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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Anti-Brown "Union" Meetings, December 1859

In Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, one theme that I have presented in the aftermath of the abolitionist's death is the often overlooked "Union Meetings" that took place in the North in December 1859.  These "Union Meetings" were essentially an expression of the conservative political element of the North, particularly fueled by the interests of capitalists and the propagandized working class men who supported them.
Cutaway from the "Grand Union Meeting" Program,
New York City, 17 Dec. 1859

At the heart of these meetings was economic self-interest, since slavery's stolen wealth flowed into the industrial North and energized the economy of great cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston among others.  Of course, these meetings were explicitly racist as well, since the political and economic interests of capitalism in this period were obviously tied to the continued oppression of black people under Southern bondage.
An artist for the NY Illustrated News captured
this image of the "Union Meeting" in New
York's Academy of Music, 17 Dec. 1859

Following Brown's death, Northern capitalists began to worry that the South would find its much desired excuse to secede from the Union, especially states like South Carolina and Virginia which had entertained secession for years.  Northern racism, well documented in Leon Litwack's fine book, North of Slavery, is a matter of history; but the "Union Meetings" were the fullest manifestation of the Northern white man's contempt for abolitionism, particularly focused on John Brown, and resentful of those antislavery voices that celebrated him as a martyr for freedom.

The first "Union Meeting" took place in Philadephia's Jayne Hall, referred to as the "Grand Union Mass Meeting," on Wednesday, December 7, only five days after Brown's hanging.  In this meeting, the white audience called for the hanging of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and the enslaved black population were referred to as "savage hordes." The following day, December 8, another "Union Meeting" took place in Boston's Faneuil Hall, where disunion was loudly lamented and Brown's execution was applauded.

But perhaps the most notable gathering took place in New York City, on Monday evening, December 19, in Manhattan's notable Academy of Music.  New York's "Grand Union Meeting" filled the house to overflowing, and the turn out was so strong that smaller meetings spilled out onto the streets around Union Square and 14th Street.  In 1859, the Academy of Music was the largest opera house in the world, with its peculiar horseshoe shaped seating and gas lights.  Inside, a band played patriotic songs and Union messages were posted on great signs, along with flags of the USA.  Yet the majesty of the great throng, with its distinguished guests and martial music only thinly belied the sheer racism and selfish interests of the business community, which called for unity with the South.  At best, the various speakers appealed to the "pupilage" of the black man under the white man, and the necessity of allowing the South handle black slavery and emancipation in its own way.

Outside, burning torches and barrels lit the streets as speakers harangued Brown's memory and called for solidarity with the South.  With the city's dark streets now set ablaze with lights, fireworks lit the sky as people thronged to a number of platforms to hear the anti-Brown tirades.  Periodically, the cheers and huzzahs were punctuated with cannon fire, which startled horses and in some cases led to carriage accidents on Manhattan's busy streets.

An artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper captured this scene
outside of NY's Academy of Music during the "Great Union Meeting"
As Horace Greeley, the antislavery editor of the New York Tribune, concluded afterward, the "Great Union Meeting" movement was based "chiefly, to promote Southern trade, and, as a means to that end, to denounce the Republican party and uphold the Pro-Slavery party." Greeley observed, too, that nothing was said about the interests of free labor, nor the threat of slavery's expansion as upheld by proslavery Southern leaders.

The "Union Meetings" that took place in the Northeast were symptomatic of the racist and conservative political investment in slavery that is often overlooked when Southern slavery is discussed.  John Brown and his abolitionist contemporaries were well aware of the ties of greed and prejudice that bound the wealthy men of the North and South, and that the exploitation and oppression of black people by Southern slaveholders was supported by racist greed in the North.  As prisoner Brown told the reporter, Simpson Donavin, "The North and the South will each have to share in this suffering and sacrifice. Both are guilty. The North profited most in the inauguration of the infamy and has shared largely in the profits which have arisen from slave labor."

Almost before Brown could be lowered into his grave, the wealthy white interests of the North proved his words correct by these disgraceful "Union Meetings," supporting slavery and calling for a unity of blood and greed.  However, much to the disappointment of Northern capitalists, the Southern slaveholders understood their greed, and disdained them almost as much as they did abolitionists.

With the election of the first Republican President of the United States in 1861, the South cut off its Northern partners and declared itself a nation.  John Brown would not have been surprised at the bloodletting that followed.

If you're interested in the "Union Meetings," see Freedom's Dawn, Chapter 19--LD

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