Pennsylvania Hall


Pennsylvania gained a reputation as the birthplace of American abolition soon after the American Revolution, but that status caused unrest as debates over slavery grew contentious in the antebellum years. The tension led to a number of riots, one of the most notable being the 1838 destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for antislavery groups on Sixth Street about two blocks north of Independence Hall.

Despite the huge crowd, the attack on Pennsylvania Hall was remarkably calm. Most of the crowd only watched the blaze and prevented firefighters from extinguishing it. (Library Company of Philadelphia)
Despite a horde of spectators, the attack on Pennsylvania Hall was remarkably calm. Most of the crowd only watched the blaze, though the group was a buffer between firefighters and the blaze. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The riot at Pennsylvania Hall occurred at a time of backlash against abolitionism, despite its long history in the region. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS), the nation’s first and best-known antislavery group, helped secure Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, the nation’s first, in 1780.  In 1794 abolitionist allies from New York, Delaware, and New Jersey had joined efforts with the PAS to form the American Convention of Abolition Societies, which met a number of times between 1794 and 1829, four times in Philadelphia. The group held its final meeting in Philadelphia in 1837, a pivotal year that saw the end of that organization but the beginning of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society (PASS), whose members sought immediate rather than gradual abolition of slavery.  When abolitionist women and men started the process of bringing this more aggressive type of antislavery to the greater Philadelphia area by forming the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society (PFASS) in 1833 and the Philadelphia Antislavery Society in 1834, many PAS members not only welcomed but joined the new organizations.

Pennsylvania Hall before the fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia)
Pennsylvania Hall before the fire. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Soon, however, the rise of immediate abolition agitation, combined with the success of the PAS, created a backlash that resulted in churches and meetinghouses refusing to rent facilities for antislavery gatherings. Gradual and immediate abolitionists in Philadelphia then joined forces to form the Pennsylvania Hall Association, to raise money for and oversee construction of a very large and modern meeting hall at  Sixth and Haines Streets (between Arch and Race Streets).  PFASS members played a large role in raising funds to build the hall, collecting roughly $40,000 within a year.  Many members of the Pennsylvania Hall Association were local white Quakers affiliated with one or more of the region’s antislavery groups. Black antislavery leaders in the antislavery community also played important roles in fundraising and in overseeing construction, which began in 1837 and ended in time for a grand opening celebration beginning on May 14, 1838.

During its brief existence—three days from start of the grand opening to its destruction—Pennsylvania Hall housed the offices of the eastern district of the PASS, a free produce store, an antislavery reading room, the antislavery Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper, several meeting rooms, two large lecture rooms, and a large hall known as the “Grand Saloon.”   The Association celebrated the hall’s opening by inviting abolitionists from all over the northeastern United States to attend a multiple-day ceremony that included meetings of the PASS, the Philadelphia Lyceum, and the Antislavery Convention of American Women.

Resistance to the hall and what it symbolized emerged immediately, and ended with one of Philadelphia’s most famous acts of riot and destruction.  As the abolitionists gathered, onlookers–already resentful of the abolitionists whom they blamed for the growing black population in the city and the resulting job competition–spread rumors of racial “amalgamation” and inappropriate behavior at the hall.

Crowds formed around the building immediately upon its opening, and on the third day of the conference, when women inside the hall began to speak about the horrors of slavery, before an audience that included black and white men and women, the crowd outside began to throw bricks through the windows.  Despite half-hearted efforts by Mayor John Swift (1790-1873) to disperse the crowd, the attack escalated on May 17, 1838. A group later identified as dock workers broke down the doors, allowing a diverse white mob to enter the hall and set a number of fires, fueling them by the gas that was piped in for lighting.  Sheriff John G. Watmough (1793-1861) gathered about a dozen of the troublemakers, but was prevented by the crowd from maintaining custody. By the end of the night Pennsylvania Hall was a smoldering shell.

During the following decade the abolitionists unsuccessfully sought justice in the court system. No one was convicted of the crime, though dozens were arrested, and five men were investigated for their role in the incident.  Finally, in 1847, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the county responsible for damages, and the Pennsylvania Hall Association received $27,942.27.

Though the hall stood for only a short time, it had an important and lasting effect on the regional and national antislavery movements.  People who had previously ignored abolitionists, or expressed irritation at them for “agitating” and endangering the Union, began to reconsider their stance in light of this obvious attack upon free speech.  Abolitionists took advantage of this opportunity to argue that those who denied black freedom also sought to hamper white freedom. The women contributed to this endeavor by marketing a variety of goods made of wood from Pennsylvania Hall.

In the end, the hall offered a graphic symbol of the struggle for both black and white freedom, and a reminder of the power of proslavery forces in the United States.  Abolitionists were able to use this symbol to portray their cause as a defensive movement for freedom and to tout the proslavery position as a danger to white as well as black liberty.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria.

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Pennsylvania Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Hall was the largest and most modern building in Philadelphia during its short existence. It was one of the first buildings in the city to include gas-powered lighting, an innovation the Pennsylvania Hall Association would come to regret, as the gas helped fuel the fire on the hall's final night.

David Paul Brown, 1838

Library Company of Philadelphia

David Paul Brown offered the keynote address at Pennsylvania Hall’s grand opening. A member of both the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Philadelphia Antislavery Society, Brown regarded himself as an immediate abolitionist, but his definition of immediatism angered Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who then proceeded to “rededicate” the hall on his own terms. For Brown, “immediatism” meant putting the end of slavery in motion immediately through gradual abolition laws like the one Pennsylvania adopted in 1781. For Garrison, “immediatism” meant ending slavery immediately without compensation for slave owners. In the process of criticizing Brown’s dedication speech, Garrison also spoke out strongly against the American Colonization Society, a group which enjoyed strong support in the greater Philadelphia region, and his charged rhetoric drew the attention of the angry crowd outside the hall.

John Greenleaf Whittier

Library Company of Philadelphia

John Greenleaf Whittier was the editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper that moved into the basement of the hall just days before it was burned to the ground. On the night of the mobbing, Whittier donned a disguise and pretended to be part of the mob as he snuck into the newspaper’s office to rescue the plates for the next day’s edition of the newspaper. He had moved to Philadelphia to assume the editorship of Benjamin Lundy’s National Enquirer and General Register, which he renamed the Pennsylvania Freeman.

Grimke-Weld Wedding Invitation

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Angelina Grimke and Theodore Dwight Weld were two of the nation’s best-known abolitionists in 1838. Grimke caused a stir after becoming an agent of the American Antislavery Society and traveling throughout the northeastern United States to speak out against slavery. The daughter of slaveholders, she and her sister Sarah moved to Philadelphia and embraced the Quaker faith before going on the lecture circuit in 1836. Angelina and Weld met that year and were soon engaged. They married on May 14 at her sister’s home in Philadelphia, just blocks from the ceremonies taking place at Pennsylvania Hall. Their wedding, which onlookers erroneously described as an “amalgamation wedding” (implying that a white person and a black person were marrying), stirred the crowd and helped fuel the anger that erupted in the mobbing of the hall.

Practical Amalgamation

Library Company of Philadelphia

This anti-abolition cartoon illustrates a major ingredient of the anger and fear that motivated the crowd to destroy Pennsylvania Hall. Note the “mixed-race” couples of various sizes and ages. Members of the crowd resented abolitionists to begin with because they did not like the growth in the area’s black population. They did not like the resulting job competition, made worse in the context of the economic crisis known as the Panic of 1837. They also believed that antislavery agitation endangered the Union and jeopardized the business of firms that relied on the South for trade. Mostly, however, they feared that abolition would lead to racial mixing.

This image (ca. 1850) is a segment of a larger drawing attributed to Zip Coon that shows the full three-story building with "Pennsylvania Hall" inscribed near the top of the facade. The image shown here has been digitally enhanced to improve the detail.

Destruction of the Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

This John Sartain image of the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall illustrates the calm nature of the attack. Witnesses estimated the crowd to be between ten thousand and fifteen thousand, but only two hundred to three hundred people participated in the actual attack. Once the main instigators broke in, ransacked the offices, and set the fire, most people just stood back to watch. The main contribution of the majority of spectators was to keep the fire companies at bay, though this was an easy task since most of the firemen only sought to prevent the fire from spreading to other structures.

Destruction of Pennsylvania Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

This illustration shows Pennsylvania Hall as it burned on the night of May 17, 1838. Firefighters on the left side of the image spray nearby buildings with water to prevent the fire from spreading, but do not attempt to extinguish the blaze. Despite the drama of this illustration, the crowd of spectators remained fairly calm through the destruction, though they were a buffer between fire companies and the fire. By the end of the night, only the shell of the building remained.

Ruins of the Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

By the morning of May 18, 1838, this is all that remained of Pennsylvania Hall. Three men were eventually identified for their roles in the destruction, but none of them would serve time. The Pennsylvania Hall Association members spent a decade working through the courts to regain their investment of over forty thousand dollars, but the county was finally ordered to pay them a lesser amount—almost twenty-eight thousand—in 1847. Though they never recouped their material losses, they were able to capitalize on the mobbing to gain some moral support for the cause of free speech, if not for the cause of abolition.

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Related Reading

Brown, Ira V. “Racism and Sexism: The Case of Pennsylvania Hall,” Phylon 37(2).

Pennsylvania Hall Association, History of Pennsylvania Hall, which was Destroyed by a Mob on the 17th of May, 1838. Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838.

Tomek, Beverly C. Pennsylvania Hall: A “Legal Lynching” in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Related Collections

Pennsylvania Hall Association Records, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

Pennsylvania Hall Association Minutes, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Contemporary newspapers, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Related Places

Pennsylvania Hall historical marker, Sixth and Haines Streets, Philadelphia.


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