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The Cazenovia Convention

by Stanley Harrold, South Carolina State University

The daguerreotype taken in Grace Wilson’s apple orchard is the only known graphic representation of the abolitionist convention held at Cazenovia, New York, on August 21 and 22, 1850. The scene it portrays is one of racial and gender diversity among American abolitionists. Led by Gerrit Smith, two to three thousand people had gathered in this western New York town for what they called "The Fugitive Slave Convention." They believed that slavery’s more dedicated opponents had to unite among themselves and with slaves to succeed.

Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Those who attended included members of Smith’s radical political abolitionist faction, which declared slavery illegal everywhere. Supporters of William Lloyd Garrison’s demand that the North end its support of slavery in the South by dissolving the Union also attended. Black northerners determined to resist enforcement of the soon-to-be-strengthened Fugitive Slave Law turned out. And thirty to fifty fugitive slaves sat together at the convention. Women had prominent places on the platform and, as the bonnets filling the daguerreotype’s foreground attest, constituted a large part of the audience.

Less explicitly the daguerreotype represents the convention’s emphasis on physical action against slavery. Its leaders had lost faith in moral suasion, designed to push popular opinion toward immediate emancipation. They distrusted the Free Soil Party’s advocacy of restricting and denationalizing slavery. Smith, who stands behind the table on the platform and gestures with his left arm, had in 1842 written the first "Address to the Slaves." In it he called rhetorically on slaves to escape to the North and on northern abolitionists to go south to help slaves do so. Frederick Douglass, the nation’s leading black abolitionist and chair of the convention, sits in front of Smith. Douglass represents the growing appeal of Smith’s point of view. In 1843 Douglass had opposed his fellow black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet’s "Address to the Slaves" because of its confrontational rhetoric. Garnet had called on enslaved black men to go to their masters and demand pay for work. By 1850 Douglass had become supportive of aggressive abolitionist action.

More symbolically, Theodosia Gilbert, the woman sitting to Douglass’s right, was the fiancee of white radical political abolitionist William L. Chaplin. In 1848 Chaplin had helped plan the failed attempt of seventy-seven Washington, D.C., slaves to escape on board the schooner Pearl. A few days before the Cazenovia Convention, Washington police had arrested Chaplin as he drove a carriage containing two escaping slaves north from the city. Most symbolically of all, standing on either side of Smith are Emily and Mary Edmonson, young women who had been fugitive slaves on the Pearl.

Smith, working with Charles B. Ray, the black leader of the New York State Vigilance Association, had organized the convention in anticipation of Congress’s passage of a stronger Fugitive Slave Law that September. He hoped to unite the more determined abolitionists on the basis of his and Garnet’s addresses to the slaves. Indirect evidence indicates that Smith had foreknowledge of Chaplin’s plan to aid the two slaves escape and thereby demonstrate the ability of abolitionists physically to resist the new law. Several newspapers reported that, had Chaplin succeeded in Washington, he would have brought the escaped slaves to the convention. Instead Gilbert and the Edmonson sisters filled this role, and the convention became to a large degree a celebration of Chaplin’s actions. The sisters sang several songs. According to local tradition, one of them was "I Hear the Voice of Lovejoy on Alton’s Bloody Plain." The song’s lyrics recounted the 1837 death in southern Illinois of Elijah P. Lovejoy, another forceful white abolitionist, at the hands of a proslavery mob.

Find out more: The most detailed description of the Cazenovia Convention and the growing abolitionist trend during the 1840s toward direct action is in Stanley Harrold, The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism: Addresses to the Slaves (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004). For another view of the radical political abolitionists, see John Stauffer, Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002). On Chaplin’s and other abolitionists’ activities in Washington, D.C., see Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003). On women in the abolitionist movement, see Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).