This Day In History: March 24

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On March 24, 1862, abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips is booed while attempting to give a lecture in Cincinnati, Ohio. The angry crowd was opposed to fighting for the freedom of enslaved people, as Phillips advocated. He was pelted with rocks and eggs before friends whisked him away when a small riot broke out.

Phillips was one of the most outspoken abolitionists of the era. Born in Boston in 1811 to a wealthy New England family, Phillips was educated at Harvard and practiced law until he became swept up in the anti-slave crusade in the 1830s. Abolitionists denounced slavery as a sin, and framed the debate over slavery as a moral issue rather than an economic or political one. Called the “golden trumpet” of the movement, Phillips’ shrill denunciation of slavery won many converts to the abolitionist cause and attracted many other Northerners to moderate anti-slave positions.

When the Civil War began, Phillips and other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison exerted pressure on the administration of President Abraham Lincoln to make the destruction of slavery the primary objective of the war. For the first year and half, Lincoln insisted that the Union’s war goal was reunion of the states. He did this in order to keep the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware from seceding. Not until the Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 would the stated purpose of the war shift.

The March 1862 incident in Cincinnati demonstrated the fierce resistance that existed in the Northern states to the proposition of fighting a war to free the enslaved people. The most outspoken resisters lived in the “Butternut” region—the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Called Butternuts because their homespun clothing was dyed a light brown from nut extracts, residents of the region did not own enslaved people but shared many sentiments with Southerners. Lincoln encountered serious resistance from this area when he announced his Emancipation Proclamation.