherever she acts at all; and she is the life and soul of the enterprise in Boston. The foes of the cause have nicknamed her "Captain Chapman"; and the name passes from mouth to mouth as she walks up Washington street,--not less admired, perhaps, all the while than if she were only the most beautiful woman in the city. The lady, with all her sisters, took her ground early, and has always had sober reason to plead for every one of her many extensions of effort. She is understood to have drawn up the petition which follows,--a fair specimen of the multitudes of petitions from women which have been piled up under the table of Congress, till the venerable John Quincy Adams has been roused to the remarkable conflict which we shall presently have to relate.In answer to objections against such petitioning, the author of Right and Wrong in Boston says--
Petition. To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled, The undersigned, women of Massachusetts, deeply convinced of the sinfulness of slavery, and keenly aggrieved by its existence in a part of our country over which Congress possess exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever, do most earnestly petition you honorable body immediately to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and to declare every human being free who sets foot upon its soil.
We also respectfully announce our intention to present the same petition yearly before your honorable body, that it may at least be a "memorial of us," that in the holy cause of Human Freedom "we have done what we could."
If we are not enough grieved at the existence of slavery to ask that it may be abolished in the ten miles over which Congress has exclusive jurisdiction, we may rest assured that we are slave-holders in heart, and indeed under the endurance of the penalty which selfishness inflicts,--the slow but certain death of the soul. We sometimes, but not often, hear it said, "It is such an odd, unladylike thing to do!" We concede that the human soul, in the full exercises of its most god-like power of self-denial and exertion for the good of others, is emphatically, a very unladylike thing. We have never heard this objection but from that sort of woman who is dead while she lives, or to be pitied as the victim of domestic tyranny. The woman who makes it is generally one who has struggled from childhood up to womanhood through a process of spiritual suffocation. Her infancy was passed in serving as a convenience for the display of elegant baby-linen. Her youth, in training for a more public display of braiding the hair, and wearing of gold, and putting on of apparel; while the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,--the hidden man of the heart, is not deemed worthy the attainment. Her summers fly away in changes of air and water; her winters in changes of flimsy garments, in inhaling-lampsmoke, and drinking champagne at midnight with the most dissipated men in the community. This is the woman who tells us it is unladylike to ask that children may no longer be sold away from their parents, or wives from their husbands, in the district of Columbia, and adds, "They ought to be mobbed who ask it."...O how painful is the contemplation of the ruins of a nature a little lower than the angels!--Right and Wrong in Boston in 1836, p. 27.
"We feel," she elsewhere declares,
that we may confidently affirm that no woman of Massachusetts will cease to exercise for the slaves the right of petition (her only means of manifesting her civil existence) for which Mr. Adams has so nobly contended. Massachusetts women will not forget in their petitions to Heaven the name of him who upheld their prayer for the enslaved of the earth, in the midst of sneers and wrath, bidding oppressors remember that they, too, were women-born, and declaring that he considered the wives, and mothers, and daughters of his electors, as his constituents.... What immediate effect would be produced on men's hearts, and how much they might be moved to wrath before they were touched with repentance, we have never been careful to inquire. We leave such cares with God; we do so with confidence in his paternal providence; for what we have done is right and womanly.--Right and Wrong in Boston in 1837, p. 84.
To consult on their labors of this and other kinds, the ladies of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society intended to meet at their own office, Washington street, on the 21st of October. Handbills had been circulated and posted up in different parts of the city the day before, offering a reward to any persons who would commit certain acts of violence,--such as "bring Thompson to the tar-kettle before dark." The ladies were informed that they would be killed; and when they applied at the Mayor's office for protection to their lawful meeting, the City Marshal replied,--"You give us a great deal of trouble." This trouble, however, their consciences compelled them to give. They could not decline the duty of asserting their liberty of meeting and free discussion. But Mrs. Chapman felt that every member should have notice of what might await her; and she herself carried the warning from house to house, with all discretion and quietness. Among those whom she visited was an artizan's wife, who was sweeping out one of her two rooms as Mrs. Chapman entered. On hearing that there was every probability of violence, and that the warning was given in order that she might stay away if she thought proper, she leaned upon her broom and considered for awhile. Her answer was--"I have often wished and asked that I might be able to do something for the slaves; and it seems to me that this is the very time and the very way. You will see me at the meeting and I will keep a prayerful mind, as I am about my work, till then."
Twentyfive reached the place of meeting by presenting themselves three-quarters of an hour before the time. Five more struggled up the stairs, and a hundred were turned back by the mob. It is well known how these ladies were mobbed by some hundreds of gentlemen in fine broad-cloth--(Boston broad-cloth has become celebrated since that day.) It is well known how those gentlemen hurraed, broke down the partition, and threw orange-peel at the ladies while they were at prayer; but Mrs. Chapman's part in the lessons of that hour has not been made public. [Here follows Chapman's confrontation with the mayor, after which the women adjourn, having finished their business. When the mob comes to her home later that night seeking George Thompson, Chapman turns them away.]
The women who were at the meeting of this memorable day were worthy of the occasion, not from being strong enough to follow the lead of such a woman as Maria Chapman, but from having a strength independent of her. The reason of Garrison being there was, that he went to escort his young wife, who was near her confinement. She was one of the last to depart, and it could not be concealed from her that her husband was in the hands of the mob. She stepped out of the window upon a shed, in the fearful excitement of the moment. He was in the extremest danger. His hat was lost, and brick-bats were rained upon his head, while he was hustled along in the direction of the tar-kettle, which was heating in the next street. The only words which escaped from the white lips of the young wife were,--"I think my husband will not deny his principles: I am sure my husband will never deny his principles." Garrison was rescued by a stout truck-man, and safely lodged in jail (the only place in which he could be secure,) without having in the least flinched from the consequences of his principles. The differences in the minds of these women, and the view which they all agree to take of the persecution to which they are subjected, may be best shown in the eloquent words of the author of Right and Wrong:...
A few more years of danger and intense exertion, and the South and the North will unite in reading the Constitution by the light from above, thrown on it by the Declaration of Independence, and not by the horrible glare of the slave code. The cause of freedom will ere long become the popular one; and a voice of regret will be heard throughout the land from those who will have forgotten these days of misrepresentation and danger--"Why was not I among the early abolitionist!" Let us be deeply grateful that we are among the early called. Let us pray God to forgive the men who would deface every feature of a Christian community by making it personally dangerous to fulfill a Christian woman's duty; to forgive the man who sneers at the sympathy for the oppressed implanted by the Spirit of God in the heart of the mother that bore and cherished his infancy--of the wife, the helpmate of his manhood, and of the daughter whom that same quality of womanly devotedness would lead to shield his grey head with her own bosom....--Right and Wrong, vol. ii. pp. 81-83.
"Angelina E. Grimke." Who is she? She and her sister Sarah are Quaker ladies of South Carolina. Our author says of their visit to Boston, to act and speak in this cause--"It might have been anticipated that they would have met with a friendly reception from those calling themselves the better sort, for they were highly connected. Unfortunately they were but women, though misfortune of that fact was greatly abated by their being sisters of the Hon. Thos. S. Grimke." This gentleman was, in point of scholarship, the greatest ornament of the United States, and his character was honored by the whole community. After his death, his sisters strove by all the means which could be devised by powerful intellects and kind hearts to meliorate the condition of the slaves they had inherited. In defiance of the laws, they taught them, and introduced upon their estates as many as possible of the usages of free society. But it would not do. There is no infusing into slavery the benefits of freedom. When these ladies had become satisfied of this fact, they surrendered their worldly interests instead of their consciences. They freed their slaves, and put them in the way of providing for themselves in a free region, and then retired to Philadelphia, to live on the small remains of their former opulence. It does not appear that they had any intention of coming forward publicly, as they have since done; but the circumstance of their possessing the knowledge, which other abolitionists want, of the minute details and less obvious workings of the slavery system, was the occasion of their being applied to, more and more frequently and extensively, for information, till they publicly placed their knowledge at the service of all who needed it, and at length began to lecture wherever there was an audience who requested to hear them. Their Quaker habits of speaking in public rendered this easy to them; and the exertion of their great talents in this direction has been of most essential service to the cause. It was before they adopted this mode of action that the public first became interested in these ladies, through a private letter written by Angelina to her friend Garrison--a letter which he did his race the kindness to publish, and which strengthened even the great man's strong heart. We give the greater part of it:--
I can hardly express to thee the deep and solemn interest with which I have viewed the violent proceedings of the last few weeks. Although I expected opposition, yet I was not prepared for it so soon--it took me by surprise, and I greatly feared the abolitionists would be driven back in the first onset, and thrown into confusion. So fearful was I, that though I clung with unflinching firmness to our principles, yet I was afraid of even opening one of thy papers, lest I should see some indications of a compromise, some surrender, some palliation. Under these feelings I was induced to read thy appeal to the citizens of Boston. Judge, then, what were my feelings, on finding that my fears were utterly groundless, and that thou stoodest firm in the midst of the storm, determined to suffer and to die, rather than yield one inch....
My mind has been especially turned towards those who are standing in the forefront of the battle; and the prayer has gone up for their preservation--not the preservation of their lives, but the preservation of their minds in humility and patience, faith, hope, and charity--that charity which is the bond of perfectness. If persecution is the means which God has ordained for the accomplishment of this great end, Emancipation, then, in dependence upon him for strength to bear it, I feel as if I should say, let it come; for it is my deep, solemn, deliberate conviction, that this is a cause worth dying for.
At one time I thought this system would be overthrown in blood, with the confused noise of the warrior; but a hope gleams across my mind that our blood will be spilt, instead of the slaveholders'; our lives will be taken, and theirs spared:--I say a hope, for all things I desire to be spared the anguish of seeing our beloved country desolated with the horrors of a servile war. A. E. Grimke.
In answer to an overwhelming pressure of invitations, these ladies have lectured in upwards of sixty towns of the Untied States to overflowing audiences. Boston itself has listened to them with reverence. Some of the consequences of their exertions will be noticed as we proceed: meantime we must give our author's report of this novelty in the method of proceeding:--
The idea of a woman's teaching was a startling novelty, even to abolitionists; but their principled and habitual reverence for the freedom of individual action induced them to a course unusual among men--to examine before they condemned. Only a short examination was needed to convince them that the main constituents in the relation of teacher and taught are ignorance on one side and knowledge on the other. They had been too long accustomed to hear the Bible quoted in defence of slavery, to be astonished that its authority should be claimed for the subjugation of women the moment she should act for the enslaved. The example and teaching of the Grimkes wrought conviction as to the rights and consequent duties of women in the minds of multitudes. Prejudices and ridiculous associations of ideas vanished. False interpretations of scripture disappeared. Probably our children's children, our sons no less than our daughters, will dwell on the memory of these women, as the descendents of the bondman of to-day will cherish the name of Garrison.--Right and Wrong, Vol. iii. p. 61.
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In Massachusetts alone there was an accession of twenty societies during this year. The report says:
Five of them are of females. Our opposers affect to sneer at their co-operation; but we welcome, and are grateful for it. The influence of woman never was, never will be, insignificant; it is dreaded by those who would be thought to contemn it. Men have always been eager to secure their cooperation. We hail it as most auspicious of our success that so many faithful and zealous women have espoused the anti-slavery cause in this republic. Events of the past year have proved that those who have associated themselves with us will be helpmates indeed; for they are animated by a spirit that can brave danger, endure hardship, and face a frowning world.
It is impossible, in a sketch like the present, to enumerate the acts of violence, or to describe the mobs with which the abolitionists have had to contend. At Canaan, in New Hampshire, there was an academy, to which some benevolent persons had procured admission for about twelve young men of color. All seemed to be going on well, when a town meeting was called, and it was resolved to put a stop to the instruction of people of color. Three hundred citizens assembled one morning, provided with ropes and rollers, and fairly rolled away the Noyes Academy over the boundary of the State. At Cincinnati the gentry disgraced themselves by a persecution of Mr. Birney, which caused the destruction of his office, press, and types, but which terminated in the triumph of his moral power over their brute force. At St. Louis, in Missouri, a mulatto, named M'Intosh, was burned alive under circumstances of deep atrocity; and because he was heard to pray as his limbs were slowly consuming, he was pronounced by the magistrates to be in league with the abolitionists. The gentlemen of Charleston broke open the post-office, and burned the mails in the street, on the charge of their containing anti-slavery papers. Such were a few of the events of the year 1836.
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During the second week of May was held the first General Convention of Women that was ever assembled. Modest as were its pretensions, and quietly as it was conducted, it will stand as a great event in history--from the nature of the fact itself, and probably from the importance of its consequences. "This," says the Report, reasonably enough, "was the beginning of an examination of the claims and character of their clergy, which will end only with a reformation, hardly less startling or less needed than that of Luther."
The Convention met at New York, and consisted of one hundred and seventyfour delegates, from all parts of the Union. Lucretia Mott, an eminent Quaker preacher of Philadelphia,--a woman of an intellect as sound and comprehensive as her heart is noble--presided. The Convention sat for three successive days; and, by means of wise preparation, and the appointment of sub-committees, transacted a great deal of business. Some fine addresses, to different classes interested in the question, were prepared by the sub-committees, and a plan of political action and other operations fixed on for the year. One resolution was passed to the effect that it was immoral to separate persons of color from the rest of society, and especially in churches; and that the members of the Convention pledged themselves to procure for the colored people, if possible, an equal choice with themselves of sittings in churches; and, where this was not possible, to take their seats with the despised class. Another resolution was to this effect, "that whereas our fathers, husbands, and brothers have devoted themselves to the rescue of the enslaved, at the risk of ease, reputation, and life, we, their daughters, wives and sisters, honoring their conduct, hereby pledge ourselves to uphold them by our sympathy, to share their sacrifices, and vindicate their characters." After having discharged their function, and gained some strength of heart and entitlement of mind by their agreement in feeling and differences of opinion, these women went home, to meet again the next year in Philadelphia.
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As no degree of violence directed to break up the meetings of the Ladies' Society, was too strong for the consciences of certain of the gentlemen of Boston, so no device was clearly too low for their purpose of hindering utterance. When they found they could not stop the women's tongues by violence, they privily sprinkled cayenne-pepper on the stove of their place of meeting, thus compelling them to cough down their own speakers. . . . [discusses clergy's resistance to women abolitionists, followed by Chapman's response]:
"Women of New England! We are told of our powerful indirect influence; our claim on man's gallantry and chivalry. We would not free all the slaves in Christendom by indirection--such indirection. We trust to be strengthened for any sacrifices in their cause; but we may not endanger our own souls for their redemption. Let our influence be open and direct: such as our husbands will not blush to see us exercise."--["]When clergyman plead usage and immemorial custom in favor of unutterable wrong, and bid us keep silence for courtesy, and put the enginery of church organization in play as a hindrance to our cause, and not as a help, our situation calls for far more strenuous exertion than when, in 1835, the freedom of the women of Boston was vilely bartered away in the merchant-thronged street. Our situation is as much more perilous now, as spiritual is more dreadful than temporal outrage. We have no means to strengthen and nourish our spirits but by entertaining and obeying the free Spirit of God."--"As yet our judgment is unimpaired by hopes of the favor, and our resolution undamped by the fear of the host who oppose us. As yet our hearts are not darkened by the shadow of unkindness. We listen to clerical appeals, and religious magazines, and the voices of an associated clergy, as though we heard them not, so full on the ear of every daughter among us falls the cry of the fatherless and those who have none to help them--so full in every motherly heart and eye rises the image of one pining in captivity, who cannot be comforted because her children are not."--Right and Wrong in Boston, iii. pp. 73, 75, 86.
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The second General Convention of Women was held, as appointed, at Philadelphia, in the spring of the present year. Once, again, has the intrepidity of these noble Christian women been put to the proof; the outrages in this "city of brotherly love" having been the most fearful to which they have yet been exposed. The cause of this extraordinary violence of this year is to be found in the old maxim that men hate those whom they have injured. The State Convention, which had been employed for many previous months in preparing a new constitution for Pennsylvania, had deprived the citizens of color of the political rights which they had held (but rarely dared to exercise) under the old constitution. Having done this injury, the perpetrators, and those who assented to their act, were naturally on the watch against those whom they had oppressed, and were jealous of every movement. When the abolitionists began to gather to their Convention, when the liberal part of the Quaker population came abroad, and were seen greeting their fellow-emancipators in the city of Penn--when the doors of the fine new building, Pennsylvania Hall, were thrown open, and the people of color were seen flocking thither, with hope in their faces, and with heads erect, in spite of the tyranny of the new laws, the hatred of their oppressors grew too violent for restraint. It was impossible to find reasonable and true causes of complaint against any of the parties concerned in the Convention, and falsehoods were therefore framed and circulated. Even these falsehoods were of a nature which makes it difficult for people on this side of the Atlantic to understand how they should be used as a pretext for such an excess of violence as succeeded. The charge against the abolitionists was that they ostentatiously walked the streets arm-in-arm with people of color. They did not do this, because the act was not necessary to the assertion of any principle, and would have been offensive; but if they had, it might have been asked what excuse this was for firing Pennsylvania Hall?
The delegates met and transacted their business, as in the preceding year, but this time with a yelling mob around the doors. The mild voice of Angelina [Grimke] Weld was heard above the hoarse roar; but it is said that the transient appearance of Maria Chapman was the most striking circumstance of the day. She was ill, and the heat of the weather was tremendous; but, scarcely able to sustain herself under an access of fever, she felt it her duty to appear on the platform, showing once more that where shame and peril are, there is she. Commenting upon the circumstances of the moment, the strain of her exhortation accorded well with the angelic beauty of her countenance, and with the melting tones of her voice, and with the summary of duty which she had elsewhere presented: "Our principles teach us how to avoid that spurious charity which would efface moral distinctions, and that our duty to the sinner is, not to palliate, but to pardon; not to excuse, but to forgive, freely, fully, as we hope to be forgiven." To these principles she has ever been faithful, whether she gathers her children about her knees at home, or bends over the pillow of a dying friend, or stands erect amidst the insults and outrages of a mob, to strengthen the souls of her fellow-sufferers. Her strain is ever the same--no compromise, but unbounded forgiveness.
If the authorities had done their duty, no worse mischief than threat and insult would have happened; but nothing effectual was done in answer to a demonstration on the part of the mob, repeated for three or four nights; so at last they broke into Pennsylvania Hall, heaped together the furniture and books in the middle of the floor, and burned them and the building together. The circumstance which most clearly indicates the source of rage of the mob, was their setting fire to the Orphan Asylum for colored children; a charity wholly unconnected with abolitionism, and in no respect, but the complexion of its inmates, on a different footing from any other charitable institution in the Quaker city. The Recorder interposed vigorously; and, after the burning of the Hall, the city fireman undertook the protection of all the buildings in the place, public and private. The morning after the fire the abolitionists were asked what they intended to do next. Their answer was clear and ready. They had already raised funds and engaged workmen to restore their Hall, and had issued their notices of the meeting of the third General Convention in the spring of 1839. They have since applied for damages, which we believe the city agreed, without demur, to pay. It is astonishing that the absurdity of persecuting such people as these has not long been apparent to all eyes. Their foes might as well wage a pop-gun war against the constellations of the sky.
* * *
During the last year, several Halls of State Legislature have been granted to the abolitionists for their meetings, while the churches have remained closed against them. The aspect of these assemblages has been very remarkable, from the union of religious and political action witnessed there. But the most extraordinary spectacle of all--a spectacle perhaps unrivalled in the history of the world--was the address of Angelina Grimke before a Committee of the Legislature of Massachusetts. Some have likened it to the appeal of Hortensia to the Roman Senate; but others have truly observed that the address of Angelina Grimke was far the nobler of the two, as she complained not as the voice of a party remonstrating against injuries done to itself, but as the advocate of a class too degraded and helpless to move or speak on its own behalf. The gently dignity of the speaker's manner, and the power of statement and argument shown in her address, together with the righteousness of her cause, won the sympathies of as large an audience as the State House would contain, and bore down all ridicule, prejudice, and passion. Two emotions divide the vast assemblage of hearers;--sympathy in her cause, and veneration for herself.
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