James T. Austin, Speech in Faneuil Hall

8 December 1837

Note on the Text

This speech by James T. Austin, Attorney General of Massachusetts, is mainly memorable due to the extemporaneous phillips_faneuil_hallresponse to it made by abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The text of the speech is a reconstruction based on the Boston publication in pamphlet form by the author (AV), [1] and an account of the speech published in The Liberator [2] (LV), December 15th, 1837.1


Mr. Austin, (Attorney General) rose to address the meeting. He understood the notice that was published invited everybody to a free discussion of the subject before them – if so, he had some remarks to make – and he desired to be informed by the Chairman if he was in order to proceed. Being assured that he was in order, Mr. Austin continued –

[1] So far as he had caught the meaning of the Resolutions, by a single reading in the bustle and confusion of this crowded hall, they appeared to him to be mere abstract propositions, without any particular point. They repeated the familiar doctrines of our Bill of Rights, in language weakened by expansion, under the poor conceit that the terse diction of that instrument could be improved.

[2] To the doctrines of the Bill of Rights, or the promulgation of them at all fitting times and places, he could never have the slightest objection. They are the principles in which the free citizens of Massachusetts are born and educated. We have sucked them into our constitution with our mothers’ milk. They form the ground work of that high, manly and generous character, for which this ancient Commonwealth has in all periods of its history been distinguished. They generate and keep alive in the minds of our citizens, an attachment to liberty and order, to freedom and justice ; - to the rights of property and the sovereignty of the laws, which the occasional outbreaks of misguided men hardly can tarnish, and never destroy. Our whole population, with one mighty voice, re-echo the constitutional doctrines of our Bill or Rights, and no man or body of men may revile or gainsay them any where, and especially in Faneuil Hall – their birth place and their cradle – without sinking at once into insignificance and contempt.

[3] But why are we now called together, solemnly to reaffirm them? Why this vast crowd – this excitement – this agitation? Why is there a desire to republish truths never contradicted and never denied? And which, if they are not supposed to have some particular application, it is idle and useless to republish to the world?

[4] The answer is plain. They are intended to have particular application. More is meant than is expressed. These resolutions – all literally true – are intended to favor a particular cause, and a particular party, [and of which they say nothing].2

[5] It does not become us to assemble here under the forms of religious observances, and to do one thing while we really but covertly mean to effect another.

[6] Let us strip off the disguise. The object of this meeting has relation to recent events in the city of Alton in the State of Illinois; and the resolutions, whatever is their language, mean to express a particular sympathy for the death of Mr. Lovejoy, a Clergyman and Editor of a newspaper, who was killed there by a mob.

[7] It becomes us therefore to consider how that individual, or the cause in which he was engaged, had merited this distinction.

[8] At this distance from the scene or action, it is difficult to obtain correct information. He had endeavored to ascertain the facts, and presumed he had learned all that could be known here; and he would state the case as he understood it, that his fellow citizens might determine for themselves, how far their sympathies ought to be enlisted, and how far this extraordinary proceeding is called for by the real circumstances of the case.

[9] In the State of Missouri, as all well know, there is a law authorizing domestic slavery. Whether this law is wise or unwise – moral or immoral – humane or cruel – to be encouraged of discountenanced, - it is nevertheless the law of that sovereign and independent State, with which we, who profess to be the guardians and supporters of all law, have no right to interfere. We may thank God we do not live under such a law.3 We may bless a beneficent and kind Providence, that has made us the happy citizens of a State whose very atmosphere is liberty ; a State that does not and cannot contain a slave ; but it becomes us in our self gratulation, to look not with scorn, but with in compassion, on our less fortunate countrymen.

[10] The condition of the people of a Slave State can hardly enter into the imagination of our peaceful and quiet citizens. For them, there is no peace, by night or by day. Their enemies are of their own household. Every moment is a moment of alarm. Life is wasted in the constant terror of destruction. The husband and the father when he retires to sleep, may commend his wife and daughters to the protection of Almighty God, but he must do it with the constant feeling of alarm that they may be murdered, and his dwelling burned, or even a more horrible catastrophe happen before morning. [He sleeps almost the sleep of death; he is in more than the perils of death — a state of alarm and distress, which we cannot realize. We might read it in a novel, as a thing belonging to romance. We ought to pity him from our hearts.]4 The apprehension of an insurrection – the dread of a civil commotion – the distress and anxiety of mind, which pervade a slaveholding State, are indeed subjects of sympathy and condolence; and these, if any thing, should excite the tenderness of the philanthropist and the statesman, especially if he is convinced, that in the present condition of the world, the cause is immovable.

[11][In the state of Missouri, an individual undertook to establish a newspaper, the effect of which was to stimulate the slaves to deeds of violence and insurrection. They were told of their rights, of their wrongs — that no power of man could justly hold them in bondage — and what is termed a moral suasion was poured out upon their masters, to induce them to giver freedom to their slaves, that, if their masters did not give them their freedom, they might take it by force.]56

[12] It is not to be presumed the Reverend gentleman or his advisers meant all this – By no means. They are honorable men; all honorable men. But whether intended or not, the Missourians [were satisfied his paper would produce;]7 and intelligent men may be excused for believing that their fears were not visionary.

[13] We may think these fears idle, but is because we do not realize the condition of white people in a slave country.

[14]8 [It is difficult to bring the matter home to pure understanding. There is nothing here sufficiently analogous, to which to compare it. He would state a case, not wholly dissimilar, but the comparison, though sufficiently accurate for his purpose, would not run on all fours.

[15] We have a menagerie here, with lions, tigers, hyenas, an elephant, a jackass or two, and monkeys in plenty. — Suppose now, some new cosmopolite, some man of philanthropic feelings, not only towards man but animals, who believe that all are entitled to freedom as an inalienable right, should engage in the humane task of giving freedom to these wild beast of the forest, some of whom are nobler than their keepers; or having discovered some new mod to reach their understanding, should try to induce them to break their cages and be free? The people of Missouri had as much reason to be afraid of their slaves, as we should have of the wild beasts of the menagerie. They had the same dread of Lovejoy that we should have of this supposed instigator, if we really believed the bars would be broken, and the caravan let loose to prowl about our streets.9

[16] They compelled Lovejoy to remove, and he did remove. He crossed over to Alton in the [free] State of Illinois; as if, in the case of supposed, the man who would set the tigers upon us, had crossed over Warren Bridge, and harangued them from the other side of Charles river, in the town of Charlestown.

[17] Illinois is, like Massachusetts, a free State. It does not tolerate slavery. [Missouri does.] The laws of the two States are different. There is a conflict between them. A learned judge has recently published a book, showing that laws are frequently brought into conflict. In this case, the law which allows freedom of discussion comes in conflict with the law which allows men to hold slaves.10 Are the laws of Illinois to be used as to produce a violation of the laws of Missouri? In Illinois there was no law to punish Lovejoy for inciting the slaves of Missouri to rise against their masters. What was to be done? Here was an abolition paper, in their judgment, violating the principles of religion, morality and order — exciting a servile war, under the guise of freedom, and preaching murder in the name of Christianity.

[18] The people of Alton considered this an extreme case and they put the paper down.

[19] Mr. Austin expressed his sincere regret that they resorted to violence and a mob.11 Nothing can justify the action of a mob; but what is there in the conduct of character of those who suffered by this mob, to demand our sympathy or approval?

[20] Another attempt was made to set up the paper. A new press was procured. It is said that it was paid for by some abolition society, and the story was believed there, and how true it was, he could not say.12 The people declared it should not be used. It was placed in a warehouse for safe keeping, and a mob surrounded the building, and demanded that it should be given up, considering it as an instrument for murder — a sword in the hands of a crazy man. The mob surrounded the house and demanded it. Lovejoy and his friends stood on their legal rights, and defended their property. A gun was first fired from the building, and a man by the name of Bishop was first killed; but as we are not called here to sympathize for him, his death passes for nothing.13 The crowd became infuriated at the sight of blood, shed by a minister of the gospel of peace. They surrounded the building and threatened to burn it; one man mounts a ladder to reach the roof; Lovejoy comes outside, and deliberately aims his musket to take this man’s life. At that moment, guns are fired at Lovejoy. The man who was on the ladder is saved, and Lovejoy is shot. He returned to his companions, fell and expired. He resorted to violence, and he fell by violence. He excited the passions of men, by conduct unwise, impolitic, rash, extravagant and unchristian; and the consequence of his conduct was such as might have been anticipated.

[21] Now he (M.A.) would ask, whether it may not be said, in the language of Scripture, “Dieth Lovejoy as a fool dieth!”14 He should have applied to the magistrate.15 He was the last man that ought to have been there, with a musket in his hand.

[22] His clerical character is no palliation of his conduct. I have as little sympathy for a minister of the gospel who is found, gun in hand, fighting in a broil with a mob, as I have for one who leaves his pulpit to mingle in the debates of a popular assembly, in matters that do not concern his sacred office. In either situation, he is marvelously out of place. ]16

[23] Why then, asked Mr. A., are we called here to sympathize with the victim, or to say any thing about the mob at Alton, or why should the events there be the cause of special resolutions by the citizens of Boston? Have we no events of the like kind nearer home, to condemn? Yes, Sir, wherever the Abolition fear rages, there are mobs and murder. He should soon be called, in his official capacity, to try a man indicted for murder, growing out of this very spirit which was in operation at Alton.17 But no meeting had been called to express the public feeling, and no effort made to strengthen the arm of the law, or support the public officers in their exertions to enforce it.

[24] Without attending to other cases in our own vicinity, which better deserve our attention, what will be said to us by the citizens of Illinois and Missouri, whom it is our self-assumed prerogative to rebuke?

[25] Will they not tell you that you yourselves have been instigated by the same passions, and have yielded to the like infirmity of human nature? — "Have you written your annals true" – they will say – "and do you not know that occasions have arisen in which you ancestors found it inevitable that they should take the law in to their own hands, — extreme cases, in which indeed there as no law reaching to their condition but the original and immutable law of preservation and necessary self defense?"

[26] Will they tell you that when your fathers were colonists, and as such under obligations to pay a tax levied upon them by the British Government, fatal to their liberties, their rights, their happiness, they implored, they besought its remission, and urged that their people should not be goaded to violence, and instigated to a madness which human reason could not control. And when these prayers and entreaties and supplications were vain, and there was no law that could protect them, and no middle path between ruin and resistance, did not they take their protection under the security of their own arm, and marching down from this Hall – an orderly mob – pour the disgusting instrument of their degradation into the sea? So will the people of Missouri claim to do, when their lives are threatened by the operations of these abolition conspirators. [Do you suppose they will wait for the slow progress of the laws?]18 They will tell you they will call on the God of Heaven, as your fathers did, and with his favor will defend themselves.19

[27] It is the natural operation of human passion, when stimulated and goaded and urged to extremes, to pour out its resistance in ebullitions of ungoverned wrath. Lament it as we may, such is the constitution of mankind, and all the preaching of all the zealots of party will not produce a change.

[28] Satisfy a people that their lives are in danger, by the instrumentality of the press, injudiciously and intemperately operating on the minds of slaves; give them reason to fear the breaking out of a servile war, in which their wives and daughters are to be the victims of that brutal ferocity that knows how to add horrors to death, and if you can keep such a people calm, and tranquil, and quiet, obedient to the restrains of any law that can be made, or to any power that can enforce it, you must first beat out of them every vestige of humanity, and make them more abject than slavery itself.

[29] It is the folly of the Abolition party that they will not learn this great truth.

[30] Why then should we be called on to make this occurrence at Alton an occasion for a public expression of condolence, in Faneuil Hall? To sympathize with those who had been mobbed, when their own rashness, and folly and imprudence have stirred up the vindictive passions and the multitude, and made the mob which they affect to deplore, is not the way to prevent mobs for the future, or preserve the peace of society and the majesty of the laws.

[31] The way to do this great service to our country and mankind, is to urge upon those whose violence of action and intemperance of language are raising a whirlwind which no human power can control, to exercise with many discretion and decency the rights they possess. He would speak of this duty of moderation and forbearance, as the great duty of the times ; and he would call on the Reverend Gentleman, at whose application this meeting was assembled – if he must leave the appropriate sphere of a minister of the gospel, and mingle in the strifes of party – to teach here those great lesions of Christian moderation and mildness, that regard for other people’s rights and feelings, and that respect and sympathy for the unfortunate condition of our free fellow citizens in our States, which are the true doctrines of Christian benevolence and good will to mankind. These are the doctrines that make for peace, and by these we may atone for our own sins, before we undertake to reform those of our neighbors. Let us use moderation, calmness, forbearance.20 Let us not do any thing to stimulate that feeling that will make mobs.21 You will raise this feeling to violence. In the slavery country, or in the region of the slave country, no man can see that done which has a tendency to excite the slaves to insurrection, without taking up arms.22 I hold to the sovereignty of the law, with an utter abhorrence of mobs.23 I hold to the right of free discussion; but I hold to the Christian duty, which will enable a man to know when he ought to assert his rights.24 The best way to prevent mobs, is to do nothing to excite a mob.

[32] Extreme rights are not to be insisted on by peaceable men. The liberty of speech and the liberty of press, dear as they are to all of us, are to be exercised with regard to other people’s rights as well as our own; and if the right is to be preserved, if we mean to enjoy it in its utility and its fullness, it can only be by a wise and prudent course of conduct, under a deep sense of personal responsibility and religious obligation not to abuse it. No law in our country can or ought to control it, but the law of self-respect — and that law of self-restraint, which every honorable man imposes on himself. If the press is made an instrument to excite intemperate passions, it will create resistance. Such is the primeval law of our nature, and no earthly power can alter it. If the press becomes an incendiary to put the passions of mankind in a blaze, who but its conductors are to blame, if it perishes in the conflagration it has made? and what better are we ever to expect, than that an Abolition press will be destroyed, if it is established in a Slave State or on the borders of it? — We execrate the mob, but we cannot wonder at its outrage.

[33] These, said Mr. A., were his reasons for believing that no action should be had at the present meeting. But he should make no motion on the subject. His fellow citizens would dispose of the matter as they deemed most effectual to prevent riots and preserve order.

1. James T. Austin, Attorney General of Massachusetts. Speech Delivered in Faneuil Hall, December 8, 1837, At A Meeting of Citizens Called on the Petition of William E. Channing and Others. Boston: John H. Eastburn, 1837.
2. "Public Meeting in Faneuil Hall." The Liberator, 15 December 1837.
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