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However, I think scene of stage that Nat Turner is a brilliant man. How was, of course, you do follow us through our characters. How was, how embarrassing and affected by that to be acted by the action to it? The Nat Turner River happens in 1831 and really the decade of the 1830s is just so fraught and full and tumultuous and transformative for Garrison. But with that revolt in Southampton, Garrison is unable to step away from the reality of violence. It also brings him to a place where he realizes that there are two ways into abolition and depending on which side of the line of freedom and which standing, you know, violence may be organized, armed response may be the only effective way you have to gain your freedom and do the work of abolition.
You know, later I think in the Civil War era, he says, you know, the work of moral work is war work, he says. In 1830, he's beginning to see that moral work can be that work of revolt. He's an avowed pacifist, you know, tells everybody he's horror struck by the slaughter and the massacre. But he's also horror struck by the reprisals. So there are two sides to that Nat Turner story, the actions of Nat Turner and his followers and then the reprisals against enslaved and free people of color and anybody else who might even give a hint of supporting abolitionism, anti-slavery or even violence. How does it change the dynamics of the situation that seems to kind of crystal or hard to decide that? The threat of violence now takes the, you know, the Nat Turner revolt makes it clear that this is, that anti-slavery work is no longer,
although there have been revolts, slave revolts since slavery began in the United States. But although there have been revolts and notable ones such as the Nat Turner, the Nat Turner one with its calculation and with its effectiveness establishes, like never before, that there is a calculated and potential threat to the system of slavery. Like no one has ever seen or imagined before, that there could be more Nat Turner's. Now it just plays havoc with this sense that you can have a union, that you can have the happy slave. And Nat Turner just completely wipes away all those notions of myth and romance about just the tranquility or just the way in which slavery is benign and that there can be good masters and happy slaves and it's really all fine.
But now you have an African-American threat and you have that threat linked to the abolitionists. Because if they are anti-slavery, clearly Nat Turner is anti-slavery. And those two things now become synonymous in a way. Garrison has to grapple with the reality of Nat Turner. That is not something he can walk away from. And it's a story that dominates the liberator. But for Garrison, he says, I'm horror struck. It's not what I would have done, but I understand. And at that moment when he says I understand, the Nat Turner revolt therefore has larger ramifications. Because he's not judging it and saying ceased and desist. We will move along in abolition with words, not weapons. He's saying it may be weapons for some. I understand why. I choose words. But yes, you might see more weapons. That threat undoes the South. And so the reprisals are not just physical and not just intimidation in the South.
But now because Nat Turner is a literate man and because he believes in God and has conveyed the sense that it was a divinely inspired call to action. There are attempts to eliminate access to the Bible to Sunday worship. There was no such knowledge now becomes a very dangerous thing for people of color. And you see efforts in the North for African Americans to really establish that knowledge is indeed not something new to them, but that it actually promotes a sense of citizenship and commitment to nation and to union and to uplifted lives and sensibilities. And that knowledge does not necessarily mean or translate into violent action against the state. It's an interesting decision. And aside from Douglas, I'll move to my final entry of the Nat Turner revolt that happened. Colorado is coming to use the literate.
Yeah. Right. He never could make sense of why he's shipped back to Eastern Shore. The literate team needs to play for very different. Come on. So Jonathan, you can put it for us. So Garrison spent a lot of that year quoting Helen Benson. He did. Our little... Yes, our little kitten. Tell me a bit about her. What was the young Helen Benson like? Well, Helen Benson exudes a kind of calm and serenity and quiet confidence. You know, the pictures of her, the images that we have suggest that she's feminine and gentile but also very present. And it's fitting, I think, that they met or they caught sight of each other. She caught sight of him for the very first time in an African-American church. There was a meeting, anti-slavery meeting, and it's at that moment that she saw him.
And she was struck again, not just by the words, but the fact that he was there, what he was doing, what he was dedicating his life to. She comes from a family that certainly had its Baptist leanings but was moving more towards that sensibility of follow your inner light. And believe your inner truth and try to do as much good as you can in the world. And you don't need to judge yourself according to standards established by an institution. Are you pretty good at it? Sorry, I was social. Where were we then? Oh Helen. Right, so, you know, at first he doesn't get her name right. He calls her Ellen in a letter that he says, you know, I did see her, he's writing to her brother and says, you know, I do hope at some point to make the acquaintance of Ellen once again. And she's thinking, he has to know my name. But when she meets him in the early bits of their conversation, you can tell that she's not, you know, she's a woman who very much embodies the cult of true womanhood of the 19th century.
She is pious in that sense that she believes in spirituality and a sense of being domesticity. Even with all the physical challenges she would have, you know, from accidental falls to illness and what we would now, I think, define as chronic fatigue. You know, scholars have diagnosed it as such based on her symptoms. But, you know, she was somebody who, in a moment, would arrive in the dining room with a tray filled with pastries and coffees and without blinking an eyelid. So she was somebody for whom domesticity was not a chore, but a means to supporting her husband's work and the work of their family. And because, you know, in some ways, you know, she clearly had a power over him because I'll never forget reading letters of Garrison, you know, sort of the courtship in their letters. And at one point he's writing to her and he says, I am no longer William Lloyd Garrison.
I am now Helen Elizabenson. Our souls are so intertwined that there is no way that I can find myself. And you read that and you think, how does this man who has come all the way through these tumultuous earth shattering historical moments and who has been jailed and survived a hard life? And, you know, sort of apprenticeships and worrying and the loss of his mother and the fandom. How does a man like that who is now taking on the world disappear? And he says, I am no longer William Lloyd Garrison. I mean, you know, so the power that she has over him has everything I think to do with her heart and the absolute delight of love because love makes the world a better place. And Garrison can go out beyond their home as he would and fight the battles that would just bring so many to their knees.
But as his children said, there was never a time when he crossed the threshold, it was coming home, crossed the threshold, that he didn't have a smile on his face. He loved to come home. And Helen represents that kind of sanctuary, that kind of promise for him almost from the very beginning. You know, he wonders aloud whether or not it was love at first sight. But he says, you know, it is love and this is the love of the ages. And it's really a remarkable love story because she's present and yet not. She's not competing with him for political attention. Yet she carries herself in a way that doesn't suggest that women have a lesser place. She is his partner in life, her enterprises, her economy, make it possible for Mr. Garrison to sail to England or to, you know, take money to apply to the Liberator Press or to, you know, to support the efforts that he holds dear. You never get that sense of competition between them. And it's this unspoken, gorgeous partnership.
And when the world is coming undone, you know, sort of as the Civil War is raging and they're wondering about, you know, what direction the country is going to go. And, you know, at one point, Helen writes to their daughter, Fanny. And it's, and it's a delightful letter because she uses the plural. She says, we are worried about the state of our country. We are not convinced that Mr. Lincoln will indeed emancipate the slaves. And you have this voice of we. And that's Helen in a most sincere and genuine voice representing this shared perspective. And so it is a marriage that enables him to do the work of abolition. And it's a marriage that enables them to have a family that can survive the age of slavery. Thank you very much. Now, soon after they get married, they launched the great postal campaign. Sorry. I think about the great postal campaign of 1835. And it's hard not to think of it as anti-bellum span.
Because it's truly a plan to bombard the mailboxes of or post offices of all these southern states. And so you have, you know, you have the American Anti-Slavery Society thinking about, how do we actually get our message out? What is it that we're doing as an organization? How are we going to bring attention to our cause? How are we going to convert people in the North and convert them in terms of both the funds they'll use to support us, but also the societies that they themselves will create elsewhere? How do we get the message out?
And in many ways, getting the message out meant that they would have to interact in some way or show that there was indeed a very, there was an enormous gulf between a free North and a slave South. And so, you know, the written word in America has always been incredibly powerful and volatile. And thinking about the distribution of literature, like Walker's appeal, sewed into the coats of sailors, making its way into the heart of the South. And, you know, in some ways that kind of distribution can be very covert and effective. The great postal campaign is very public and very obvious. So all these pamphlets are printed off and, you know, they're not meant to be aggressive as we might think about them. But they're not intoning that all slaveholders are evil. They're instead saying, look at this mother who has been torn away from her child. Look at this poor child, you know, thinking about the consequences for individuals that slavery then imposes upon them, right?
And so they fill sack after sack after sack with these pamphlets that are going to bombard southern post offices. But they actually don't make it out to the homes of all these southern slaveholders or pro-slavery people. In fact, they're intercepted at the post office. And so then, you know, in a way, all hell breaks loose because what to do with all this mail, they're not going to just discard it and say, oh, it doesn't matter. Because it does. This represents an assault upon southern society. How dare you step over with all these messages and you now want us because of the post office to distribute this literature? So it's actually quite frightening. They build a bonfire or at least on several occasions there are bonfires built. Effigies. So Garrison is hung in effigy with other abolitionists, Tappen, who's of the American Anti-Slavery Society. They're burned in effigy over the fire coming up from the pamphlets.
And, you know, there's a way in which abolitionists like Garrison are so rye, you know, that it's so hard to imagine how they could be so even tempered given the age in which they're living. So there's all kinds of fallout from this. One is that the southerners decide, you know, we're being attacked and you need to bring these scoundrels to justice. They must be kidnapped. They must be assassinated. I mean, it's incredible uproar and threats and violence that are really credible. I mean, at one point, you know, Arthur Tappen is being warned not to really move too freely around New York because assassins are waiting at every corner to stab him to death. And Garrison, of course, has threats against his own life. But you know, for them, they said, and then there's this marvelous moment where, you know, bounties are now being placed on their heads. And, of course, Georgia is, you know, at one point is very interested in getting Garrison. I think it's $500,000 to bring Garrison dead or alive to Georgia.
But there's $50,000 bounty placed on Tappen's head. And he says, and you know, one of these moments was a $50,000 bounty placed on his head. And he says, well, if that sum is actually deposited in the bank, I might indeed surrender myself. So, you know, the way in which they interact with the threat and respond to this really clear and aggressive response is on the one hand brings just you can see how they calm themselves down in the face of such threat. But, you know, at the end of that great postal campaign, which on the one hand did not work because the materials did not get distributed broadly. It did work because it showed Northerners who didn't know that there was such a divide. It showed them that even the hint of a pamphlet that did not indict anyone was enough to call people out with guns and pickaxes with threats of violence and assassination. So, with that high-pitched response, what is it that they are trying to defend? So, actually, you see, you know, a three-fold increase in anti-slavery societies being established right after 1835.
How was Garrison's move into abolition? How was Garrison personally affected by his encounter with the mob? Did it change the way he saw the struggle? Yeah, that would make it easier. You know, Garrison's move into abolition was accompanied by all sorts of threats to his physical being. You know, so when he speaks his mind in Baltimore, he's jailed for seven weeks. But he takes time to write on the walls, composes sonnets and then wants to go back and visit when he goes to Baltimore at the end of the Civil War. So, there's that sense of that kind of incarceration or penalty or punishment being part of, you know, this is a battle scars, the battle stripes, of a life of activism.
But when he is chased through the streets of Boston, when a lynch mob comes for him, when a scaffold is built in front of his family's home, that abolition of struggle becomes increasingly personal. And yet, again, I think it goes back to the moment when he makes a holy vow to champion the cause of liberty and to advocate for immediate abolition and for a nation that comes back to its conscience and embraces a moral life that is worthy of admiration. That he emerges literally unscathed from those encounters with the mob. In a way, it's as though this is a man who's drawing out his enemy, right? Because when it's a mob of Boston gentlemen, gentlemen, you know, gentlemen, not the ruffians, not the drunken sailors, you know, on leave.
It's just gentlemen, a Boston mob, when he is afforded sanctuary by shopkeepers, when, you know, stalwart African-American men are guarding him and ferrying news to Helen who's pregnant at one point when he's being chased and threatened with his life. It's as though he understands that this kind of attack is definitely personal, but it's also against the growing force of abolition and that in a way, it's not about him. You know, he sees that, I mean, there are those who worry for his safety, and there is a group of stalwarts who walk him home every night from the liberator because of the threat to his person. But he is not a man who worries about his physical safety because to do so would distract him from his intellectual agenda.
So, it's actually a group of collector family and having been behind in Charlottesville, which is 24 years old, when I understand she's living at the apex of one of the richest sightings in the world and one of the very rigid, the social code. How, how common was it for a young lady to abandon family faith and friends because, you know, I think that had all of that. Angelina Grimke's departure from her southern home was almost unheard of, you know, a rejection of that. It wasn't even so much a rejection as it was a decision to separate from a system that was so heartless and, um, an immoral. I think she, she did have everything. She had station, she had the protection of family, but all that came at a price.
And even the, and she had religion, which she found herself, and she found herself losing so much because of her conviction. And, um, when she decides to go, it is because she, like Garrison, believes that there must be a way to live more truthfully. And for Grimke, I think she sees so much of the hypocrisy of slavery from where she is. And her brother, for instance, who fathers children with enslaved women, um, and his disregard for his offspring, for her nieces and nephews, as it were. When she sees that callous disregard for family and for womanhood and the distance between the rhetoric of slavery and the actual practice of it, um, her own conviction, that sense of inner light.
Again, coming back to that quaker sensibility, she wants to live a better way and is moved to do that. And when she, when she launches herself, I mean, she goes with her sister. I mean, it's such a ruthonyomy kind of moment, you know. And Sarah Grimke says to her, whether that'll go us, I will go to. And, and it's a genuine sisterly affection, but they're fearless women. And the, their arrival on the abolitionist scene really changes the dynamic of the way in which just the larger abolitionist institution or enterprise and also the leaders, the patriarchs of the movement, are going to move forward. Because now you have a woman who has like Garrison, like Lundy, has seen slavery, has witnessed it, and now is being compelled. You know, she's helped along by Mr. Garrison, who, for whom, the private is always public, right?
So he gets a letter from Angelina in which she confesses, again, that rapturous conversion. She says, you know, abolition is a cause to die for. And that could be a real romantic sensibility of a young woman who is finding her place in the world and trying to stretch her wings. But that is a momentous thing for a young woman to say, without the backing of family or finances or even the safety of home. I mean, women did not strike out, white women did not strike out on their own in this way. And Southern white women certainly did not. And here she arrives and Garrison thinks to himself, as he does on other occasions, like with Mariah Stewart, Susan Paul, he says, here is someone who will advance the cause. And who needs to be at the forefront of the movement. So he publishes the letter in the liberator. And so Angelina Grimke is moved to the forefront of the abolitionist movement. She's propelled there by Garrison, because women are still negotiating their place in the public political sphere at that point.
You have Lydia Maria Child, who will never say a word publicly, and whose writing is changing the tone of, you know, advocacy for African Americans, for Native Americans at that time, thinking about women's education. But she is uncomfortable with this idea of presenting, of lecturing. But Angelina Grimke, like Mariah Stewart before her, again, feels compelled. It's a matter of heart and spirit, you know, of true moral conviction. And so she becomes this powerhouse. And again, it's rooted in what she has seen and what she will not tolerate. And she doesn't judge in the way that she doesn't indict her family and discard them and rage against them. She pursues a better truth. And that's even more infuriating to those left behind. But on the other hand, it empowers her more, because she is part of a Garrisonian movement and of an abolitionist movement that is trying to convert the minds of those who do not yet believe that slavery is wrong. It seems to me that I've probably had the death death. The initial move, leaving home, is so remarkable that the other rebellions that follow, including the Quakers turning against church against,
I don't really get the state that she's stand herself in a rebel, by leaving home, and that almost nothing will be as difficult and powerful. It seems like such a lonely move that, I know she's moving with her sister, but you, other than her sister, at that point, she's just... But again, it's the kindness of strangers, of friends yet she has yet to meet, because the strength of the abolitionist movement comes from its networks. The strength of the Underground Railroad is all about its networks, people who have never met other people become instant champions.
And they become starboard friends in that moment, as long as that moment needs to be. She's not really leaving to join the movement, but she's part of the network. One of the six years before she writes the garrison, she seems remarkably rebellious and lonely on that kind of moment, that she is going to eventually gain all this, and the cause, but in that moment, she's just... I wonder if I could ask you to... not be introverted, but just so we have two versions of it, just underscored the social oddity of that movement, just how rebellious it was. She seems, in a sense, to me to be much rebellious about her.
Right. There's a kind of fearlessness about Angelina Grunki, even as she also is facing situations that are unheard of, and she's going into a complete unknown. She could be identified as a pariah, she could be identified as an ungrateful daughter, and a rebellious woman, and somebody who would be outcast. She has no guarantees when she leaves her home, and the comfort of that, at least, you know, modified comfort of that family circle, where she is known and has a place and has resources from which to draw. And the idea that she does go out into the wilderness, in a way, right? She leaves the comforts of home and goes to a completely unknown place.
Again, you know, testifies to the pull towards something better. And in that time, between her departure from home, and that moment where she is catapulted into the public political stage by Garrison and the publication of her private letter to them, it says, though, she is gaining strength and, again, perspective, and it is as though it's a time of, in a way, self-imposed exile, that there is this purposefulness to this seemingly purposeless adventure, and others are not sure what to make of her, but she's remarkable for the ways in which she is unto herself, that she brings a real conviction and a sense of her steadiness. And, you know, it's facing great sanctions, because this is not just disobedience to Mama and Papa. This is disobedience. This is disobedience to the institution, to the south, to the church, to proper society.
I mean, she's really challenging all the rules and expectations and constraints that make society sublast, according to some. And yet she takes the time to separate and define and to absorb what it is in the world that is better. Oh, good.
American Experience
The Abolitionists
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Interview with Lois Brown, part 2 of 4
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Lois Brown is a professor in the African American Studies Program and the Department of English at Wesleyan University. Brown's scholarship and research focus on African American and New England literary history and culture.
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American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, abolition
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Chicago: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 2 of 4,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 19, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 2 of 4.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 19, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; The Abolitionists; Interview with Lois Brown, part 2 of 4. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from