Antebellum Convention Movement

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Antebellum Convention Movement

The antebellum convention movement consisted of a series of national, regional, and state conventions held by blacks in North America on an irregular basis from 1830 to 1861. The movement began in the 1830s and revealed the growing consensus among northern free blacks on the importance of moral reform. Six annual conventions, held from 1830 to 1835, were the first attempts by African Americans to address their concerns on a national level. Samuel E. Cornish (17951858), editor of Freedom's Journal, and others had called for a national gathering on several occasions, but it was the threatened enforcement of the Ohio black laws in 1829 and the revival of the African colonization movement that provoked the first national convention.

Several state laws restricted black civil rights in Ohio, including a requirement that all blacks register and post a $500 security bond or leave the state. When Cincinnati officials called for rigorous enforcement of this provision in 1829 and the city experienced an antiblack riot the following year, blacks in Ohio and other northern states feared a new wave of legal and extralegal racial oppression. Northern free blacks were also alarmed by the rapid growth of the American Colonization Society and its state auxiliaries in the late 1820s. The white-sponsored society, founded in 1816, sought to colonize free black Americans in Africa and vigorously lobbied federal and state governments for financial support.

In response to the Ohio crisis and colonizationist activities, forty blacks from nine states, including Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, met at Philadelphia in September 1830. Fearful of local white hostility to the assembly, the delegates held the first five days of sessions in secret. The delegates focused on Canadian emigration as a possible solution to the tandem threat posed by state black laws and forced resettlement in Africa. At the 1831 convention, after the crisis in Ohio had abated and the need to organize a black exodus to Canada seemed less urgent, moral reform emerged as the predominant issue. White abolitionists who attended the conventions encouraged the delegates to direct their attention to moral reform. William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan, and Simeon S. Jocelyn addressed the 1831 convention. Following their recommendations, the convention accepted a proposal for a manual-labor school in New Haven. The national conventions recognized temperance as a principal component of moral reform, and at the 1833 convention, a committee on temperance recommended the establishment of a national auxiliarythe Coloured American Temperance Society.

From the beginning, the convention movement was marred by personal and intercity rivalries. New York and Philadelphia delegates quarreled over procedural questions as well as issues of substance. Much time at the conventions was given over to formulating admission policies, certifying delegates, and appointing committees. These procedural disagreements revealed not just an intercity rivalry but, more profoundly, the problem of national leadership. Many who attended the conventions had questionable credentials, representing themselves and little else.

The conventions of the 1830s were reserved, even circumspect, in their official pronouncements. To protest the injustice of slavery and racial prejudice, the 1831 convention recommended "a day of fasting and prayer." The following year the convention agreed to establish provisional state committees, but cautiously added "where the same may be safely done." The 1834 convention condemned public demonstrations by blacks as "vain expenditures" of time and resources, serving only to incite racial prejudice.

Philadelphia delegates had the resources, organization, and leadership to dominate the 1830s convention movement (five of the six conventions were held in that city), and their interest in moral reform eventually prevailed. Led by William Whipper (18041876), the Philadelphia delegation turned the 1835 convention into a founding meeting of the American Moral Reform Society, an interracial organization committed to the principles of moral reform.

The antebellum convention movement underwent a profound transition in the 1840s, expanding to include numerous state and regional gatherings. Several conventions focused on single issues, such as temperance, Christian missions, and emigration. The national convention sitesincluding Buffalo (1843), Troy, N.Y. (1847), Cleveland (1848), and Rochester, N.Y. (1853)marked the geographical shift away from the Atlantic coastal cities. A new generation of black leaders, many of them former slaves, came forward to claim positions of leadership in the convention movement. Frederick Douglass (18181895), Henry Highland Garnet (18151882), James Mc-Cune Smith (18131865), and others sought to imbue the movement with a more practical outlook and a militant, independent spirit. Racial progress through moral reform, the staple of the conventions of the previous decade, was subsumed by the call for more forceful tactics and political action.

Not all black leaders welcomed a renewal of the convention movement. Those who held to strict integrationist principles counseled against convening separate black assemblies or establishing racially separate organizations. Others considered it wasteful of time and scarce resources to revisit the well-worn, intractable issues debated at past conventions. But most blacks favored continuing the convention process. The disagreements, often intense, centered mainly on form, agenda, and leadership.

David Ruggles's (18101849) revival of the national convention movement at New Haven in 1840 and New York City in 1841 attracted only a few delegates. Poor organization, vague objectives, and editorial opposition from the Colored American contributed to the dismal out-come. Henry Highland Garnet had more success in promoting the 1843 national convention in Buffalo. This convention set a new tenor for the movement with Garnet's controversial call for slave insurrection (disapproved by a narrow majority of the assembly) and the heated discussion of a resolution endorsing the Liberty Party. The 1847 and 1848 national conventions (in Troy and Cleveland, respectively) highlighted the theme of black independence. James McCune Smith and Frederick Douglass addressed the delegates on the symbolic and practical need for selfreliance and independent black initiatives. These insightful speeches on independence and racial identity affirmed their reputation as two of the leading black intellectuals of the antebellum period.

Just as in the 1830s, these later national conventions served primarily as a forum for competing ideas and leadership. The delegates approved plans for a national black press, an industrial-arts college, and other proposals of a practical nature. But without adequate resources, none of these objectives could be achieved. The conventions also sought continuity through the establishment of a permanent national organization. In the early 1840s, Ruggles anticipated the need for a national body with the short-lived American Reform Board of Disfranchised Commissioners. By the 1850s, however, even racial assimilationists like Douglass and Smith had come to accept the idea of a separate black national organization. Douglass promoted this as part of an ambitious agenda for the 1853 national convention in Rochester.

The Rochester convention marked the high point of the antebellum convention movement. Over 160 representatives from ten northern states attended. The convention established the National Council of the Colored People, a major advance in black organization, even if it suffered from a contentious leadership and lack of popular support. The council faded quietly after the 1855 convention at Philadelphiathe last national convocation before the Civil War. The Philadelphia convention was lackluster and unproductive in comparison with the previous meeting in Rochester. Dominated by the seventy-member Pennsylvania delegation, the convention deferred substantial issues and engaged in a lively debate on procedural questions, particularly the propriety of seating a woman delegate, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (18231893).

Several conventions in the 1850s reflected the growing pessimism among African Americans. As hopes faded for racial progress in the United States, a black emigration movement gained increasing support. The North American Convention (1851) reflected the growth and growing influence of black communities in Canada West (modern Ontario). Canadian and American delegates meeting in Toronto considered the recent enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its ramifications. They recognized that the law threatened all African Americans, not just former slaves, with arbitrary arrest and enslavement. The convention highlighted the advantages of Canadian and Jamaican emigration, and urged blacks living in the United States to come under the fair and equitable rule of British law. At the national emigration conventions of 1854 and 1856 in Cleveland, delegates weighed proposals for settlement in Haiti, Central America, and Africa. The interest in emigration continued well into the early 1860s.

In shaping a more practical agenda, blacks brought the convention movement to the state level in the 1840s and 1850s. The state meetings were better suited to address specific civil rights issues, and much of the struggle against racial discrimination involved state laws and municipal ordinances. The black vote, where permitted, weighed more heavily in state and local elections. State conventions thus made protection and expansion of black voting rights their primary concern. New York blacks held the first state convention at Albany in 1840 to launch a petition campaign against a property requirement that severely limited their franchise. Blacks in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, and Connecticut followed with a similar agenda at state conventions during the 1840s.

Emerging black communities in the western statesOhio, Indiana, Illinois, and Californiaalso challenged voting rights restrictions and proscriptive black laws at state conventions in the 1850s. California blacks focused on restrictions against black testimony in court as well as the suffrage issue. Maryland blacks held the only convention permitted in a slave state before the Civil War. The 1852 Maryland convention, closely scrutinized by the Baltimore press, discussed colonization, the enslavement of free blacks, and the petitioning of the state legislature on civil rights issues. The convention's careful deliberations and guarded resolutions reflected the delegates' anxiety over the white response to their gathering.

Despite the energetic and determined efforts made by the many state and national conventions, blacks achieved few of their avowed goals. But, in the process, the conventions provided a sounding board for new ideas, strategies, and tactics. Many blacks established their credibility and their leadership through participation in these conventions, and the convention movement ultimately enhanced the sense of racial unity, identity, and purpose among black communities across the North American continent.

See also Cornish, Samuel E.; Douglass, Frederick; Garnet, Henry Highland; Politics; Ruggles, David; Smith, James McCune; Whipper, William


Bell, Howard H., ed. Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 18301864. New York: Arno, 1969.

Foner, Philip S., and George E. Walker, eds. Proceedings of the Black State Conventions, 18301865. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 19791980.

michael f. hembree (1996)