The Emergence of Abolitionism  1830–1860

The Abolitionists

Abolitionism as a principle was far more than just the wish to limit the extent of slavery. Most Northerners recognized that slavery existed in the South and the Constitution did not allow the federal government to intervene there. Most Northerners favored a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation. After 1849 abolitionists rejected this and demanded it end immediately and everywhere.

Slavery in the United States had its roots in 1619 when twenty Africans were brought by a Dutch soldier and sold to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia as indentured servants. The transformation from indentured servitude to racial slavery happened gradually. It was not until 1661 that a reference to slavery entered into Virginia law, directed at Caucasian servants who ran away with a black servant. It was not until the Slave Codes of 1705 that the status of African Americans as slaves would be sealed. This status would last for another 160 years, until after the end of the American Civil War with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

A date and terms to explore to better understand the issue are 1807, the Internal Slave trade and the External Slave trade.  In 1807 the external slave trade was abolished, meaning slaves were no longer allowed to be brought from Africa to the United States.  Trading in Slavery from this point forward was therefore “internal” to the nation.

The Dred Scott Decision effectively limited the ultimate expansion of slavery in the U.S., however it removed any rights to citizenship for a slave.  The Fugitive Slave Act was soon passed as well, once again declaring slaves as property, not people, and allowing for their return to their owners if escaped to a free state.  Riding the fence, politicians crafted the Compromise of 1850, designating the lands, boundaries and process by which a territory could be a slave or a free state.  Following the Compromise of 1850, Abolitionists, who had been gaining a voice through the 1830’s and 1840’s, tired of the compromises and demanded an immediate end to slavery.  The Unitarian Church of Boston was a strong proponent of this position.

Opposition to the Abolitionist movement in the South was strong as well and based on more than one factor.  The British during the early 1800’s had managed to abolish slavery in their Caribbean colonies through a 10 year program of compensation of the slave owners and land management.  Abolitionists in the North had seen this as a model to follow for the South.   Many in the South, however, saw this effort as a failure to provide for both the land owners and the Slaves, fearing bad socio-economic results if this were attempted in their situation.  Citing the results in Santo Domingo as what to expect, they strongly resisted any Federal Government program to end slavery.

Another reason for the strong opposition in the South to the Abolitionist movement was the religious underpinnings.  The Unitarian Church in Boston was undergoing an internal doctrinal struggle, with Theodore Parker rejecting all miracles and even the divinity of Christ.  The Reverend Parker was extremely influential, however, was a leader in the Abolitionist movement, had a far reaching public voice through his writing for some of the leading journals of the day and was on the staff at Harvard.  Members of Parkers church, which by the 1850’s numbered more than 7,000, included Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In 1848 Theodore Parker wrote a scathing essay titled “To A Southern Slaveholder”.  This essay was familiar to many of the Southern Clergy from a variety of denominations.  Despite a multitude of other Northern pastors from several Christian denominations (and practically 50% of the Northern Rabbi’s) also preaching against slavery, the Southern clergy had determined the Abolitionist movement was sparked by Parker.  (The Rabbi’s in the south were wholly supportive of slavery.)This then was an issue backed by pagans in their eyes.

Ref.: http://www.civilwar.com/abolition-and-slavery/abolitionism.html; Editor’s comments in parentheses)

It has been said that the farther a slave was from gang labor in the South, the closer he was to freedom. Thus a slave in the North had a far better chance of attaining freedom, and even as a slave had a greater understanding of what free life was like.

 An Abolitionist tone echoed a mood of “freedom” throughout the North. Quaker demands for manumission (Manumission is the freeing of a slave or serf from indentured service.) tied with the newest Enlightenment essays on “natural rights” must have daily given the slaves hope, while altering society to increase their chances for freedom. One can take this a step further, as well. If the slaves of the North had more freedom than those of the South, it is conceivable that the free blacks living in southern towns found that, even as free men, they had far less freedom than those who found homes in the North. After all, the overall “feeling” of freedom that permeated the North did not exist further south. In the South there was quite the opposite; even in freedom, blacks lived in an environment that was desperately trying to oppress them. It is perhaps these feelings of freedom or oppression that made the most difference in the lives of any black person, be he free or slave.

Almost from the start northern slaves had the Quakers as advocates in their quest for freedom. The Quaker movement for manumission shaped the North’s atmosphere of freedom. As time passed, a slave in a northern city found he had many paths to freedom, and since he moved among free people daily, he had the opportunity to hear about his possibilities. Furthermore, slaves were able to use the legality of emancipation coupled with the Enlightenment ethics of “natural rights,” which were quite popular in the North, and attempt to sue for their freedom. With the support of Abolitionist groups, their endeavors for freedom had a good chance of paying off. As time passed, the situation only seemed to look better, as men like Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Rush formed groups to educate black children, an opportunity that had not previously existed.

Their supporters and protectors, the Abolitionists, were battling for their freedom; their owners and oppressors, most of whom were revolutionaries, were seeking freedom for America.  

In the South, however, even a free black suffered with desperate oppression. To begin with, many Southern states were filled with Loyalists; thus the revolutionary tone of freedom was but a distant hum one might hear when informed of news from the North. The environment of the Southern rural areas was much different. Unlike slaves in the North, enslaved men did not have the chance to mingle with free men; they were mostly confined to their plantation. Blacks in the rural areas who had gained their freedom also had very limited socializing. Even slaves in northern cities had an opportunity to congregate with freemen and friends; unlike them, free men in the rural South were usually oppressed by their white neighbors and discouraged from congregating. Rural southern black communities were also kept separated from the rest of the southern world. Instead of the air of freedom that filled the North, the South had a wave of fear. Most black men lived with the constant threat of being forced into slavery again, as some plantation owners would illegally claim a free black was a runaway slave and return him to bondage. White men, also afraid, released their fear through hostility towards free blacks. The idea of “natural rights” and “pure Reason” had not yet been absorbed into the southern culture; they still considered black people dangerous and unable to live a civilized life. Almost paradoxical to this was another fear: Free blacks, in proving their ability to live independently, compromised the white-beloved institution of slavery, which was justified by the belief that black people were inferior. In the North freedom’s flavor kept even the slaves’ air light. Southern air, however, was bogged down with hostility. It’s difficult to determine where true freedom lies. Richard Lovelace, a poet from the 1600’s, wrote once, “If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free, angels alone that soar above, enjoy such liberty.

In American politics, “abolition” was only a small part of the much larger Anti-Slavery movement. The latter included the Free Soil Party of 1848 and, especially, the Republican Party, founded in 1854. Abolitionists demanded the immediate abolition of slavery regardless of consequences. Republicans rejected that idea until 1862; their goal was to kill slavery eventually by preventing it from expanding. That is, the Republicans had a “containment” policy (much like the one in the Cold War against the Soviet Union). The idea was that slavery had to expand to survive. There was bad blood between abolitionists (who denounced the Republicans as soft on slavery), and the Republicans (who denounced the abolitionists as dangerous radicals). Democrats north and south repeatedly denounced the Republican Party, falsely, as the party of abolition. Abolitionists also rejected the idea of buying the slaves and freeing them, saying that would reward the slave owners for their sins.

Probably the first U.S. abolitionist was Samuel Sewall, who published The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial in Boston in 1700. However, the first abolition organization formed in the United States was the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, originally known as the Society for the “Relief for Free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage”, in 1775.

Runaway slaves sometimes used safe houses on their way to Canada. From this reality emerged stories about an Underground Railroad.

The American abolitionist movement was transformed by William Lloyd Garrison and reached its peak 1840-1850. The movement had little to do with the actual abolition of slavery, which was a war measure carried out by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1862-65. The forces that were lined up for the continuation of slavery were strong and numerous; the abolitionists were few in number and had no political power before 1860 but were guided by a strong religious belief and the moral need to right a horrible wrong.

Abolitionists argued that the action of capturing Africans and selling them as slaves was as bad as the capture and selling of Joseph had been. Pro-slavery spokesmen pointed out that the Bible repeatedly endorsed slavery and denounced the abolitionists for trying to start a race war that would kill many thousands of blacks and whites, as happened in Haiti in the 1790s.

The importation of slaves into the United States was officially banned on 1 January 1808.

During the Congress debate on the 1820 Tallmadge Amendment debate, which sought to limit slavery in Missouri

Missouri is a U.S. state in the Midwestern United States of the United States bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska…. as it became a state, Rufus King  Rufus King was an United States lawyer, politician, and diplomat. He was a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention….declared that “laws or compacts imposing any such condition [slavery] upon any human being are absolutely void, because contrary to the law of nature, which is the law of God, by which he makes his ways known to man, and is paramount to all human control.” The amendment failed and Missouri became a slave state; however, according to David Brion Davis,

David Brion Davis is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He is noted for his study of slavery and abolitionism.Davis served in the U.S Army 1st Armored Division in post World War II Germany from late 1945 to early 1946 as a member of the the United States Constabulary tasked with enforcing law and order on locals a…this may have been the first time anywhere in the world that a political leader openly attacked slavery’s perceived legality in such a radical manner.

Beginning in the 1830s, the U.S. Postmaster General  The United States Postmaster General is the executive head of the United States Postal Service. The office, in one form or another, is older than both the United States Constitution and the United States Declaration of Independence….refused to allow the mails to carry abolition pamphlets to the South. Northern teachers suspected of any tinge of abolitionism were expelled from the South, and abolitionist literature was banned. Southerners rejected the denials of Republicans that they were abolitionists, and pointed to John Brown’s John Brown was an United States abolitionist who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleeding Kansas and made his name in the unsuccessful raid at John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859….attempt in 1859 to start a slave uprising as proof that multiple Northern conspiracies were afoot to ignite bloody slave rebellions. Although some abolitionists did call for slave revolts, no evidence of any other Brown-like conspiracy has been discovered. The North felt threatened as well, for as Eric Foner concludes, “Northerners came to view slavery as the very antithesis of the good society, as well as a threat to their own fundamental values and interests”. However, many conservative Northerners were uneasy at the prospect of the sudden addition to the labor pool of a huge number of freed laborers who were used to working for very little, and thus seen as being willing to undercut prevailing wages.. The famous, “fiery” Abolitionist, Abby Kelley Foster, from Massachusetts The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a U.S. state located in the New England region of the Northeastern United States United States. It borders Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north…, was considered an “ultra” abolitionist who believed in full civil rights for all black people. She held to the views that the freed slaves would colonize Liberia. Parts of the anti-slavery movement became known as “Abby Kellyism”. She recruited Susan B Anthony to the movement.

The huge, jeering crowd outside Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was in an ugly mood. That night, May 16, 1838, the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was meeting in the brand-new building. The women called for a boycott of goods produced by slave labor and an end to slavery in Washington, D.C.

The angry mob had no use for these women. Many in the crowd of 17,000 were factory workers barely able to survive on their meager wages. What would happen to them if the slaves were freed? The competition of blacks for jobs would drive wages down even more. The sight of black women attending the convention especially irritated the mob.

The organizer of the convention, Lucretia Mott, a white 45-year-old Quaker minister, could not ignore the threat of violence. She had the women leave the building in pairs. Each black woman walked out arm-in-arm with a white woman.

The mayor of Philadelphia then locked the doors and appealed for calm. But as soon as he left, the mob broke into the building and set it on fire. By 9 p.m., the flames were reaching skyward and Pennsylvania Hall was in ruins.

Now the mob began to look for other targets. No one angered them more than Lucretia Mott. She was the leader of these dangerous women abolitionists. This meddling reformer should be punished, they cried.

Shouting “On to Mott’s house!” the mob rushed toward her home. A quick-witted friend saved her and her family from violence. Pretending to be a member of the mob, the friend led the crowd in the wrong direction, away from Mott’s home. However, before breaking up, the mob burned down a black church and a home for orphans.

All this time, Lucretia Mott, a tiny woman barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, sat calmly in her front parlor chatting with friends. In her hour of danger, she said later, she had felt herself strengthened and uplifted.

She was at this time widely known as an abolitionist. Before long she also would become known as the foremost leader of the new women’s rights movement. Her strong sense of injustice would lead her to champion many other causes over the years. She would plead for world peace, for racial and religious understanding, for the poor, and for prison inmates.

(See: https://historic-lamott-pa.com/content/themotts/lucretiamott.cfm

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