Angelina Grimké, Anti-Slavery Speech, 1838

Angelina Grimké

Political Activist

The devout Angelina Grimké, daughter of prosperous South Carolina slaveholders, scandalized her family when she began an anti-slavery lecture tour in the 1830s. Even her close abolitionist friends, including her future husband, Theodore Weld, urged her to stop speaking publicly, fearing the spectacle of a woman addressing an audience would hurt the cause. The leading abolitionists were men, and Grimké’s speeches, along with her sister Sarah’s talks and writings, ventured into threatening territory by positioning women as the moral equals of men. In response to the situation, an uncomfortable New England church association issued ‘The Pastoral Letter’ to be read at services, reminding listeners that ‘the power of woman is her dependence’.

Still, Grimké took the stage. She often named her faith as a source of strength in the face of others’ disdain. In 1838 she addressed a mixed-race audience at Pennsylvania Hall, in downtown Philadelphia, where female abolitionist groups were holding a national convention. Outside, a violent mob battered at the doors and windows as she spoke. In her speech, she urges her audience, especially women, to use their right to petition (they did not yet have the vote) and to stand firm against angry voices, such as the mob’s. (The bracketed comments in the extract opposite, describing the violence, were published along with the speech). Later, the crowd burned the empty building to the ground.

Anti-Slavery Speech 1838

Men, brethren and fathers – mothers, daughters and sisters, what came ye out for to see? … Is it curiosity merely, or a deep sympathy with the perishing slave, that has brought this large audience together?…

As a Southerner I feel that it is my duty to stand up here to-night and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it…. I know it has horrors that can never be described…. [Just then stones were thrown at the windows – a great noise without, and commotion within.] What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the levelling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution?…

We often hear the question asked, ‘What shall we do?’ Here is an opportunity for doing something now. Every man and every woman present may do something by showing that we fear not a mob, and, in the midst of threatenings and revilings, by opening our mouths for the dumb and pleading the cause of those who are ready to perish.

…Women of Philadelphia! allow me as a Southern woman, with much attachment to the land of my birth, to entreat you to come up to this work. Especially let me urge you to petition. Men may settle this and other questions at the ballot-box, but you have no such right; it is only through petitions that you can reach the Legislature. It is therefore peculiarly your duty to petition…

When the women of these States send up to Congress such a petition, our legislators will arise as did those of England, and say, ‘When all the maids and matrons of the land are knocking at our doors we must legislate.’ Let the zeal and love, the faith and works of our English sisters quicken ours – that while the slaves continue to suffer, and when they shout deliverance, we may feel the satisfaction of having done what we could.