Pillsbury Letter

[Editorial Note: Parker Pillsbury, one party to this controversy, was a prominent supporter of both abolition and woman's rights. In her 1870 History Paulina Wright Davis singled him out as a "name that well deserves not one page but many, for his good deeds and unselfish work. A man with a strong, vigorous mind, a quick conception of principle, and perfectly fearless in his advocacy of them, holding always his personality so in reserve as sometimes to be overlooked among the many more forthputting. Parker Pillsbury was for some time editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and co-editor of the Revolution. His pen, wherever found, has always been sharpened against wrong and injustice, and has done for the Woman cause an incalculable amount of good. His editorials have been marked by an almost prophetic spirit; and the profoundness of their thought will be more justly appreciated as there is a larger development and a higher demand for unqualified justice."

Parker was provoked by Jane Swisshelm's critique of a resolution passed at the 1850 Woman's Rights Convention for combining that cause with the crusade for equal rights for people of color. Swisshelm was an early advocate of woman's rights as well as the editor of a leading abolitionist newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. Her initial response to the Call for the Convention was highly positive. She particularly defended its policy of encouraging both men and women to join in its proceedings. And her editiorial comments, accompanying her reprint of the New York Tribune's account of the Convention's first day, were also positive. She did, however, object vigorously to the linking of the color and sex issues, as she put it. This is the editorial to which Parker Pillsbury objected. Swisshelm continued to support the work of the Convention against its many critics, but she also defended herself against Pillsbury's strictures. It was not long before the Ohio Antislavery Bugle entered the fray on Pillsbury's side. Swisshelm reprinted much of its editorial in addition to offering her own riposte.

The significance of the Swisshelm-Pillsbury controversy is several-fold. Pillsbury's letter exemplified the link many supporters of woman's rights saw between their cause and that of African Americans. It eloquently itemized the extent of segregation in the North in the years before the Civil War. But the simple fact that Pillsbury had to defend the resolution from the criticisms of one as prominent and as devoted to both woman's rights and abolition as Swisshelm highlights the splits within the ranks of "Reformers" (the capitalization is Swisshelm's) and, more especially, within the ranks of woman's rights activists. Finally, of course, the controversy foreshadowed the split within the ranks of reformers over the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution even as it echoed the controversy of the late 1830s and early 1840s over the role of women in the Abolition movement.]

The North Star, December 5, 1850 [reprinted from the Pittsburgh Visitor]

Dear Mrs. Swisshelm:--In the last Visitor, you say of a resolution relating to people of color, offered by Mr. Wendell Phillips in the late Convention of Women, at Worcester, Mass.
"We are pretty nearly out of patience with the dogged perseverance with which so many of our Reformers persist in their attempt to do everything at once."
And again:
"In a Woman's Rights Convention, the question of color had no right to a hearing."

It seemed as though the usually kindly spirit and good judgment of the Visiter were a little wanting in these two utterances. I should not have noticed it at all in most of the public journals--indeed, I neither know nor care what but a few of them do say; for I should no more think of having them in my house, political or religious, than I would of inoculating the family with the foulest leprosy that ever unjointed the bones of a son of Abraham. But your Visiter finds ready entrance and cheerful greeting, so that we are a little solicitous about its bearing . . . .

"Dogged and perseverance" are two ugly words standing together, and Mr. Phillips has ever been very watchful to prevent any other topic from creeping to whatever platform he occupied, devoted to any particular reform. And those two words look strange indeed to some of us, standing in connection with his name and the resolutions to which you have taken exception.

But by way of explanation, (or if you please, apology,) permit me to say that colored persons are held in such estimation in this country, that you must specify them whenever or wherever you mean to include them.

Lyceums, circuses, menageries, ballrooms, billiard-rooms, conventions, everything, "the Public are respectfully invited to attend." But who ever dreamed that "the public" meant anything colored? From church and theatre; from stage-coach, steam-ship and creeping canal-boat; from the infant school, law school and theological seminary; from museum, athenæum and public garden, the colored race are either excluded altogether, or are admitted only by sufferance, or some very special arrangement, and under disadvantages to which no white person would or should submit for a moment.

Free Masons must be white--both face and apron. Odd Fellows, too, must be constitutionally light of skin; and even the Sons of Temperance, and Daughters likewise, must be bleached to the popular complexional standard, or they are beyond the reach of salvation.

The Methodist Discipline provides for "separate Colored Conferences." The Episcopal church shuts out some of its own most worthy ministers from clerical recognition, on account of their color. Nearly all denominations of religionists have either a written or unwritten law to the same effect. In Boston, even, there are Evangelical churches whose pews are positively forbidden by corporate mandate from being sold to any but "respectable white persons." Our incorporated cemeteries are often, if not always, deeded in the same manner. Even our humblest village grave yards generally have either a "negro corner," or refuse colored corpses altogether; and did our power extend to heaven or hell, we should have complexional salvation and colored damnation, unless we could first blot the unfortunate, unfashionable race altogether and forever out of existence.

We have striven to separate the Ethiopian from all claim to human recognition and human sympathy. Nobody but abolitionists ever mean colored people, no matter how often they speak of "the public," or of their "fellow citizens" or "fellow-sinners."

Poster appealing to foes of the Fugitive Slave Law to be on the alert for "slave hunters and kidnappers."

We have proscribed our colored brethren every way--everywhere; and under the late Fugitive Slave Law, every colored man is to be presumed a slave, unless there is proof positive to the contrary; and if any one is only claimed and sworn to as a slave, such proof is at once made impossible. Before this law was enacted, his life was a lingering torture--before, we were killing him by exclusion and oppression; now we are murdering him with fear. We have barbed the iron arrows that pierced him. We have poisoned the fangs which were already tearing him in pieces--we have heated red hot the chains that bound him as in adamant before. We have separated him from us by a gulf which has neither shore nor bottom. So far as human sympathy and regard are concerned, almost everywhere the horse and hound are as human as he.

And his race know it and feel it, as we cannot. Even the women's Convention demonstrated this, for scarcely a colored person, man or woman, appeared in it.

On the large committees appointed to carry out the plans of the Convention, embracing many persons in all, not a single colored member was placed. It is to be presumed that nobody thought of it, for we are not expected to think of colored people at all.

Under such circumstances, is it strange, is it an unpardonable sin, is it "dogged perseverance," to declare in a Convention called to demand and extend the rights of women, that we mean women of sable as well as sallow complexion? of the carved in ebony as well as the chisseled [sic] in ivory? If we did thus mean, the Convention should not have been held, or being held, it would only deserve the scorn and contempt of every friend of God and his children. Color was not discussed there--it need not have been. But it was needed that the declaration be made in regard to it. That ANY women have rights, will scarcely be believed; but that colored women have rights, would never have been thought of, without a specific declaration.

Most truly yours,
Parker Pillsbury.
Concord, N.H., Nov. 18