The Boston Riot of 1835

Newspaper Article

Background Notes

The most radical opponents of slavery, the abolitionists, argued for the immediate emancipation of the slaves and the establishment of racial equality. Their numbers were growing in the 1830s, but even in New England they were always a fairly small minority. However, their activities troubled and even frightened many people. Many Northerners believed that the campaign against slavery threatened the established institutions of their society, and some expressed their opposition violently. Antislavery speakers frequently faced harassment, heckling and physical attacks.

In 1834 there were anti−abolition riots in New York and Philadelphia. In 1835 the poet John Greenleaf Whittier and British abolitionist George Thompson were stoned in Concord, New Hampshire. Then in October 1835 Thompson came to speak in Boston, where William Lloyd Garrison, the most outspoken of all the abolitionists, was publishing his antislavery newspaper The Liberator. A mob looking for Thompson broke up a meeting of the Female Anti−Slavery Society, caught Garrison instead, and dragged him through the streets at the end of a rope. Garrison had to be rescued by the mayor, was held overnight in the jail for safekeeping, and then urged to leave town for a while.

The “Boston Riot” and similar incidents showed a deeply divided society. Some newspapers justified the attack, while others, such as the Hampshire Gazette, whose report is reprinted here, criticized the mob. Quite a few Americans joined mobs, and many others tolerated them; but an increasing number became outraged at the mobs’ violations of civil order and freedom of speech, and ended up supporting the right of the abolitionists to meet and speak.

Transcription of Primary Source

The Boston Riot

The riotous proceedings on Wednesday of last week in our literary emporium seem to require of the public press something more than a bare detail of facts. From the tone of most of the Boston papers, we should suppose that much credit was due to the mob for their gentlemanly conduct and dignified demeanor, rather than that a flagrant outrage upon personal liberty had been committed.

The moving cause of the rout was a notice given by certain ladies that the female abolition society would hold a meeting at their room in Washington Street. The Centinel says, it being expected that Thompson would address the meeting, a large body of respectable citizens assembled to prevent it...The Boston Gazette says that Garrison was protected by the four walls of prison ‘just in season to save him from a fate he well deserved, and which no one can contemplate without a shudder!’...All the Boston papers that we have seen attribute more blame to the abolitionists than to the ‘respectable’ mob, except the Courier and Post...

In defense of Garrison we do not now speak. Admitting him to be a hot−headed enthusiast, a notoriety hunter and all that his enemies represent him, it is enough to know, in order to condemn the conduct of the gentleman rioters, that he is an American citizen, and that there is no pretending that he has committed any offence against the laws of the land or morality...In the land of the free, in one of its most refined cities, in sight of the building where liberty was first cradled, in open and broad day, citizens calling themselves ‘respectable’, to the number of five thousand, roused by the notice for a meeting of females, have assembled in riot, and hunted innocent, terror−stricken man, whose greatest offence is, that he has used that liberty which God had given him, and which the constitution has guaranteed to him, in wrestling in behalf of the oppressed...

Away with this prating about the freedom and the equality of men, and constitutional principles, so long as three millions of people are held in fetters, and he who raises his voice for them with that liberty of speech wherewith the constitution has made him free, is hunted down like a wild beast, escapes death at the hands of an infuriated mob only by crawling for refuge into the cell of one who may have forfeited his life by crimes, and there thanks his Maker for the protection afforded him in the dank vapors of a dungeon.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Hampshire Gazette
Probable Date: 
October 28
Place of Publication: 
Northampton, Massachusetts
Old Sturbridge Village