- Closing the "Floodgate of Impurity":Moral Reform, Antislavery, and Interracial Marriage in Antebellum Massachusetts
Until February 1843, when the state legislature repealed a statute that banned marriages between whites and "Negroes, Indians, or Mulattos," interracial couples in Massachusetts found their unions declared null and void, their children were classed as illegitimate, and any official who solemnized an interracial union could be fined. While many African American activists and some white abolitionists advocated interracial marriage because they viewed the ban as a race law created to degrade the social and political status of African Americans and support white supremacy, they had little success convincing the general public or their state legislators that racial discrimination justified changing the laws. In fact, their initial petitioning drives in 1838 and 1839, calling for the repeal of the marriage law because it "made distinctions on account of color," earned them nothing but derision. This essay examines the transition in petitioners' tactics, from stalwart demands for racial equality and fair citizenship to a multifaceted petitioning effort on behalf of the sanctity of marriage and family in a free state. To sway the public and legislators who would make the ultimate determination on their pleas, leading reformers appealed to the burgeoning moral reform movement, whose bourgeois members could countenance calling for the legalization of interracial marriage as one measure to curb sexual promiscuity or "licentiousness" in their communities and protect mothers and children in unsanctioned "marriages."1 What's more, reformers analogized the hardship of abandoned women and illegitimate children to the plight of enslaved women and children in the South, thereby marshalling moral reform and popular anti-southern feeling for the marriage-rights camp. To win the repeal measure, activists sidestepped the most radical call for political and social equality and created ballast for a normative northern family model. The moral reform strategy did not fundamentally challenge racism or satisfy the needs of African Americans who fought for full equal rights, but it did win marriage rights. At the same time, it provided legal and cultural support for [End Page 2] a regional identity that contributed to sectional disunion as the nation approached Civil War.
With the rise of radical abolitionism in the 1830s, there was a spate of violent attacks sparked by white supremacist opposition to racial integration in abolitionist organizations. In urban areas like New York and Philadelphia and rural enclaves throughout the northeast, anti-abolitionist rioters created a volatile discourse surrounding amalgamation, in which interracial interaction of any sort was conflated with interracial sexuality and marriage and subsequently vilified for fear of how it might upset the existing racial and social hierarchy.2 Most famously, groups of rioters rocked New York's Five Points and terrorized Connecticut schoolteacher Prudence Crandall and her racially integrated classroom in 1834 and attempted to tar and feather William Lloyd Garrison in Boston in 1835. By the late 1830s, abolitionists on the lecture circuit expected to be set upon by mobs wielding sticks, throwing projectiles, and accusing them of advocating amalgamation.
If any attack scarred New England abolitionists as deeply as the "Garrison mob," it was the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. Although the incident took place outside of New England, many prominent abolitionists were in Philadelphia attending the dedication ceremony and the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women when the mob struck. By the time Bostonian Maria Weston Chapman spoke to a crowd of three thousand abolitionists on Wednesday May 16, a large crowd had surrounded the building and interrupted the proceedings by breaking in the door and throwing stones through the newly blown windows. As Wednesday's meeting drew to a close, the women left the hall arm in arm. Still, the mob pelted them with stones and eggs as they passed. In response, the city's mayor asked the women to restrict their gatherings to white women. Of course they refused and instead called off their meeting. The hall's managers turned their keys over to the mayor, trusting him to lock the building and turn the mob away. He locked the building but then simply left the scene. The horde broke into the building, destroying furniture and setting fires...