THE SPLENDID GAS LAMPS of Pennsylvania Hall were being lit for the first time to illuminate a rare scene. Antislavery orators would stand at the polished walnut rail of the speaker’s platform in the three-thousand-seat main salon and address both sexes, seated in mixed rows—“promiscuous” audiences, the saying went. There were even female speakers.
Angelina Grimké, “the pretty Quakeress,” as one newspaper called her, changed her wedding date in order to attend the antislavery meetings. She asked only that she not be married “in such a hurry as to attend a meeting that same evening.” The tall, ill-shaven groom, Theodore Weld, renounced the law of a wife as “chattel” when he said his vows. He said little else that day—by age thirty-four he was hoarse from giving antislavery speeches over hecklers’ shouts. The wedding cake was baked with “free sugar,” not derived from the unrecompensed labor of slaves.
The leading light of both events was Angelina Grimké. She was the child of Charleston slaveholders; her father was John Faucheraud Grimké the same judge who had long ago freed Fanny Shields. As adults, Angelina, thirty-three, and her sister Sarah, forty-five, had not only turned against the slavery system; they had set out to destroy it. They had toured New England giving speeches in sixty-seven towns to forty thousand people. After they spoke, volunteers came forward. New antislavery societies sprang up. The movement was getting stronger, and its enemies took notice.
White men looked at the Grimkés and saw women associating themselves with black men. “Why are all the old hens abolitionists?” a New England paper asked. “Because not being able to obtain husbands they think they may stand some chance for a negro, if they can only make amalgamation fashionable.”
Angelina Grimké had broken precedent in February 1838 by delivering an antislavery speech to the Massachusetts legislature. One newspaper’s correspondent said her prettiness and eloquence that day “made me 19/20 of an abolitionist.” Another noted the crowds on hand for “the extraordinary phenomenon of a woman talking!”
She spoke “in excellent off-hand style, as if she were only engaged at the spinning wheel—as she ought to have been,” the Boston Post said. When, at first, legislators barred her from the rostrum, she balanced the pages of her speech on two men’s hats.