Abolitionism in the United States or Antislavery Movement in the United States
During the three decades that preceded the Civil War, abolitionism was a major factor in electoral politics. Most historians use the term abolitionism to refer to antislavery activism between the early 1830s, when William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator, and the Civil War. Historians also commonly distinguish abolitionism, a morally grounded and uncompromising social reform movement, from political antislavery—represented, for example, by the Free Soil or Republican parties—which advocated more limited political solutions, such as keeping slavery out of the Western territories, and was more amenable to compromise.
Abolitionists played a key role in setting the terms of the debate over slavery and in making it a compelling moral issue. Yet abolitionists had remarkably little influence in the North. Very few Northerners were abolitionists, and many regarded abolitionists as dangerous fanatics. What made their case telling was the South's violent reaction. Extreme Southern responses appeared to confirm abolitionist warnings about a conspiratorial "Slave Power." By the 1850s, however, the escalating sectional conflict had largely taken on a momentum of its own, one that owed less and less to abolitionism.
Abolitionism was never a self-contained or singular movement. It encompassed a bewildering array of national, state, and local organizations, contradictory tactics, and clashing personalities. Abolitionists are commonly portrayed as benevolent white people deeply concerned with the well-being of enslaved blacks, epitomized by such activists as Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). In fact, a great number of abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, were African American. Free blacks in the North were stalwart in their dedication to the cause and provided a disproportionate share of the movement's financial support, including a large majority of The Liberator's early subscribers.
Whether black or white, most abolitionists found inspiration in two key strains of American thought: republicanism, the intellectual legacy of the American Revolution, and Protestant Christianity, especially an emotionally charged evangelicalism. Yet like their nonabolitionist contemporaries, many white abolitionists were convinced of the racial inferiority of blacks. Abolitionists acted forthrightly to correct what they perceived as a grievous wrong, but they could not wholly separate themselves from the assumptions and limitations of their time.
Although later observers have noted glaring inconsistencies and obvious shortcomings in abolitionists' efforts, it is more remarkable that so many were inspired to challenge an institution deeply entrenched in American society. During the 19th century reformers could rely upon familiar arguments in condemning slavery. That critical language, by and large, emerged during the preceding century. Opposition to slavery increased dramatically during the antebellum years, but its roots lay in the last half of the 18th century. During these years a number of individuals sought to transform slavery from an unquestioned part of the status quo to a significant problem. The principal challenge facing these 18th-century activists was arousing a conviction that slavery was wrong.
THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS AND RELIGIOUS OPPOSITION TO SLAVERY IN THE COLONIAL ERA
In the United States today human slavery is regarded not simply as wrong but as utterly indefensible and an affront to humanity. This powerful consensus makes it hard to appreciate the significance of taking an antislavery stance in the 18th century. It was not easy to come to abolitionist principles. 18th- and early-19th-century abolitionists had to wrench themselves free of institutions and attitudes that had been accepted for centuries. The Bible, viewed by many as a compendium of social as well as religious truth, did not condemn slavery. The ancient Greek democracies and the Roman Republic, which provided political inspiration during the revolutionary era, practiced and accepted slavery.
Although it is hard to imagine, white society did not see slavery as a moral or philosophical problem until a small number of outspoken individuals made it a problem. Beginning in the 1750s members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, took the lead in challenging the institution. The most important Quaker antislavery activists were New Jersey Friend John Woolman, the author of the pamphlet Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754), and Philadelphia Friend Anthony Benezet. During the mid-18th century Woolman traveled widely in British North America, appealing to Friends to free their slaves.
Woolman and other antislavery Friends were unique in basing their opposition to slavery on their sympathy for enslaved African Americans. In the 19th century Friends would be at the vanguard of a wide range of reforms aimed at bettering American society. During the 18th century, however, they turned their attention inward, focusing on their own religious society. In 1775 Benezet and Woolman played a leading role in founding the first American antislavery organization, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. After long discussion and debate, the Society of Friends reached consensus on the issue and became the first institution in the United States to condemn slavery as a moral wrong.
By 1784 every yearly meeting in the United States had forbidden its members to own slaves. In 1797 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting resolved that members should be admitted "without regard to colour." At the time, this was truly a radical stance. In 1790 the Society of Friends presented Congress with the first petition calling for emancipation. Friends remained active in their opposition to slavery. But American Protestantism as a whole did little to challenge the institution until well into the 19th century.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY
During the 18th century the most significant opposition to slavery was secular rather than religious. The political discourse of American radicals emphasized the degradation of slavery and the need to defend liberty. Revolutionary agitators such as Samuel Adams warned that the British government aimed to "enslave" the American colonists. Patriots declared that liberty was a fundamental human quality and intrinsic to natural law. Patrick Henry of Virginia declaimed, "Give me liberty or give me death!"
Most patriot leaders did not linger on the contradiction of a slaveholder such as Thomas Jefferson proclaiming that liberty was an "inalienable right." But some extended their political principles more widely. In 1764, for example, Massachusetts lawyer James Otis Jr. asked, if all people were born free and equal, how could it be "right to enslave a man because he is black?" In 1773 Philadelphia patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush portrayed slavery as a "vice which degrades human nature."
In the North, revolutionary idealism resulted in a series of political challenges to the institution of slavery. During the war, African Americans in New Hampshire and Connecticut petitioned their respective state legislatures, unsuccessfully, for their freedom, using the language of republican liberty. Vermont, which had almost no slaves or African Americans, abolished slavery in 1777. In 1780 Pennsylvania followed suit. During the 1780s Massachusetts courts ruled that the commonwealth's 1780 constitution had, in effect, outlawed the institution. Between 1784 and 1804 the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey all adopted plans for gradual emancipation. The U.S.
Constitution set a date of 1808 as the earliest date the African slave trade could be abolished.
Neither the Revolution nor the Constitution solved the problem of slavery in the United States. But perhaps just as important, they helped create the problem of slavery. During the colonial era, very few whites considered slavery to be a major social problem. During the first six decades of the 19th century, very few could deny that it was. The Revolution created the problem of slavery in two ways. First, having accepted liberty as a fundamental political tenet, Americans could no longer view slavery with equanimity. It became a troubling inconsistency in America's democratic society. In response, a number of states and territories organized abolition societies, including Rhode Island (1785), New York (1785), Illinois (1785), Delaware (1788), Maryland (1789), Connecticut (1790), and New Jersey (1793). In 1794 the American Convention of Abolition Societies was established in Philadelphia to unite the various state societies.
Second, once revolutionary idealism resulted in immediate or gradual emancipation throughout the North, slavery became an exclusively Southern institution. The debate over slavery now had potent sectional overtones, and it quickly emerged as the most divisive topic in national politics. At the start of the century, however, opponents of slavery had no intention of sharpening sectional controversy. Most early-19th-century abolitionists invoked moderation rather than militancy. They shared two key assumptions: that emancipation would be gradual, and that the freed slaves would not remain in the United States but should be colonized in Africa.
GRADUAL EMANCIPATION AND COLONIZATION
Prior to the 1830s most antislavery activists focused on gradual emancipation. Most of these activists were Southern whites, who thought that the institution would gradually whither away. Only black abolitionists, whose numbers were relatively few, demanded an immediate end to slavery. Most white—and a considerable number of black—opponents of slavery viewed colonization as intrinsic to any planned emancipation. In 1776, the year in which he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson also formulated a proposal for the African colonization of American blacks. Jefferson was a slaveholder who deplored slavery; yet he—like many other whites—believed in the absolute inferiority of blacks.
Jefferson was far from alone in concluding that the two groups could not live together beyond the constraints of slavery. For those who held such views, colonization seemed to offer a congenial solution: African Americans would be freed and returned to Africa—where, colonizationists insisted, they belonged—leaving the United States to whites. The most important advocate of colonization was the American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816 by a group of Presbyterian ministers gathered in Washington, D.C. The ACS's initial goal was to encourage free blacks to immigrate to Africa.
The American Colonization Society attracted such illustrious supporters as former American presidents James Madison and James Monroe, Supreme Court justice John Marshall, and Kentucky senator and slaveholder Henry Clay. In 1821 the ACS purchased a colony for African American settlement. The colony, soon christened Liberia, was located south of Sierra Leone in West Africa. During the 19th century the ACS sent an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 African Americans to Africa.
One of the first prominent black advocates of colonization was the Massachusetts ship owner and Quaker Paul Cuffe. In 1815 he carried a group of African American settlers to Sierra Leone. Although most free blacks despised the ACS, Cuffe supported the organization. Other important black advocates of colonization were Martin Robison Delany, Alexander Crummell, and Henry Highland Garnet, who in the late 1850s was president of the newly formed African Civilization Society, an organization that advocated a black return to Africa.
African Americans as a whole remained aloof from colonization schemes, although many free blacks were active in assisting runaway slaves and in raising money for legal challenges to the enslavement of individual blacks. They also formed black organizations that combined antislavery activism and self-defense. For example, the New York Vigilance Committee, founded in 1835 by David Ruggles, helped more than 1,000 runaway slaves avoid being recaptured and returned to the South. Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which made African Americans much more vulnerable to claims that they were runaway slaves and to kidnapping by so-called slave catchers, many free blacks moved to Canada. But in most cases, flight to Canada was a practical means of protection rather than an endorsement of emigration.
The high point of colonization was during the 1820s. In 1821 white abolitionist Benjamin Lundy, an advocate of colonization, began publishing the Genius of Universal Emancipation. Eight years later, a young William Lloyd Garrison joined him as an associate editor. But Garrison grew increasingly critical of Lundy on the issue of colonizing freed slaves, and in 1831 he began publishing his own radical antislavery journal, The Liberator, which was adamant in rejecting colonizationist arguments. Garrison's proslavery opponents and many of his one-time reform allies condemned him as an intemperate extremist. In the first issue of The Liberator, he met their challenges head on:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.... I am in earnest—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.
Garrison helped to usher in a new era in abolitionism, but he was not alone in setting abolitionism on a more radical tack.
THE SOURCES OF RADICAL ABOLITIONISM
Abolitionism in its radical form dates from about 1830. A series of developments about this time served to discredit gradualist approaches to emancipation. Southerners became more adamant in defending slavery, and antislavery activists became more radical in their attacks on the institution. The radical approach to abolitionism is termed immediatism as opposed to gradualism. The term immediatism is usually associated with Garrison, but black abolitionists had for years demanded an immediate end to slavery.
In 1829, two years before Garrison commenced The Liberator, black abolitionist David Walker published a far more inflammatory work, Walker's Appeal ... to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829). Walker urged slaves to rise up against their masters and take their freedom by force. In August 1831 Nat Turner instigated a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of 57 white men, women, and children and more than 100 slaves. Southern whites charged that the "fanaticism" of Walker, Garrison, and other immediatists was the direct cause of Turner's Rebellion.
Antislavery supporters were radicalized not only as a result of the increasing vehemence of their pro-slavery opponents, but also because colonization was discredited as a viable option. The proslavery Virginian Thomas R. Dew, who was later president of William and Mary College, played an important part in this effort. During the winter of 1831 to 1832 the Virginia legislature debated the question of abolishing slavery in the state, through gradual emancipation and colonization. Dew's report of those debates, published as the Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (1832), argued persuasively that colonization was unworkable.
Dew used census figures to show that the growth of the black population outstripped the passenger-carrying capacity of the nation's merchant fleet. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Virginia debates, which followed Turner's Rebellion by only a few months, was that they took place at all. The legislators decided against ending slavery, but the vote (73-58) was remarkably close. It would, however, be the last time that any Southern state would voluntarily consider emancipation.
Radical abolitionists like Garrison also worked tirelessly to counter the advocates of colonization. Garrison's widely distributed Thoughts on African Colonization (1832) offered an uncompromising attack on the idea, in part, by citing blatantly racist and proslavery statements of various leading colonizationists. Although the idea of colonization continued to appeal to many whites—Abraham Lincoln was for years a colonizationist—after 1830 it was clearly embattled.
The most important source of the radicalizing of abolitionism was evangelical Protestantism. Beginning in the late 1790s, a major religious revival, the Second Great Awakening, had spread across the United States. The revival was based in evangelicalism, a fervent and intensely personal form of Christianity. Evangelicals viewed themselves and the world as being in a constant battle against the temptations of sin; yet evangelicalism was an optimistic faith. Both the individual and the larger society could be saved. Salvation required putting oneself in God's hands and trying to live by Jesus' example, but it also required the concerted efforts of the faithful. Evangelicals who righted society's wrongs were thus doing God's work on earth.
At the height of the Second Great Awakening, in the two decades after 1820, the United States entered an age of reform. Reformers took up a wide variety of social problems. They promoted temperance and discouraged prostitution. Some advocated women's rights; others proposed improvements in public education or in prison conditions. Aside from temperance, abolitionism was the principal focus for antebellum reformers. Not all evangelicals became abolitionists; nor were all abolitionists evangelicals, but during the 1830s and 1840s the effort to eradicate slavery took on a new energy and radicalism due to the many evangelicals who joined the crusade.
ABOLITIONIST ORGANIZATIONS AND ACTIVITIES
The new phase of abolitionism after 1830 unfolded through new antislavery institutions and new forms of activism. In 1832 Garrison and ten others formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833 Garrison and two wealthy New York City businessmen and philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan played key roles in establishing the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Also in 1833 black and white women of Boston organized the interracial Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and women established a similarly constituted organization in Philadelphia. Many other local and state societies appeared during these years. By 1837 Massachusetts had 145 different antislavery societies; New York had 274; and Ohio, 214. Abolitionist sentiment was strongest in New England, New York, and their cultural hinterlands across the upper Midwest. By 1838 the AASS claimed nearly 250,000 members and 1350 affiliated societies.
During the 1830s antislavery societies effectively made slavery a social issue. They sent out massive mailings of antislavery literature, much of it directed to the South. In 1835 alone the AASS mailed 1.1 million abolitionist tracts. The campaign led President Andrew Jackson to propose legislation that would prohibit mailing antislavery literature. Slave narratives, former slaves' graphic, first-person accounts of their experiences under slavery, were an especially effective form of abolitionist propaganda. During the antebellum years, abolitionists published some 70 fugitive slave narratives, the most celebrated being Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).
Abolitionist speakers also carried the antislavery message throughout the North. Other notable black abolitionist speakers were Sarah Mapps Douglass, William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. These traveling orators were impassioned and willing to debate their opponents. They were also courageous—abolitionist views were not popular and could elicit hostile responses.
During the 1830s and 1840s abolitionists encountered almost as much resistance in the North as they did in the slaveholding South. Many Northerners feared not simply that the abolitionists would unsettle national politics and worsen sectional conflict, but also that, if successful, they would upset the North's racial balance as hordes of freed slaves fled the South to join the tiny number of free blacks already residing in the North. Antiabolitionist mobs in the North attacked abolitionist speakers and destroyed abolitionist presses. In 1837, for example, abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy died defending his press against a mob in Alton, Illinois. Five years later, Frederick Douglass had his hand broken by a stone-throwing mob in Pendleton, Indiana. These mobs were by no means simply rowdies or social rabble. They were organized and often led, in the phrase of the time, by "gentlemen of property and standing."
The Depression of 1837-1843 seriously undermined the abolitionist campaign by reducing its financial resources and by drawing Northern attention to more pressing economic concerns. Almost as severe an impediment was the so-called Gag Rule, a procedural rule of the House of Representatives, adopted annually between 1836 and 1844, which automatically tabled any petition or letter on the subject of slavery. Yet the Gag Rule also provided abolitionists with a new tactic. Beginning in 1837 the AASS began mounting antislavery petition drives. By 1838 it had inundated Congress with more than 400,000 signatures. Abolitionists rightly pointed out that the Gag Rule violated their First Amendment right to petition their elected representatives. In this struggle, they gained many nonabolitionist allies, the most important of whom was Massachusetts representative and former president John Quincy Adams, who opposed the Gag Rule and in 1844 saw it defeated.
Frustrated by their political leaders' general reluctance to confront slavery, more and more abolitionists turned to direct action and civil disobedience. In 1832 Theodore Dwight Weld was forced out of Cincinnati's Lane Theological Seminary for encouraging students to debate the merits of colonization. In 1833 Weld began teaching at Oberlin College, which became a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and was soon an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad, a secret network of activists who aided fugitive slaves in their journey to freedom, was the most important example of abolitionist direct action. Some system for assisting escaped slaves existed as early as 1786, but the network did not spread throughout the North until after 1830. More than 3,200 individuals are known to have been active in the Underground Railroad, and they aided perhaps as many as 50,000 escaped slaves in their journey to freedom. Among the best known of those active in the Underground Railroad are Harriet Tubman and Indiana Quaker Levi Coffin. Douglass, Delany, Garnet, and many other African Americans were also involved. Following the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, abolitionists became even more militant in their efforts to assist runaway slaves. In 1851, for example, a Boston mob rescued a fugitive slave from a U.S. marshal and helped him safely reach Canada.
ABOLITIONIST DIVISIONS AND SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES
Although historians disagree on its political impact, abolitionism unquestionably helped define slavery as a pressing moral problem. During the 1840s, however, internal and external developments decreased the movement's significance. In 1840 the AASS split into two factions. Garrison and his radical followers retained control over the original organization; the Tappan brothers, Weld, and their followers formed the more conservative American and Foreign Antislavery Society.
There were numerous other fallings-out among abolitionists in subsequent years. In 1843 Douglass, a Garrisonian advocate of nonviolence, prevented the publication of a fiery speech by Garnet, which called for slave insurrection. By 1851, however, Douglass himself had parted ways with Garrison. Garrison relied on moral suasion as the means to gain emancipation. He dismissed politics and declined to vote, and he was convinced that nonviolence was the proper means of combating slavery. In 1851 Douglass decided that political action was essential to the antislavery struggle and that violence might be needed as well. During the 1850s a number of white abolitionists, including Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, similarly concluded that to emancipate the slaves might require violent acts of resistance.
By the mid-1840s, however, America's territorial expansion was far more important than abolitionists in shaping the debate over slavery. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) brought the United States a vast new area of land, which since it lay south of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30', would be open to slavery. Slavery was already well established in Texas, a large part of this new territory, because of its mainly Southern settlers. The South, as a section, was eager for new land in which to expand its social and economic system. But the North was reluctant to see the extension of slavery into new territories because Northern whites feared being unable to compete with Southern plantation slavery and, in large measure, because of their racial prejudice. Rather than the moral appeals of abolitionism, it was the practical question of slavery in the territories that drove a wedge between the North and South.
The issue of slavery in the territories made political antislavery the dominant form of abolitionism from the mid-1840s to the Civil War. In 1839 the antislavery Liberty Party nominated former slaveholder and abolitionist James G. Birney as its first presidential candidate. In 1848 the Liberty Party dissolved and joined in forming in the new Free Soil Party. In 1854 the Free Soil Party, along with many former Whigs, antislavery Northern Democrats, and supporters of the nativist American Party, created the Republican Party. For Free Soilers and Republicans, the primary issue was the nonextension of slavery, in other words, keeping slavery out of the western territories.
That issue lay at the heart of the most divisive political controversies of the era, including the Wilmot Proviso (1847), the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). During these years, abolitionists increasingly found themselves in the position of reacting to outside developments, rather than setting an agenda of their own. Two important exceptions were Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE, JOHN BROWN, AND THE COMING OF THE CIVIL WAR
It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two abolitionists than that between Stowe and Brown. Stowe was deeply committed to moral suasion. Brown, in essence, was an antislavery terrorist who committed reprisal killings and organized attacks on federal government installations. Brown was one of the only abolitionists who left his mark with a gun; Stowe, a better representative of the crusade, made the pen her weapon of choice. Stowe's sentimental antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin became the most popular novel of the 19th century.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was quickly adapted for the stage, and touring theatrical companies presented versions of the story throughout the North. Unfortunately, the novel's characters were, to a considerable extent, unflattering stereotypes, and the theatrical performances relied upon the demeaning racial caricatures of 19th-century minstrelsy. Yet Uncle Tom's Cabin played a crucial part in turning Northerners against slavery and against the South. When he met Stowe during the Civil War, President Lincoln reportedly declared, "So this is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"
In 1856 John Brown led four of his sons and two other followers on a murderous spree in Kansas that culminated in the execution-style killings of five unarmed proslavery Kansas settlers. Three years later, he masterminded a bloody, misguided raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown secured financial backing from half a dozen New England and New York abolitionists and expected to instigate a massive slave uprising. Black abolitionists such as Garnet, Tubman, and Douglass admired Brown's zeal, but by the time he made his raid, they had all carefully distanced themselves from him. Neither did Virginia's slaves rise up in response to his raid. Within 36 hours, Brown and his surviving followers were captured.
During his trial and execution Brown remained calm and dignified. His demeanor won the admiration even of those Northerners who condemned his actions. Many Northerners regarded him as a principled martyr. By contrast, Southerners viewed Brown's Northern defenders—and the revelations of his abolitionist backers—as proof that the North was actively conspiring to subvert slavery. Northerners were equally convinced of the threat posed by a conspiratorial Southern "Slave Power" bent on extending its dominion over the entire nation, North as well as South.
With the 1860 election of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, these suspicions provided the tripwires for secession and war. Abolitionists doggedly continued trying to influence events. Douglass and Delany advocated the enlisting of African American soldiers for the Union Army. Even more momentously, Douglass was prominent in imploring Lincoln to transform the war from its limited goal of restoring the Union into a full-fledged crusade against slavery. Both goals were realized in 1863, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union Army began accepting black recruits. Yet each of these decisions reflected larger political consideration as much as abolitionist appeals.
By the start of the Civil War, abolitionists were increasingly marginal to unfolding events. Although they had speeded the process of emancipation, the actual demise of slavery did not come according to their plans. Nonetheless, the abolitionists made lasting historical contributions. They were notable for their principled advocacy of unpopular ideas. They also insisted that American political and religious principles should apply to all. In particular, they provided a powerful model for later social movements. From the 19th-century women's rights movement to the 20th-century Civil Rights, gay rights, and anti-abortion or right-to-life movements, American reformers have drawn upon the idealism and, in many cases, the specific tactics that are a central part of the abolitionists' legacy.
Contributed By: James Clyde Sellman
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