Friday, September 2, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Angelina Grimké's 1838 speech at Pennsylvania Hall

(Editor's note: I can't help but wonder whether this is one of the origins of the term barn-burner to describe an exciting or intense event.)

“Just then stones were thrown at the windows, -- a great noise without, and commotion within.”

This note on the scene comes from the transcript of a speech delivered by abolitionist and women’s rights activist Angelina Grimké Weld--the last public speech she ever made--in Philadelphia in 1838. She was speaking at an antislavery convention, and kept speaking as a mob outside the building threw rocks and tried to out-shout the convention speakers. The next day, the mob ransacked and burned the building, which was named—-no joke here--the Pennsylvania Hall for Free Discussion.

The conventioneers later expressed their amazement at how Grimké acknowledged the cacophony outside but continued speaking passionately for more than an hour. “As the tumult from without increased, and the brickbats fell thick and fast,” wrote fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, “her eloquence kindled, her eyes flashed, and her cheeks glowed.” She had been winning audiences all over the Northeast that year with her oratory, according to her colleague Robert Wolcutt: “Angelina’s Grimké’s serene, commanding eloquence enchained attention, disarmed prejudice and carried her hearers with her.”

Stones were the least of the obstacles facing Grimké’s career as a speaker. She and her older sister Sarah Moore Grimké were routinely scolded by their antislavery colleagues and their ministers for their scandalous habit of speaking to “mixed” audiences of men and women. The Grimké sisters were usually not welcome at antislavery events and were sometimes the only women present at these meetings. Angelina’s contemporary, the educator Catharine Beecher, wrote that women like the Grimké sisters had no place in the public fight against slavery. Biographers of the Grimké sisters note that Angelina especially was reprimanded by her family and friends for being too outspoken and inquisitive.

Angelina Grimké was the first woman in the United States to address a legislative body, testifying about slavery in 1838 before the Massachusetts State Legislature. In a letter to her friend Sarah Douglass, she described the petty insults that greeted her in the chamber (emphasis hers):
After the bustle was over I rose to speak and was greeted by hisses from the doorway, tho’ profound silence reigned thro’ the crowd within. The noise in that direction increased and I was requested by the Chairman to suspend my remarks until order could be restored. Three times was I thus interrupted, until at last one of the Committee came to me and requested I would stand near the Speakers desk. I crossed the Hall and stood on the platform in front of it, but was immediately requested to occupy the Secretaries desk on one side. I had just fixed my papers on two gentlemen’s hats when at last I was invited to stand in the Speaker’s desk. This was in the middle, more elevated and far more convenient in every respect. Now my friend, how dost thou think I bore all this? I never was favored with greater self−possession. I was perfectly calm—took up the thread of my discourse and by speaking very loud, soon succeeded in hushing down the noise of the people, and was suffered to continue for more than 2 hours without the least interruption...
In Philadelphia, at least, she didn’t have to make a lectern out of gentlemen’s hats. But she did have to persevere in the face of physical threat. Let’s look at what you can learn from the full text of her famous speech:
  • Speak from your experience. Grimké’s passionate antislavery appeals had their roots in her childhood spent in Charleston as the daughter of a slaveowner. Her speeches and her famous 1836 pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South provided a personal and vivid perspective on the cruelties of slavery. In the Philadelphia speech, she shares how even after moving North, “the Southern breeze wafted to me the discordant tones of weeping and wailing, shrieks and groans, mingled with prayers and blasphemous curses.” The unique journey, which only she could share, allowed her to reach out to both Northern and Southern audiences.
  • Don’t shy away from acknowledging your opposition. It would have been difficult in any case for Grimké to ignore the mob outside the hall, but she did more than prove herself unfazed by the threat. She used them as an illustration for her own points, to raise the courage of Northerners who might be tempted to stay neutral in the fight:
    What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? What would the leveling of this Hall be? Any evidence that we are wrong, or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if the mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons -- would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure?
  • Offer a specific plan of action. The stirring language of this speech is only part of its appeal. Beyond rousing her audience, Grimké offers specific actions that they can take to join the fight in their own ways. Sharing antislavery books, raising money for abolition and petitioning lawmakers are among the items that she lists toward the end of the speech. Importantly, she points out that these are all things that women can do, even as they were deprived of the right to vote and to make a difference in that way.
Grimké retired as an orator after this Philadelphia address. Her biographers speculate that a combination of new domestic duties (she had married two days before the famous speech) and failing health might have contributed to her withdrawal from public speaking.

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.