TALKING ABOLITION. . . IN 1843: FREDERICK DOUGLASS SPEAKS IN BUFFALO'S FRONT PARK

EXCERPTS FROM THE JOURNAL OF GEORGE WASHINGTON JONSON
By Elwin H. Powell -2001

What is news? -News is whatever makes people talk.
--Charles Dana, 1850

Certain of the members [of the Anti-Slavery Society] were unworldly idealists little used to the . . .Rough and tumble of political contest. Among them was a merchant's clerk named Douglass Williams; [and ] a former schoolmaster in East Aurora, a Dartmouth man, named George Washington Jonson. . . "
--John T. Horton, The History of Northwestern New York: Erie County (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co, 1947), p.13

Unknown to Professor Horton, this East Aurora schoolmaster, who called himself GWJ, left behind a 60 volume journal of 36,000 pages still stored in the Dartmouth College Library. While Horton reconstructs the objective conditions of Buffalo life in the l840s; through Jonson we re-experience subjective world of an abolitionist in a daily struggle to dismantle the institution of slavery.

In l843 GWJ lives and boards at the home of Douglass Williams in a small frame house at the south east corner of Church and Franklin Street but later in the year moves to the American Hotel at Main and Pearl Street. He maintains a law office on the second story of the American block, across the landing from the office of Fillmore and Haven. His days are filled with the diverse chores of an anti-slavery activist. glimpsed in direct excerpts from his journal:

May 27, l843: Invitation from Mrs. Blossom to meet the celebrated Margaret Fuller who wants to learn the state of the antislavery movement in Buffalo. Before going I made a short call on Mrs. Fillmore and talked about the gossip of me and the widow[ of Fillmore's recently deceased law partner, Joseph Clary]. . .Met Margaret Fuller, a large, plain, quiet woman Tried to answer her queries fear I bored her as I certainly did Colonel Blossom, who is pro-slavery. . . . I have been to four small parties this week; no, three; to me bores.

May 29: Went to the jail with some colored men to see a prisoner whom they suspect to be a fugitive slave. The pro-slavery sheriff uncivil. . .

July 17: All day in office making transcripts of company deeds for Col. Blossom who takes them to Batavia office tomorrow at breakfast, James Murray spoke of last evenings disturbance at the Liberty Pole and in the hotel reading rooms. . .[made by] the locos[ ie. The locofocos ]

July 25:. . .An invitation from Mrs. Wilgus to a party. Accepted. In black coat, pants and vest, plain bosom, without pin or watch without a single ornament; and got through the evening first-rate. Usual persons present. Mr. and Mrs. Haven, etc. etc. Home at midnight and to bed. [Note: GWJ is a close friend of Solomon Haven they walk arm and arm in the street, often talking to each other in French but in his diary Haven is always called Mr. Haven EHP]

July 26: [On John Quincy Adams in Buffalo ] Mr. Adams entered the Park a 4 p.m., followed by a mixed multitude of all conditions. Mr. Fillmore welcomed him in a brief written address. . .Mr. A's voice is shrill and his gestures angular, and his head and hands shake with age.. . . An invitation from Mrs. Burt to a general party, which will be large, as Mr. Adams is expected to be present. Shall I accept? Accepted.

July 27: Usual routine. . . James C. Jackson and Linneus P. Noble called on me; took them over the city and showed them other civilities. These men are leading Abolitionists and lecturers

Aug 1: This is to be a month of labor and anxiety; the Liberty Party National Convention is to meet here and the responsibility of preparing for it is principally on my poor shoulders. . .

Aug 6:Millerism is flourishing under its tent in Johnson's Park. . . a humbugFinally to rooms where I read myself asleep with Martin Chuzzlewit.

Aug 8 . . .to County Anti-Slavery meeting at Clarence Hollow. . . I had to do pretty much all the

speaking. Back to Buffalo at 1:30 by buggy. Eight persons signed the constitution. . . Some of the resolutions were opposed by proslavery speakers. A fugitive slave, named Pollock, gave his history in slavery and interested the audience. . .Paid $2 .50 to rent horse and buggy.

Aug 9:.Am trying to procure a church for the meeting of the National [convention ] and was pretty sure of the Park church, but received this afternoon a flat refusal.

 

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Aug 10. . .A Mr. Norton of Concord, this County, pushed himself into the dining room of my hotel where I was at lunch, to talk on Abolition. Even Sunday shines no Sabbath day for me.

At the Old Post Office and heard Fred Douglasss and Remond lecture to a large gathering; eloquent both; R. the abler declaimer; either superior to any speaker we have in Buffalo.

Got off a letter to the trustees of Dr. Lord's church, Pearl St. for the ch. For Liberty Party Nat. Convention to meet in on 30th, 31st, signed by me and 7 other com. Men. Church refused.

Aug. 12: Usual office routine.Then from 4 to 5;45 ran after mayor and an alderman for leave for Douglasss and Remond to lecture in the Park; and got leave of the former for tomorrow afternoon; Evening to old P.O with S.G. Haven, and heard Remond speak to a full house in denunciation of the Liberty Party, an impudent fellow Little Edwin A. Marsh was master of ceremonies and in his glory.

Walked down to Franklin street , and met Judge Love and Judge Hall, who told me that Mr. Rathbone was better. Walked with H. to his house , and thence home and to bed.

Letter from dearest Louisa [his sister]. . .She says she has heart disease. Nancy's Jane has St. Vitus pleased with her schoolwill expect visit from me after the convention.

Aug. l3:. . . Forenoon to Hopkins Ch; afternoon Hosmer's ch; and at evening heard Douglasss 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 Remond's style of speaking is more to my taste than Douglasss's but it should seem that in this I am singular, as I heard two slaveholder stoppng at the American Hotel express their admiration of Douglasss, but not of Remond, saying of the former, The fellow is eloquent." They quietly listened to both. To rooms and in good time to bed.

Aug 15: Usual routineLetter from J. W. Alden , Boston, to ask me to provide quarters for him and Rev. Joshua Leavitt during the great convention. They will probably be accompanied by their wives.

Aug 19: All morning in the interesting Colored Convention, held here during the last two days. This convention has given the people here a higher idea of the ability and worth of the colored people than they entertained before. Indeed it has changed contempt for them into admiration.

Aug 21: With Edward Burchard went to all the taverns on Seneca street and had the keepers stipulate the terms they would entertain persons attending the Liberty Party Convention next week.

Aug 24:Still making efforts to procure place and entertainment for the 30th[of Aug] convention

A letter from James Jackson from Lockport who lectured last evening will hold a meeting outdoors at 5 and 7 in a ch. Addresses me, My beloved friend and brother.

Aug 25:. . . four people up from the Falls today on the 8 o'clock train.Some of the Illinois delegates arrived this evening, three days in advance

Aug 26: Usual routine. . .Into the jail and saw former client Haskell who is there for keeping a house of prostitution a man of weak understanding. Hired and horse and buggy and set off with Mr, James Jackson to our appointed meetings in Williamsville. . .There gave up the wagon to Mr. J. and returned to B Buffalo in a peddlers wagon.Another three dollars gone. What a tax is this anti-slavery labor on time, nerves, pocket and patience!

In early August l843, GWJ drafts a circular to the churches seeking a meeting place for the National Convention of the Liberty Party. He explains that the party aims for the most glorious and moral and religious reform of the age the overthrow of the accursed sin of slavery in our beloved land and the conferring of civil and a religious liberty upon 2 and a half millions of crushed and heathenized American citizen. But the appeal fell on deaf ears; by August 15 all the churches had declined to provide space and assistance to the convention.

Aug 27: Afternoon to the Unitarian Ch. And heard a Mr. May of Boston, preach.. . .Our meetings excite less interest than we had counted on. I am feeling nervous and anxious [about a low turnout].

Aug 28: But little in office being busy all day about coming convention. I tried in vain to secure a church for preliminary meetings The Conv. is to meet in the Park, front of the Court House, under the Berlin tentin default of a church

Aug 29: The tent is here and up in the Park. No church to be had[talk ] with Salmon Chase, a lawyer and delegate from Ohio. . . Letter from the mayor, Joseph Masten says we will not be permitted to use the Park in front of the Court House.. This is pure cussedness. The Convention will be held in the Park, notwithstanding. There are two powerful political parties and the churches arrayed 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 Most of the delegates have arrived and been assigned quarters

Aug 30: The Great Liberty Party National Convention assembled in the Court Room at 9 a. m. elected officers and at 10 a.m. reassembled under the tent in the Park. A series of resolutions were offered by Mr. Chase of Ohio. I took no part in the discussion being busy in providing for the comfort and convenience of members, tho I found time to hear several speakers.. . .This morning before the great convention organized, there was a convention of the Liberty Party of this county to be voted for at the Nov. election. Cool. Asa Warren, chairman and G.W.Johnson, saec'y. Balloted for nominee for Sheriff. . .

Aug 31: Convention are assembled under the tent in the Park at 9 a.m. A large audiencefilled the tent. Discussions from yesterday continued. By permission and on my motion Miss Abby Kelly addressed the convention. She spoke in opposition to the policy of the Liberty Party, and was patiently listened to.. . . The convention adjourned at 1;30 a.m.

Sept l: Health almost clean gone, owing to lack of usual sleep for several nights.All day worthless. Evening at my hotel and a conversed in a sitting room. Underlining not intended. With Issac Rathbone.and miss Holman.

Sept 2: . . .all day calmthe late Convention is the political sensation herepaid Newell $3. For printing broadsides or posters for the late Conv. For city and a county.

Sept 3: A rain has sweetened the airForenoon in rooms; afternoon at Unitarian ch. Evening called on Mrs. Haven; there Mr. And Mrs. H; Dr Scott; Miss S and the dressmaker Miss Smith; all pleasant. We conversed the great convention. And its action, which, of course, I magnified; news of the day., an agreeable time. When to my hotel, where Seth Grosvenor with whom conversed on slavery

Jonson was forcing Buffalo to talk about slavery. And this they did not want to do. The two parties united to prevent discourse on slavery in our nations capital. If he could not force them, he enticed Buffalonians into slavery talk.on every possible occasion. When Margaret Fuller comes to town Jonson is asked to show her around because he is the towns leading abolitionist.

His diary of 1843 shows 365 days of talking antislavery and making speeches about it. Here he is writing letters, Leaflets He built a party.the party that denied Henry Clay the presidency and elected Polk. Some Buffalonians never forgave Jonson for this.

 

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