60 Minutes to Freedom
A tour of Civil War Boston
On New Year’s Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. He then handed his pen to our senator, Charles Sumner, who had requested it for George Livermore of Cambridge, Mass. The instrument — which Livermore would treasure as a collector and as an abolitionist — is now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
That evening in Boston, a crowd of 3,000 gathered at the Tremont Temple — the nation’s first integrated church — to await the telegram: white and free black parishioners. A few luminaries spoke, Frederick Douglass among them. What Douglass remembered was the excruciating delay:
We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million of slaves…
Eight, nine, ten o’clock came and went, and still no word. A visible shadow seemed falling on the expecting throng, which the confident utterances of the speak[er]s sought in vain to dispel. At last, when patience was well-nigh exhausted, and suspense was becoming agony, a man (I think was Judge Russell) with hasty step advanced through the crowd, and with a face fairly illumined with the news he bore, exclaimed in tones that thrilled all hearts, “It is coming!” “It is on the wires!” The effect of this announcement was startling beyond description, and the scene was wild and grand…
Emerson arrived at the last minute to read his “Boston Hymn”:
I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth,
As wind and wandering wave.
I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.
When they were asked to go home, the party streamed out of the Temple and moved to the old 12th Baptist Church, and finally broke up near dawn.
The Tremont Temple, which was repeatedly damaged by fire, was finally rebuilt and reopened in 1896.
But today you could take an hourlong walk — from the north slope of Beacon Hill and around the parks — and see a hundred signs of a native political movement that helped to make emancipation and equality thinkable in America.
This history gets forgotten under the Freedom Trail freight of our Revolutionary history, and no doubt under the bad reputation that came from the busing riots. All the same it was a moment of collaboration and consequence, a moment to be proud of.
There may be no path to lead you through this city’s participation in America’s “second revolution.” But the sites are there, as are the tour guides. Three women — Beverly Morgan-Welch, Barbara Berenson, and Megan Kate Nelson — showed us around as we prepared two radio shows on the legacy of the Civil War and of Reconstruction this month.
1. The Seedbed of Anti-Slavery: The African Meeting House.
Off of Joy Street, on the north slope of Beacon Hill, stands a building erected by black craftsman in 1806, paid for in part by an African. It’s known as the African Meeting House or the “Abolitionist Church.”
There’s nothing more poignant about the place than these pencils and slates found in a recent UMB excavation. They were used by black students of the small school (est. 1808), as their parents and neighbors fought for integration into all-white schools, which were better supplied and often more conveniently located.
Benjamin Roberts, one of those black parents, was unsuccessfully represented by Robert Morris and Charles Sumner in a case to integrate the schools in 1850; the abolitionists won desegregation in the legislature five years later.
And education underlay everything that happened next: as African-American men and women came to correspond with the outside world in letters, in oratory, in the meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society (which William Lloyd Garrison convened in the meeting-house basement) and in pages of Garrison’s journal, The Liberator.
Archaeologists also found seeds in the soil, “large numbers of strawberry, blackberry, fig, cherry, huckleberry, blueberry, cranberry grape and tomato seeds… as well as walnut, hazelnut, chestnut, pepper and mustard remnants.”
Beverly Morgan-Welch, the director of the Museum of African-American History that now occupies this site, invites us to experience the basement of the Meeting House as a warm and human forerunner to those celebrated churches of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma: a ‘black Faneuil Hall’ in its day, where people ate, drank, spoke freely and got down to the work of superior organizing.
Welch explained how we ought to feel when we step into the building’s quiet basement, lovingly, simply restored, with old unfinished floors that come from the ruin of the Old West Church:
There’s a conviction here: that this community of literate and ardent people of color that persuaded William Lloyd Garrison to drop gradualism and become the gadfly who wrote: “I Will Be Heard.” Frederick Douglass gravitated to this place when he visited Boston, and it was here that he would ask black soldiers to join the state’s colored regiments during the war.
So, if Boston abolitionism had a seedbed, it was the living proof offered by this triumphant and moral black community on Beacon Hill. Begun in 1790, its spirit’s still moving today, through the 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury and places like it, and in the heritage of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement.
Visit the African Meeting House, and listen to more of Beverly Morgan-Welch on the reaction to Reconstruction and Lincoln’s death.
2. “Golden Trumpet(s)”: abolitionists’ row in the Public Garden.
You could also begin your Civil War tour on the other side of the parks, on Commonwealth Avenue, where William Lloyd Garrison is seated on a pedestal, around to the Boylston Street edge of the Public Garden, where the minister William Ellery Channing, the senator Charles Sumner, and the lawyer Wendell Phillips are all commemorated in bronze.
In so doing you’re tracing a strand of intellectual history in the white moral conscience. Long before the war Channing preached the perfectibility of every human soul, and in The Liberator Garrison offered regular and extraordinary indignation against slavery starting in 1831. This was the moral environment in which Sumner and Phillips, both born 1811, came to prominence.
Barbara F. Berenson has written a booklet of walking tours to Civil War Boston and a fuller history, which stand alone as guides on the subject. She’s a genial and passionate fan of this complex story. (For example, she reminds us that the crest of her alma mater — Harvard Law School — features three sheaves of wheat in tribute to Isaac Royall of Medford, the school’s slaveholding benefactor.)
First Berenson spoke in front of the statue of Wendell Phillips by Daniel Chester French, unveiled 100 years ago in 1915. Its inscription reads: “Whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victories.”
Phillips was a child of privilege inspired to abolitionism by his beloved wife and by the sight (in 1835) of Garrison set upon by a mob of Boston gentleman-merchants who depended on Southern cotton for their livelihood. And he came to be celebrated as an orator, as the opposite of a politician — too much moral purity.
While Garrison folded up The Liberator in 1865, Phillips spoke out for continuing reform, till “South Carolina must be the counterpart of New-York, each man owning his house, with the school-house behind him and a ballot in his right hand… till [Pres.] Andy Johnson could see John Hancock under a black skin.”
At the statue’s unveiling in 1915, William Monroe Trotter, one of the leaders of Boston’s African-American community, commended Phillips for that persistence:
Wendell Phillips was potent in creating a public
sentiment which insisted upon Lincoln's procla-
mation of emancipation. Of this immortal docu-
ment he said: "To three millions of slaves this
proclamation is sunlight, scattering the despair of
centuries, and the blessings of the poor bear it up to the throne of God." Then at once he set in to make this emancipation secure.
Down the path, a statue of Sumner stands on a pedestal reading, simply, “SUMNER.” Berenson has a theory: it’s because the people who put the statue up in the 1870s couldn’t have imagined a moment when Boston wouldn’t recognize one of its greatest statesmen, who nudged Lincoln, overrode Johnson, and led the postwar remaking of the Constitution as much as anyone else. (Lincoln admired Sumner’s purity, calling him “my idea of a bishop.”)
It was in the nature of the radical Republicans that they were more disagreeable than Abe. Garrison, for example, bitterly broke with his friend Frederick Douglass over small matters of politics and publishing. Douglass made a note in his eulogy:
“Speaking for myself I must frankly say I have sometimes thought him uncharitable to those who differed from him… To say this of him is simply to say that he was human, and it may be added when he erred here he erred in the interest of truth. He revolted at halfness, abhorred compromise, and demanded that men should be either hot or cold.”
We remember that Sumner was brutally caned by Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, only after Sumner had earlier called Brooks’s cousin a pimp for ‘the harlot, Slavery.’ (Which is not to say that Sumner deserved it — though unsympathetic commentators have done just that.) And our guest Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that Sumner singlehandedly hobbled Reconstruction, the great project of his life, by his hostility to fellow Republican and President, Ulysses S. Grant
This sort of orneriness was what got the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments passed. But it may help explain why we don’t quite grant our Boston abolitionists their enormous stature. The Radical Republicans’ reputation suffered with Reconstruction’s, the thought down South that they had overreached, that their approach was unsporting and utopian.
But that only means we should reckon with these men not as pure politicians, but as something rarer: as examples of conscience, as dreamers. They wanted to force the issue, to change American hearts and minds on slavery, race, religion, women’s suffrage and rights of labor. And so they were ever uncompromising, in that word’s good and bad sense.
To quote one of Phillips’s eulogists, speaking just as well for Garrison and Sumner (seen below):
[He] found a Boston which said, ‘Cursed be Canaan!’ he left a Boston ready to say, ‘Perish Bibles and constitutions that send young, trembling girls to the auction-block!’
One thing we can do: we can erect on Boston Common a statue… and so lead our young men to drink of the same moral fountains...
3. “God in Ebony”: The Shaw/54th Memorial
Finally, between these two stops is the crown jewel of this short Civil War walk — Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Col. Robert Gould and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment tells the whole story — the good, the bad, and the tragic — if you know what to bring to it.
One day before the statue was defaced — a man named Delvin Dixon cut off Shaw’s sword — Megan Kate Nelson, the historian who wrote Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War and now blogs at Historista, told me about what we miss as we’re almost forced to look up at the bronze bas-relief of the 54th and their white commander in front of the State House:
It was only shortly after that Emancipation scene that Gov. John A. Andrew — “never mean enough to despise any man because he was black” — made real his plan to organize the first volunteer regiment of black soldiers in the North.
Two months after that, on May 28, the famous 54th paraded on Boston Common under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, son of abolitionists. Gov. Andrew reviewed the parade, alongside Garrison, Phillips, and Douglass, the leading agitators for black fighting force. (Both of Douglass’s sons had joined the 54th.)
And just two months after that, the 54th — well-trained, healthy and largely unpaid— sustained 272 casualties in the unsuccessful effort to capture Fort Wagner, a rebel stronghold in South Carolina. Col. Shaw was shot in the heart, died, and was buried in a trench with his men.
The memorial took a long time to fund. Fundraising, started by Sumner and the freed slave Joshua B. Smith, slowed as the war faded from memory. And according to a contemporary guide to the piece, Saint-Gaudens took a while to conceive of the piece and find his black models, some of whom were frightened of him:
At first when [the sculptor]met a man in the streets that he thought would serve his purpose, he used to ask: “Would you like to have your picture made? Come along with me, and I’ll pay you;” and the negro would follow him, with apparent willingness in most cases, but would manage to slip off somehow on the way to the studio. They had in mind a fiction… concerning the methods employed by medical students to obtain subjects for dissection.
Finally, though, the piece was finished and unveiled on May 31, 1897. Veterans of the regiment came to the ceremony. William James spoke to two kinds of valor on show in Shaw and the 54th, one that makes war and the other that preempts it. The white and black soldiers sharing in the valor of death and the valor of human life—this, to James, was proof of the ‘civic genius’ of America:
The lesson that our war ought most of all to teach us is the lesson that evils must be checked in time, before they grow so great. The Almighty cannot love such long-postponed accounts, or such tremendous settlements. And surely He hates all settlements that do such quantities of incidental devils’ work… Every war leaves such miserable legacies, fatal seeds of future war and revolution, unless the civic virtues of the people save the State in time.
Robert Lowell, who returned to the memorial (not far from his home) in his poem, “For The Union Dead”, remembered that “William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” They are “bell-cheeked,” variable and living, but also dead, or marching off to die.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
Slavery, having become a cosmic problem, demanded cosmic strength from black Americans and their white allies — soldiers and students, schoolmasters and speakers — in Boston and elsewhere: the paradox, the choice of life at the price of death.
Thanks to Conor Gillies, Megan Kate Nelson, Barbara Berenson, Lynn DuVal Luse, and Beverly Morgan-Welch for their help and participation. Listen to our Civil War show, and our Reconstruction show, for more.