“The Slave’s Friend” threatens the peace of Philadelphia, 1835

June 14, 2014

(Because it’s Friday the 13th.)

On a hot summer day in 1835, several men took a boat to the middle of the Delaware River near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and there ceremoniously tore to pieces about 2000 magazines and newspapers, scattering them into the water.

From this end of the anti-slavery movement, the scene is puzzling and a little amusing, but at the time the men were saving Philadelphia from riot.  Because the periodicals had been published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, whose efforts were met with hostility and whose publications were “incendiary.”

Quite literally.  One way the Society distributed its publications was by mailing them to addresses taken from published lists (city directories, for example); one issue I own of Slave’s Friend has the words “Read & Circulate” written on the cover. But the mass mailings didn’t always go over well: in late July 1835, periodicals addressed to citizens in South Carolina were taken from the post office and burned by a cheering crowd alerted by the postmaster.  Among them were copies of Slave’s Friend #3.

So, when the next month more copies of The Liberator, Human Rights, and
The Slave’s Friend were discovered in a crate in Philadelphia, on their way to various slave states, they were publicly destroyed, and a detailed account of the proceedings was published in the local newspaper.  The article is an interesting read, with an overlay of guilt and self-righteousness.  The crate is “accidentally forced open” (italics theirs).  The author points out that the dock workers unloading the steamboat are of a variety of races—perhaps to halt assumptions that race was a factor in the “accidental” opening of the crate.  And, while destroying U. S. mail was a criminal act, the author appears to be pointing out that it wasn’t technically U. S. mail, since it wasn’t being sent as such. In fact, it’s treated as personal property, with the crate’s addressee giving legal permission for the destruction of the contents.

One interesting element in the article is treament of the merchant to whom the crate was addressed.  Naming him and detailing his astonishment that the crate is addressed to him tells those who sent the crate that the periodicals were destroyed—without blaming him.  And, it also serves as a warning to him, if he really was involved in distributing abolitionist literature:  everyone knows his name.

Why publish the article?

Because word would be spread by other newspapers.  (Editors read just about everything with reprinting in mind.)  And, word certainly was spread. In a quick look at a digital archive, I’ve found the piece reprinted in newspapers north and south.  The Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), and the Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) appear to have reprinted the article as it appeared in the Inquirer.  Under the title “Another Infamous Attempt Of The Abolitionists—Incendiary Publications Destroyed,” the Albany Argus printed an abridged version of the piece from the New York Courier and Enquirer, ending with the observation that “The whole affair exhibited a fixed de[t]ermination on the part of the Philadelphians to resist, as far as in them lay, the circulation of incendiary pamphlets of every description.”

And, yes, Philadelphia was saved—temporarily.  The City of Brotherly Love would be the site of at least one anti-abolition riot, detailed in The Slave’s Friend in 1839.

A Disclosure—Incendiary Publications Destroyed

We learn that shortly after the arrival of the steamboat, bringing the newspaper mails of yesterday morning, and while the labourers (white and coloured) were engaged in removing the various bundles, bales and packages, received at the same time and by the same conveyance as the mail, a large wooden box, apparently filled with dry goods, and directed to a respectable individual of this city, was accidentally forced open, when it was found to be filled with incendiary pamphlets and newspapers, such as the “Liberator,” “Human Rights,” and the “Slave’s Friend,” carefully put up in packages, and directed to persons in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Illinois, and other slave states, and to the District of Columbia. We cannot, in terms too strong, express our disapprobation—our horror at this proceeding, and especially at this particular time. It should be remembered, that the transmission of newspapers and pamphlets in the manner described, is a gross and daring violation of the laws in relation to the U. S. mail; and when we recollect the excitement so recently produced in Charleston, by a proceeding of a similar character—and when we also recollect that the whole country is in a state of agitation and apprehension, in consequence of the recent movements of the fanatics, this last mad act cannot be viewed with other feelings than those of the strongest indignation. We have now in our possession several of the papers and pamp[h]lets thus surreptitiously forwarded to this city. They are of the most incendiary and inflammatory character, some of them being embellished with cuts of various kinds, calculated to excite and inflame the mind of the slave,—and to poison his already embittered feelings against his master. As soon as the facts above stated became known, a few of our most respectable citizens assembled together, and submitted the question of “What shall be done to save the city from the consequences of an excitement which this affair is likely to produce?” It was immediately determined to wait upon the gentleman to whom the aforesaid box was directed, to explain to him the delicate situation which he occupied in relation to the matter, and to recommend to him the propriety of making such declarations for the public eye as should exonerate him from all agency or participation in this very culpable affair. A Committee consisting of Thomas L. McKenney, R. T. Conrad, Morris Mattson, A. G. Waterman, and John C. Martin, Esqrs., was appointed, and immediately proceeded to the discharge of the duty assigned them. They stated that they had called for the purpose of making known to him the facts as above detailed, with a view of obtaining his disclaimer of any agency in this affair, and of thus allaying public excitement, which it was apprehended might be produced against him. He very promptly gave the disclaimer in the following letter, adding emphatically that he never had, in the slightest manner, sanctioned any interference with the Slave question of the Southern States, believing it improper to do so. Mr. Scottt conducted himself throughout, in the most satisfactory manner, and evinced a spirit highly commendable.—His letter is subjoined;—

Philadelphia, August 25, 1835.

Gentlemen,—I am informed that a box arrived this morning in the line of steamboats from New York, directed to me, containing various papers—the Liberator, Human Rights, the Slave’s Friend, &c. directed to various persons residing in several of the Slaveholding States, and in the District of Columbia.  This is to certify that I have no knowledge of such box, further than you have reported to me, or of its contents; and have had no agency, direct or indirect, in having it directed to me; and moreover, I declare, if said box had reached me, I should have considered it my duty, in the present state of public excitement on the subject, to have returned its contents. I hereby surrender to the city of Philadelphia, all the right and claim I may have to said box and its contents, so far as that right and that claim arises from its being directed to me, to be disposed in such manner as may be deemed most expedient.
I am, respectfully, &c.


Col. T. L. M’Kenny, Robert T. Conrad, Morris
Mattson, A. G. Waterman, John C. Martin.

The box being thus surrendered, about a hundred of our most respectable citizens repaired to the Transportation Office, when Mr. Hill, the Agent, promptly complied with their request.  A vote was then taken as to the best mode of disposing of the box, with a view to allay the excitement, which was rapidly increasing. It was decided that it should be taken into the middle of the Delaware, and there, with its contents destroyed.  This resolution was fully carried into effect. The box was taken on board a steamboat,—the contents, consisting of at least two thousand of the newspapers described above, were taken out, torn into ten thousand pieces, and scattered upon the waters.  The whole affair was conducted in a spirit which exhibited a fixed purpose to resist every thing like the circulation of incendiarism of any description, and at the same time to avoid all improper excitement among ourselves. We believe that the course pursued was the proper course under the circumstances, and we know that it was adopted with a view to the peace and the quiet of the City, and the security of the gentleman whose misfortune it was to have, without his sanction, such a quantity of incendiary matter directed to him.  We need only add, that Philadelphia is perfectly tranquil, and is likely to continue so.
[Pennsylvania Inquirer 13 (26 August 1835):  p. 2, col 2]


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