America’s Long Journey: Abolition


Abolition is a large and troubling subject, the more troubling the closer you look at it, because your view of who were heroes and who were villains changes depending on context. Is a William Lloyd Garrison’s unequivocal condemnation of slaveholders really better morality than the troubled pragmatism of an Abraham Lincoln? Does the extremism that calls forth a corresponding defensive hardening of the opposing position really serve the purpose it wishes to advance? Yet, on the other hand, do not the counsels of moderation often merely prevent reform? It was a troubling, perplexing question: What was to be done about slavery in America? The subject was at the heart of the American experience, and at the heart of the issue of slavery was race.

If slavery had not existed, no one would have advocated forcibly bringing hundreds of thousands – millions – of Africans to these shores. And, on the other hand, had slaves and masters been of the same race, slavery would have died with the Declaration of Independence, if not long before. Slavery and race were intertwined in the American experience from the very beginning.

We have seen how slavery died amid the immense blood-letting of the Civil War, in which it almost seemed, as Abraham Lincoln said, that the Almighty had decreed that it continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Here we want to look at the changes that helped bring that war. Was that the only way we could have gotten rid of that cursed institution?

(How emancipation efforts began and spread, both before and after independence from England, we discuss in the next section, the 1700s. How slavery came to these shores and became intertwined with all levels of society among all the colonies, we leave for the 1600s.)

On August 1, 1833, the English government proclaimed emancipation throughout the empire. (Google William Wilberforce.) This event that had repercussions in the States. Although England and the United States had criminalized the international slave trade more than 25 years earlier, as we shall see, emancipating slaves throughout the world’s largest empire was a different story. Americans still looked to Britain, and the British had freed their slaves! And this included the West Indies, which to Southerners was uncomfortably close to home.

Even closer to home was another event that took place that year, when William Lloyd Garrison, evangelical minister Theodore Weld, and freedman Robert Purvis founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Now, Garrison is one of those men who is either a saint or a fanatic, something like John Brown. His weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, founded in 1831, was known for its uncompromising advocacy of “immediate and complete emancipation” of all slaves in the United States. In the very first issue, he said, “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.”

People don’t do their best thinking when motivated by fear or greed. They just hunker down. That’s what happened in the South, in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, which all too many Southerners blamed on The Liberator, and on mythical Northern conspiracies to incite slave rebellion. After a certain point, Southerners ceased to apologize for their peculiar institution, and began to convince themselves that it was necessary, and right, and in fact mandated by God. Northern teachers suspected of abolitionism were expelled from the South, and abolitionist literature was banned. In 1835 alone abolitionists mailed over a million pieces of anti-slavery literature to the south. In response southern legislators banned abolitionist literature and the U.S. Postmaster General refused to allow the mails to carry abolition pamphlets to the South.

The Liberator had a subscription list of only about 3,000, three-quarters of them black, but it drew a vehement reaction in the South. His critics believed he advocated the sudden and total freeing of all slaves, and considered him a dangerous fanatic. (Actually, he called for “immediate emancipation, gradually achieved,” which meant immediate repentance and a system of gradual emancipation.) After Turner’s slave rebellion, a North Carolina grand jury indicted Garrison for distributing incendiary material, and the Georgia Legislature offered a $5,000 reward for his capture and conveyance to the state for trial.

Historians distinguish between moderate antislavery reformers, who concentrated on stopping the spread of slavery, and radical abolitionists, whose demands for unconditional emancipation often merged with a concern for black civil rights. Most Northerners favored a policy of gradual and compensated emancipation, recognizing that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to intervene to end slavery in the South. But as the Anti-Slavery Societies spread throughout the North, and as more and Northerners began to speak of the evils of slavery (noticeably influenced by the publication and wildfire success in 1852 of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Southerners began to lose the ability to make distinctions.

You know you have lost the ability to make distinctions when you can’t distinguish John Brown, trying to lead a slave revolt, from William Lloyd Garrison, calling for immediate emancipation, or Hinton Rowan Helper, a North Carolinian arguing that the South must end slavery, or Abraham Lincoln, conceding the South’s Constitutional right to preserve slavery, but demanding that it spread no farther. To more and more Southerners, any shade of opinion that did not say that slavery was good and justified constituted abolition sentiments. Their Northern opponents were not anti-slavery, or anti-slavery-expansion, but always “abolitionists.” A little later, the new Republican Party was never the Republicans but, always, Black Republicans.

And of course fear generated hatred, and hatred generated counter-hatred, and so fanatics on all sides generated and fueled the forces that they feared.

Southerners resisted containment of slavery; they got John Brown. They rebelled against Abraham Lincoln; they got General Sherman. Abolitionists rejected compromise and moderation; after a while, they got Civil War.


One thought on “America’s Long Journey: Abolition

  1. Frank, this is so well and clearly written. I enjoyed reading it and learned a few thing. Thank you for that. It reminds me of the writer Chimamanda Adichie talking about the importance of stories. If we reduce others to one story, we’ve lost our and their humanity. What a price we paid.

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