Creating the Democratic Heritage
DIALECTICS IN THE STREET;
DISPUTATION AND ASSEMBLY IN BUFFALO IN 1848
AS SEEN THROUGH THE JOURNAL OF GEORGE WASHINGTON JONSON
By Elwin H. Powell -Feb. 2001
"[a ] function of free speech...is to invite dispute.
It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." --Justice William O. Doublas in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S.I ,3,13;4-5(1949).
1848...Year of Uprising, Year of Assembly.
Parisian mobs force the abdication of King Louis Phillipe, and the event is celebrated by a torch light parade in Buffalo in the largest meeting ever congregated together in this city or Western, New York, [Buffalo Courier (April 4, 1848)] Four months later the Free Soil Party will holds its founding convention here, a three day assembly of 20 to 30,000 people from all over the country. Although they lose at the polls in November the Free Soilers define the election as 'only the Bunker Hill in the moral and political revolution which can terminate only in success on the side of freedom.
Two major political assemblies, 365 minor ones will mark the year the year in Buffalo; in l848 politics is argued with an existential passion and the streets are alive with debate.
Revolutionary rhetoric comes easily to the pen of Joseph Stringham, editor of the Courier, after he observes 15,000 people marching to the strains of the Marsailles from Front Park to the Liberty Pole [3 miles ]. Orlando Allen, the recently elected mayor, is President of the procession and assisted by 25 Vice-Presidents, among them Joseph P. Masten and E. R. Jewett. Orations are delivered by.S.G. Haven, Seth Hawley, H. K. Smith and G. W Clinton. Afterwards, resolutions are adopted with enthusiastic applause:
Resolved, That the news of the dethronement and expulsion of Louis Philippe brings a thrill of joy to the heart of every friend of human rights.
Resolved, That the right of Revolution when governments forget the high responsibility of their trust and offend against the rights of the people of which are a reflection, is sacred and inalienable. The blood of tyrants is the seed of liberty.(Buffalo Daily Courier, April 5, l848)
With 20,000 demonstrators in the streets of a city of 60,000 it felt as if everyone approved of the overthrow of the French monarchy. After all, says Stringham,
the King forbade the peaceful assemblage of the people to discuss and deliberate upon the state of their own affairs.what people would not rise to revolution?(Buffalo Daily Courier, March 27,l848)
Among the revolutionary throng on April 4 is George Washington JonsonGWJ as he likes to call himself. Having spent the years l837-39 on the continent he follows European affairs closely, even
though news of the events arrive here 13 days later. On Feb 24, GWJ writes in his diary: Revolution in Naples!! A constitutional monarchy hereafter. God be praised. On March l9 he remembers the revolution of l830 which installs Louis Philipe as the Citizen King, ending the long night of the Holy Alliance. Walking with a friend he talks of the Great French Revolution of 1789, and notes at bedtime: a calm day. Have not wept nor smiled. Busy and not unhappy (Journal of George Washington Jonson, March l9, 1848herein after cited as GWJ).
On April 3, GWJ is in the midst of the celebration
Twenty five thousand people in Main Street. Torch light procession. Music vocal and instrumental. Banners. Orations at the Liberty Pole at Main and Swan. The most magnificent display I had ever seen in Buffalo. . . .Spent an hour in the streets. Viva la Republique!" (GWJ, April 3,)
April 6 brings news of the Republic of Liberia, which he admires, thinks will do much good. On the 7th GWJ notes that all Europe is in commotion. After walking to the docks, he spends an hour in the reading rooms of the public library. On the 8th he encounters Old Cuff Harrington:
. . .because I said Frenchmen were as capable of self-government as Americans and as intelligent, Cuff fell to abusing me. He said he had heard people say I was mad, and he believed I was. He gave me the lie. In return I told him he was drunk, which annoyed him, and as a notorious debaucher and liar, he was not worth minding. (GWJ, April 8)
Like any diarist GWJ easily believes in his own insanity, I am looking as wild and haggard as a maniac, he writes on March 22.
Buffalo diagnoses GWJs madness with a single word: abolitionism. For GWJ the onset of the disease was July 18,1835 when he finds himself in the midst of a mob on Main Street in front of Justice Grosvenors office. Slave catchers had retrieved two runaways in Canada. The Buffalo b lacks recapture the captured slaves, after which ten of them are arrested and jailed. GWJ writes;
The design of the mob seemed to be to mob [the attorney] Pepper for defending the Negroes. During two hours, I stood in the mob, alone, defending the Negroes and denouncing the mob, swearing myself in as special constable to aid the constable defending the passage.The majority of the people of the city professor a horror of Abolitionism and are in favor the rights of the poor Negroes being over-ridden. Shame on such a community a burning shame" ( GWJ, July 18,1835)
So begins Jonsons career as a practical abolitionist though years of theorizing prepare him for the role.. Born in New Hampshire in l800, he attends Dartmouth in early 20s, in the late 20s teaches Latin and Greek in East Aurora New York, where he reads law with Millard Fillmore. Admitted to the bar in l832 he becomes an agent of the Holland Land company. On credit he buys the real estate which will become downtown and grows wealthy almost overnight [November-December 1836]. Wisely selling out before the boom turns to bust GWJ now has a competency of some $60,000 and he leaves for Europe to live in the world he has read about for 20 years. Returning to New England in l838 at loose ends, --anomic Johnson plunges into the anti-slavery movement:
I have fully identified myself with the despised and derided abolitionists, he writes on Nov.7,1838. A constitution circular having been handed about as a pledge, I have put my own name to it and persuaded others to do so. My three sisters, dear Louisa, Ruth, and the doctor and dear Amanda and her husband, and the Rev, Mr. Sheldon and wife also signed it. The movement is prompted by both humanity and patriotism; and though unpopular, it is a glorious cause, destined I consistently believe to triumph. I will sink or swim with it. Though shy of crowds, and unused to cooperate with or address assemblages, for the sake of this cause I will force myself among the people. I will not only attend the meetings but discharge every office and duty that is put upon me. If I have not much money to give, I can and will devote to it my time, tongue and pen.
Painfully, awkwardly GWJ runs for governor of Massachusetts in l839 on the Liberty Party ticket and returns to Buffalo in l840 to build the Party here. Although a practicing attorney his main income derives from dealing real estate, but the abolition of slavery is his Project--and he wrote about it in a journal which runs to some 36,000 handwritten pages, still stored in the Dartmouth College library. Apparently he drafted the constitution of the Buffalo Anti-Slavery Society which embodies the credo that guides his conduct:
"Whereas, our national existence is based on the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence; That all mankind are created equal. . .Whereas slavery is contrary to the principles of Natural Justice; of our Republican form of Government and the Christian religion... Whereas we believe we owe it to the Oppressed, and to our fellow citizens who hold slaves, to posterity and to God to do all that is lawfully in our power to bring about the extinction of Slavery. . . we do hereby agree. . .to form ourselves into a Societyto take all lawful, moral and religious steps to effect a total and immediate abolition of slavery in the United States."
-(Excerpted from a copy in the Rare Book Room of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library,1842)
Growing out the dialectical experience of abolitionist throughout the country, this document is a condenses their most effective arguments, and is constructed to stimulate further dispute. In abolitionist meetings new converts step forward to sign the constitution and then go forward to recruit others to the Cause.
Not only argument but physical violence is a threat for abolitionists late in life GWJ notes without further comment that he always sleeps with a pistol by his bed. Once a gang of Irishmen come to his apartment to because he had circulated a pro-abolition address by a Boston priest named OConnell. Roused from his bed at midnight reports the next day:
". . . three or four lousy fellows said they had been deputed by an Irish meeting to tell me that if. . .I distributed the edition I had had printed, it must be done at my peril, as they forbid it, the sentiments of the Address being treasonable and infamous advocating , as it did, freedom for the d- - - - -d nager [which is ] highly offensive to the Irish patriots of Buffalo. Said I,you dirty dogs! Take yourselves off; under your threat, I shall issue an additional number of the Address." (GWJ, Mar.29,1842)
Next day GWJ calls an the executive committee of the Buffalo Anti Slavery Society into session; and they decide to issue another l00 copies of the address in retaliation for the attempt to intimidate GWJ. At the committee meeting two people GWJ and E.A.Marsh. According to the rules of he organization, two people constitute a quorum.
In Buffalo Jonson is Mr. Abolition. Passing through the city Margaret Fuller asks Mrs. Millard Fillmore how she can learn more about the anti-slavery movement in the city so the latter arranges a
meeting with GWJ. Casually he writes in his diary: "At Col Blossoms party I talked with the celebrated Margaret Fuller, a large, plain, quiet woman. Tried to answer her queries about the anti-slavery movement here. . .I then squired Miss Fuller to American hotel and took leave of her. I have been to four small parties this week; no, three; to me bores." (GWJ, May 27,1843)
GWJ is the Buffalo anti Slavery Society for years he has been the chairman of its executive committee and the constitution says that two people make a quorum. After the encounter with the Irish posse GWJ and his landlord, E.A. Marsh, call themselves into a meeting and decide to issue an additional l00 copies of the OConnell speech. To hear Jonson tell it Marsh is little more than his puppet but Frederick Douglass:
Pleased with our success in Rochester, we that is Mr. Bradburn and myself made our way to Buffalo, then a rising city of steamboats, bustle and business. Buffalo was too busy to attend to such matters as we had in hand. Our friend, Mr. March, had been able to secure for our convention only an old and deserted room, formerly used as a post office. We went at the time appointed, and found seated a few cabmen in their coarse, everyday clothes, whips in hand, while their teams were standing on the street waiting for a job. Friend Bradburn looked upon this unpromising audience and turned upon his heel, saying he would not speak to such a seat of ragamuffins, and took the first steamer to Clevelandleaving me to do Buffalo alone, For nearly a week I spoke everyday in this old post office to audiences constantly increasing in numbers and respectability till the Baptist Church was thrown open to me, and when this became too small I went on Sunday into the open park and addressed an assembly of 4 to 5,000. After this my colored friends, Charles L. Remond, Henry Highland Garnet, Theodore S. Wright, Amos Beaman, Charles M. Ray and other well known colored men, held a convention here and Remond and myself left for our next meeting in Clinton County, Ohio. [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (London: Collier-Macmillan, l962)First edition, l892]
Weeks before Douglass arrives GWJ contacts all the churches and public agencies seeking a hall; as a personal favor to Jonson Mayor Masten opens Court House Park (now Lafayette Square) to Douglass.
This is the summer of 43 and Jonson himself is deeply involved in organizing for the Liberty Party National Convention. On Aug. 8 he goes to a meeting in Clarence Hollow, a 12 hour round trip by horse and buggy [rented for $2.50]. GWJ does almost all the speaking. Eight people sign the constitution and a fugitive slave named Pollack gives an account of his history in slavery. Aug 9 passes in the usual office and street activity. On the 10th he hears Douglass and Remond lecture to a large gathering at the old Post office and he gets off a letter to the trustees of Dr. Lords church on Pearl Street which is again refused. Excerpts from the Jonson Journal tell the story:
"Aug ll. From 4 to 5:45 ran after mayor and aldermen for leave for Douglass and Remond to lecture in the Parkgranted for tomorrow"
"Aug 12. . . heard Douglass and Remond speak from a stand in the Park, the use of which my influence with the mayor procured for them. A fair audience in point of numbers. I confess Remonds style of speaking is more to my taste than Douglasss butin this I am singular, as I heard two slave holders stopping at the American Hotel express their admiration for Douglass, saying, The fellow is eloquent. They quietly listened to both."
"Aug.17 A convention of colored people in session here and numerously attended by delegates and some very eloquent ones. The convention is in favor of our Liberty Party, passed resolution. I was
there for an hour. This is a national convention Henry Hillard Garnett is a member. It is a sensation in Buffalo."
"Aug. 19: Colored convention has given people here a higher idea of he ability and worth of colored people in generalattitudes have changed from contempt to admiration."
"Aug 26, What a tax is this antislavery labor on time, nerves, pocket book and patience! Spent the whole day on abolition."
The Liberty Party convention will begin on Aug 30--and all the churches decline to cooperate, so an Oberlin tent will be used for the meeting. Distant delegates like Salmon Chase of Ohio-- are already arriving on Aug 28 when a letter comes from Mayor Masten and the City Council denying use of the Court House park: This is pure cussedness, writes GWJ, "The meeting will be held in the park, not withstanding. There are two powerful political parties and the churches arraigned against us; but they fear us, for we have both speech and ballots, and have God on our side who with us is a majority."
And so the convention opens on schedule:
" Aug. 30: The great Liberty National Convention assembled in the court room at 9 a.m. and organized by choosing the following officers to preside. King of Ohio President. Samuel Fessenden of Mass. Vice President [along with six others] Linneus Noble, N. Y., Elizur Wright, Mass., O Lovejoy, Ill., T. Hudsohn, Ohio, Secretaries. Adjourned at 10 a.m. and assembled under the tent in the park. A series of resolutions were offered by Chase of Ohio.I took no part in the discussion being busy in providing for the comfort and convenience of members.Earlier this morning the Erie County Liberty Party Nominated local candidates. Col. Asa Warren, Chairman, and G.W.J secretary."
"Aug 31. Large audience filled the tent. Surging as yesterday. Miss Abby Kelly addressed the convention in opposition to the Liberty Party, was patiently listened to."
"Sept 2. . . to my hotel, where with Seth Grovesnor conversed on the slavery question, which is now uppermost in every mind, thanks to our persistent agitation of it."
"Sept 4 Evening at my hotel in a discussion of the Slavery question. . .twenty to one, and that one GWJ, but all good natured and respectful."
GWJ then travels to Easton, Mass to visit his three sisters for a month. Returning to Buffalo in mid October he continues his usual round of activities: goes daily to the reading room of the Young
Mans Association to peruse the main newspapers of the U.S.; does small chore, pro-bono legal work occasional colored clients; walks the streets by day, talking abolition; visits in homes at nights, talking abolition. Excerpts from his November diary read:
"Nov. 2 A colored abolition meeting in the hall in the rear of the American Hotel, which meeting Edwin A. Marsh and I attend and address, he attacking and I defending the U. S. Constitution in respect to slavery. M. is right in saying the Constitution is proslavery in its letter, though wrong that it is so in spirit. I carried the audience."
"Oct. 29. With Miss Wetbeck to Unitarian church forenoon.shared Mrs. Hawes pew, second in rear of Fillmore and Halls where I usually sit, Mr. Adams occupying the latter."
"Nov 7. . . .total Liberty Party vote for Erie County 425--, 66 in Buffalo, 37 in Aurora, 12 in Clarence, 18 in Wales, 21 in Boston , 4 in Cheektowaga, 5 in Black Rock and others dispersed in the smaller towns and villages.. Some 5,000 votes are cast in the county but the Liberty Party is pleased with its showing."
Undaunted, GWJ knows he is on the side of history; no, feels he is shaping history, and in December persuades the Anti-Slavery Society to rent a permanent office in the old Post office building at $75 a year to prepare for the Presidential election of 1844.
Winter is a happy, sociable time for GWJ and all of Buffalo in the early l840s. "Bracing cold, ground hard frozen, first day of winter" he writes on Dec 11. "Thank god for the change of seasons."
In the l830s and 40s Buffalo business stops with the freezing of the waterways and the city gives itself up to social life. GWJ moves through Buffalos top circle. He house sits for the Fillmores when they are in Washington for the congressional term of l841; in l842 GWJ and Nathan Hall are working together as lawyers on a divorce case; he is a life long friend of Fillmores law partner, S.G. Haven.
The journal continues for the rest of the month with incidental news of abolitionists in western New York noting the sad case of I.N.T. Tucker of Syracuse who is writing him for help. Tucker is broke, his wife is ill, all his means are Exhausted. GWJ himself lives frugally; sees no way to help Tucker, laments the sacrifices us few are making to free the country from this great curse." The Buffalo Anti-Slavery Society has raised $75 to hire a room in the old Post Office at $75.00 per year. Its now Dec.11 and he records in his diary, "Bracing cold, ground hard frozen, first winter day. Thank god for the change of seasons."
For GWJ winter is always a time of hibernation and reflection indeed it is so for Buffalo too: in the l830s and 40s business activity ceases in December when Lake Erie freezes and only resumes April with the spring thaw GWJ spends the opening months of l844 reading Rousseau in French, translating the Odes of Horace, teaching himself Portuguese and reading Dickens. Daily he walks in the city, and often muses on his 'self immolation' on the hated cause of Anti-Slavery.
Jonson steadfastly keeps his diary for decades to come, giving us a window to view a moment in time, a moment in our history, through it we see our community.
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