The Anti-Abolition Riots (1834)

Five Points, New York City
Five Points, New York City
Public domain image

In October, 1834 riots broke out in New York City spurred by a confluence of events: the fiery oratory of abolitionist Protestant ministers (many of whom were also nativist and anti-Catholics); the growing social assertiveness of former enslaved people and of free-born African-Americans in the city; the growth of Jacksonian democracy which lauded working class white males; and the influx of Irish Catholics who were coming to the city at the rate of 30,000 per year by the mid-1830’s. Abolitionists like Rev. Samuel Hanson Cox and painter and inventor Samuel Morse sought to free the enslaved, but they also wanted to preserve what they believed was a clear stream of American Christianity uncontaminated by Catholicism.

On July 4, 1827—which was then called Emancipation Day by the local black population—all of the city’s African American churches held prayer and thanksgiving services. William Hamilton, trustee of African Zion Church, declared “no more shall the accursed name of slave be attached to us; no more shall Negro and slave be synonymous.” Yet, Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., pastor of St. Philips African Episcopal Church wisely noted that a new dawn of civic and political participation for African Americans was still illusory. The color line prevented blacks from riding on street stages or the Broadway omnibus. White churches allowed blacks to enter but reserved an area in the gallery or kept them away from white pew holders. Even black barbers who had white customers were not allowed to shave or cut the hair of black men.

In May and June of 1834, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, silk merchants and prominent abolitionists, underwrote the creation of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Putting women in the front ranks of abolitionists roiled the racists in the city. At the same time, Arthur Tappan invited Samuel Cornish, a black Presbyterian minister to attend Sunday services in Tappan’s pew at Laight Street Church. The invitation caused a furor among congregants. Rev. Samuel Cox, the church pastor, responded that Jesus himself would have been of “Syrian hue” and thus similar in complexion to African Americans. Yet, this defense hardly ameliorated the opponents of Tappan and Cornish.

Shortly afterwards, white, working-class mobs began to form. The first targets of mob rage were white abolitionists and their homes and churches. Rev. Samuel Cox’s Laight Street Church was attacked and the windows were broken. Next the mob of 3,000 rioters attacked Cox’s home on Charlton Street, smashing fencing and throwing paving stones at the residence. Later in the evening, the crowd surrounded Rev. Henry Ludlow’s church on Spring Street, destroying the organ and pews and pulling down the galleries. The crowd used wood from the church to create a street barricade. Rioters then waited to confront the New York Twenty-Seventh National Guard Regiment. The rioters, however, proved to be no match for the Regiment, which hacked its way through the barricade and dispersed the mob.

Rioting reached its peak of violence in October 1834 in Five Points, the notorious slum shared by African American and Irish residents. Hand bills circulated urging white residents to place a candle in the window, so as escape reprisal by floating mobs bent on attacking blacks. Homes without a candle were demolished. In the face of growing terror and property damage, New York Mayor Cornelius Lawrence called out New York’s National Guard, First Division. Armed troops took up strategic positions across town, and in a matter of days the rioters were disbursed and the danger subsided.