Slavery in human societies dates back at least to antiquity in Egypt. Aristotle once argued that, "from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule."9 While such a concept seems imbued with the spirit of autocracy, Aristotle in fact hailed from Athens, the birthplace of democracy. Thus the institution of slavery had a very long history of paradoxical existence within otherwise free and democratic nations that long predated its introduction into the colonies that became the United States after 1776.
The apparent contrast between a defiance of divine birthright (the American Revolution against the monarchy) and the acceptance of subordination-from-birth (slavery) was not lost on many colonists, black and white. Although paradoxical, there may have been a sort of relationship at play between the two extremes (some professors might call this relationship a "dialectic"): the blatant inequality, inhumanity, and cruel subjection of bondage and the idealistic self-determination of a free and equal society. The two opposites emerged and developed in contrast to one another, yet alongside one another, similar to the Chinese concept of yin and yang. As historian David Brion Davis has described it, "Since man has a remarkable capacity to imagine abstract states of perfection, he very early imagined a perfect form of subordination." Thus the ideal and the real coexisted in the first 250 years of European settlement on the North American continent; but the lingering potency of the ideal—that is, "that all men are created equal"—also formed the basis for a persevering anti-slavery movement.
Even in colonial times, American societies struggled with the issue of slavery. This continued to be a major issue after independence. The independent, idealistic, and often deeply pious thought that had spurred so many immigrant journeys to the New World also prompted a great many antislavery sentiments among individuals and larger groups. Religion, politics, and philosophy all spurred antislavery activism at various times and in various places. Yet southerners would later mobilize these same forces to defend slavery during the nineteenth century.
Antislavery activists were always a minority within American society, encountering heavy opposition from the majority that either supported slavery outright or wanted to avoid making slavery a divisive political issue. Abolitionists endured violent mob attacks on their lecture halls and printing presses, and for decades a "gag rule" in Congress banned antislavery legislators from even raising the subject. But this opposition only galvanized the antislavery activists. They made martyrs out of the murdered editor Elijah Lovejoy, the beaten Senator Charles Sumner, and the possibly insane John Brown. Abolitionists did not simply want to end slavery, but to reconfigure the terms by which Americans applied their concepts of liberty and equality. They wanted to create a society that embodied the values of the Revolution for all of its citizens, black and white, male and female.
Abolitionists were hardly perfect, and differing attitudes and opinions on racial characteristics, roles, and responsibilities abounded within the mixed classes, genders, and races of the abolitionist movement. In terms of leadership positions, money, and raw numbers (since there weren't that many free blacks in the country) whites dominated the abolitionist movement of the 1830s. Some white activists wanted black runaway slaves to censor their comments about northern racism and simply deliver speeches on the horrors of slavery in the South. White female abolitionists occasionally wrote speeches that they attributed to black female abolitionists, essentially using black women as their vehicle for attempting to forward the antislavery cause. Black abolitionists like David Walker took a more radical approach and called for an immediate end to slavery, but were harshly criticized by some white abolitionists who wanted a gradual emancipation and who feared that such radicalism would scare away potential supporters and even hurt the entire movement.
Though they constituted a tiny minority of the total population, even in the north, abolitionists proved to be a highly successful pressure group. They made slavery an urgent political issue, framing the question of bondage as a moral imperative that could and must be addressed by the American people to redeem the true calling and potential of their nation. Abolitionist political parties never won a majority of the vote, but they captured enough votes that the major parties were forced to take notice. By the 1850s, northern politicians were forced to display resistance to southern influence in Congress if they wished to remain politically popular at home. Although most northern whites held little sympathy for blacks and remained overwhelmingly committed to the notion of white supremacy, the rapidly emerging specter of a "southern oligarchy" alarmed white northerners who were passionate about their democratic system and extremely wary of disproportionately influential cabals.
The country's rapid spread westward exacerbated sectional conflict, as both antislavery northerners and proslavery southerners sought to extend their respective, incompatible systems into the same western territories. Politicians sought to resolve the sectional crisis over the future of the west through a series of tenuous national compromises that tended to inflame both sides, only heightening the stakes for all involved. The resulting political disarray led to the rise of the new Republican Party, which by the late 1850s became the north's dominant party behind its antislavery platform. The slavery issue led to outright violence between northerners and southerners in places like "Bleeding Kansas," Harper's Ferry, and even the floor of the Senate. Ultimately the conflict would engulf the country in Civil War. From the ashes of that conflict, the abolitionists' objective of emancipation was finally achieved. Yet it would take another century (and then some) to bring their larger goal into fruition: the establishment of a truly colorblind democracy for men and women in which all the nation's citizens enjoyed complete protection for their rights and true equality. Some would argue that this ideal remains elusive even today.