PRINCETON — The recent PBS series, “The Abolitionists,” focused on two of the most famous activists in the struggle to abolish American slavery, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Both these radical anti-slavery leaders, one black and one white, took their cause to the people of Princeton in the 1850s and 1860s.
A former slave, Frederick Douglass became the most well-known African-American of the 19th century. Owen Lovejoy was largely responsible for his visit to Princeton in 1853 to address the Illinois state convention of the Free Democratic Party, which met at Lovejoy’s Hampshire Colony Congregational Church on Oct. 25 and 26. Douglass and Lovejoy had helped found the organization the previous year in their continuing attempt to sustain a national anti-slavery party.
Both Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator,” stood for immediate emancipation. They had worked together in the abolitionist movement in the early 1840s but parted ways over strategy. Garrison’s approach for decades was moral persuasion – trying to convince Southern slaveholders to repent and free their slaves. He believed the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, and thus the U.S. government was tainted from the start.
In contrast, Douglass (and Lovejoy) came to believe the Constitution could be interpreted as opposed to slavery. Through the 1840s and 1850s, they thus pursued a political strategy through the ballot box and Congress. Their hopes were dashed by the Kansas Nebraska Act in 1854, opening the possibility of slavery in the new territories, and by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, declaring that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
By February 1859, when Douglass visited Princeton once again, he had become increasingly pessimistic that slavery would be abolished without violence. Yet, he spoke for almost two hours on “the unity of the races” to “a dense crowd of people at the Court House,” (BCR, Feb. 24, 1859). Eight months later, John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry took place. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Douglass rejoiced, seeing the war as the only way that the Southern slave power would be defeated.
The Civil War ultimately trumped any philosophical or political differences among the abolitionists. Even the pacifist Garrison relented, acquiescing to his son serving in the Union Army.
When Garrison spoke in Princeton in November 1865, seven months after the end of the Civil War, he was introduced by John Howard Bryant, an anti-slavery activist in his own right (both locally and nationally). That evening at Converse Hall (the former Classic Touch Building on Main Street), Garrison shared with his audience a special joy. Less than a week after the South surrendered, he had been present at Fort Sumter to witness the American flag being raised once again – this time over a country free of slavery. The invitation to attend had come from Abraham Lincoln via Secretary of War Stanton.
Though slavery had been abolished, Garrison told his Princeton audience, the country’s work was not over. As the Bureau County Republican reported, Garrison admonished those present: “We must bury in the same grave with (slavery) our prejudices against those whose skins are not of our color.”
It would take another hundred years and another grassroots social movement — the civil rights movement of the 1960s — to bring about the racial equality Garrison beseeched his Princeton listeners to embrace. His hope might be expressed best by Theodore Parker, another 19th century abolitionist often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice.”