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Negro Emancipation: the Meeting in Exeter Hall

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1187, p. 154.

February 7, 1863


As there are currents in the deep sea (well known to the careful mariner) which have no necessary connection with the course of the waves on the surface, and are often diametrically opposed to them, even when these latter appear to be triumphantly sweeping along towards a given destination, so it seems public opinion may at the most critical moments display similar phenomena; and startle the political mariner by the discovery that all his art in trimming his sails to the wind, all his steadiness in directing the helm, do not enable him to baffle or escape from the unseen "ground-swell" below, which is carrying him he hardly knows whither, but certainly not in the way that he wanted to go.

No event in recent times has so strongly helped to remind us of this well-known, but half-forgotten, truth as the meeting of Thursday week in Exeter Hall. Here have we been for many months past pretty well all of one mind as to the American question, that is to say, convinced the North is fighting for "empires" and the South for "independence;" convinced that if the latter did not exactly behave well in the outbreak of the war, it has fought so splendidly since that it cannot be subjugated, and must, therefore, in the end succeed ; convinced, finally, that it would be best on the whole to leave slavery at present where it is, in the hands of the masters, and trust to the progress of humanity, of knowledge of economical laws, and of the absence of irritation through abolition attacks, to do away ultimately with so great an evil. That, we believe, is a fair statement of the opinions predominant generally through society, in accordance with the ceaseless teaching of nine-tenths of the whole English press.

But of late a new element has begun to be dimly visible. As the Northern Legislation and Administration have become of a more decidedly anti-slavery cast we have heard of small local meetings rising like bubbles to the surface of public opinion, and evaporating with a feeble breath in favour of the North. Then it undoubtedly excited surprise that the Lancashire operatives were so quiet under all their sufferings as to render it impossible to rouse them into an active agitation for blockade-breaking; and somehow it began to be whispered about that the explanation of their conduct was that they didn't feel quite satisfied about slavery not being at the bottom of the whole business of Southern revolt. But when Mr. Lincoln's proclamation of September last, offering emancipation with compensation up to Jan. 1, and threatening emancipation without compensation on and after that day if his offer were not accepted--when this broke like a thunder-clap upon the world we entered upon a new and difficult, and anxious period. For, while on the one hand there were but few persons who did not still loudly denounce slavery, there were still fewer who did not see that Mr. Lincoln's Government had taken that tremendous step not because it was advisable or right in itself, but because he found the North could not beat the South without doing so. Of course, in saying this we do not say or suggest that Mr. Lincoln was a hypocrite, or that he acted in opposition to his known character, antecedents, or wishes. We only say, as a matter of fact which cannot be disputed, that while the previous anti-slavery measures, such as (among others) the abolition of slavery in Columbia, the anti-slave trade treaty with England, the permanent exclusion of slavery from the territories, and the offer of Congress to assist the work of abolition by compensation, all obviously sprang from a genuine anti-slavery sentiment, this particular proclamation, the last of the series, as obviously did not, but from the military failures of the North. No wonder, then, that the general current of opinion (having previously been such as we have described it) still remained on the whole friendly to the South and unfriendly to the North, or that it began to be generally believed that Mr. Lincoln's "military measure" would prove in its working a very inhuman measure, as leading to a servile war.

But now there also began to be heard rumours of the formation of some new society--an Emancipation Society--originating, like the old anti-slavery body, in the religious, and mainly in the dissenting, world. Names of supporters began to be handed about, some of them enjoying universal respect, some of them of world-wide reputation. More local meetings were heard of--especially in the metropolis. Then suddenly Manchester burst out with an assemblage several thousand strong in the Free Trade Hall. Liverpool merchants and others assembled to prepare for the renewal in their town of the former anti-slavery agitation, and decided, by an "overwhelming majority," to do so, in spite of Mr. Spence, who was present, and made an eloquent, gallant, but unavailing effort to keep out of the resolutions an expression of sympathy with the North. Then, too, the journals condescended to notice the society in leaders, though the notices were not more complimentary than the conversation between the Prince and the beggar-boy, of which the boy was so proud, and which consisted simply in the Prince's telling him to get out of the way.

But whether the Emancipation Society esteemed the honour of being thus noticed more than it felt the sting of the contemptuous words in which the notices were couched, or whether it grew bolder through these preliminary meetings, it certainly ventured at last to issue its challenge to universal London, and "respectfully" to invite "all parties" to the great room of Exeter Hall on the night of Thursday, the 29th of January, 1863. We are careful to record the date; for, if we do not misread the signs then and there presented, this meeting will prove the turning-point of new and serious political issues. Thither we ask the reader mentally to accompany us, promising him he need be under no apprehension that we are about to try to influence his sympathies or guide his judgment; we assume only the humbler task of recording honestly that which we have heard and seen; and which he, as an Englishman, knowing how the greatness of our country is nurtured by the free expression of all honest opinion, and how dependent the true statesman must be upon the accurate knowledge of all such opinion, will, we are sure, be glad to have faithfully related.

Having tickets for reserved seats we do not present ourselves till about ten minutes before the time specified on them--seven o'clock; but as we ascend the steps of the portico, we are warned by the streams of people that we are, perhaps, taking the matter too leisurely. And so we find it when we get our first glimpse of the hall, and hurriedly ask for the seats that were to have been reserved. "Where can we go?" we ask despairingly, moved out of our previous equanimity. The doorkeeper points to the far-distant gallery, high up, and says he thinks there may yet be a chance there. But even if he be right, which looks doubtful, it is certain that scores--nay, hundreds--of other persons will be discovering the vacancies long before we can possibly get there. We rush down stairs, speak to an official, use the open sesame of "the press," and are hopefully dismissed in quite another direction. But now, progress of any kind, even through the corridors and passages, becomes difficult, at times impossible, through the surging crowds who toss helplessly about, seeking rest for the soles of their feet and finding none. There are backward eddies to break through, as well as forward ones to force a place among. Presently we are stopped by a barrier across a flight of stairs descending into a lobby, where we pant and strive. "No one can pass; the place is more than full." We glide round the side of the stairs, climb up and up, get over the banister, and find we have, unnoticed, turned the enemy's stronghold. Still in vain, however. Everywhere we find dense masses of people; and we are about to make the Englishman's last confession and acknowledge ourselves beaten, when, happily, we come across one of the speakers of the night floundering in the same difficult strait, but who obviously must get in. That fact gives us new hope. We appeal to him. He gallantly takes us in tow, shouts "Reporter!" when advance is otherwise impossible, and so we get at last into a sort of little black hole of Calcutta, where we grow at once hopeless of further progress and certain of being stifled if we stay where we are. Here, however, to our immense relief, a door opens; some half dozen of us are shot suddenly forwards and luckily do not fall; another instant, and we are running up the stairs of the little box or covered way that admits us to the platform, and there find breathing space and full opportunity to drink in, in one wondering, awe-stricken glance, the sublime spectacle of a vast sea of upturned faces, looking up towards another sea scarcely less large that, in defiance of all the laws of gravity, has ascended and overflowed every nook and corner of the upraised expanse of the orchestra, leaving only the organ in the centre towering calmly above the excited and sloping tide of life.

But scarcely has this seething mass of humanity begun to grow quiet and satisfied in the pleasant and soothing sense of successful conquest and possession, and to address itself to the business of the night, before we hear distant but mighty shouts below, rumbling like thunder among the valleys to an observer seated high on the hills; and presently it is whispered about that the mere overflow of this hall has filled another hall below, and that these shouts are from that second exulting army on taking possession. But even that hall, we soon hear, is equally incapable of dealing with the inflowing streams of people; so, presently, the adjoining street (Exeter-street ) is ringing with the tumultuous cheers of a third meeting, held in the open air! Under these circumstances, and with the frequently-occurring incident that when we, who were above, were trying to be quiet and listen, those distant reverberations would come up to the ear with a most dramatic and exciting effect from below, it is no wonder that the proper business of the evening went on under a kind of high-pressure system, mentally and morally, and made it difficult for the calmest heads to preserve their equilibrium.

Yet is it especially worthy of note (whatever the use made of the fact) that none of the ordinary attractions helped to bring together this wonderful gathering. It is quite true what has been said, that no eminent statesmen or politicians were here; that few or none of the old and famous anti-slavery families were represented; that none of the speakers were men of genius; that commerce sent none of its merchant princes; the aristocracy and gentry none of their conspicuous members. But for that very reason we are driven to confess how great must have been the "ground-swell" of public opinion before it could thus burst upon our astonished eyes with all the suddenness and fury of the maelstrom and the waterspout, unless, indeed, we accept the solution since offered--that Federal money was the mainspring!

The speakers of the evening were the Hon. and Rev. Baptist Noel; Mr. Hughes, the well-known author of "Tom Brown;" the Rev. Mr. Newman Hall; Mr. Taylor, the member for Leicester; and Mr. Ludlow, a well-known contributer to Macmillan's Magazine. Among the faces of supporters on the platform one could also distinguish Mr. Beales, Mr. Lucas; Mr. Victor Schœlcher, the French exile; Mr. Morse, the American Consul-General, and himself distinguished as a man of practical science; Mr. Chamerovzow, the secretary of the old Anti-Slavery Society, whose presence served to unite the parent body with this, its vigorous successor; many clergymen, including Mr. Landells, Dawson Burns, T. C. Solly, and Rylance; and a number of other gentlemen with whom the general public is more or less familiarly acquainted.

We should observe that Mr. Baptist Noel modestly acknowledged the force of the sarcasms that have been launched as to the insignificance of the promoters, but added, "they were only the pickets of the great army of emancipation in this country;" and the felicity of the retort was enhanced by the fact that the first business of the meeting was to read letters of sympathy which had been received from such persons as James Stuart Mill, the first of living political economists; from General Thompson, illustrious in the old days of anti-slavery and free-trade agitation (and who characteristically inclosed £10 to the society as the best way of helping the Lancashire operatives); from Mr. James Stansfeld, and Mr. W. E. Forster, the two most promising of all the independent Liberals recently elected to Parliament; from Professors Cairne, Newman, and Goldwin Smith; from Mr. E. Miall, Mr. George Thompson, and several gentlemen of local standing in our chief cities. The emancipation army, therefore, will not apparently be without its Parliamentary generals, or its scholarly guides, whenever it begins to march.

If it had been possible, after watching the reception given to the first sentences from the chairman, the Rev. Mr. Evans, to doubt the tone and temper of the assembled multitude, it was clearly impossible to do so when he referred in a perfectly dispassionate manner to those who wished to see America divided into two confederacies. He was interrupted by a single voice that cried out "Emancipation and union!" and then, as if that phrase had been a kind of electric shock that went to every heart, there broke forth the most tremendous outburst of popular enthusiasm it has ever been our fortune to witness. It could not stop, but went on and on, the whole audience having leaped to their feet with hats and handkerchiefs waving, having apparently only waited for some such signal to relieve themselves from the almost painful because suspended enthusiasm with which they overflowed. This incident told all that any one could have needed to know as to the feelings and views of the meeting. But the facts were to receive a still more remarkable illustration. When the chairman, a little later, happened to use the words, "Mr. Lincoln's election," again the same tremendous cheers arose, and if the President could only have heard them he must have begun to doubt his own identity with the "best-abused" man alive, as he is generally esteemed to be.

Another incident of the meeting was interesting. Mr. Noel, towards the close of his impassioned speech (which, however, was not distinctly heard), stopped to announce that the men of Bradford (4000 strong) were at that moment holding a similar meeting; and he proposed, to the great satisfaction of his auditory, to dispatch a telegram saying, "We are for emancipation and the Union; what are you?" Exactly the same kind of thing occurred at a later hour with regard to Stroud, where, also, an emancipation meeting was being held. These interruptions, with those arising from the constant re-echoing of the cheers from the two other meetings below and outside, gave quite a tone to the evening.

We shall not attempt to describe the speeches, We desire only to note those passages in them which helped to bring out into strong relief the state of opinion that prevailed in the meeting. Mr. Noel's speech was studded with such points. His narrative of recent proceedings in the South with regard to the cruel punishment of the slaves; his assertion, founded on the testimony of Mr. Jay, that at least one negro had been burned annually for twenty years for rising against their masters; his characterisation of the Southern leaders as men of powerful intellect and energy; his demand to know the meaning of Mr. Davis's statement that the proclamation has doomed millions of beings of an inferior race to extermination--all these were caught up so rapturously as to convey the impression that the speaker must have expressed the views of his auditory even more perfectly than his own.

Still it must not be supposed that all the audience were of one mind. From each side of the platform, from the back of the platform, from the middle of the great gallery, from the middle and sides of the vast hall, rose from time to time cries of dissent and sarcasm; but when an amendment was moved, and the mover, after fruitless efforts to be heard, aided by a chivalrous but useless appeal from Mr. Newman Hall, had it read by the latter and put to the vote, the opposition dwindled away into some say two, some a dozen pair of hands, and so put the seal to his signal discomfiture. A similar but later attempt was equally ludicrous in its failure.

Decidedly the crowning speech of the evening was Mr. Newman Hall's. His voice alone of all the speakers' voices filled easily and perfectly the enormous space. His slight physique, earnest face, and self-possessed yet impressive manner, must have given to many, as it did to us, an idea of the strength of the Puritan element yet existing among us, but not allied, as so often it was of old, to fanaticism or to spiritual blindness towards everything grand or beautiful that is not directly and obviously religious. He it was who frankly said they were not there to justify the Northern dealing with the negro; not there as advocates of the Union (which be still does advocate), but of emancipation. And as his was perhaps the most highly finished and certainly the most successful oratorical display of the evening, we quote the peroration of his speech, with its magnificent invective against slavery, where he asserts:--

That "God has made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of all the earth" (cheers); that there is no right so sacred as that which a man has to himself, no wrong so flagrant as that of robbing a man of himself (cheers); that it is an abomination to steal a man and to sell him (loud cheers); that it is no less an abomination to breed a man and to sell him (Hear, hear) than for a man to barter away his own offspring for gold (loud cheers); that it is an abomination to expose men and women on the auction-block and feel their muscles and hand them over to the highest bidder as you would cattle (Shame!); that it is an abomination to deny to a woman the rights of chastity and maternity (Hear); that it is an abomination to declare that a coloured man has no rights which a white man need respect (Hear, hear); that it is an abomination to flog judicially a naked woman, whether she be a Hungarian Countess or an African slave (Hear, hear); that it is an abomination to fine, imprison, flog, and, on a repetition of the act, hang a man far teaching another man to read the Bible (Hear, hear); that it is hideous blasphemy to cite that Bible of a God of love in defence of such abominations (Hear, hear); that a confederacy of men fighting in order to commit these abominations should be regarded as engaged in a portentous piracy rather than in legitimate warfare (cheers); that the conscience and heart of free England can never wish to recognise an empire avowing as its corner-stone the right to maintain and extend these abominations (cheers); and, lastly, as the recognition of an empire involves reception of its Ambassador, that the loyalty of Great Britain loathes the very idea of such an indignity being offered to the Royal Lady we delight to venerate as that her pure, matronly, and widowed hand, which wields only the sceptre of love over the free, should ever be contaminated by the kiss of any representative of so foul a conspiracy against civilisation, humanity, and God!

We should despair of any attempt to give our readers on adequate notion of the feeling called forth towards our Queen or against slavery by the last sentence.

Our narrowing space will not allow us to dwell on Mr. Taylor's powerful speech, in which he called John Brown "the Garibaldi of America," and so evoked a new manifestation in honour of the memory of the man whose soul is said to be ever marching on to the conquest of slavery; or to Mr. Ludlow's, which was too late in the evening to be done justice to. There is an end to everything, even to the enthusiasm of such a meeting as this; so, after he had again roused to something like light and glow the temper of the meeting in relation to Mr. Beresford Hope's attacks on Mr. Lincoln's infamy as exceeding even the infamy of Belshazzar, the proceedings were rapidly brought to a close.

And then, on once more reaching the open air, we heard that a second meeting had been held in Exeter-street larger than the first one, in order to draw off the crowds from some unhappy Southern sympathisers who had been too freely expressing their sentiments. No less, therefore, than four distinct meetings had been developed out of the one intended meeting, each with its own chairman and speakers, among whom were Mr. Noel, Mr. Shaen, and several gentlemen who had been in America, including the chaplain of General Burnside.

We conclude, as we began, with no intention to express here our own views. But this one remark may be permitted. Whatever the result as regards North and South--the permanent rupture or the reunion of the States--it is impossible to doubt that the Divine hand is so fashioning things as to destroy slavery.

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