The Wedding that Ignited Philadelphia

The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall on May 17th 1838. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Advocates of peace and freedom gathered in Philadelphia 175 years ago today. They had come to dedicate Pennsylvania Hall, “the first and only one of its kind in the republic,” according to abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld.

Three days later, this new building “consecrated to Free Discussion and Equal Rights” was reduced to ruins, burnt by an angry, rioting mob.

How could such a thing happen in the City of Brotherly Love?

It’s a question that has puzzled historians ever since—and plagued a few Philadelphians at the time. Days after the riot, the reverend William Henry Furness, agonized from the pulpit of his church: “Similar outrages have been perpetrated… in other parts of our country… but now the evil has come close to us—to our very doors. The whole city has been illuminated by the glare of the incendiary’s torch.” Furness feared Philadelphia was becoming a place where “savage delusions…will rule us with a rod of iron, destroying every feeling of security, and extinguishing among us the last spark of personal freedom.”

For years, the burned-out shell of Pennsylvania Hall remained on 6th Street, south of Race Street, in view of Independence Hall.  How could such a thing happen here, in Philadelphia? What, exactly, riled the crowd to respond with violence?  What, or who, would have been the catalyst for this catastrophe?

We look to Angelina Grimké. The most famous radical woman in America in 1838 was in town to address a packed Pennsylvania Hall. And when she spoke on May 16, the growing anti-abolitionist mob outside the hall reacted. “As the tumult from without increased, and the brickbats fell thick and fast,” recalled William Lloyd Garrison, her “eloquence kindled, her eyes flashed and her cheeks glowed.” This privileged woman of Southern society, who, with her sister Sarah had left behind plantation life and wealth to go on a speaking tour about the evils of slavery, had been energized and eloquent before large audiences throughout Massachusetts.

In Philadelphia, the mob outside the new Pennsylvania Hall interrupted Grimké ’s speech. She acknowledged their presence and challenged them: “What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the levelling of this Hall be? …What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons — would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?”

Grimké ’s reputation as someone willing to question, to speak and to break society’s rules on behalf of her cause came to a head in Philadelphia that week. The very same day the Hall was dedicated, Grimké  and Theodore Dwight Weld, the man who encouraged and trained her to work the abolition lecture circuit, got married in Philadelphia. And because they Grimké  and Weld were both so public, so key to The Movement, the “wedding of the most mobbed-man and the most notorious woman in America” would be anything but a private matter.

The remains of Belmont Row (left) in 1929, 1300 block of Spruce Street. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail of 3 Belmont Row, later 1330 Spruce Street, May 11, 1930. (PhillyHistory.org)

“I am told that my abolition friends here are almost offended that I should do such a thing as get married,” Grimké wrote Weld a few weeks earlier. “Some say we were both public property and had no right to enter into such an engagement. Others say that I will now be good for nothing henceforth and forever to the cause…”

Grimké and Weld had sent invitations to more than 80 friends and acquaintances, about half of whom would be in Philadelphia for Pennsylvania Hall’s opening week. The wedding list, a Who’s Who of American Abolitionism, Feminism and Social Progressivism, took place in the home of Angelina’s recently widowed sister, Anna Frost, at 3 Belmont Row, later renumbered 1330 Spruce Street.

William Lloyd Garrison, the “worst of men,” according to Angelina Grimké ‘s mother (who remained in South Carolina) was out of New England, but in his element. His posse: Gerrit Smith, James G. Birney, Henry B. Stanton, and Alvan Stewart, all attended. So did the Chapmans, Fullers, Westons, Philbricks and Tappans. Weld’s former classmates from seminary, known as the Lane Rebels, showed up. No one made more of an impression walking up Spruce Street to the wedding as did Charles C. Burleigh, who grew his beard as long as slavery lasted.

Practical Amalgamation. (The Wedding.) Caricature by Edward Williams Clay, ca. 1839. (American Antiquarian Society)

The wedding was designed to demonstrate, challenge and irritate. Grimké  “was getting married in a manner calculated to shock and dismay the pillars of Charleston society, among whom she had been raised,” wrote Gerda Lerner. She meant for it to be “a motley assembly of white and black, high and low.” (Sarah Grimké noted that among the guests were “several colored persons…among them two liberated slaves, who formerly belonged to our father.”) After a brief, homemade, and ad hoc ceremony, during which Weld denounced traditional marriage vows and Grimké refused to include the word “obey,” “a colored Presbyterian minister then prayed…followed by a white one,” possibly Rev. Furness, who lived at 11 Belmont Row. The “certificate was then read by William Lloyd Garrison, and was signed by the company.” Guests then shared good wishes and a wedding cake baked with “free sugar”–grown, harvested and manufactured without slave labor.

Accounts of the iconoclastic wedding spread throughout the streets of Philadelphia and then further, in the nation’s newspapers. Accounts morphed from fact to fiction. Grimké’s commitment to “white and black, high and low” led to rumors that this had been an interracial wedding. And in 1838, even in the city of Brotherly Love, that was enough to spark, and justify, a riot.

The experiment of Pennsylvania Hall failed, but the Grimké -Weld wedding turned out exactly as intended: a spiritual, social bond based on equality and respect—far different than traditional marriage. Those who witnessed the wedding at 1330 Spruce Street on May 14, 1838 were in a culture war, the first of many redefining the meaning of marriage in America.

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