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A Family Divided
The Grimké sisters forsook their heritage to fight for abolition. Then, many years later, their brother’s terrible sin came back to haunt them.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
The occasion was the presentation of some petitions to Congress asking that slavery be abolished in the District of Columbia. Ex-President John Quincy Adams, now a member of the House of Representatives, was waging a battle for the right to petition, and the New England abolitionists had labored long and hard to amass an impressive number of signatures (see “Mad Old Man from Massachusetts” in the April, 1961, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). It occurred to Henry Stanton (who was later to marry the redoubtable feminist Elizabeth Cady) that since many of the signatures had been obtained at meetings where Angelina spoke, she might be one of the speakers at the official presentation ceremony before the state legislature. He made the suggestion half in jest, for of course no woman had ever been heard there, and it was not likely that permission for such an innovation would be granted. But Angelina accepted the challenge.
She applied to the legislators for permission to address them not as a representative of the Anti-Slavery Society “but as a woman, as a Southerner, as a moral being.” The permission was granted, and she was scheduled to speak after the last of the male abolitionists.
When she and Sarah arrived at the statehouse that day, they could hardly get up the stairs, and the legislative chamber itself was so packed that they had to walk over the tops of desks to reach their seats. All the women abolitionists had come, depending on Angelina to “do something important for women, for our country, and for the whole world.” The moment was upon her, but the spirit was not stirring. She suddenly went so pale that Sarah thought she would faint.
Angelina bowed her head and prayed, but nothing happened. Her mind was still empty, except of wonder at the arrogance that had prompted her to volunteer. She was called upon by the chairman of the Committee on Petitions, and she managed to get to her feet and begin.
Her voice was so weak that the chairman could not hear her, and he interrupted to invite her to come forward and stand at his secretary’s desk, which occupied a raised platform just below his own desk and which faced the chamber. Angelina obeyed.
At this point a great hissing broke out at one of the doors in the rear of the room. Opposition always had a calming effect on Angelina, and she began again, with more firmness than before. But since her back was still to the chairman, and he still could not hear her, he interrupted once more to invite her to come up to his place, which was that of the speaker of the house. By the time she and Sarah (who would not leave her) were “ensconced in the seats of the mighty,” Angelina had entirely recovered her self-confidence.
Her address lasted two hours. Her voice was as strong as a man’s, but toward the end the quiet was so complete that she could have been heard if she had only whispered. At adjournment time she had not covered all her points, so she asked for permission to be heard again. Permission was granted and a day set for her second appearance. Again she spoke to a packed house, this time without hecklers. Again she did not finish, and a third hearing was arranged.
By this time public interest was so intense that the galleries of the statehouse could not begin to hold all who wanted to hear her. The Odeon Theatre was rented, and a series of six lectures by Angelina was announced.
Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of abolitionism, and news of it spread to other cities—among them Philadelphia, where Angelina was going to be married as soon as she caught her breath and quieted her overwrought nerves.
This marriage and the love affair that led up to it was the best-kept secret of its day. Theodore Weld had been “half in love” with Miss Angelina from the day he read her letter to Garrison in the Liberator, and his first glimpse of her in the flesh completed the conquest. But he had taken a vow—only half in earnest, but in public—never to marry “until the last slave was free.” Also, he was penniless, in broken health, and without a profession that gave him hope of being able to support a wife—least of all a wife who had been raised in the lap of southern luxury. He did his stern best to root what he regarded as this “guilty passion” out of his heart, and his apparent coldness forced Angelina to keep her own feelings concealed.
But they had kept up a correspondence all during her New England campaign. Weld wrote to both sisters, advising them on tactics and arguments, and subjecting their behavior, their characters, and their writings to the most critical scrutiny—a practice among devout persons which went by the euphemism “being faithful.” Gradually Weld’s attacks on Angelina began to reflect the depth of his feeling—in reverse. At last he went too far and she rebelled.