Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wendell Phillips Speaks in Cincinnati and a Riot Ensues

Wendell Phillips, courtesy nps.gov
On March 24, 1862, famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivered a speech at Pike's Opera House in Cincinnati, but many in the audience did not exactly appreciate the comments that this radical abolitionist and reformer delivered that evening. 

Below is long report from the Covington Journal of March 29, 1862.  The New York Times had a brief story about this incident at the time and here is another modern telling of this event. As the latter discusses, sentiment in Cincinnati was not altogether different than that in Kentucky, with a lot of support for the Union, but opposition to abolitionists and to extremists on both sides of the controversy - and Phillips was certainly an extremist.

Pike's Opera House, courtesy cincinnativiews.net

The Wendell Phillips Riot at Pike's Opera House
By an eye-witness

Monday night last some two thousand people assembled at Pike's Opera House, Cincinnati, to hear Wendell Phillips speak. A reporter looking in early in the evening would have classed the audience as "highly respectable." The people were dressed well enough, and as they came in took their seats quietly. There was perhaps an over-proportion of gaunt, long-haired men and ill-favored spectacled women - such as are recognized as among the elect at Women's Rights conventions or entertainments of spiritualists. At the appointed hour Phillips was introduced to the audience in a silly speech by Judge somebody, who likened him to a piece of heavy artillery, which had just made the echoes on the Potomac ring with its thunder ones, but feared that he was running counter to the order of the Secretary of War in speaking of the movements of the artillery, and  closed with the remark that the historian, in writing out the history of the war, would class his "distinguished friend" as one of its greatest heroes. Phillips then commenced his address, and spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes without eliciting any decided manifestation of approbation or disapprobation from the great body of the audience.

Upon the utterance of an ultra abolition sentiment there was some applause, but not quite enough to drown a few hisses. Phillips said that "the slaveholders were sustained on one hand by four million blacks in bondage, and on the other by about as many mean whites." He had scarcely given utterance to the sentiment before a small stone was thrown at him from one of the upper tiers. Men jumped to their feet, with cries of "Put him out!" "Put him out!" and an individual was named as the offender, but no person seemed inclined to undertake the job of putting him out. When the stone struck the stage Phillips at once stopped speaking, stepped back a pace or tow, and seemed at a loss what to do or say. Waiting until the noise and confusion had partially subsided, he stepped forward and undertook to explain away the offensive remark. He said he intended no offense, and had used the expression as it was used by slaveholders themselves in speaking of non-slaveholders. 

 Our readers who heard Yancey speak at the Opera House will remember how he met the first displays of the mob spirit - how in act and word he defied the disturbers, and thus commanded their silence, and a hearing for himself. At the critical moment Phillips hesitated. He lacked the tack or the boldness to meet the emergency, and from that moment his fate with the audience was sealed. At no time after the first outbreak was order restored, though snatches of what the speaker said cold be heard. With elevated voice he declared: "For thirty years I have been an avowed Abolitionist; for sixteen years a Disunionist." A shower of eggs - one or tow striking the speaker - greeted the declaration. "Put 'em out!" "Put 'em out!" resounded from all parts of the house. We were struck with the quite question of a lady: "Is it not strange that among so many men who want to "put 'em out" no one will undertake it?"

A fierce-looking little man in the parquet jumped up on his seat, and shaking his fist in the direction of the second tier exclaimed, "I dare you to come down here and do that!" There was a rush up stairs, supposed for a moment to be for the purpose of putting the rioters out; but, as events proved, it was a gathering together of those who sympathized with them. During all this time Phillips continued to speak, but not many could hear a word he uttered.

The rioters, now confident in their power came down to the first floor, occupying the space in the rear of the front boxes. The leader, with the voice of a Stentor (sic - Senator?) , called out, "Three cheers for the Union!"  and the "Three groans for the Abolitionists!" and both were given with a will. 

Then followed a sort of colloquy, carried on in loud tones: "He's the man that wants to put the niggers in the work-shops alongside of us, isn't he a pretty bird? "

"Yes; that may do for Massachusetts, but it smells to strong  for us." 

"He says the Constitution is a compact with the devil; to the devil with him I say." 

"Down with the nigger thieves and Abolitionists."


"Up with 'em, I say; hand 'em up!" 

In the meantime many of the women had left the house. Those who remained were of course excited and alarmed. 

At this junction one of the rioters jumped up on a seat and exclaimed: "For God's sake don't shoot till the ladies get out!" This settled the business. There was a general rush for the doors, and in the midst of the confusion Phillips made his bow and retired. 

Judging from what could be heard of the lecture, the purpose of the speaker was to show that the war was not caused by the acts of any man or set of men of the present day, bat was the natural an inevitable result of the attempt of the framers of the Constitution to reconcile two irreconcilable things - Freedom and Slavery; that this Constitution and the Union under it were broken into fragments; that the war ought to be prosecuted for the eradication of slavery; and that if this was not done a reconstruction of the Union was not desirable.

It is to be regretted that the speaker was not permitted to have his say in quiet. We do not doubt that hundreds of men, who have of late been acting with the Republican or Abolition party, would have left the house thoroughly disgusted with the ultra opinions of the speaker and of the party of which he is an oracle. The "disturbance" is to be regretted on higher grounds. It was a gross violation of the Freedom of Speech - a glorious and inestimable right, which, with the Freedom of the Press, ought neither to be invaded nor surrendered by American citizens.

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