The Abolitionist Movement - The Tumult Of Reform
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Early Antislavery Agitation. Of all the varieties of reform agitation initiated before the Civil War, none revealed more fully the nature of the reformer, or had a more powerful impact upon the history of the United States, than the movement for the abolition of slavery. Throughout the eighteenth century, constant and sharp attacks were made upon the institution. Two Quakers, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, had denounced the immorality of the practice during the middle of the century, and Benezet was the first to set forth a comprehensive program of emancipation. When the statement condemning George III for vetoing colonial antislavery acts was stricken from the Declaration of Independence, Benezet concluded that "these blessings were only meant to be the rights of white men, not of all men. . . ." But the proponents of abolition did secure the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory in 1787; and between 1776 and 1804, the seven Northern states provided for either immediate or gradual emancipation.
The American Colonization Society. Even in the states of Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland, lively discussion threatened to undermine the institution. Only in the Deep South was slavery secure from attack. It remained for the Upper South to support most consistently the American Colonization Society, which sought to resolve the question by returning freed slaves to Africa. The movement's supporters saw in the emancipated slave a vehicle to carry knowledge of Christ to the African heathen. Despite extensive preachments and considerable agitation, the movement returned barely 8,000 former slaves and free Negroes to Liberia during the forty years before the Civil War.
The Leading Abolitionists. As efforts to end slavery continued, a growing, increasingly articulate abolitionist press appeared in Northern and border states. Typical of the early abolitionists was Benjamin Lundy, Quaker born, who insisted that Christians had a grave moral responsibility to exert themselves for the abolition of slavery. In 1828, Lundy was joined by William Lloyd Garrison who soon added a uniquely savage note to the indictment against slavery. "The whole scope of the English language," he declared, "is inadequate to describe the horrors and impieties of slavery, and the transcendent wickedness of those who sustain this bloody system." His journal, the Liberator, achieved attention that made him the best known of abolitionists. The most effective response to antislavery appeals came, however, not from New England but from the old Northwest.
In Ohio, Charles Finney and Theodore Dwight Weld obtained the support of the wealthy and courageous reformers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, in their efforts to establish at Oberlin College a seminary which would admit Negro students. Soon a growing number of young preachers, trained in evangelical methods at Oberlin, rode the western circuit preaching against slavery. The success of abolitionists in Britain in securing the passage of the British emancipation law in 1833 accelerated the efforts of American abolitionists to obtain the same goal in the United States. Although the movement for abolition appealed only to a comparatively small number of agitators, it provided a fulfilling release for its advocates. Slavery was an issue that allowed for no easy moderation; it instilled in its opponents the conviction that "the vow which we have given for freedom and humanity is registered in heaven."
Disagreement among the Abolitionists. As often happened in reform movements, increasing ideological differences among the abolitionists caused a separation between factions in 1840. Garrison, who preached immediate action by way of civil disobedience, insisted upon combining antislavery agitation with agitation for other reforms. He also repudiated all political action, and denounced the Constitution as an evil compact. It followed logically that all political institutions drawing their existence from the "cursed document" were also damned. The Weld-Finney faction, under the leadership of former slaveholder James Birney, demanded political action as a means of abolishing slavery. Rather than accept this direction, Garrison chose to disrupt the movement. From 1840 abolitionists took two diverging paths, following either the radicalism of Garrison or the Liberty Party of Birney. The most effective agitators found their way into the Birney movement. In 1844, the Liberty Party polled 60,000 votes for Birney in his presidential bid. The men who founded the Liberty Party were to give the Republican Party its antislavery hue in 1854.
Religion and Slavery. The evangelical Protestant sects were in the forefront of the agitation against slavery. The Methodists took a strong stand during the first decades of the nineteenth century against the continuance of slavery by making it sinful for church members to hold slaves; but in 1836 Southern Methodists counterattacked by insisting that the General Conference of the Church pronounce slavery a blessing and not a curse. Despite bitter opposition from abolitionist ministers, the Conference circulated a pastoral letter advising against further discussion of slavery, and denouncing abolitionist activity by Northern ministers. In 1844, the issue finally divided the Methodist Church into a Northern and Southern Church. A similar fate awaited the Baptists when, in 1845, the Southern Baptists seceded to form independent organizations for home and foreign missions. The dispute lasted longer in the Presbyterian Church, which underwent final disruption only shortly before the Civil War. Religious disunity cast an ominous shadow over the future of political union. In a nation deeply committed to moral verities, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether a people divided by opposing convictions on the morality of slavery could long remain united.
The Southern Defense of Slavery. If the North viewed slavery as an evil, the South defended it as a positive good. When called upon to reconcile slavery with Christianity, Senator Smith of South Carolina responded promptly that "Christ himself gave sanction to slavery," and he added, "He [Christ] admonished them to be obedient to their masters; and there is not a word in the whole of His life which forbids it. . . . Christ came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it." This argument was supported by the Old Testament as well, since ". . . the Scriptures teach us that slavery was universally practiced among the holy fathers." The South had joined the North in mobilizing God in defense of their stand on slavery.
Once the sanctity of slavery had been confirmed, Southerners argued that it was a social advantage. George Fitzhugh set forth a theoretical defense in his Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, in which he asserted that slavery, rather than freedom, was the social norm. Arguing that a hierarchical society proved most beneficial for all, Fitzhugh frankly espoused the enslavement of Northern laborers by the factory owner and the creation of vast landed estates worked by white serfs. In his Cannibals All! or Slaves without Masters, he advocated reopening of the slave trade. Others argued that slavery provided the basis for the completely Christian society. Edmund Ruffin touched both the pocketbooks and psychic fears of the Southerner when he argued the economic profitability of slavery and its success in settling the race problem of the South. Despite these defenses, the tempo of attack increased both from within and without, and the Southerner, unable to ignore these attacks, consoled himself with the ultimate assurance that the world, no matter what its sentiments, had to accept its dependence upon the South, for cotton was king.
The South under Attack. Attacks upon slavery drew the Southern charge that the dispute was not (in the words of one Southern newspaper editorial) one between "abolitionists and slaveholders" but between "atheists, socialists, communists, red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other." It followed that neither freedom of the press nor of speech should be permitted the minions of destruction. Newspaper editors like Cassius Clay found that criticism of slavery brought suppression of their journals. Southern institutions of higher learning found that academic freedom did not include freedom to pronounce forthright judgments on slavery; criticism of the practice justified dismissal from a faculty. Northern schoolteachers resident in the South came under increasing supervision as Southerners suspected they were agents of abolitionism.
Slave Uprisings. Periodic waves of fear swept the South as rumors of impending slave insurrection were spread. Though the actual number of such uprisings was small, and though Southerners insisted that their slaves were content, two major incidents unsettled the South in the ten years between 1822 and 1831. Denmark Vesey, a free Negro, organized in 1822 an unsuccessful insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina, in which several thousand Negroes were involved. An uprising was scheduled for June 16, 1822. Before it could be launched, the authorities struck. One hundred and thirty-one arrests were made: Vesey and thirty-six other Negroes were executed, forty-three were transported, and forty-eight were whipped. South Carolina lowered a curtain of secrecy around the event, and instituted stricter surveillance of its slaves. In August 1831 Nat Turner, a slave mystic, led a small group of slaves in an insurrection that terrorized Southampton County in Virginia. In less than seventy-two hours, more than sixty white men, women, and children were murdered. A thoroughly frightened South instituted severe penalties to repress anyone who distributed antislavery literature or spoke out against the institution. The tension made Southerners increasingly antagonistic to criticism, and even less certain as to the desirability of remaining within the Union when that Union tolerated attacks upon her economic and social system. An increasingly receptive audience subscribed to Fitzhugh's blunt conclusion that "free society is a failure."
Hinton Helper and The Impending Crisis. An occasional Southerner, unable to abide the silence imposed on him within the South, went North to speak his mind about the peculiar institution. One such man was Hinton Helper, a nonslaveholding North Carolinian whose book, The impending Crisis and How to Meet It, denounced slavery as a plague on the South. He saw it as a systematic exploitation not only of the slave but of the poor whites. "The stupid . . . masses, the white victims of slavery," Helper protested, "believe whatever the slaveholders tell them, and thus are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest and most intelligent people in the world." Northerners seized upon the book as a guide to true class conditions in the South. It argued that the bulk of the Southern whites, nonslaveholders as they were, might be persuaded to abandon the political leadership of the planter aristocrats. (Ironically, many of Helper's views, had they been fully presented, would have been wholly unpalatable to Northern abolitionists; he was later to write three racist novels attacking the Negro for inherent inferiority. But in its text, based primarily on economic theories, The Impending Crisis made many assertions which provided the abolitionist movement with ammunition. And, as the work of a Southern white, its antislavery position was of inestimable value to the Northern cause.) Fugitive Slaves. Despite Southern insistence that the slaves were content with their lot, no single irritation caused greater Southern protest than the constant, though numerically small, flight of slaves to Northern or Canadian sanctuaries. This exodus belied Southern pretensions and revealed the existence of Northerners who, despite the constitutional provision for the return of fugitive slaves and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, were prepared to break the law. The "underground railroad" operated by these Northerners spirited escaped slaves across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Particularly active in the operation of these escape routes were Midwestern colleges like Oberlin, Knox, and Western Reserve, all of which gave practical application to their abolitionist sentiments. By 1830 similar routes crisscrossed the East, with Boston becoming a center for slaves who escaped by boat. The main goal of the escapees was Canada, whose government refused to surrender them. Though the dimension of this effort was considerably smaller than has been supposed, Southerners viewed it as further evidence of Yankee aggression.
The Effect of the Fugitive Slave Law. Southern irritation was often matched by Northern outrage when fugitive slaves were seized in the North. When the Compromise of 1850 instituted a stringent fugitive slave act which obliged Northerners to assist in the capture of escapees, the saintly abolitionist Joshua Giddings protested: Let me say to Southern men: it is your privilege to catch your own slaves, if anyone catches them. . . . When you ask us to pay the expenses of arresting your slaves, or to give the President authority to appoint officers to do that dirty work, give them power to compel our people to give chase to the panting bondman, you overstep the bounds of the Constitution.
Within a year of its passage the Fugitive Slave Law was deliberately flaunted. In 1851, an escaped slave named Shadrach was helped to escape from federal jurisdiction by a group of New Englanders, among whom were such notables as Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, and Samuel Gridley Howe. Efforts to convict those most directly involved failed. The law was similarly flaunted in places as distant as Syracuse, New York, and Oberlin, Ohio. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, a slave pursuer was killed. State legislatures interposed "personal liberty laws" which indicted slave catchers as kidnapers and denied them the use of local police and judicial facilities. It quickly became apparent that where the slavery issue was concerned a good part of the nation held a thoroughly anarchistic view of the law. Henry David Thoreau described it as a law that "was born and bred, and has its life, only in the dust and mire, on a level with the feet; and he who walks with freedom . . . will inevitably tread on it, and trample it under foot." The logic inherent in such an appeal to a higher moral law now asserted itself for the antislavery reformer, as man's duty to his conscience transcended his allegiance to the upholding of civil law. The appeal to conscience permitted every man to take upon himself the responsibility of exercising judicial review. Upon the rock of conscience, even the Constitution would be broken.
John Brown and His Raid. In an atmosphere supercharged with emotion, only a simple dramatic incident was needed to illuminate the depth of the national division over slavery. Such an event was provided by the strange, fiery John Brown whose antislavery sentiments amounted to a monomania. Aided by Theodore Parker, Gerrit Smith, F. B. Sanborn, T. W. Higginson, and Frederick Douglass, he plotted a slave insurrection which would open the door to a wholesale escape of slaves from their bondage into the mountains of the South. Whether the various participants fully understood the violence implicit in the plot is uncertain. With their assistance, and that of George L. Stearns, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Rockwood Hoar, Brown raised more than $4,000 to finance his scheme.
Harpers Ferry. Brown's plan was to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia; it would be the first step in the overthrow of slavery. "I knew there were a great many guns there that would be of service to me," he explained, "and if I could conquer Virginia, the balance of the Southern States would nearly conquer themselves, there being such a large number of slaves in them." On the night of Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown launched his attack. Leading a force of twenty men, he quickly seized control of the arsenal and its several millions of dollars' worth of arms and munitions, took as hostages Lewis W. Washington (a local planter and great-grandnephew of the first President), a farmer, his son, and ten slaves. Ironically, the first casualty was a free Negro who was mortally wounded by the invaders when he tried to investigate the noise at the bridge seized by Brown's men. By morning, a citizen of Harpers Ferry had been killed, numerous others were prisoners at the arsenal, the express train to Baltimore had been halted in the station, and telegraphic communications severed.
The Defeat of John Brown. News of the strange happenings at Harpers Ferry spread during the day, especially after Brown permitted the express train to continue its journey. By midmorning, both Washington and Richmond knew that a slave insurrection had started at Harpers Ferry. Militia and volunteers cut a strangely inactive Brown off in the arsenal. Federal troops under Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee also moved on the town. In the fighting that ensued, most of Brown's party were either killed or wounded. As the news spread that John Brown had headed the attempted revolt, both North and South expressed dismay. Brown, who had sustained minor injuries, was tried by Virginia for treason. Without realizing it, Virginia gave him the chance to translate his defeat into a triumph. He presented himself to the court as a man who wished only to aid the weak and poor children of God. When the judge who was to condemn him to death asked him if he had anything to say before sentence, Brown answered with eloquence: I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever that man should do to me, I should do even so to them. . .. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.
With these words the abolitionists received a martyr. His earlier declarations that "slaveholders had forfeited the right to live" and that he accepted the shedding of blood as necessary to his insurrection's success no longer mattered. For those who sympathized with his intention - and many shared the conclusion of the New York Tribune that Brown and his band "dared and died for what they felt to be right, though in a manner which seems to us fatally wrong" - Brown seemed a stone tossed by God into the black pool of slavery.
The Execution of John Brown. When Brown went to the gallows on December 2, 1859, church bells tolled from Concord to Chicago. Throngs gathered in Northern towns and villages to deliver prayers for him. Southerners had tapped the depth of Northern feelings on slavery, and well might they wonder whether the Northern bells tolled the knell of Union.