From the moment the United States was founded as a free and independent republic, dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal," slavery represented a fundamental contradiction to the nation's most cherished values. Chattel bondage was also a contradiction inherent in itself: human beings were treated as property, yet there was no escaping the essence of humanity that they embodied. Slaves defied the premise of slavery simply through their own existence, their cognizance, their humanity.
Why Should I Care?
This is a story for activists. And idealists. And anyone who ever fought for a cause that seemed impossible to win, because the odds appeared too insurmountable and because no one seemed to listen. Before there ever was a United States of America, people on this continent were fighting against the evils of slavery. Generations of humanitarians who would never live to see emancipation day still dedicated their lives to try and make people understand why bondage was wrong. In the end, they prevailed, but only after generations of struggle, mob violence, hardships, setbacks, and betrayals.
Not all abolitionists were complete egalitarians; many shared at least some of the racial beliefs and stereotypes that infused eighteenth- and nineteenth- century America. Black and white abolitionists had their differences, as did male and female abolitionists. Yet, for the sake of their cause, this small but important group of uncompromising and principled Americans somehow managed to overcome the usual boundaries of class, race, and gender that have so often separated people throughout United States history. They worked together amidst an extremely hostile environment of racist northerners and even less receptive southerners; they petitioned a federal government that tried to shut its doors to their pleas; they helped transform a party system that long resisted the disruptive influence that the slavery issue would bring. But for the new western territories and the inherently racist appeal of the "free soil" movement, abolitionists might never have succeeded. And when they did succeed, it turned out that emancipation did not necessarily mean complete freedom or equality for black people. For many more generations, through the Reconstruction period and the Civil Rights Movement, new waves of activists carried on the abolitionists' crusade for equal rights and freedoms for all Americans. Women who found their voices in the abolitionist rank-and-file went on to speak out on their own behalf, for suffrage and just treatment.
This is a story that unfolds over hundreds of years, across the North and South, among people of all races, genders, and religious persuasions. It is therefore appropriate that the main subject of this story centers on the one thing all those people have in common: they recognized slaves' inherent humanity, and the inhumanity of slavery. Their success may have come along with severe limitations, but it came just the same, and when it did, the whole country was forever changed as a result.
So if you are working on behalf of a similarly noble-but-seemingly-lofty cause— environmentalism, the eradication of AIDS, Third World poverty, the fight to end any number of terrible diseases, and so on—you should keep reading. Your ultimate objective might not be reached during your own lifetime, but that's no reason not to make the effort while you are still alive and kicking. Who knows? You might end up in the history books for it! Regardless, you'll be part of a legacy bigger than yourself, one that stretches across the boundaries of both time and space. And that's quite a good way to spend a lifetime.