Opponents to slavery had different ideas about how to end the institution. Some could not envision a racially harmonious society, and they feared potential racial violence and chaos unleashed by emancipation. These antislavery activists advocated colonization, or sending freed slaves to Africa or the Caribbean.
In 1816, a group of wealthy, influential white Americans — convinced that whites and blacks could not live together as equals — founded the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America (also called the American Colonization Society, or ACS). The group called for the gradual end of slavery and the “colonization” (“removal” might be a better word) of freed blacks to Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America.
The ACS raised money and asked Congress for funding. In 1819, the organization succeeded in getting $100,000 from the federal government to further the colonization project. The ACS used this money to create the colony of Liberia, on the west coast of Africa.
Most African Americans — free or enslaved — opposed the idea of colonization and questioned its motives. Colonization, and the ACS in particular, stood out as an example of how white men — particularly men of property and political standing — sought to end slavery without addressing the issue of racial inequality upon which the institution was built.
Other white Americans, particularly enterprising artisans, merchants, business owners, and farmers who comprised a growing middle class in northern society, continued to criticize slavery through the lens of free labor ideology.
These Americans strove to maintain or improve their status in northern society, and they believed they could do so through hard work, self-discipline, education, and innovation. They criticized slavery because they believed the institution promoted the exact opposite — a culture of leisure among white plantation owners who did not perform work and profited from the exploitation of other laborers.
It is important to remember that free labor ideology did not espouse racial equality. Like most white Americans, many advocates of free labor accepted polygenesis and other racist theories of the day. Nevertheless, they feared that southern slavery would affect the economic status of northern white laborers.
Free labor ideologues argued that slavery should remain in the South. Furthermore, they opposed the potential expansion of slavery into western territories, for fear that it would allow slaveholders to access more land and deprive free laborers of an opportunity to achieve economic independence. In contrast, if slavery was restricted to the South, many free labor advocates believed that the institution would gradually go extinct. They believed that the North’s economic system remained superior, and they were convinced that the South would have to abandon slavery if it sought modernization and improvement along lines similar to that of the North.
The initial stirrings of the abolitionist movement in the United States, which argued for the complete elimination of slavery, occurred during the American Revolution when some revolutionaries formed societies dedicated to ending the institution.
EXAMPLEOne of the earliest of these societies formed in Philadelphia in 1775, when Dr. Benjamin Rush and other Philadelphia Quakers formed what became the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Previous tutorials have already examined early attempts to end slavery in the United States, particularly those that occurred in the northern United States under programs of gradual emancipation.
By the 1830s and 1840s, the impulses on behalf of gradual emancipation had fused with free labor ideology and articulated a need to contain slavery to the South, convinced that the institution would gradually become extinct in the face of northern economic superiority.
At the same time, however, a new generation of reformers, influenced by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, demanded the immediate end of slavery in the United States, under the conviction that the institution was a sin that stained national morality. This version of abolitionism, sometimes referred to as militant abolitionism, sprang from voluntary groups that spearheaded other reforms, such as temperance, during the early 19th century.
EXAMPLESimilar to supporters of the temperance movement — who argued that excessive alcohol consumption was a vice that threatened to unravel the social fabric of the entire nation — abolitionists argued that slavery was a sin that threatened individual salvation and the soul of the United States.
Such an emphasis on religion and moral suasion, or appealing to an audience’s conscience, allowed abolitionists to distinguish themselves from other antislavery advocates who opposed the institution on the grounds of free labor. Abolitionists insisted that slavery was a moral evil, one that would not go extinct in the United States without concerted efforts by its opponents.
What distinguished abolitionism even further was the fact that the movement was biracial. It included white northerners, free blacks, and escaped slaves. In contrast to advocates of colonization, most abolitionists argued that African Americans should have the right to become citizens of equal standing in the United States.
Let’s meet three of the most notable abolitionists in the United States.
David Walker was an African American who was originally born free in North Carolina and subsequently moved to Boston, David Walker helped ignite the abolition movement in the United States. Walker was self-educated, owned a clothing store, was active in the local American Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, and became a vocal critic of slavery. In 1829, he wrote a pamphlet that some historians believe was the most significant publication in American history since Thomas Paine's Common Sense. The title was An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States. In it, Walker condemned the practice of slavery in the South, and in particular the hypocrisy of Christian slaveowners who defended the institution in Biblical and paternalist terms. He aggressively criticized the daily humiliations to which all African Americans — free and slave — were subjected within the United States, and he compelled white and black Americans to do the same:
Walker’s work as an abolitionist was carried on by William Lloyd Garrison of Massachusetts, who soon distinguished himself as a leader of the movement. Garrison was deeply religious, and although he had once been in favor of colonization, he came to believe that such a scheme only deepened racism and perpetuated the sinful practices of his fellow Americans. In January 1831, he founded the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, whose first edition declared:
Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833. By 1838, the AASS had 250,000 members. The AASS and leaders such as Garrison recognized that they constituted a minority within American society, but they believed that slavery could come to an end in the United States if a significant segment of public opinion concluded that the institution was a moral evil.
To achieve this goal, Garrison and other abolitionists relied on dramatic narratives, often from former slaves, about the horrors of slavery. The abolitionist press produced hundreds of tracts for readers across the United States. Garrison and other abolitionists also used the power of petitions, sending hundreds of petitions to Congress, beginning in the early 1830s, that demanded an end to slavery.
Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 but escaped to New York in 1838, was among many former slaves who used his experience to highlight the immorality of slavery and racial inequality. Douglass’s commanding presence and powerful speaking skills electrified listeners when he lectured on slavery. In 1845, under the encouragement of William Lloyd Garrison, he published his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself (pictured below).
Frederick Douglass’s (a) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself (b) demonstrated the brutality of slavery for northern audiences who were unfamiliar with the institution. In the excerpt below, Douglass explains the consequences for the children fathered by white masters and slave women:
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself“Slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers. . .this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable. . .the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father. . . .
Such slaves [born of white masters] invariably suffer greater hardships. . .They are. . .a constant offence to their mistress. . .she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash. The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers. . .for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker. . .and ply the gory lash to his naked back.”
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Walker, D. (1829). “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, 1829”, in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jRf30c, Portrait of William Lloyd Garrison, 1833, Public Domain http://bit.ly/2jRHjxm, Garrison, W. L. (1831). The Liberator. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from http://bit.ly/2jzoldO, Derived from Openstax tutorial 9.4 & http://bit.ly/2kQTMRW & 13.4 http://bit.ly/2iWXM77. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.