Abolitionism in New Hampshire
What abolitionist sentiment was there in New Hampshire?
But not everyone in New Hampshire shared these beliefs. For those who had been swept up in the Second Great Awakening, slavery was viewed as America’s great national sin—a moral failing that tainted everything America stood for. Eradicating it became the most important cause of the day, the reform movement to which they committed themselves above all others. Much like in other northern states, the number of abolitionists in New Hampshire was small—at most, a few thousand people—but these activists were deeply committed, well financed, and adept at getting their efforts publicized in the press. In short, the influence of this relatively small group extended far beyond their numbers. Abolitionist sentiment was strongest in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio, but New Hampshire’s antislavery movement also had an impact nationally, both because of the prominence of New Hampshire reformers and the events that happened here.
Since the American Revolution, New Hampshirites had wrestled with the issue of slavery, and the sharp drop in the number of enslaved people in the state in the years after the revolution is proof that many were uncomfortable with it. Perhaps the Freedom Petition written by 20 enslaved Black men in Portsmouth in 1779 prompted a crisis of conscience, even if the petition was ignored by the state legislature at the time. (For more on the Freedom Petition, see Unit 5: New Hampshire and the American Revolution.)
In the 1790s, the issue of slavery became prominent again when an enslaved woman named Ona Judge arrived in Portsmouth. She had fled by ship from Philadelphia where she had been “owned” by First Lady Martha Washington. The Washingtons tried repeatedly to reclaim Ona Judge, but New Hampshire officials refused to assist the president in his efforts, even though some of those officials were Washington’s friends. Ona Judge was welcomed by the state’s free Black community, and she remained in New Hampshire for the rest of her life, but her status was always ambivalent: she lived as a free woman who could be returned to slavery at any time.
It was not until the early 1830s that the issue of slavery once more garnered attention in New Hampshire, at the same time that abolition became the main reform effort throughout the North. By then, it was apparent that slavery was not going to simply die out in the South. In fact, it looked more likely that slavery would be extended into new territories and states. This recognition that slavery was becoming more entrenched in American life, combined with the reformist zeal sparked by the Second Great Awakening, ignited the abolitionist movement throughout much of the North.
Inspired by the efforts of abolitionists like Massachusetts’ William Lloyd Garrison, Granite Staters became increasingly interested in abolitionism, especially as agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society arrived in the state to whip up public opinion. Fewer agents spoke in New Hampshire than the rest of New England—a curious omission from the regional lecture circuit—but the people of the state responded anyway. The first antislavery society in New Hampshire was founded in Plymouth in 1833, calling for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States. The group welcomed men only; women formed their own antislavery society in Plymouth a few months later. Within just a few years, 20 towns formed local chapters. operating under the umbrella of the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society, which had been founded in Concord in 1834. At the movement’s pinnacle in New Hampshire, there were 62 local antislavery societies. A dozen of them had more than 100 members, which was quite an accomplishment for the time. Most of these groups were separated by gender, although there were a few that combined men and women in one organization. For women, involvement in the abolitionist movement brought opportunities to become political active in a social cause.
The activities of these groups focused on two areas: sponsoring speakers at public lectures in an effort to convince Granite Staters of the righteousness of their cause and gathering signatures on petitions to send to the U.S. Congress demanding the end of slavery.
Abolitionist Speakers. It’s unclear how successful abolitionist lecturers were in promoting their cause, but the public lectures held in towns all over New Hampshire usually brought controversy—and attention—in their wake. By sharing stories about the horrors of southern slavery and invoking the moral responsibility of Christians to fight against social injustice, abolitionists hoped to convince the public through a tactic known as “moral suasion.” Featuring lecturers who were often nationally known abolitionists, these talks drew hundreds of people wherever they were held.
Overwhelmingly, abolitionist speakers were white men, many of whom had no personal experience with slavery. It was not socially acceptable for women, who were the foot soldiers of the abolition movement, to speak in a public forum, although a few women shocked the public and their fellow reformers by challenging this convention. In addition, Black men were not particularly welcomed as speakers either. The recently self-emancipated Frederick Douglass became the most famous Black reformer of this generation in the early 1840s, and he lectured in New Hampshire on several occasions beginning with a trip to Pittsfield in 1841. But he was not always warmly received by his abolitionist hosts, many of whom opposed slavery but were ambivalent, or even hostile, to racial equality. Douglass spoke in nearly 20 New Hampshire towns, detailing the way enslaved people were treated in the South. He also wrote at least part of his famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, while visiting a friend in Weare, New Hampshire.
Abolitionist speakers, Black and white, often encountered violence from a public generally suspicious of the antislavery movement, which viewed with suspicion abolitionism’s potential to disrupt traditional norms of race and gender. Most of the public considered abolitionists to be social deviants who were dangerously radical, with ideas that challenged the political, economic, and social status quo. This violence against abolitionists seemed to peak in New Hampshire in 1835, with riots in Dover, Portsmouth, and Concord. In Concord, rioters chased the two abolitionist speakers through the town, forcing them to hide in supporters’ houses and gardens until they could safely slip out of town, without having delivered the public lecture they had planned.
The violence against antislavery speakers often worked in the abolitionists’ favor, though. Granite Staters may have rejected the radicalism of the reformers, but they also defended their right to speak freely and hold meetings without fearing for their lives. Angry mobs bent on silencing free speech sometimes made the public more sympathetic to abolitionists, while also keeping the antislavery cause in the newspapers and in the public mind.
Petitions against Slavery. The petition campaign was less controversial, although it too challenged traditional social and political mores. Throughout the North, an army of mostly women abolitionists went door-to-door in their communities asking people to sign petitions addressed to their congressmen to end slavery. It was an overtly political act; women did not have the right to vote but still felt empowered to petition their representatives. These women reformers were almost all white and middle class. One of the few exceptions was Nancy Herbert, a mixed-race woman who lived in Concord. She had been sold into slavery to a New Hampshire family when she was still a child, but the family had eventually granted her freedom. Herbert chose to remain with them for the rest of her life, living as a family member, not a servant. She became active in a number of reform causes, including abolition as a member of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. She likely took part in the petition campaign of the 1830s as one of the few Black women who were involved.
The petition campaign was a remarkably successful effort, although not in the way abolitionists intended. Thousands of people, men and women, signed antislavery petitions in New Hampshire—and elsewhere in the North—during the 1830s, in some communities representing 20 or 30 percent of the townspeople. But New Hampshire’s congressmen were not receptive to their efforts. In fact, the state’s congressional delegation, which included a young Franklin Pierce, refused to present the petitions to Congress. New Hampshire abolitionists had to send their petitions to a Massachusetts congressman, who introduced them on the floor of the House on their behalf. More petitions flooded into Congress from other states, but Congress continued to balk at taking up the issue of slavery. Instead, it took the controversial step of tabling the petitions without hearing them, a procedural maneuver that became known as the Gag Rule. Many in the North objected to the Gag Rule, as it interfered with Americans’ right to petition their own representatives. This realization—that a political minority devoted to preserving slavery was beginning to limit the rights of Americans everywhere—eventually made many people more sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.
But before this shift in public opinion, abolition continued to spark great passion and equally great outrage, especially when the cause of ending slavery began to include an effort to promote equal rights.
The Noyes Riot. While the petition campaign was in full swing and abolitionist speakers were fending off angry mobs, another effort was underway to offer white and Black students equal opportunities to gain an education. Prominent abolitionists in New England joined together to open a mixed-race school in Canaan, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1835. The school was called the Noyes Academy, and its founders hoped it would serve as a model for interracial education throughout the North. The white students mainly came from the surrounding communities, but the school’s Black students hailed from all over the North, drawn to the educational opportunities offered there—and nowhere else—for them. Among the student body was Henry Highland Garnett, who would later become a nationally renowned clergyman and the first Black minister to deliver a sermon to the U.S. Congress. In 1835, though, he was a young man from New York who traveled to New Hampshire to receive an education.
The local population was alarmed by the school, particularly its promise of racial equality. Fueled by rumors that large numbers of Black people were planning to move to Canaan and take over the town, the townspeople voted in an emergency town meeting to close the school. Shortly thereafter, a mob attacked the school on a blistering hot August day, using ropes and and a team of nearly 100 oxen to literally pull the building off its foundations. Although some newspapers claimed the townspeople had acted in an orderly fashion, there were numerous accounts that the crowd had actually been hostile and threatening. Many of the school’s Black students feared for their lives, although in the end damage was limited to the building. Word of the so-called Noyes Riot spread far and wide, marking a setback for interracial education throughout the North.
The New Hampshire Radicals. For one New Hampshire abolitionist, the Noyes Riot only spurred him to further action in the antislavery cause. Nathaniel P. Rogers was a trustee of the Noyes Academy, as well as a passionate antislavery writer. He eventually became the editor of a fiery abolitionist newspaper called the Herald of Freedom, which had a wide readership in New England, similar to William Lloyd Garrison’s famed newspaper The Liberator. The two men were friends more than competitors, and between them they did much to publicize the abolitionist cause to Northern audiences. Rogers often worked in conjunction with two other well-known New Hampshire abolitionists: Parker Pillsbury and Stephen Foster. Together, the trio became known nationally as the New Hampshire Radicals, both for their committed support for abolition and for their adoption of other ultra-progressive social reform movements, particularly ones that challenged existing ideas about gender roles. The New Hampshire Radicals were at the heart of the abolitionist movement in New England.
Hutchinson Family Singers. Another New Hampshire contribution to the abolitionist effort was the Hutchinson Family Singers. A family of 11 sons and 2 daughters, they hailed from Milford, and in the 1840s they became the most popular singing group in America, renowned for their use of four-part harmony. Traveling extensively throughout the North and the Midwest, the group’s songs touched upon many reform causes of the day, including temperance (the movement to curb or eliminate the influence of alcohol) and women’s rights. Antislavery was one of their most common themes, with songs like “The Slave’s Appeal” and “Right over Wrong.” In the 1840s and 1850s, the Hutchinson Family Singers often performed in support of antislavery causes, an early example of edutainment.
Underground Railroad. The entertaining songs of abolition could not hide the fact that slavery was a life-and-death matter for nearly 4 million enslaved people in the South by the 1850s. Fugitive or runaway slaves (now referred to as “self-emancipated”) faced terrible hardships, beatings and whippings, and sometimes even death as they made their bid for freedom. Although some enslaved people lived precariously as free Blacks in the North, most found refuge in Canada, particularly once the federal government began to strictly enforce fugitive slave laws in the 1850s in an effort to appease the South. Increasingly disgusted by the horrors of slavery, sympathetic northerners helped establish a network of safe houses to help runaways on their journeys. It became known as the underground railroad, although it had nothing to do with trains or rail lines. Guides helped fugitives move from one safe house to another, while each safe house provided food, clothing, and temporary shelter. The routes changed continuously, and safe houses were shifted constantly in an effort to keep the authorities at bay. This flexibility and the secretive nature of the underground railroad make it impossible now to trace the various paths to freedom.
Enslaved people certainly passed through New Hampshire on the underground railroad as they moved north, although the locations of the safe houses will probably never be fully known. A few locations have been identified as frequent stops on the underground railroad, though. One was the Concord home of Nathaniel and Armenia White. The Whites were prominent social reformers and wealthy, well-connected members of New Hampshire society in the 1850s. Although they were committed to abolition, both Whites would actually become better known for their involvement in other reform movements. Nathaniel became the temperance candidate for governor in 1874, while Armenia was the guiding force behind New Hampshire’s women’s suffrage movement in the second half of the 19th century. Among their many properties, they maintained two Concord homes: a luxurious mansion across the street from the state house and a farm on Clinton Street. The farm often served as a safe house on the underground railroad. The number of enslaved people who stayed there is unknown, but letters and diary entries suggest that many did pass through the Whites’ farm. Another established stop on the underground railroad was the home of Ann Bamford of Manchester. The Irish widow and her family reputedly helped more than 40 fugitives hide from the authorities as they moved north through New Hampshire. Undoubtedly, many other Granite Staters also opened their homes to those fleeing from bondage in the South.
The abolition movement in New Hampshire was characterized by both hardworking, ordinary people who forwarded the cause at the local level and a handful of extraordinary individuals who made their marks nationally. Through their efforts, abolitionists made an enormous accomplishment for a small band of radical reformers—they changed public opinion. Their campaign of moral suasion gradually began to gain ground in the 1840s. Slowly but inexorably, antislavery sentiment began to become respectable, particularly as national affairs like the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War began to divide Americans like never before. New Hampshire’s political representatives were right in the middle of this tension between those who tolerated slavery and those who found it increasingly intolerable. The state even boasted the first abolitionist senator when John P. Hale of Dover entered the U.S. Senate in 1846. (For more on the political tension in New Hampshire in the years leading up to the Civil War, see Unit 10: New Hampshire and the Civil War.)
Harriet Wilson. Although the people of New Hampshire may have gradually come to stand against slavery, most of them did not, by any measure, support racial equality, as the Noyes Riot showed. To do so would have been truly revolutionary at this time, as even many ardent abolitionists did not champion the idea that whites and Blacks were equal or deserved equal treatment. The Black writer Harriet Wilson of Milford provided living proof of this prejudice. As a young girl in the 1830s and 1840s, she served as an indentured servant in a Milford household (ironically, the household of one of the Hutchinson family’s cousins). In 1859, Wilson published an autobiographical novel of her experiences, recounting the hardships of her servitude and emphasizing the ways in which her treatment as a servant mirrored slavery. Our Nig: Or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was the first novel published by a Black person, let alone a Black woman, in the United States. The novel received little attention when it was published, and eventually it was forgotten. Only in 1982 was it rediscovered by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., who republished it and did much to ensure it received the recognition it deserved. Today, there is a statue to Harriet Wilson in Milford.
The Age of Reform brought many important changes to society. One of the most important consequences of this period was the subtle shift in focus among both Granite Staters and Americans. Whereas in the 18th century most people had focused on their towns, during the first half of the 19th century, people began to look beyond the borders of their local communities to the larger world around them. They built relationships with others around causes rather than location. They insisted on the idea that the government should be responsive to the will of the people, even as the people’s will evolved into new and unprecedent areas. And ultimately they began to recognize their place within a larger society, one that did not always look and live like they did, or share their views on the things that were important to them. Increasingly, Americans began to recognize that they were all part of one, interconnected and complex nation, even as a dangerous and growing divide threatened to tear that nation apart.