Study Guide

Abolitionists Analysis

  • Race

    Rebellions: Throw Some Duct Tape on the Issue

    The slave Gabriel, often mis-identified as Gabriel Prosser (though historian Douglas R. Egerton has shown that no contemporary documents accord him with his master's surname) was a blacksmith who plotted a slave rebellion in the spring of 1800 and planned to seize Richmond, Virginia. 

    He devised a complex plan with branches in at least three Virginia cities that involved a large-scale massacre of whites, with the exception of only three groups historically supportive of emancipation: Quakers, the French, and Methodists. 

    Yep, if you were white and not one of those, you were on the hit list.

    Gabriel's plot was uncovered amidst heightened tensions and public unrest over the specter of the Haitian Revolution, in which the Caribbean island had erupted in violence and bloodshed as the enslaved Black majority rose up against their masters to claim their freedom. Many of the white masters and several of their Black servants fled to the United States, which took them in but suspected the motives of the Black servants and feared the spread of rebellion stories to their own slaves. To demonstrate their commitment to defeat any such plots on the United States, Virginia authorities had twenty-five of the conspirators executed and ten others deported to the West Indies.

    This was a turning point in the history of slavery in American life. The Virginia Assembly, terrified by the possibility of slave revolution, debated the possibility of gradual emancipation, provided that the freed slaves were colonized to Africa. They also wanted to colonize free Blacks. Though this was the scheme that he had recommended in his 1787 work, Notes on the State of Virginia, President Thomas Jefferson now failed to implement the Assembly's recommendations. He argued that there was nowhere to send the Blacks under such a colonization scheme, since Sierra Leone was still unstable and so was Haiti.

    Although, Jefferson did help to bring about Haiti's unrest by economically isolating the island under an American embargo.

    As a result of Jefferson's inability to act, the state legislature decided against any further plan of reform and chose instead to restore the old colonial methods of control in order to discipline the troublesome labor force and crush its rebellious spirit. After 1806, any freed slave, per the manumission act of 1782, had to leave the state within twelve months or risk being sold back into slavery. The law turned free Blacks into a closed class. Within the next decade, the state also passed added restrictions against slave literacy, cracked down on Black and mulatto sailors' ability to obtain a pilot's license ( to cut off slave communication between other port and river towns), bolstered urban defenses, and outlawed the practice of hiring out surplus slaves.

    Southern society could have reacted to attempted slave rebellion by working to eliminate the troublesome institution, or they could pass laws to strengthen that institution to prevent any potential unrest. 

    In true American form, they wound up opting for the latter, the easy, racist, duct-tape-temporary fix, thereby solidifying sectional differences over social organization and labor.

    Some nineteenth-century Southern academics and officials took the example of Haiti as proof of the dangers inherent in immediate abolition, recommending gradual emancipation instead. They insisted the Caribbean disaster had conclusively proven that, in the wake of emancipation, neither race could coexist with the other in the same country. For most others, Haiti only strengthened their resolve to fight abolition. North Carolina passed legislation restricting a slaveholder's rights to free his own slaves, although most slave states did not outlaw private manumission until the mid-nineteenth century.

    Abolitionists in Black and White

    Free Blacks in the North organized their own antislavery societies even before the formation of national societies (such as the AAS), in which several of them were active participants. 

    At Black antislavery meetings, held in Boston, New York City, Rochester, Nantucket, New Bedford, Salem, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Providence, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, delegates adopted resolutions against slavery and African colonization. Though Blacks were usually reduced to the most menial jobs in the North, they could apply their overlooked skills and talents by making several important contributions to the cause. When William Lloyd Garrison sought to undertake a mission to England in order to secure support for a proposed manual labor school for Blacks, and to attack the aims of the American Colonization Society, free Blacks contributed about half of the necessary funds, over $300. 

    Blacks served as agents for the sale and distribution of antislavery publications like The Emancipator, which began in New York in 1833, they contributed to the columns of The Liberator with reports from their meetings and comments on the condition of their people, and they also purchased advertising space. Colored Female Anti-Slavery Societies were organized beginning in the fall of 1831 in Philadelphia and quickly spread to Providence, Rhode Island, Nantucket and Salem, Massachusetts, Rochester, New York, and Middletown, Connecticut.

    Several Blacks held leadership roles on the Board of Managers of the American Anti-Slavery Society, but free African-Americans also maintained their own societies throughout the period, from Lexington, Ohio to Albany, New York. However, not all free Blacks participated in such activism, as the scathing resolutions of these societies, condemning their apathetic brethren, attest. 

    Those who did participate clearly invested a considerable portion of their time, energy, and hard-earned wages for a deeply personal cause. Black Americans knew just what was at stake in the struggle to end to slavery and in fighting the colonizationists to remain in their own country. Though whites formed an important aspect of the movement, free Blacks had been organizing and taking action for generations before the antebellum period.

    Henry Highland Garnett

    Henry Highland Garnett, one of the most prominent Black leaders throughout the antebellum period and a leading figure in the American Anti-Slavery Society, was born a slave but escaped from bondage in 1824. After making his way to New York, he pursued an education and became a Presbyterian minister. 

    He attained national notoriety and shocked many when, at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York, he called upon slaves to murder their masters. The convention refused to endorse such a radical proposition, and Garnett increasingly turned to religion, leaving his fellow leader and former fugitive, Frederick Douglass, who spoke after Garnett in 1843 and denounced his "Call to Rebellion," to assume the mantle of Black leadership. Garnett supported the cause of an independent Black republic in Liberia, which was established in 1847, but also held out optimism for the future of Blacks at home in America. He later went on to assist victims of the Civil War from his post in the national capital, and then the government in devising programs to help former slaves.

    In a disheartening turn, fueled in no small part by the failure of the Reconstruction period, Garnett lost hope and faith in the prospect of a Black future on American soil. He was appointed minister to Liberia in 1881 and supported colonization, but two months after his arrival in Africa, he died. 

    In many ways, Garnett represents the most cynical aspect of the colonization movement: the conviction that Blacks and whites cannot coexist on equal terms in American society, because white prejudice is just too great. Garnett began his career with a fiery passion for justice and he ended it consumed by bitterness and disenchantment over all that he had experienced and witnessed in America. Even before his turn to colonization, Garnett's radical approach to the slavery question—and the differences of opinion between him and other abolitionists, including Douglass—remind us that factions abounded within the antislavery movement. Black activists had to navigate these differences in order to achieve their cherished goals: freedom and equality.

    Internal Factioning

    By the 1840s and '50s, the antislavery movement was not doing so hot. 

    Many white abolitionists fervently believed in their cause but tried to take control of the movement or approached interactions with their Black comrades in a patronizing or inexperienced way. Big surprise, right?

    Blacks and whites had seldom worked together on an ostensibly equal plane in national or international history. When escaped slave and author Frederick Douglass began lecturing about his experiences and the importance of the antislavery cause, his white counterparts in the Anti-Slavery Society debated with him about his message. They thought that he should simply tell his dramatic story of bondage and his escape, and attempted to censor his comments about the racism that he encountered after fleeing to the North. 

    Douglass also began to express his opinion that the Constitution was not necessarily a proslavery document, and that the lofty aims stated in its preamble could be consistent with the abolitionist cause. This was directly contrary to Garrison's firm position against the Constitution, and a result, Douglass broke with the Garrisonian faction of the abolitionist movement in 1851. Other Black abolitionists experienced similar problems and frustrations in their very personal struggle to emancipate friends and family members still held in bondage, and to simultaneously find and articulate their views and command respect. 

    White activists debated the correct strategy to employ, but for many Blacks, the situation was much too urgent to engage in such abstract discussions.

  • Gender

    Female Abolitionists cum Suffragists

    The abolitionist movement was pivotal for women, many of whom gained valuable experience with activism, organization, and a passionate commitment to ideals through their work fighting slavery. 

    Female abolitionists got involved with politics, even if they still could not vote or hold office. They used their experience and their newfound voice to found their own movement for civil and political rights as American citizens. The women's suffrage movement and abolitionism were closely intertwined at their origins. 

    Feminist leader Susan B. Anthony served as the principal New York agent for William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society, and delivered speeches urging her audiences to "make the slave's case our own." 

    When Anthony was later arrested in 1872 in Rochester, New York for attempting to vote, Black feminist and former abolitionist Sojourner Truth appeared at the same time at a polling booth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demanding a ballot. She too was turned away.

    In 1839, abolitionist Maria W. Chapman published the pamphlet Right and Wrong in Massachusetts, in which she argued that differences over the women's rights issue were at the center of the widening divisions among abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison was also firmly committed to women's rights. In 1840, he insisted that women be allowed to serve as delegates to abolitionist conventions. This unpopular demand, combined with Garrison's unwillingness to work with political organizations to bring about emancipation, led to a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society and the formation of the Foreign and American Anti-Slavery Society, founded by the wealthy Tappan brothers of New York. 

    Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass participated in the first feminist convention at Seneca Falls in July of 1848. He was largely responsible for passage of the motion to support female suffrage, and his signature appears on the Declaration of Sentiments that became the movement's manifesto. 

    The masthead for his antislavery newspaper, the North Star, read: "Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color." 

    Douglass continued to support the cause until his death, which came in February 1895, just after he attended a Woman's Council meeting.

    He really gave "die trying" a new, big-hearted meaning.

    Just like their male counterparts, Black and white women activists did not always get along smoothly or without controversy. Whites sometimes portrayed Blacks as different from whites, but in an agreeable way—that is, they played up the virtuous or humble attributes of Black people in the hope that their fellow whites wouldn't be alarmed by the prospect of emancipation. 

    Sometimes white activists went so far as to utilize their command of the written word and their knowledge of white society to interject phrases or speeches on behalf of Black abolitionists. 

    Frances Dana Gage, a white woman, the presiding officer at an 1851 Woman's Rights meeting in Akron, Ohio, is arguably the true author of the "Ain't I a Woman?" line for which Sojourner Truth later became famous. Truth gave the speech at an Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851, and Gage, a witness, published her account of it in 1863. 

    We can't even remember what we had for breakfast this morning, so how'd she remember specific words from twelve years earlier?

    In the end, we think Truth would appreciate Gage's good intentions, but it's true that she probably "enhanced" Truth's Southern dialect. 

    Truth was a prominent Black abolitionist and feminist, and Gage sought to mold and enhance her popular image. So, the iconic line seemed to simultaneously symbolize Truth's race and gender. Perhaps Gage also wanted to display more formidable writing talents than her fellow white abolitionist, writer, and rival, Harriet Beecher Stowe, but by publicly attributing the line to Truth, she truly brought attention to the urgent message.

    Stowe herself wrote an admiring 1863 essay about Truth entitled "The Libyan Sibyl." Both white women, Gage and Stowe, were, as historian Nell Irvin Painter writes, "fascinated by Truth and sought to capture her in writing." 

    Grimké thus recognized where women could wield the most effective political influence, despite their disenfranchisement. In a show of unity and to protect the Black women present, the attendees marched out of the hall arm-in-arm.

    Only to be pelted with rocks and other objects by the mob. Oof.

  • Society

    Immediatism: This is Not the Time for Baby Steps

    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 than some teensy gradual steps toward future emancipation in the South and free soil in the West. 

    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 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 surprisingly blasé about slavery. Some freed their slaves, some hated slavery, and some (like Thomas Jefferson) couldn't figure out how to end it but assumed it would die out someday. 

    Yeah, okay, TJ.

    In 1761, Robert Beverley confessed in his private correspondence 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."blank">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, but many were also proprietors, managers, and officials. Their tax records appear to indicate that most were of the "middling sort" or 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.

  • Politics

    Antebellum-era politics consisted of a series of failed compromises and increasingly bitter conflicts over slavery and the subject of abolition. 

    Sectional animosities compounded to a point where all it took was a spark to ignite the entire powder keg. Radical abolitionist John Brown provided the match, and it was enough to send the country over the edge toward Civil War.

    Missouri and Maine: One for Me, One for You

    During the Revolutionary era, politicians led by Southern slaveholder Thomas Jefferson banned slavery in the future settlement of the Old Northwest region. Then in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin

    Thanks but no thanks, Eli. 

    Suddenly, Southern plantation agriculture in cotton became spectacularly profitable, and planters began coveting more land for expansion of the slave system in the West. At the same time, Northerners coveted the same western lands to allow for new settlements of free farmers on the frontier. 

    The easy kinds of compromises made by Jefferson were no longer possible. An aging TJ rightly feared that the reemergence of slavery as a messy political issue on the national stage, threatened to divide the country along sectional lines (Civil War, we're talkin' about you). In 1820 he wrote a friend that the slavery issue, "like a firebell in the night...awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union."blank">Southerners tacitly associated the John Brown raid with the Republicans, and they became ever more resolute in their opposition to the party, firmly believing they were as radically opposed to slavery as John Brown had been. Southerners didn't think about Brown's intentions as much as his actions, viewing him as a cold-blooded murderer who instigated more bloodshed among their own slaves.

    Anyone who sympathized with Brown was marked as an enemy, too, and proslavery Southerners stopped differentiating between Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, or between Republicans and abolitionists. To Southerners, all those who opposed slavery were indistinguishable now. 

    Both sides had become convinced of a conspiracy to undermine and dominate the other: Northerners termed this concept the "Slave Power," while Southerners deemed it a Northern plot. Mutual animosity and paranoia soon led to this lil diddy called the Civil War.

  • Religion

    Blessed But Stressed: Early Religious Opposition to Slavery

    When the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania held their monthly meeting in February of 1688, they drafted a set of resolutions in opposition to slavery, or what they called "the traffic of men-body." 

    They had a way with words.

    The Mennonites were German Baptists whose beliefs resembled those of the English and Welsh Quakers, and they founded Germantown fifty years earlier. They said it was hypocritical for whites, especially Christians, to participate in the enslavement that they themselves had feared for generations at the hands of the Turks on the high seas. They wrote that, "there is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are."blank">gag rule that silenced their petitions to Congress at the time. She turned to religion as the justification for this right. 

    For Grimké, God could sanction no equivocal position on the slavery issue: "We may talk of occupying neutral ground," she said, "but on this subject, in its present attitude, there is no such thing as neutral ground"; after all, Grimké argued, "God swept Egypt with the besom of destruction, and punished Judea also with a sore punishment, because of slavery. And have we any reason to believe that he is less just now?"

    Wise words.