Historical Background on Antislavery


Slavery was the most important and divisive issue in 19th-century American politics and society. At the end of the Revolution, the new American nation was divided between the southern states whose economies were heavily dependent on slavery and northern states where slavery was legal but not economically important. Inspired by the language of the Declaration of Independence and the colonies’ struggle for freedom from the British, many Americans—including quite a few in the South—hoped that slavery could gradually be abolished in the United States. That dream was not to be realized. Instead, the South became increasingly committed to slave labor. A huge international market developed for cotton to feed the textile factories of Great Britain and the American North. The South tried to meet this demand by using slave labor on a growing scale. Slavery became increasingly identified with southern prosperity, the safety of white southern people and institutions, and a distinctive southern way of life.

In the states of the North, on the other hand, slavery came under successful attack. In the states north of Maryland, slavery was either gone or being ended by 1820. Many northerners came to dislike slavery and distrust southern political power. Some became active and organized opponents of slavery and worked for its abolition nationwied. The states of New England, which had had the smallest populations of slaves and free “people of color,” were the first to abolish slavery. Of course, it was far easier to free the slaves of Massachusetts, amounting to 1 percent of the population, than it would have been to free the slaves of Virginia, amounting to 30 percent. Antislavery sentiment was stronger in New England than anywhere else—although only a relatively small minority were ever active abolitionists.

The following documents, focus on New England in the 1830s and 40s. They tell the story of the beginning of the campaign for abolition. The great majority of Americans who joined the antislavery cause in the 1830s came from the countryside and small villages of the North, and usually grew up in deeply religious, reform-oriented families. William Lloyd Garrison, a Massachusetts printer and editor, began in 1831 to publish the The Liberator which was to be the primary vehicle in New England for radical and militant abolitionism. The following year he and his allies organized the New England Anti?Slavery Society, dedicated to securing the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1838, the American Anti-Slavery Society was formed to unify abolitionists from the West, New York, and New England.

Many Northerners and indeed many Southerners too, had long believed that colonization—the voluntary return of the freed slaves to their ancestral homeland of Africa—would be the best solution to the persistent problem of American slavery. Garrison himself had begun as a believer in colonization. But in the early 1830s the most committed opponents of slavery came to reject colonization as unjust, racist, and impractical.

Because of their calls for immediate emancipation and an end to racial prejudice, abolitionists were the object of a great deal of criticism, ridicule, and even violence. In the 1830s and 40s, anti?abolitionist and anti?black riots were the most common kinds of mob disorder in American cities. But most of the anti?abolitionist mobs were not made up of young rowdies from lower-class neighborhoods. They were well-organized groups of respectable, middle?class citizens who believed that abolitionism threatened their communities and businesses.

In the early 1830s, becoming an active abolitionist required courage. Many had to face physical danger at the hands of a mob, but many more had to endure the disapproval of family and friends or the ridicule of neighbors. All of them shared a motivating vision of slavery as a moral evil that could not be justified. Probably most were moved to action by the same powerful religious commitments that impelled many to support the causes of temperance, Christian missions, and non-violence. Although committed to the cause of freedom for African Americans, most of the abolitionists were unable to free themselves completely from the racial prejudice so ingrained in American society and receive blacks socially on equal terms or to work with blacks as equal partners in the movement.

The antislavery ranks grew in the late 1830s and into the 40s. The cause of colonization lost supporters, abolitionism became linked with other reform movements, and, as public opinion in the North became less tolerant of slavery and of the South’s tactics in its defense, anti?abolition violence greatly decreased. Antislavery became a safer and more popular cause, and won the support of many Northern people not originally responsive to its claims. Most Southerners in turn became more entrenched in their support of slavery and resented Northern meddling in their society.

Anti-slavery was not a united movement. With growth came disagreement over both strategy and values. By 1840, organized antislavery was split into two main factions. William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters were known as radical abolitionists. They insisted that antislavery was a strictly moral and religious movement, a crusade to arouse the conscience of the nation. For them, political action was a threat to the moral purity of the cause. They also favored woman’s rights and believed that women should have a significant role in antislavery work.

In opposition to the Garrisonians was a group of more moderate so called political abolitionists. They also sought immediate emancipation but believed that working through the political system and trying to elect antislavery candidates were the most effective ways to bring it about. They also held more traditional views about the role of women in public life, arguing that “the woman question” frightened off many people who would otherwise support antislavery.

At the 1840 national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, these disagreements came to a head. When the radical majority at the convention supported the nomination of a woman abolitionist, Abigail Kelley, to serve on the convention’s business committee, the more conservative political abolitionists walked out. They withdrew to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which explicitly excluded women from membership. The split within the antislavery movement reflected a widening gap between the radicals’ idealism and refusal to compromise, and the moderates’ interest in practical politics and achievable results. Moderate abolitionists formed the Liberty party, which attracted some votes in Presidential elections but never had a major impact. The antislavery cause was also pushed through the Whig, Free Soil and later the Republican Party.

The abolitionists saw their immediate goals realized through the cataclysmic violence of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment emancipated the slaves and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave citizenship and civil rights to freed blacks. But the South’s freedmen were abandoned by the North in the 1870s, and they did not win back their rights for nearly a century until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s ended legal segregation and their exclusion from politics. Yet, like the movement of antislavery for the equal treatment of Americans regardless of color, civil rights as a whole has an extremely complicated history of great victories but also major disappointments and the fight for them still continues on different levels.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.