“Is this the respect paid to liberty of speech by the free people of Vermont?” The reverend looked out into the restless group, his voice raised over the threats and insults as rotten eggs and stones flew intermittently into the crowded church’s open window. Despite his best efforts, it soon became clear that abolitionist Samuel J. May would be unable to speak that October evening due to the unruly Montpelier mob that had gathered.
The state of Vermont, widely recognized as being the first state to outlaw slavery, was the setting for a rapidly growing abolitionist movement when May attempted to speak in the state’s capitol in 1835. In its first four years, the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society had grown from 100 to 5,000 members,promoting its message in newspapers, pamphlets, public meetings and lectures. But Vermont was not without racism. As UVM professor Harvey Whitfield points out, “The legal reality of abolishing slavery did not always reflect social reality.” May’s visit would soon expose the complexity of Vermonters’ attitudes toward abolition.
The first Unitarian minister to publicly oppose slavery, May had been inspired to form the American and New England Anti-Slavery Societies, as well write and deliver speeches on behalf of the anti-slavery movement after befriending the well known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The Vermont Anti-Slavery Society was enthusiastic when the opportunity arose for him to deliver two speeches while traveling through the state: one to the Society’s members and another to the public.
The significant number of Montpelier citizens fiercely opposed to May’s message got to work early in their attempts to prevent him from speaking. Signs were posted around town, delivering an ominous message: “The people . . . should not attend the anti-slavery meeting proposed to be held this evening, as the person who is advertised to speak will certainly be prevented, by violence if necessary.”
In addition to this public threat, a group consisting of influential Montpelier businessmen wrote a direct letter to May, “to inform (him) that by leaving town without any attempt to hold forth the absurd doctrine of anti-slavery, you will confer a favor, and save them the trouble of using any other means to that effect.” Despite these claims, May chose to continue with plans to speak at the Congregational Church that evening.
May was barely allowed to begin before a man stood up in objection before Timothy Hubbard, the leading author of the threatening letter from earlier in the day. True to his word, Hubbard along with many other would do anything in their power to stop the event. May responded to the disruption with a calm, reasonable proposal:
“Let any one of your number step forward and give reasons, if he can, why his fellow citizens who wish, should not be permitted to hear the lecture I have been invited here to deliver. If I cannot show these reasons to be false, I will yield to your demand.”
Although Hubbard couldn’t muster a reply, May was met with outcries from various corners of the room, as his final, determined attempt to begin failed. After being forced to pause yet again, tension in the room heightened. Ladies were asked to retire, a request that foreshadowed the chaos that would momentarily ensue. Soon after he began speaking, a significant part of the crowd pushed forward.
A moment before the mob reached May at the front on the room, from the midst of the commotion a powerful, booming voice quickly commanded the room’s undivided attention.
“Mr. Hubbard, if you do not stop this outrage now, I will knock you down!”
All eyes turned to Jonathan Peckham Miller. Well known in Montpelier, Colonel Miller had earned his high military rank for his role in the Greek Civil War, over a decade earlier. Upon returning to his home state of Vermont, Miller became known by most as the leader of Vermont’s abolitionist movement. It is not surprising, then, that he was the man to confront the violent, proslavery crowd, Timothy Hubbard specifically. While his brave action to stop the forward rush towards May was successful, it was not enough to calm the crowd to a point of order, and May was finally forced to leave.
As significant an event as the Montpelier riot of 1835 was, it hardly stands out in the long professional life of May, which proved hugely impactful despite the violent and recurrent assaults on his peaceful meetings and messages. A colleague wrote an enthusiastic praise of May that is seemingly representative of most impressions of the man: “(May was) always perspicuous and impressive, and often rose, especially on themes of practical duty, to heights of true inspiration and commanding power.”