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Society in Abolitionists


From the 1829 publication of David Walker's Appeal onward, the antislavery movement shifted into a more radical phase as some abolitionists demanded immediate emancipation of all slaves rather than merely gradual steps toward future emancipation in the South and free soil in the new western territories. William Lloyd Garrison sounded the clarion call with his 1831 launch of The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper based out of Boston. Garrison pledged to continue publishing The Liberator until the day that all American slaves were free. He kept his word, but as it turned out, that took 35 years. Garrison had grown up in an impoverished family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and went on to become a newspaperman's apprentice and then an editor. The Liberator's circulation was never large, but Garrison achieved wide influence by allowing his articles to be excerpted in much more popular newspapers. Garrison himself was unflinching in his commitment to the cause, even after he was dragged through the streets of Boston by a hostile mob in 1835. He disapproved of the small religious sects that had formed to oppose slavery, under the grounds that the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he co-founded in 1833, should not be weakened through splintering into denominations.

A Southern Scapegoat

Southerners of the Revolutionary generation were ambivalent about slavery—some freed their slaves, some admitted to hate slavery, some (like Thomas Jefferson) couldn't figure out how to end it but assumed it would die out in the future. Southern slaveholding leaders of that generation were much more moderate on the slavery issue than later southern leaders, who adopted a much stronger proslavery position in the antebellum period. George Washington freed all two hundred men, women, and children in his possession—just as soon as he and his wife both died.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Laurens, Arthur Lee, George Mason, and St. George Tucker were among the other eminent southerners who all expressed antislavery views, although many of them—like Mason—never freed their slaves. In his private correspondence, Robert Beverley confessed in a 1761 letter that slavery was "something so very contradictory to Humanity, that I am really ashamed of my Country whenever I hear of it; & if ever I bid adieu to Virginia, it will be from that cause alone."14 Though he publicly expressed the belief that blacks were biologically inferior to whites, Jefferson was also known to support the notion of black education and the abolition of slavery from any acquired lands in the West.

Such relatively liberal positions would have been impossible to embrace for any major southern political leader by 1835. In response to the Missouri Compromise crisis (over the newly acquired western lands and whether they would permit slavery) and the increasingly strident abolitionist movement, southerners began to mount a new defense of slavery. Antebellum southerners' unapologetic defense of slavery as a "positive good" developed as a justification for an increasingly profitable cornerstone of the southern economy. It also provided a rationalization for maintaining a strict racial hierarchy in southern society. Southern intellectuals and leaders increasingly feared the prospect of racial mixing and aggressively began to propose pseudo-scientific theories on the inherent inferiority of the black and mulatto races.

Nonetheless, unexpected events in the South constantly threatened to undermine this tenuous and superficial vision of a stable and secure racial hierarchy. The "positive good" argument maintained that slavery kept blacks in their rightful place and actually took better care of them than the heartless, impersonal world of "wage slavery" in the industrial North ever could. Yet the specter of murderous and rebelling blacks threatened to turn this argument on its head; slaves clearly were not content if they were plotting insurrection and the murder of their masters. Southerners therefore turned to "outside agitation" as an explanation for such unrest. When, in 1831, Nat Turner led the last substantial slave revolt in American history, southerners blamed Garrison as a dangerous inciter of racial violence. Yet Garrison was a pacifist who never promoted outright violence as a means of accomplishing his goals.

An Impetus for Action

Nat Turner was a slave preacher who had been planning a revolt for months; he intended for it to occur, interestingly enough, on Independence Day of 1831, but he fell ill. Instead, the uprising took place on 22 August of that year, after Turner noticed the unusual appearance of the sun (an atmospheric disturbance made it appear bluish-green) and took it as a sign from God. In the violence that followed, at least 55 whites were shot or clubbed to death before Turner and his over 40 followers (most on horseback) could be stopped. The resulting trials lead to 55 executions and many more deportations. The response to the Nat Turner rebellion heightened tensions and action on both sides.

In 1832, Garrison organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society. This pioneer organization channeled northern abolitionists, black and white, into an effective and unified voice for abolition and the aid and protection of free blacks. They recruited members, raised funds, and initiated research reports on the slave trade, the status of slavery in America, and the condition of the free black population. The controversial topic gained even more attention the following year, when the British Parliament ended slavery throughout the British Empire. That year, wealthy merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan founded an Anti-Slavery Society in New York. Then the Tappans, along with Garrison and others, founded the first nationwide organization—the American Anti-Slavery Society, (AAS).


The Society had thirteen agents and a budget of $25,000; it was hardly an imposing institution, but its mere existence nonetheless managed to frighten and enrage millions of people, North and South, many of whom resorted to violence to quash the Society's existence and silence its members. Many of these northerners thought that the Society was just inciting trouble; its call for emancipation threatened to undo the tenuous sectional compromise that had just been reached in 1823. Equally as important, if not more so, the AAS also supported political and religious equality among the races. This went beyond emancipation to a demand for race equality that many antebellum Americans (North and South) automatically associated with interracial sex, or "amalgamation," as they called it. Now that really incited the mobs—many felt they were literally battling for the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race itself. During the summer of 1835, Society official Elizur Wright had to barricade his doors in New York City "with bars and planks an inch thick," for fear of the uncontrollable mobs. Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child dared not venture into the city that summer, "so great is the excitement here"; she compared it to the French Revolution, when no one could trust their neighbors.15


The goal of the long-running American "colonization" movement was to encourage planters to free their slaves, then return them along with their free black comrades to their African homeland. Colonization supporters also sought to provide Africa with a group of black missionaries who would "civilize" and "Christianize" the "Dark Continent." Their objective was inherently racist, for they sought to remove all black people from American society. From hindsight, they were correct in their belief that white prejudice was so deeply engrained in America that blacks and whites would not be able to peacefully or successfully coexist as equals for some time, if ever. Through their actions, however, they may have helped to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For many whites, this goal was a combination of good intentions and convenience, as the prospect of freeing blacks and immediately shipping them out of the country promised to avoid any prospect of racial conflict or, really, interracial interaction of any kind. People supported the colonization movement for many different and often conflicting reasons. Some whites supported any move towards emancipation, or thought that colonization represented a moderate reform that acknowledged the evils of slavery but did not seek the "radical" goal of a colorblind society. Still others thought of colonization as a means of supporting slavery by eliminating the troublesome free black population. Yet these last two groups did not offer the movement much substantial support, as the ultimate goals or implications of colonization were unclear to them.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) , established in 1816, included such prominent members as Whig statesmen Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Chief Justice John Marshall, author of the Star-Spangled Banner Francis Scott Key, and presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and James Madison. In 1821, Society agents acquired land in West Africa; the first freed slaves arrived there within the next year, and in 1847, the Society relinquished control over the settlement so that it could become the independent republic of Liberia. The Society facilitated the migrations of about 80% of the blacks who went there. The total migration was paltry in comparison with the growth of the enslaved population in America: only about 15,000 blacks went to Africa between 1822 and 1860, compared with a slave population of 3,953,760 in 1860 alone.16

The Colonization Controversy

Most northern free blacks denounced the colonization scheme as forced expulsion, and they were supported by abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. The Liberator savaged the colonization effort and its supporters, calling them deceitful, hypocritical, anti-Christian, and more anti-Negro than antislavery. Garrison argued that colonization would actually shore up the institution of slavery by eliminating the problematic element of free blacks in the society and providing a convenient means for disposing of elderly and infirm slaves. In other words, in a slave society structured upon racial hierarchy, the very presence of free black people represented an anomaly that undermined the "white=free and superior, black=slave and inferior" structure. Free African Americans might agitate enslaved black people, who would see that not all blacks were enslaved and might get ideas about equality and freedom.

Poor whites also felt threatened by free blacks, since both groups had to compete for the same job opportunities or for access to western lands. Almost all whites were paranoid about interracial interaction or sex; they feared free black people because free blacks had no visible restraints on their actions and they might aspire to social, political, and even sexual equality with white folk. Garrison argued against the notion that colonization would "solve" all of these problems; he thought that Americans must overcome their prejudices instead.

Garrison acknowledged that many people with good intentions had joined the Colonization Society, but that they had been "shamefully duped" and that the Society must fall together with slavery as two interconnected institutions. In the spring of 1832, half a year after founding the New England Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison published Thoughts on African Colonization, an attack on the American Colonization Society. With financial support from abolitionist and wealthy New York City merchant Arthur Tappan, it gained a wide circulation, reaching as far west as Ohio. The New England Anti-Slavery Society instituted weekly anti-colonization forums in Boston and sent lecturers to surrounding cities and towns. It also planned Fourth of July meetings to compete with the traditional colonizationist activities, such as grand public orations designed to raise donations for the ACS.

Northern Opponents of the Abolitionists

The United States was a deeply racist society throughout the nineteenth century. It should therefore come as no surprise that while the free states developed an industry increasingly based on wage labor and small farms, few whites saw the need to stand up on behalf of enslaved blacks. Abolitionists remained a minority within the northern population throughout the antebellum period, and they frequently met with vigorous and often violent attacks from their fellow northerners. Most northerners didn't like the abolitionists drumming up controversy and disunion over the slavery issue, and as previously mentioned, they were really angry about the idea that abolitionists supported social equality among the races, because they took that to mean that abolitionists supported the idea of interracial sex. (Actually, historian Betty Fladeland was only unable to uncover a single interracial relationship among abolitionists; such relationships, however, were not nearly so unusual in the South, as evidenced by the sizeable mulatto population there. Fladeland has also documented instances even among the abolitionist ranks where whites refused to sit next to black men. For several abolitionists, emancipation was a worthwhile cause, but it did not mean the same thing as social equality.)17 Nonetheless, the northern public remained irate about the specter of social equality and all the sordid aspects that they were sure would follow from it.

In 1835, Bostonians dragged William Lloyd Garrison through the city streets. On the same day, mobs broke up a meeting of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society at Utica. That year, northerners petitioned for legislation to make the propagation of abolitionist sentiments a criminal offense. Northern congressmen supplied the necessary votes to help southern representatives pass the "gag rule" against reading abolitionist petitions on the floor of the House of Representatives; this rule was reenacted in each session from 1836 to 1844. Connecticut passed its own gag law in 1836 to prohibit abolitionist lecturers from occupying Congregational pulpits. The citizens of Alton, Illinois either participated in or tacitly permitted the 1837 murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy.

The next year, at Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, activists like Angelina Grimké Weld delivered antislavery speeches inside as a gathering crowd surrounded the building, screamed obscenities, and pelted the edifice and those exiting from it with rocks and any other implements they could find. At the end of the day, whites and blacks walked out of the hall arm in arm, partly as a display of solidarity but also to protect their black comrades. The next day, the mayor locked the doors and announced that all remaining meetings had been canceled; after he left, a mob broke into the building, ransacked it, and burned it down, only four days after the building had been completed and opened. Abolitionists had raised the money ($40,000) for Pennsylvania Hall when they could not find any other place in the city to accommodate them for their meetings. Everyone from workers and mechanics to prominent citizens, male and female, had contributed what they could to the building's construction, from financial donations to labor and materials. In September 1835, James Gordon Bennett, editor of the fastest-growing newspaper in the country, the New York Herald, called the abolitionists "a few thousand crazyheaded blockheads" who had frightened some fifteen million people around them "out of their senses."

In a New York City anti-abolition mob in July 1834, some 20,000 rioters shouted (African) colonization vows as they attacked blacks, abolitionists, black churches, and homes of prominent abolitionists. The Utica mob of October 1835 included prominent local colonizationists, as did the group of Cincinnati men who murdered Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. The American Colonization Society was not confined to prominent statesmen, and many of its rank-and-file members used violence throughout the 1830s as a response to the Garrisonian attacks on their cause. Yet they were not the only members of the mobs. Many anxious white northerners were alarmed and offended by the prospect of racial assimilation that the abolitionists represented to them. Garrison and his followers wanted to end slavery but not to deport all blacks to another country so as to avoid any race mixing (a perennial fear of Americans throughout the nineteenth century and well into the late twentieth, too).

A Conspiracy of Silence

Mob violence and the appeals of colonizationists were both substantial threats to the antislavery cause, but northern whites' overwhelming apathy was an even more ominous problem. Slavery did not seem a pressing moral issue to most northerners, and the national political parties—the Whigs and the Democrats—sought to keep it that way, by omitting the issue from the halls of Congress and, they hoped, from the national consciousness. Politicians, after all, stood to benefit from the cross-sectional alliances they had carved out; northern businessmen (who often backed the politicians or were the politicians) and financiers profited from a textile economy that relied on the raw materials of cotton, sugar, and tobacco that were supplied by slave labor. One of the greatest accomplishments of the abolitionist minority during the 1830s and after was to force slavery as an issue onto the national stage.

The Abolitionist Rank-and-File

A combination of economic, social, and religious factors combined to form the abolitionist movement. In the so called "Burned-Over District" of upstate New York and the Great Lakes region, the Christian evangelical revivalism that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening swept the population into a religious fervor. Not coincidentally, this period followed on the heels of the 1825 Erie Canal completion, which solidified New York City as the gateway metropolis to the agricultural hinterlands of the country's interior. With the economic opportunities and transportation revolution that the Canal represented came the birth of a new middle class, a group particularly receptive to the new methods of worship and the codes of morality inherent in the evangelism of preachers like Charles G. Finney.

The revivals focused on an extirpation of sin, a creed of individualism, and a faith in the human capacity for inner perfection. This moralist revival subsequently inspired the activism of many citizens in the region, notably in the crusade against slavery. A center for this activity, as well as the violent responses that sometimes followed, was Utica, which in 1835 was a city of 10,000 people situated strategically along the Erie Canal. Craftsmen, laborers, businessmen, and others soon found opportunities in this gateway juncture between the canal and the surrounding countryside. Women could find employment in the dress shops, sewing in tailor shops, and laboring in the cotton mills.

Many of the mob members who attacked the local Anti-Slavery Convention were older citizens who were anxious about the role the new activism would play in transforming their hometowns. These anti-abolitionists were drapers and tailors, wallpaper dealers, grocers, and even some of the wealthiest men in the region and former office holders like past mayor and lawyer Horatio Seymour. The abolitionists came from the same trades and neighborhoods as their attackers: they included the owner of a hide and leather store, a leading Methodist and business owner, merchants, grocers, and cordwainers (shoe-makers). Most of the activists did represent a new middle class, and they signaled their strength in numbers when 1,200 of them—a majority of them men—signed their names to a March 1836 petition to Congress that prayed for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Such petitions were a mainstay of the antislavery movement in its early decades.

The growing working class in the region also contributed to the movement. They were similarly transformed by Christian revivals, most notably Charles G. Finney's from 1825 to 1831. Finney's dissemination of a liberal, anti-aristocratic and egalitarian Protestant creed soon filled Methodist churches with the employees of the local mills and other factories. The Welsh residents of towns like Rochester, Buffalo, Utica, and elsewhere in Oneida county tended to be active Baptists or Presbyterians who supported movements for temperance and against slavery. This contingent of the population was steadily growing, thanks in part to the Welsh immigrants who obtained jobs laboring on the new canals and roads and who encouraged their friends and relatives back home to come out and join them. These immigrants lived in the region primarily for the economic opportunities it provided; they worshipped in sects with longstanding cultural and ethnic ties to their communities; and their membership in these progressive northern churches often convinced them that slavery was a great evil and that they must do what they could to eradicate it from existence.

Manufacturing Towns

Massachusetts and Rhode Island stood in the vanguard of the industrial revolution during the early nineteenth century. Their factory towns—Fall River, Lynn, Springfield, Lowell, and Worcester—rapidly developed mass production capacities for textiles, footwear, and iron, among other products. Yet despite the rapid growth and the concurrent friction between emerging classes of employers and employees, a significant proportion of both groups agreed on their opposition to slavery. The laborers were already organized into unions to call for a ten-hour day and to resist wage cuts; their leaders often appealed to them to fight against slavery as an extension of the Jacksonian creed of equal rights (even though President Andrew Jackson himself had been a slaveowner and a great many of his white working-class supporters composed a substantial portion of the anti-abolitionist mobs!). In so doing, they actually took Jackson's egalitarian rhetoric several steps further than he himself had ever intended to take it—that is, to apply it to women and to blacks.

In Lynn and Saugus, Massachusetts, 912 women signed an antislavery petition in December 1838; among them were probably the many women shoe binders who resided in both cities. Two of the most prominent shoe binder union members were also involved with the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society. Hundreds of fellow Lynn residents, women who worked in the textile mills, also supported the abolitionist cause. It was in the factory owners' interest to decry slave labor in favor of their own white wage workers, since the factories would receive more business that way. But employer encouragement does not suffice as an explanation for why such clearly independent female union members would organize to combat bondage. After all, when the women textile workers walked out of the Lowell factory in 1836, they were signing antislavery petitions at virtually the same time. For them, the aims of their own labor action and the abolitionist cause were similar, if not one and the same. They sought to apply the principles of the American Revolution to the sectors of society that had been left out: the women, African-Americans, and the newly emerging working class. They sought independence from wage slavery as well as chattel slavery, and supported the worker's right to negotiate the terms of his labor, regardless of race or gender.

Of the male abolitionists in Worcester County, Massachusetts, where these manufacturing towns were located, the vast majority were skilled workers. Many were also proprietors, managers, and officials. Their tax records appear to indicate that most were of the "middling sort"; the emerging middle class. Over a third of the abolitionists in Lynn and Worcester had no property to their names in 1837, as was true of the majority of residents in both towns: 61% were propertyless in 1832 and 56% in 1837. Yet the proprietors, managers, and officials were much more likely to own real estate. The abolitionist movement therefore carried an appeal in this region that cut across class and gender lines. Even if most activism was confined to the "Burned-Over District," this region provided the radical core of the movement and would later manage to capitalize on sectional disagreements over western lands and northern resentment of the "Slave Power" to provoke a war over the issue of slavery.

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