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Scholarly Analyses of Abolitionism, With
Context of Events in the U.S. Slavery Era
Abolitionists in the U.S. fought against slavery and the underlying ideology enabling slavery, e.g., white-manism (modern term, "racism"). Abolitionists deemed slavery a sin and/or unconstitutional. After the success of abolitionism in 1865 (with the abolition of slavery), various scholarly writers then and in the following century, have written analyses of the nature of abolitionism and underlying factors. Here are some excerpts.

1. John W. Draper (1811-1882),
History of the American Civil War
(Section on North-South Differentiation) (1867)
2. James Ford Rhodes,
History of the United States
from the Compromise of 1850

(Section on William Lloyd Garrison) (1906)
3. Avery O. Craven,
The Coming of the Civil War
(Section on Role of Religion) (1942)
4. Russell B. Nye (1915-1993),
The Slave Power Conspiracy, 1830-1860 (1946)
5. Dwight L. Dumond
Antislavery: the Crusade for Freedom in America
(Section on High Morals People
Fleeing the South En Masse) (1961)
6. David Brion Davis,
"The Emergence of Immediatism in British
and American Anti-slavery Thought
" (1962)

Excerpt 1, from Historian John W. Draper (1811-1882),
History of the American Civil War, 3 Vols
(New York: Harper, 1867), Vol I, pp. 17-30.

". . . these volumes . . . seek out the causes. . . .

From a nearly homogeneous English stock, the Atlantic coast of North America received two immigrations. That which settled in the South was of persons devoted to material objects, and appreciating ease and pleasure. That which found a home in the North was more austere: its moving influence was moral and religious ideas.

In one sense these two colonial bodies were not dissimilar, since they had come from a common ancestral home. In an-other they showed diversity, for they were of different social grades that had been sorted and parted from each other by antecedent English civil wars.

These immigrating bodies were affected by the climate to which they had come. It happened-or perhaps it was the result of prior and purposed selection-that there was a congeniality in each case between the temperament of the colonist and the place of his abode. The man of enjoyment found an acceptable home in the winterless fertile South; the man of reflection amid the austerities of the North.

Climate thus augmented and perpetuated the initial differences of character. It converted what had been merely different classes in England into distinct national types in America.

For a long time the colonists experienced similar exterior pressures. At first they had to maintain themselves against the Indians; then they had a common enemy in the French; still later, both felt the tyranny of the mother country. A sentiment that it would be well for such feeble communities as they were to unite for mutual protection gradually gained strength. It appeared first more than two hundred years ago (1643), among the New England colonies.

The establishment of THE UNION was the final embodiment of that sentiment. Unionism implied a single NATION. Though there was thus an initial race-difference between the North and the South, since they were respectively off-shoots from different grades of English society, we must not give too much im-portance to that difference. In the scientific treatment of American history it can not be overlooked, but the antagonism arising from it was very feeble; so feeble, indeed, as scarcely to retard the progress of Unionism.

The differentiation or separation of the American people, though it had its beginning in English life and in pre-colonial times, may, without much error, be considered as having been substantially produced by the climate of this continent. The Teutonic characteristics of the Northern people were rendered more intense; the Southern people assumed those qualities which pertain to the nations of the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea.

A self-conscious democracy, animated by ideas of individualism, was the climate issue in the North; an aristocracy, produced by sentiments of personal independence and based upon human slavery, was the climate issue in the South-an aristocracy sub-tropical in its attributes, the counterpart to that which is found in the latitudes extending from the Pillars of Hercules to the banks of the Indus, imperious to its friends, ferocious to its enemies, and rapidly losing the capacity of vividly comprehending European political ideas.

Let us now observe each of these components of the Union as a power.

In a hot climate men work no more than necessity compels; they instinctively look with favor on slave labor. There had always been that disposition in the Southern states. Accidental circumstances gave it strength.

At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia was the most powerful of the colonies; she occupied a central position, and had in Norfolk one of the best harbors on the Atlantic. She had a vast western territory, an imposing commerce, and in the production and export of tobacco not only a source of wealth, but, from the mercantile connec-tions it gave her in Europe, a means of refinement. It was through this circum-stance that so many of her young men were educated abroad. When the epoch of separation from the mother country had come, and the question of confederation arose, she might have asserted her colonial supremacy; she might have been the central power. Many of her ablest men subsequently thought that, in her voluntary equalization with the feeblest colonies, the spontaneous surrender of her vast domain, the self-abnegation with which she laid all her privileges on the altar of the Union, she had made a fatal mistake. In her action there was something very noble.

Tobacco, which was the source of the wealth of Virginia, was altogether produced by slaves.

The progress of the physical sciences in Europe, and many admirable inventions of industrial art, created in the course of time a demand for another product, cotton, which experience proved could be more advantageously produced in the Southern states than any where else, but produced in them only by slaves.

Hence, very soon, the whole economy of the South centred on slavery. That system gave to the master wealth, and, what was of equal importance, it gave to him personal leisure. His thoughts naturally reverted to the management of public affairs; his material prosperity and ease of circumstances led him to the pursuit of political power. In a few years the South had possession of all the departments of the Union government. It dominated in the nation.

In maintaining this supremacy, doubtless the intrinsic political power of Virginia, and the moral force arising from the acknowledged sacrifices she had made, contributed in no small degree. The first President of the United States was a Virginian, and he was re-elected. The second was from the North, perhaps a fraternal concession due to revolutionary recollections; but he was not re-elected. The third President was a Virginian, and he was re-elected. The fourth was a Virginian, and he was re-elected. The fifth was a Virginian, and he was re-elected. No small proportion of the profits of place and power poured into the South.

. . . . statesmanship . . . recognizes as its animating principle JUSTICE FOR ALL . . . . While we view with veneration the political work of our forefathers, it is well for us to profit by their example. . . . A great nation must recognize principle, and not form, as its rule of life. . . ."


Excerpt 2, from Historian James Ford Rhodes (1848-1927),
History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, vol. 1
(New York: MacMillan and Co., 1906) pp. 53-63
(Section on William Lloyd Garrison)

Wm. L. Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison began . . . the Liberator [Ed. Note, abolitionist newspaper] at Boston, January 1st, 1831. Although he had for several years been advocating anti-slavery ideas, his denunciations of slavery had attracted as little attention at the national capital as Paul's preaching excited in the palace of the Caesars. . . .

More than forty years had now passed since the establishment of the government. The hopes of its founders had not been realized, for the number of slaves was fast increasing, slavery had waxed strong and had become a source of great political and social power.

While optimists, looking for a sign from heaven and a miracle, hoped that, by some occult process, the slaves would be freed voluntarily by the next generation, the abolitionists believed that reform from within the system could not be expected, but that its destruction must come from influences from the outside.

The vital point was to convince the Northern people that slavery was a concern of theirs; that as long as it existed in the country without protest on their part, they were partners in the evil; and although debarred from legislative interference with the system, that was no reason why they should not think right on the subject, and bear testimony without ceasing against its hateful character.

The apostle who had especial fitness for the work, and who now came forward to embody this feeling and rouse the national conscience from the stupor of great material prosperity, was Garrison. Adopting the Stoic maxim, "My country is the world," he added its corollary, "My countrymen are all mankind," and with the change of my to our he made it the motto of the Liberator. In his salutatory address he said:
"I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. . . . I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. . . . I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—1 will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard."
In one of the succeeding issues he said:
"Everybody is opposed to slavery, O, yes! there is an abundance of philanthropy among us. . . . I take it for granted slavery is a crime—a damning crime; therefore, my efforts shall be directed to the exposure of those who practice it."
Soon the Liberator appeared with a pictorial heading that displayed the national capitol, floating from whose dome was a flag inscribed "Liberty"; in the foreground is seen a negro, flogged at a whipping-post, and the misery of a slave auction. The journal began in poverty; but in the course of the first year the subscription list reached five hundred. Garrison wrote the leading articles and then assisted to set them up in type and did other work of the printer.

In August of this year (1831) occurred the Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia, which seemed to many Southerners a legitimate fruit of the bold teaching of Garrison, although there was indeed between the two events no real connection. But this negro rising struck terror through the South and destroyed calm reason . . . . The retribution was terrible. Negroes were shot, hanged, tortured, and burned to death, and all on whom suspicion lighted met a cruel fate. In Southampton County, the scene of the insurrection, there was a reign of terror, and alarm spread throughout the slave States.

This event, and the thought that it might be the precursor of others of the same kind, account for much of the Southern rage directed against Garrison and his crusade. Nor, when we reflect on the sparsely settled country, the wide distance between plantations—conditions that made a negro insurrection possible—and when we consider what it was for planters to have hanging over their heads the horrors of a servile war, will it seem surprising that judicial poise of temper was impossible when Southerners discussed the work of Garrison. They regarded it as an incitement for their slaves to revolt.

But they did injustice to Garrison, for Nat Turner had never seen a copy of the Liberator, and the paper had not a single subscriber south of the Potomac.

Nor did Garrison ever send a pamphlet or paper to any slave, nor advocate the right of physical resistance on the part of the oppressed. He was a non-resistant, and did not believe that force should be used to overturn legal authority, even when unjustly and oppressively exercised.

The assertion that slavery is a damning crime is one thing; the actual incitement of slaves to insurrection is another. The distinction between the two was not appreciated at the South. Stringent laws were made against the circulation of the Liberator, and vigilance committees sent their warnings to any who were supposed to have a part in spreading its doctrines.

In North Carolina Garrison was indicted for a felony, and the legislature of Georgia offered a reward of five thousand dollars for the arrest and conviction of the editor or publisher. One voice went abroad from public officials, popular meetings, and from the press of the South, demanding that the governor of Massachusetts or the mayor of Boston should suppress the "infernal Liberator." . . .

Meanwhile Garrison and his little band continued the uphill work of proselyting at the North, and especially in Boston. Merchants, manufacturers, and capitalists were against the movement, for trade with the South was important, and they regarded the propagation of abolition sentiments as injurious to the commercial interests of Boston.

Good society turned the back upon the abolitionists. Garrison had no college education to recommend him to an aristocracy based partly upon wealth and partly upon culture. The churches were bitterly opposed to the movement.

Oliver Johnson, one of the early disciples of Garrison, relates that several times his efforts were in vain to persuade some one among a dozen white clergymen of Boston to open an anti-slavery meeting with prayer, and he was in each case forced at last to accept the services of a negro preacher from "Negro Hill."

The [immoral] position of the church [See Rev. Foster's 1843 book] was well expressed by a noted clergyman, who attributed the sin of slavery to a past generation, and assigned the duty of emancipation to future generations.

The abolitionists, however, gradually gained ground. The year 1833 . . . at Philadelphia, the American Anti-Slavery Society was organized by delegates who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. The Declaration of Sentiments, drawn up by Garrison . . . referred to the immortal Declaration adopted in the same city fifty-seven years before, and, as the strongest abolition argument that could be made, quoted the phrase
"that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
It denounced slavery in vigorous terms . . . while condemning the employment of material force in any way to promote abolition, the signers pledged themselves to use moral means, so far as lay in their power, to overthrow the execrable system of slavery.

This was not an inflammatory and seditious appeal; the delegates were men of good character, pure morals, and were law-abiding citizens; yet it was necessary for the police to guard the convention hall against threatened mob violence. The meeting was regarded by all Southern people, and by nearly all at the North, in much the same way as we should now look upon an assemblage of anarchists.

This year (1833) is also noteworthy as furnishing a fresh argument for the abolitionists. The British Parliament . . . emancipated the negro slaves in the West Indian colonies, so that henceforward freedom was the rule in all the vast colonial possessions of England, as it had been for years in the parent state.

At the same time, ambitious Southern politicians began to turn to their own advantage the anti-slavery agitation at the North. This did not escape the keen observation of [James] Madison, who, though well stricken in years, was able to detect, from his country retreat, the reason of various moves in the political sphere of his native state, which had for their aim to make a unit of Southern opinion on the slavery question.
"It is painful," wrote Madison to [Henry] Clay in June, 1833, "to observe the unceasing efforts to alarm the South by imputations against the North of unconstitutional designs on the subject of the slaves."
In a letter written more than a year later, he said that one could see from the Virginia newspapers and the proceedings of public meetings that aspiring popular leaders were inculcating the
"impression of a permanent incompatibility of interests between the South and the North."
The national society of the abolitionists organized at Philadelphia in 1833. Throughout the 1830s the society carried out an ambitious program which included the establishment of an agency system designed to convert the nation to the idea of "immediate repentance from the sin of slavery" and a petition campaign demanding that Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. . . .

Excitement about the abolition movement characterized the year 1835. Numerous public meetings and the press of the South demanded almost with one voice that the abolitionists must be put down or they would destroy the union. The suspension of commercial intercourse with the North was even suggested. The Charleston post-office was forcibly entered and a large number of tracts and papers sent there by the American Anti-Slavery Society were seized; the next night these papers and effigies of Garrison and other abolitionists were burned in the presence of a large number of spectators.

On a false alarm of a projected slave rising in Mississippi, several white men and negroes were hanged by vigilance committees.

[Despite the] wrath of the Southern people against the abolitionists . . . the work of converting and creating Northern sentiment went on. In spite of misrepresentation, obloquy, and derision, the abolitionists continued to apply moral ideas and Christian principles to [opposing] the [sinful] institution of slavery.

Ed Note. See examples by, e.g.,
  • Rev. Rankin (1823),
  • Rev. Green (1836),
  • Rev. Weld (1839),
  • Rev. Foster (1843),
  • Rev. Pillsbury (1847),
  • Rev. Fee (1851),
  • Rev. Cheever (1851),
  • Harriet B. Stowe (1853),
  • Edw. Rogers (1855),
  • Charles Darwin (1857),
  • Charles Sumner (1860).
  • The teachings of Christ and the Apostles actuated this crusade, and its latent power was great. If one looks for its results merely to the numbers of Congressmen chosen by the abolitionists, to the vote received by presidential candidates distinctively theirs, or even to the number of members enrolled in the anti-slavery societies, only a faint idea of the force of the movement will be gained. The influence of the Liberator cannot be measured by its subscribers, any more than the French revolutionists of 1789 can be reckoned as of no greater number than the readers of "The Social Contract." If Rousseau had never lived, said Napoleon, there would have been no French Revolution.

    It would be historical dogmatism to say that if Garrison had not lived, the Republicans would not have succeeded in 1860. But if we wish to estimate correctly the influence of Garrison and his disciples, we must not stop with the enumeration of their avowed adherents.

    We must bear in mind the impelling power of their positive dogmas, and of the never-ceasing inculcation on those who were already voters and on thinking youths who were to become voters, and who, in their turn, prevailed upon others. [Ed Note. See examples by Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.]

    We must picture to ourselves this process of argument, of discussion, of persuasion, going on for twenty-five years, with an ever-increasing momentum, and we cannot resist the conviction that this anti-slavery agitation had its part, and a great part too, in the first election of Lincoln.

    It was due to Garrison and his associates that slavery became a topic of discussion at every Northern fireside.
  • Those who had heard the new doctrine gladly tried to convince their family and their friends;

  • those who were half convinced wished to vanquish their doubts or have put to rest the rising suspicion that they were partners in a great wrong;

  • those who stubbornly refused to listen could not fail to feel that a new force had made its appearance, with which a reckoning must be made.
  • Slavery could not bear examination. To describe it was to condemn it. There was a certain fitness therefore, in the demand of the Southerners that the [freedom of speech] discussion of slavery in any shape should be no longer permitted at the North.

    But in what a state of turpitude the North would have been if it had not bred abolitionists! If the abolitionists had not prepared the way, how would the political rising of 1854-60 [the old parties, esp. Whig, being deserted for the new Republicans] against the slave power have been possible?

    It is true that many ardent Republicans who voted for Lincoln would have repudiated the notion that they were in any way influenced by the arguments of Garrison and his associates.

    And it is equally true that in 1835 the average Northern man satisfied himself by
  • thinking slavery in the abstract a great evil, but that, as it existed in the South, it was none of his concern;

  • he thought that "God hath made of one blood all nations of men [Acts17:26]" a good doctrine to be preached on Sunday, and "all men are created equal" a fit principle to be proclaimed on the Fourth of July;

  • but he did not believe that these sentiments should be applied to the social condition of the South.
  • But that was exactly the ground on which the abolitionists planted themselves, and, by stirring the national conscience, they made possible the formation of a political party whose cardinal principle was opposition to the extension of slavery, and whose reason for existence lay in the belief of its adherents that slavery in the South was wrong.


    Excerpt 3, from Prof. Avery O. Craven
    (History Prof, Univ of Chicago),
    The Coming of the Civil War
    (The University of Chicago Press, 1942 and 1957)
    from pages 134-150.
    Note selection of religious emphasis
    of the type of that pre-Civil-War-era.

    The abolition movement. . . was closely related in origins, leadership, and expression to the peace movement, the temperance crusade, the struggles for women's rights, prison and Sabbath reform, and the improvement of education. It was not unrelated to the efforts to establish communities where social-economic justice and high thinking might prevail. It was part of the drive to unseat aristocrats and re-establish American democracy according to the Declaration of Independence. It was a clear-cut effort to apply Christianity to the American social order. [Ed Note. See examples by Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.]

    The anti-slavery effort was at first merely one among many. It rose to dominance only gradually. Fortunate from the beginning in leadership, it was always more fortunate in appeal. Human slavery more obviously violated democratic institutions than any other evil of the day; it was close enough to irritate and to inflame sensitive minds, yet far enough removed that reformers need have few personal relations with those whose interests were affected. It rasped most severely upon the moral senses of a people whose ideas of sin were comprehended largely in terms of self-indulgence and whose religious doctrines laid emphasis on social usefulness as the proper manifestation of salvation. And . . . slavery was now confined to a section whose economic interests, and hence political attitudes, conflicted sharply with those of the Northeast and upper Northwest.

    Almost from the beginning of the new antislavery movement, two distinct centers of action appeared, each with its distinct and individual approach to the roblem. One developed in the industrial areas of New England.

    Wm. L. Garrison

    Its most important spokesman was William Lloyd Garrison, founder and editor of a Boston abolition paper called the Liberator. Garrison at first accepted the old idea that slavery was an evil to be pointed out and gradually eradicated by those among whom it existed, but he shifted his position in the early 1830's and denounced slavery as a damning crime to be unremittingly assailed and immediately destroyed.

    The first issue of his paper announced a program from which he never deviated: ". . . I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard." The problem, as Garrison saw it, was one of abstract right and wrong. The Scriptures and the Declaration of Independence had already settled the issue. Slavery could have no legal status in a Christian democracy. If the Constitution recognized it, then the Constitution should be destroyed. Slaveholders were both sinners and criminals. They could lay no claim to immunity from any mode of attack.

    The character of this movement and its leadership is strikingly revealed in an incident related by one of Garrison's traveling companions:

    "As we rode through the [Franconia] Notch after friends Beach and Rogers, we were alarmed at seeing smoke issue from their chaise-top, and we cried out to them that their chaise was afire! We were more than suspicious that it was something worse than that, and that the smoke came out of friend Rogers' mouth. And so it turned out. This was before we reached the Notch tavern.

    "Alighting there to water our beasts, we gave him, all round a faithful admonition. For anti-slavery does not fail to spend its intervals of public service in mutual and searching correction of the faults of its friends. We gave it soundly to friend Rogers—that he, an abolitionist, on his way to an anti-slavery meeting, should desecrate his anti-slavery mouth . . . with a stupefying weed. We had halted at the Iron Works tavern to refresh our horses, and while they were eating walked to view the Furnace.

    "As we crossed the little bridge, friend Rogers took out another cigar, as if to light it when we should reach the fire! "Is it any malady you have got, brother Rogers," said we to him, "that you smoke that thing, or is it habit and indulgence merely?" "It is nothing but habit," said he gravely; "or I would say, it was nothing else," and he significantly cast the little roll over the railing into the Ammonoosuck.

    "A Revolution," exclaimed Garrison, "a glorious revolution without noise or smoke," and he swung his hat cheerily about his head. It was a pretty incident. . . . It was a vice abandoned, a self indulgence denied, and from principle. It was quietly and beautifully done. .'.". Anti-slavery wants her mouths for other uses than to be flues for besotting tobacco-smoke. They may as well almost be rum-ducts as tobacco-funnels. . . . Abolitionists are generally as [determined] in regard to rum and tobacco as in regard to slavery. . . ."

    The . . . nature of the Garrison antislavery drive served to . . . show how profoundly the conditions of the time had stirred the reform spirit and how wide the door had been opened to the professional reformers—men to whom the question was not so much "how shall we abolish slavery, as how shall we discharge our duty . . . to ourselves." Garrison may be taken as typical of the group. His temperament and experiences had combined to set him in most relationships against the accepted order of things. . . .

    He became an editor of the National Philanthropist, a paper devoted to the suppression of "intemperance and its Kindred vices." This publication served also as a medium through which to attack lotteries, Sabbath-breaking, and war. A new Garrison began to emerge. His personality, given opportunity for expression, asserted itself. Attending a nominating caucus in Boston, he made bold to speak, and, being resented as an upstart, he replied to his critic in a letter to the Boston Courier:
    "It is true my acquaintance in this city is limited. . . . Let me assure him, however, that if my life be spared, my name shall one day be known to the world—at least to such an extent that common inquiry shall be unnecessary."

    To another critic he reiterated this statement, adding these significant words: "I speak in the spirit of prophecy, not of vainglory—with a strong pulse, a flashing eye, and a glow of the heart. The task may be yours to write my biography."

    Anti-slavery efforts entered the Garrison program when Benjamin Lundy, the pioneer abolitionist, invited him to help edit the Genius of Universal Emancipation in Baltimore. Hostile treatment there, climaxed by imprisonment for libel [for freedom of press criticism of a slave-trader], together with the influence of extreme British opinion, changed a [non-law-based] attitude which [claimed] "that immediate and complete emancipation is not desirable . . . no rational man cherishes so wild a vision," into the . . . uncompromising [pro-law atittude] expressed only two years later in the Liberator.

    From that time on Garrison was bothered only by the fact that the English language was inadequate for the expression of his violent opinions. Southerners in Congress were desperados.
    We would sooner trust the honor of the country . . . in the hands of the inmates of our penitentiaries and prisons than in their hands . . . they are the meanest of thieves and the worst of robbers. . . . We do not acknowledge them to be within the pale of Christianity, or republicanism, or humanity!

    . . . In such an approach as this, there could be no delay, no moderation. Right was right, and wrong was wrong. The slaveholder could not be spared or given time to leam the evil of his ways. Action immediate and untempered was demanded. . . .

    The second center of anti-slavery effort was in upper New York and the farther Northwest. Influences from this center included in their sweep, however, much of rural New England and the Middle States and the movement found liberal financial help in New York City. Benjamin Lundy and other Quaker leaders started the crusade, but it did not come to full and wide expression until Theodore Weld, already the ablest temperance orator in the Northwest, set about cultivating the great field prepared for social reform by the Finney revivals.

    Rev. Theodore Weld

    Weld was, like Garrison, unusual both in abilities and in personal characteristics. . . . He was, in fact, always a revivalist—a man with a mission to perform in the great West—"the battlefield of the World."

    The campaign which he launched was but an expansion of the benevolence crusade already a part of the Western revival effort. As W. C. Preston said: "Weld's agents made the anti-slavery cause 'identical with religion,' and urged men, by all they esteem[ed] holy, by all the high and existing obligations of duty to man and God . . . to join the pious work of purging the sin of slavery from the land."

    The movement, as it developed, was generally temperate in tone, and tended to function through the existing agencies of religion and politics. Lane Theological Seminary, founded in Cincinnati to train leaders in the Finney tradition, became the center from which Weld worked.

    Here, in a series of debates, he shaped the doctrine of gradual immediatism which by insisting that gradual emancipation begin at once, saved the movement from Garrison's extremes; from here he went out to win a group of converts which included James G. Birney, Joshua Giddings, Edwin M. Stanton, Elizur Wright, and Beriah Green; and here he adapted the revival technique to the abolition crusade and prepared the way for his loyal band of Seventy to carry that crusade throughout the whole Northwest.

    There was, however, another aspect to the movement in this region—a very hard-headed practical aspect. Its leaders believed in action as well as agitation. And action here meant political action. Western men had a way of viewing evil as something there ought to be a law against. They thought it was the business of government to secure morality as well as prosperity. They were even inclined to regard the absence of prosperity as the result of the existence of evil. Naturally, therefore, in spite of the revival-meeting procedure used to spread the gospel of abolition, action against slavery followed political precedent. This action began with petitions to Congress for such a practical end as the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

    When Southern resentment of such a [pro-law] measure brought the adoption of gag rule methods, the contest was broadened into a fight on the floors of Congress for the constitutional rights of petition and free speech. This proved to be an excellent way to keep the slavery question before the public and to force slaveholders to reveal their undemocratic attitudes. Petitions arrived in such quantities as to clog the work of Congress. A Washington organization for agitation and lobbying became necessary.

    Weld himself went to Washington to advise with John Quincy Adams and his fellow workers. Slavery thus again entered national politics, this time by way of the Northwest. Antislavery politicians, such as Joshua Giddings and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, quickly proved the value of the cause as a stepping-stone to public office.

    James G. Birney

    James Birney took the next step. The indifference of old political parties to petitions and abolition demands gave rise to the belief that the slave interest controlled their programs. The conviction that the welfare of other sections was being neglected for the advancement of the South followed logically upon this premise.

    The slave power, said the abolitionists, had already destroyed the protective system "at the hazard, if not with the intention" of breaking up the manufacturing interests of the free states. The federal government had developed and protected markets for cotton "in all parts of the known world, while it studiously avoided doing anything to procure a market for the free products of the grain-growing Northwest." As a result wheat had been stacked seven successive years in the fields, and none sold.

    The United States had sent

  • six expensive embassies to make markets for tobacco.

  • We had one embassy six years to get money for a few slaves wrecked on a British colony; but not one to find a market for the astonishing produce of the great Northwest.

  • We've been thirty years toiling to keep a market for cotton; but not an hour for wheat.

  • If our government was honest; if our statesmen had eyes, they would see that the most important benefit they could render this country would be to find a market for the produce of the Northwest. . . .
  • Anti-slavery must organize a political party.

    James G. Birney

    The Liberty Party entered the national field in 1840 with James G. Birney as its candidate. It was a protest party.

    In his acceptance letter, Birney declared that the country was in the hands of the slave power—"the North . . . a conquered province."

  • Its honor, its influence and the real prosperity of the nation had declined in proportion to Southern rule.

  • Tariffs, beneficial to free labor, had been abandoned;

  • monetary affairs had become deranged;

  • commercial opportunities had been neglected.
  • Abolitionists could vote for neither [Democrat Martin] Van Buren nor [Whig William Henry] Harrison.

    Having issued this statement, the Liberty Party candidate set out for London to attend the General Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. He carried with him to the English Anti-Corn Law League a mass of propaganda designed to aid in opening the English markets for the wheat crops of the Old Northwest. His general purpose was to secure the withdrawal of all British restrictions on American wheat and to encourage the growth in India of cotton for English factories. English commercial interests would thus be shifted from the South to the North and slavery in American cotton fields would be rendered unprofitable. Throughout the summer and fall, Birney waged his presidential campaign on British soil.

    Back home the dejected wheat farmers of the Northwest organized Anti-Corn Law Societies to help influence the course of English politics! As economic rivalry between North and South increased, the antislavery movement gained strength and began to emerge as the dominant reform effort of the period. The motives underlying this development are partly revealed by a letter written by Joshua Leavitt to his friend Joshua Giddings in October, 1841. Leavitt spoke of Giddings' belief that the best policy for action was to aim "at specific points . . . which you deem beneficial to free labor or rather to the North, as a bank, tariff, etc." and then declared that his own purpose was to make opposition to slavery the leading object of public policy. "We must have a leading object," he continued,

    "in which we can all harmonize, and to which we shall agree to defer all other favorite objects. It is vain to think of harmonizing the North in favor of a restrictive policy or an artificial credit system. . . . There is no object but slavery that can serve our turn . . . it is the greatest of evils and the prime cause of other evils. . . ."

    With the new growth and new importance of the movement, the technique of its propaganda also reached new efficiency. Never before or since has a cause been urged upon the American people with such consummate skill and such lasting effects. Every agency possible in that day was brought into use; even now the predominating opinions of most of the American people regarding the antebellum South and its ways are the product of that campaign of education.

    Indoctrination began with the child's A B C's which were learned from booklets containing verses like the following:

    A is an Abolitionist
    A man who wants to free
    The wretched slave, and give to all
    An equal liberty.

    B is a Brother with a skin
    Of somewhat darker hue,
    But in our Heavenly Father's sight,
    He is as dear as you.

    C is the Cotton field, to which
    This injured brother's driven,
    When, as the white man's slave, he toils
    From early morn till even.

    D is the Driver, cold and stern,
    Who follows, whip in hand,
    To punish those who dare to rest,
    Or disobey command.

    I is the Infant, from the arms
    Of its fond mother torn,
    And at a public auction sold
    With horses, cows, and corn.

    Q is the Quarter, where the slave
    On coarsest food is fed
    And where, with toil and sorrow worn
    He seeks his wretched bed.

    W is the Whipping post,
    To which the slave is bound,
    While on his naked back, the lash
    Makes many a bleeding wound.

    Z is a Zealous man, sincere,
    Faithful, and just, and true;
    An earnest pleader for the slave—
    Will you not be so too?

    . . . For adults the appeal was widened. No approach was neglected. Hymn books offered abolition songs set to familiar tunes. To the strains of "Old Hundred" eager voices invited "ye Yeomen brave" to rescue "the bleeding slave," or, to the "Missionary Hymn," asked them to consider

    <
    The frantic mother
    Lamenting for her child,
    Till falling lashes smother
    Her cries of anguish wild!

    Almanacs, carrying the usual information about weather and crops, filled their other pages with abolition propaganda [information such as crimes committed by slavers]. In one of these, readers found the story of Libum Lewis, who, for a trifling offense, bound his slave, George, to a meat block and then, while all the other slaves looked on, proceeded slowly to chop him to pieces with a broad ax, and to cast the parts into a fire.

    Local, state, and national societies were organized for more efficient action in petitioning, presenting public speakers, distributing tracts, and publishing anti-slavery periodicals.

    The American Anti-Slavery Society "in the year 1837-38, published 7,877 bound volumes, 47,256 tracts and pamphlets, 4,100 circulars, and 10,490 prints.

  • Its quarterly Anti-Slavery Magazine had an annual circulation of 9,000; the Slave Friend, for children, had 131,050; the monthly Human Rights, 189,400, and the weekly Emancipator, 217,000."

  • From 1854 to 1858 it spent $3281 on a series of tracts discussing every phase of slavery, under such suggestive titles as . . . "Relations of Anti-Slavery to Religion," and "To Mothers in the Free States."

  • Its "several corps of lecturers of the highest ability and worth . . . occupied the field" every year in different states. Its Annual Reports, with their stories of atrocities and their . . . discussion of issues, constituted a veritable arsenal from which [facts] could be drawn.

  • Like other antislavery societies, it maintained an official organ, issued weekly, and held its regular conventions . . . .
  • . . . Uncle Tom's Cabin was written because its author, "as a woman, as a mother," was oppressed and broken hearted, with the sorrows & injustice" seen, and "because as a Christian" she "felt the dishonor to Christianity—because as a lover of [her] country. [she] trembled at the coming day of wrath." It became a best seller in the most complete sense. Only the Bible exceeded it in numbers sold and in the thoroughness with which it was read in England and America. . . .

    Reformed slaveholders and escaped slaves were especially valuable in the crusade. Under the warming influence of sympathetic audiences their stories of cruelty and depravity grew apace. Persecution and contempt from old friends increased their zeal. Birney, the Grimké sisters, Frederick Douglass, and many others influenced the movement and were influenced by it in a way comparable only to the relation of reformed drunkards to the temperance cause.

    By means of such agencies and methods a well-defined picture of the South and slavery became slowly fixed in Northern minds. The Southern people were divided into two distinct classes—slaveholders and poor whites. The former constituted an aristocracy, living in great white-pillared houses on extended plantations. The latter, ignorant and impotent, made up a rural slum which clung hopelessly to the pine barrens or the worn-out acres on the fringes of the plantations. . . .

    Social-economic conditions in the South were described as tumble-down and backward. The slave, lacking the incentive of personal gain, was inefficient. The master, ruined by power, self-indulgence, and laziness, was incapable of sound management. [Repented Southern slave-holder] James Birney described the section as one

    "whose Agriculture is desolation—whose Commerce is mainly confined to a crazy wagon and half fed team of oxen or mules as a means of carrying it on—whose manufacturing "Machinery" is limited to the bones and sinews of reluctant slaves—whose currency is individual notes always to be paid (it may be at some broken bank) and mortgages on men and women and children who may run away or die, and on land, which without them is of little value. . . ."

    Others went so far as to charge the panic of 1837 to Southern profligacy. "The existence of Slavery," resolved the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, "is the grand cause of the pecuniary embarrassments of the country; and . . . no real or permanent relief is to be expected . . . until the total abolition of that execrable system." Joshua Leavitt called the slave system "a bottomless gulf of extravagance and thriftlessness." Another explained its "withering and impoverishing effect by the fact that it was the "rule of violence and arbitrary will. . . . It would be quite in character with its theory and practice," he said, "if slave-drivers should refuse to pay their debts and meet the sheriff with dirk and pistol."

    Leavitt estimated that the South had "taken from the North, within five years, more than $100,000,000, by notes which will never be paid," and quoted an English writer to the effect that "planters are always in debt. The system of society in a slaveholding community is such as to lead to the contraction of debt, which the system itself does not furnish the means of paying. . . ."

    Nor did the Southern shortcomings, according to the anti-slavery view, end with things material. Moral weaknesses were even more offensive. Sexual virtue was scarcely known. "The Slave States," wrote an abolitionist, "are Sodoms, and almost every village family is a brothel." Another writer declared that "in the slaveholding settlements of Middle and Southern Mississippi . . . there [was] not, a virtuous young man of twenty years of age." "To send a lad to a male academy in Mississippi," he said, "is moral murder."

    An anti-slavery pamphlet told of "a million and a half of slave women, some of them without even the tinge of African blood . . . given up a lawful prey to the unbridled lusts of their masters." Another widely circulated tract described a slave market in which one dealer "devoted himself exclusively to the sale of young mulatto women." The author pictured the sale of "the most beautiful woman I ever saw," without "a single trace of the African about her features" and with "a pair of eyes that pierced one through and through" to "one of the most lecherous-looking old brutes" that he had ever seen. The narrative closed with the shrieking appeal: "God shield the helpless victim of that bad man's power—it may be, ere now, that bad man's lust!" The conclusion was inescapable. Slavery and unrestrained sexual indulgence at Negro, expense were inseparable.

    In such a section and in the hands of such men, abolitionists [showed] that slavery realized its most vicious possibilities. Anti-slavery men early set themselves to the task of collecting stories of cruelty . . . . Weld gathered them together [from Southern newspaper articles] in a volume entitled American Slavery As It Is and scattered them broadcast over the North. The annual reports of the anti-slavery societies, their tracts and periodicals, also revelled in atrocities. . . .

    The attempt to picture slavery "as it was," therefore, came to consist almost entirely of a recital of brutalities. Now and then a kind master and seemingly contented slaves were introduced for the purpose of contrast—as a device to deepen shadows. But, as a rule, Southerners, according to these tracts, spent their time in idleness broken only by brutal cockfights, gander pullings, and horse races so barbarous that "the blood of the tortured animal drips from the lash and flies at every leap from the stroke of the rowel." Slavery was one continual round of abuse. . . .

    To abuse was added other great wrongs. . . . slaves were overworked, underfed, and insufficiently clothed and sheltered. Family ties were cut without the slightest regard for Negro feelings—infants were torn from the mother's breast, husbands separated from their wives and families. Marriage was unknown among slaves, and the right to worship God generally denied. . . .

    Two principal [conclusions] stood out in this anti-slavery indictment of the slaveholder. He was, in the first place, the arch-aristocrat. He was the great enemy of democracy. He was un-American, the oppressor of his fellow men, the exploiter of a weaker brother. . . . He, more than any other aristocrat, threatened to destroy the American democratic dream.

    In the second place, he was a flagrant sinner. His self-indulgence was unmatched. His licentious conduct with Negro women, his intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors, his mad dueling, and his passion for war against the weak were enough to mark him as the nation's moral enemy number one! The time for dealing moderately had passed. Immediate reform was imperative. . . ."


    Excerpt 4, from Mich St. Univ Prof. Russell B. Nye (1915-1993),
    “The Slave Power Conspiracy, 1830-1860,”
    10 Science and Society 262-274 (Summer, 1946)

    The keynote of the abolitionist histories of the antebellum period, and of the literature produced by the abolitionist movement, was the thesis that the fight against slavery was not only a struggle to free the Negro from bondage, but one to remove as a dominant force in American life the threat of a well-organized, aggressive, threatening “Slave Power conspiracy,” or what is called "Slaveocracy."

    For the abolitionists, who remained a minority in the North throughout the entire pre-war period, the “Slave Power threat” . . . was, they charged, a tacit secret agreement among Southern slave-holders not only to maintain undisturbed their "peculiar institution," but to foist it on the nation by extending it to the territories and free states (possibly to whites), to destroy civil liberties, control the policies of the Federal government and complete the formation of a nation-wide ruling aristocracy based on a slave economy.

    To many in the North who were relatively uninterested in the Negro's freedom, the appeal of the charge was strong. Mechanics, immigrant laborers, farmers and lower- and middle-class workmen, prone to suspect the motives of the rich and powerful, found in the abolitionist contention [see Foster example] more logic than is usually supposed.

    During the [18] thirties the abolitionists warned constantly of the existence of such a conspiratorial movement to crush liberty, though the term "Slave power" did not come into wide use until the fifties.

    Ed. Note: But see an 1843 example.

    In 1839 the National Convenion of Abolitionists, meeting at Albany, resolved that

    “the events of the last five or six years leave no room for doubt that the SLAVE POWER is now waging a deliberate and determined war against the liberties of the free states,”

    and by 1845 repetitions of the charge became common. From that date on Northern opinion was subjected to an increasing barrage of proof, and began to be colored appreciably by acceptance of it. As the war of “black Republicanism” and miscegenation was used by the pro-slavery element to unify Southern opinion, so the genuine threat of the Slave Power became an important factor in consolidating anti-slavery sentiment in the North.

    What was the Slave Power of which the abolitionist warned, and from what conditions did it arise? A typical definition called it “that control in and over the government which is exercised by a comparatively small number of persons . . . bound together in a common interest, by being owners of slaves”; all definitions agreed that it was fundamentally “an aristocracy constituted and organized on the basis of ownership of slaves.”

    Its origins lay in the institution of slavery. . . .

    The threat of Slave Power domination was intensified, said the abolitionists, by the danger of a coalition of Southern slaveholder and Northern capitalist to form a ruling oligarchy. The two had certain moral affinities and a clear identity of interest, it was pointed out, and concerted action was logical and imminent. The tendency to include in the term “Slave Power” not only slaveholders but also Northern industrialists grew, until by 1850 the term meant, as Wendell Phillips strikingly phrased it, an alliance of “the Lords of the Lash and the Lords of the Loom.”

    Ed. Note: See also the analysis by Rev. William
    Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery (1852), p 134.

    “The wealth of the North and the wealth of the South,” cried The Antislavery Bugle, “are combined to crush the liberal, free progressive spirit of the age," and the fight against the Slave Power became a battle against conservatism, reaction, aristocracy, and the power of capital—in Ohio and Massachusetts as well as in South Carolina.

    It was not difficult for the abolitionists to recruit evidence to prove that there actually was a Slave Power conspiracy. After 1850, when they began to publicize the charge in earnest, they interpreted the drift of recent events in the light of its existence. Joshua Giddings of Ohio, writing in the forties, listed ten proofs from history to substantiate the belief that a well-organized Southern slaveholding cabal had operated in the past, and might again:
    • the fugitive slave law of 1793,
    • the Creek-Negro troubles in Florida in 1815,
    • the Seminole War,
    • the maintenance of slavery in the District of Columbia,
    • the controversy over the mails and
    • petitions in Congress in 1836,
    • attacks on free speech and
    • press, and
    • demands for extension of the slavery to the Southwest and for
    • the reopening of the slave trade.

    Seward in 1855 added the
    • Missouri Compromise,
    • the annexation of Texas,
    • the Mexican War,
    • the Kansas struggle, and
    • the 1850 Compromise to the list of Slave Power victories. The
    • Dred Scott case clinched the evidence,
    and by 1858 a substantial number of Northerners were ready to believe, as did the non-abolitionist Cincinnati Daily Commercial of March 12, 1857, that "There is such a thing as the SLAVE POWER. It has marched over and annihilated the boundaries of the states. We are now one great homogeneous slaveholding community."

    The aim of this conspiracy, whose existence was thus established, was threefold:
  • to reopen the slave trade;

  • to extend slavery throughout the entire nation and beyond; and,

  • most dangerous threat of all, to make the free white man a virtual slave to a privileged aristocracy of Southern slaveholder and Northern capitalist.
  • Southern agitation after 1850 for the renewal of the slave trade lent rather convincing proof to the first claim. The failing slave economy led many Southerners to advocate a revival of slave importations as the only remedy for the South's economic difficulties, and abolitionists seized upon the argument as evidence that the Slave Power intended to entrench itself even more firmly by thus bolstering the institution upon which it rested.

    In the years following, Southern demands became more insistent and frequent (a marked illustration of how completely the South had become committed to the defense and maintenance of slavery) while the abolitionist press kept careful watch of ruses, such as proposals to import "indentured" Negroes, Negro apprentices, or to form "African Labor Importation Associations." The loosening of the 1808 laws against the slave trade or their repeal, warned the abolitionists, would result without doubt in a new and doubly potent Slave Power.

    Stressed more strongly by the abolitionists and supported by more substantial evidence was the claim that the Slave Power intended to establish slavery on a nationwide and possibly a hemispheric basis. Gamaliel Bailey in 1844 exposed "a deliberate plot . . . to sustain the slavery of this country . . . and to extend it over almost illimitable regions," and for more than a decade the press reported a boast by Toombs of Georgia that he would some day call the roll of his slaves on Bunker Hill. Furthermore, the abolitionist could cite
  • the Kansas troubles,

  • the attacks on anti-slavery men in the North,

  • the Mexican War,

  • Texas,

  • the various Congressional compromises,

  • the argument over slavery in the territories,
  • and a host of other proofs. . . .

    More difficult to establish, but tremendously effective as a propaganda issue, was the accusation that the Slave Power aimed eventually to subvert the liberties of white men, and to introduce virtual white slavery as national policy. Since slavery, reasoned the abolitionists was founded upon a violation of the principles of liberty and free government, it followed that by the simple fact of its existence slavery was a constant threat to those principles. Abolitionists had warned from the beginning that the Slave Power would some day crush white rights as it had black. . . .

    It was not difficult to perceive the implications of the pro-slavery argument. If slavery were a positive good, superior to free society as an economic, political and social system, it was reasonable to assume that the next step of its proponents would be to impose it upon the nation at large. . . . The slave laws made no distinction in color; slavery was a matter of condition alone. If a person who was 99.9% white could, under the law, be claimed as a slave, the next step was a logical one. The only reason for the existence of pigmentation as a basis for slavery, warned the abolitionist, was simply that the Negro, who because of his helpless condition could be made a slave happened to have a different color.

    The truth was that the institution did not rest upon a distinction of race at all; "Where is the man," asked William Goodell, "who may not at any moment become a slave?" that is, if slavery is founded not upon color, but upon the right of the strong to enslave the weak?

    In making their charges, the abolitionists made a particular effort to point out, to the immigrant and to the laborer, the two groups most likely to respond, the great stake they held in the abolition of slavery and the consequent defeat of the Slave Power.

    "American slavery," resolved the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1843, "is the deadliest foe of the rights of labor, and ought, therefore, to be the object of special indignation and alarm to the hardworking Irish immigrant."

    . . . Involuntary servitude, it was warned, could legally be made a prerequisite to citizenship, and by some such device the Slave Power might introduce white slavery for the foreign-born. As evidence, the abolitionists pointed to those provisions of the Nebraska bill which denied citizenship to territorial aliens for five years, and to the anti-Foreign riots attendant to the Know-nothing movement.

    In general, the reaction of the foreign press, especially in the areas of German settlement, was sympathetic, while the influence of men such as C. C. Follen and Carl Schurz, both anti-slavery leaders, turned many immigrants toward the anti-slavery cause. Yet in the end it was not the Slave Power threat which enlisted the support of the Foreign born in abolitionism, but other factors, primarily economic and political, and after 1856 and the decline of the nativistic troubles, the abolitionist campaign to convince the immigrant of the threat of white slavery was largely written off.

    More successful was the appeal to the laboring classes. The workman, though little interested in the humanitarian aspects of the slavery question, intuitively perceived that his own liberties were to some extent involved in the issue. The existence of a slave labor system threatened his own status, and he could readily see that the competition of skilled and unskilled slaves tended to depreciate the value of free labor. . . .

    Nearly the whole structure of the pro-slavery argument could be turned to support the abolitionist contention that the Southern Slave Power intended to enslave white laborers. . . . Such, said the abolitionist, was the intent of the Slave Power, and, if it gained political control of the federal government, it could realize its aim.

    It was not difficult to find and publicize extremely significant statements from the South. The Republican party in 1856 distributed a reprint of a South Carolina paper's belief that "Slavery is the natural state and normal condition of the laboring man, black or white." . . .

    Neither were such sentiments restricted to the South. Solon Robinson of Indiana, a prominent agricultural authority, defended slavery as "a perfect labor system" and suggested its adoption on the nation's farms, a view that found some agreement in Ohio and Illinois. The Salem Register, the Pittsburgh Post, the New York Herald and the extremely Southern New York Day Book thought slavery superior as a labor system, while in factory-conscious New England a debate was held on the question. The abolitionist claim that the extension of slavery to white labor was something more than an impossible chimera had a point, and evidence to buttress it.

    If slavery were ever extended to include whites, the laborer, since his political and economic position was weakest, would be the first to be enslaved—a fact the abolitionist never allowed the laborer to forget. Thus, in 1839, The Emancipator summarized the issue:

    "The struggle is between the antagonist principles of free and slave labor. They cannot much longer co-exist. One must prevail to the exclusion of the other. The laborers will either be free, or enslaved."

    Subsequent argument directed at Northern labor by the abolitionists deviated but little from this line, and they continued their appeal to the labor interests for assistance against the Slave Power until the Civil War.

    Although the laboring class was too disorganized and too politically immature during the period to exert much influence, nevertheless in the main the effect of the abolitionist warnings of the Slave Power threat to its liberties was relatively large. . . . But though laboring interests, divided as they were, could give the abolitionist movement little organized assistance, the long campaign to convince the laborer of the Slave Power threat brought individual support to the anti-slavery cause, and bore material fruit when, in the form of the Republican party, it entered its political phase.

    The abolitionist contention, that there existed a Slave Power conspiracy which threatened the continuation of liberty, was an important factor in enlisting support among certain Northern elements for the anti-slavery movement. In some ways, and in some groups, the "great Slave Power plot" overshadowed in importance the religious, humanitarian, moral, and political issues of the controversy. The claim tended to discredit the pro-slavery argument, reading into it sinister implications; by carrying Southern logic to its ultimate conclusion and by identifying the slaveholder with a conspiracy of infinitely dangerous designs, the abolitionists robbed the pro-slavery position of any possible appeal to the immigrant, the workman, and the lower middle class in the North.

    Then too, the Slave Power threat helped widen the rift between North and South by making it more difficult than ever to be neutral toward or tolerant of slavery or its extension. Neutrality or tolerance, said the abolitionist, implied lack of interest in or positive hostility to the preservation of the liberal, democratic tradition. The issue simply admitted of no compromise. Identifying their cause with the greater cause of liberty, with republican government, and with the interests of large relatively unorganized special groups such as laborers or immigrants, the abolitionists made theirs the cause of civil and political freedom.

    The Slave Power threat personified the pro-slavery argument, made it vivid and concrete, and dramatized the controversy into a contest between good and evil, freedom and oppression, democracy and aristocracy. When war came, it was justified by the abolitionists and others as the last phase of the contest, as the final defense against the assaults of the Slave Power oni traditional American rights. The South waged war, it was said, ". . . not against Abolitionism or Republicanism per se, but against free institutions and the democratic theory of government."

    Had it not been for the abolitionists, who awakened the people to the "villainous purposes and character of the Slave Power," we should have had "a nation in which were only two classes, masters and slaves."

    Was there a Slave Power, and were the abolitionists correct in ascribing to it the evil designs which formed so large and important a part of the abolitionist propaganda? In the sense of the term as used by Wilson, Goodell, Bailey, Garrison, and others—a secret and highly organized group with conscious aims of imposing restrictions upon traditional liberties—the Slave Power conspiracy probably had no real existence. The South was never so completely unified as to warrant evidence of a definite "conspiracy.". . .

    However, it is clear that among Southern leaders there was unity of belief that Slavery was a good system, probably the best, and that it should be retained and extended; the events of the period from 1830 to 1860 showed that in preserving and extending it, the South was willing to infringe upon basic civil and personal rights, free speech, free press, free thought, and constitutional liberty. . . .

    While the "conspiracy" of which the abolitionists warned was no doubt a natural alliance of common political and economic interests, its threat to liberty, North and South, was more than idle. . . . and the abolitionists were not so far wrong in believing that its existence seriously jeopardized for the first time since the founding of the republic, the American Tradition."

    Prof. Nye overlooks the South's continued retaliations against the North for having won the Civil War and "stolen their slaves," for example, the coumarin-adulteration-of-tobacco issue, and the DWB issue.


    Excerpt 5, from Univ. of Mich. Prof. Dwight L. Dumond
    Antislavery: the Crusade for Freedom in America
    (Ann Arbor: Univ of Michigan Press (1961),
    pages 87-88 and 90-95)
    Note his discussion of reasons for pre-Civil War
    mass white emigrations fleeing from the South.

    Antislavery sentiment [in the South] was expressed in the early years [of the U.S.A.] only by men who lived in states where the slave power was too weak to prevent it, or by men powerful enough—most of them slaveholders from Virginia—to defy the slave power, or by men who lived in the nonslaveholding communities of the South. Just as soon as, and wherever the slave power became consolidated, antislavery utterances were silenced. [Ed Note: Compare the similar tobacco effects censorship taboo.] It was consolidated, it was militant, it was on the march, by the 1830's; and far from reconstructing its defenses from a feeling of desperation and exasperation, it was reaching out to silence its critics everywhere and to expand its power to the whole of the continent. It moved from strength and a sense of power, not from fear and weakness.

    One reason, indeed the primary reason, for this . . . sense of power . . . was the fact that the South had lost its balance and sense of proportion. As . . . slavery and the power of the slaveholders began to dominate the lower South, liberals moved out. They went to the free states. They became the most outspoken critics of slavery, and they knew whereof they spoke. Most of them were slaveholders previous to their migration, or came from slave-holding families. They were exiles in a very real sense, for some of them, certainly, would have been killed had they ventured back to the South.

    The migration of these people was NOT [emphasis added, Ed.] a part of the westward movement. People moved west from the Carolinas, and Georgia, and Virginia, just as they moved west from New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. They moved southwest and northwest. We can identify many such. They moved for diverse reasons: to get away from the restraints and conventions of old, established communities, to find more elbow room, to get land or cheaper land. There is a voluminous literature on the subject, familiar to everyone.

    Ed. Note: Note the depopulation, white flight, from the slave state of Virginia, cited by Alvan Stewart, Legal Argument (1845), pp 49-50. See also Rev. John G. Fee (1851) pp 147-148; and Abraham Lincoln Peoria Speech, pp 232-233. Sen. Charles Sumner cited background.

    Some of these people were honest, hard-working people of all sorts from homestead farmers to carpenters and woodcutters who found intolerable the stigma on honest toil in the slave country. Some farmers moved because the entire economy was geared to the needs [Ed. wishes] of slaveholding planters, and marketing and shipping became increasingly difficult as plantations developed. Some were paid high prices for their lands. Some were bitter because legislatures dominated by slaveholders, who could afford private instruction for their children, refused to build public schools.

    Let us dwell a moment on this point of nonslaveholders' grievances. The legislature of North Carolina, for example, refused until 1840 to provide in any way for a system of public education. In consequence, the Census of 1850 showed 80,000 illiterate free persons in the state. One writer puts the figure at 71,150 persons over twenty-one years of age. The argument over schools and roads became so serious that it finally led to threats of violence. Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina, said of migration from that state:
    "Of my neighbors, friends and kindred, nearly one-half have left the State since I was old enough to remember. Many is the time I have stood by the loaded emigrant wagon and given the parting hand to those whose faces I was never to look upon again. They were going to seek homes in the free West, knowing, as they did, that free and slave labor could not both exist and prosper in the same community."

    Still more to the point was the statement of Henry Ruffner, president of Washington College (Lexington, Va.), in 1847. Saying that Virginia had lost by emigration 300,000 more persons than all of the old free states, he continued:
    "She has sent—or we should rather say, she has driven from her soil—at least one third of all the emigrants, who have gone from the old States to the new. More than another third have gone from the other old slave states. . . . These were generally industrious and enterprising white men, who found by sad experience, that a country of slaves was not the country for them. It is a truth, a certain truth, that slavery drives free laborers,—farmers, mechanics, and all, and some of the best of them too—out of the country, and fills their places with negroes."

    All of this was part of the westward movement—very important in the slavery controversy as we shall see—but not in this particular aspect of it. The movement we are talking about was a distinct, easily recognizable, and clearly defined migration of people away from the slave power. These were men and women who simply refused to live in the atmosphere of slavery. They were cultivated men and women in the finest tradition of those who had preceded them in the contest: of Franklin, Rush, and Rice, for example.

    Fortunately, life loses meaning for our choicest souls unless they can help the underprivileged and oppressed. The mere sight of the victims of prejudice and greed, in slavery, was unbearable to these people. Honorable men and women, given to honest thinking, simply could not breathe in an atmosphere where they not only could do nothing about it, and say nothing about it, but were expected to condone and publicly approve it. The rapid rise of the slave power bore them down and drove them out. -

    Once out of the reach of the slave power, these people were free to speak and to write, which they did with telling effect. [Their writing] is our finest evidence as to what slavery really was, because these people had been slaveholders, had been reared in slave communities, had gone into exile rather than be silent about it, and were free to tell what they knew. They were relatively free from violence, they could find publishers and establish printing presses, and the public was willing to read and listen.

    Naturally, they became leaders in the antislavery movement. They would have been [so in the south], had they been allowed to remain in the slave states. Among them were
  • James Gillespie Birney, foremost exponent [Ed. Note: see book list] of constitutional theory and champion of civil rights;

  • Edward Coles, governor of Illinois and staunch opponent of slavery expansion;

  • Levi Coffin, "president" of the underground railroad;

  • John Rankin, defender of the faith in one General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church after another;

  • Angelina Grimké, champion of women's rights and coauthor of the greatest indictment of slavery ever written

  • and a host of others of equal stature.
  • Preachers were among the first to feel the pressure for conformity, because there never was a more pronounced moral issue [Ed Note. See books by Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.], and the slave power insisted it was and must remain a political question. Eventually [Ed Note, like many German churches in Nazi Germany] the Southern churches accepted that point of view, officially at least, but not until a good many incidents occurred.

    The Baptist David Barrow [1753-1819] was one of these men. He was born in 1753 and preached in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. In 1795 he founded the Portsmouth-Norfolk church and installed Jacob Bishop, a Negro, as pastor, with a mixed Negro-white congregation. He was subjected to much criticism and some violence, and moved in 1798, under strong pressure, to Kentucky. In Kentucky in 1805 he was expelled from the North District Association of Baptists because of his views on slavery, wrote his pamphlet Involuntary, Unlimited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery Examined on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture, and served as president of the Kentucky Abolition Society for many years. He died in 1819.

    David Rice was a Virginia Presbyterian and a graduate of Princeton. He was much older than Barrow, having been born in 1733, and having begun his ministry in 1767. He left Virginia in 1783 because of opposition to his antislavery principles and went to Kentucky, where he established the first grammar school in the West, helped to found Transylvania, and served as chairman of its board of trustees for many years . . . . He afterward was active in the Kentucky Abolition Society, which failed to survive.

    We are more familiar with the work of Barrow and Rice because they left us written records of their antislavery views, but there were others in this area. William Hickman, born in Virginia in 1747, settled near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1784 and became pastor of the Baptist Church at Forks of the Elkhorn. The Elkhorn Association censured him in 1805 saying
    "this Association judges it improper for ministers, churches, or associations, to meddle with emancipation from slavery or any other political subject, and as such, we advise ministers and churches to have nothing to do therewith in their religious capacities."
    Hickman threw the slaveholders out of his church, but was forced to resign. . . .

    Here was the record of honest, sincere frontier preachers who failed to gain more than a momentary hearing in their struggle against slavery, just as Rice had failed in the constitutional convention of the state. There was no central governing body of the Baptist churches to which they could carry an appeal. But over the long view, they did not fail, because other men were coming from the deep South to build on the foundations they had laid and this was soon to become a very important area of antislavery activity.

    George Smith, born in Virginia in 1747 Episcopalian parents, went to Kentucky as a Baptist preacher in 1804. His strong antislavery views made him exceedingly unpopular, but he preached until his death in 1820. Carter Tarrant, one of the earliest settlers in Logan County, Kentucky, came from Virginia and preached at the Hillsboro and Clear Creek churches. He and a member of his church, John Sutton, founded the first antislavery church in Woodford County. He died while serving as a chaplain in the Army in the War of 1812. Another antislavery church was founded at Bardstown by Joshua Carman, in 1796, but failed to survive.

    James Gilliland was born (1761) and reared in South Carolina. He was opposed to slavery, and, after graduating from Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, returned to South Carolina to preach in 1796. He was charged by twelve members of his congregation with political treason for preaching against slavery, and the Presbyterian Synod of the Carolinas, meeting at Morganton, November 3, 1796, decreed that he could not speak publicly for emancipation. He obeyed for a time, but moved to the greatest single mecca for emancipated slaves and ex-slave holders. Brown County, Ohio, in 1805. Here, he served as pastor of the Red Oak church for thirty-nine years, to a congregation of ex-slaveholders and other emigrants from the South. He was an uncompromising advocate of immediate emancipation and was second on the list of vice-presidents of the American Anti-Slavery Society when it was organized in 1833. He was affectionately known as Father Gilliland and founded churches at Ripley, Russellville, Decatur, and Georgetown.

    There was born in Virginia in 1749 a most remarkable man, Samuel Doak [1749-1830], who graduated from Princeton in 1775 and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Hanover, Virginia. He married, moved to Fork Church, North Carolina (later Tennessee), and founded (1783) at Little Limestone, near Jonesboro, Martin Academy, with a charter from the state. He founded Washington College in 1795 and served as its president until 1818, at which time he founded, at New Bethel, Tusculum Academy. He was opposed to slavery; freed his slaves and sent them to Brown County, Ohio; and trained a host of young preachers, nearly all of whom went to the Old Northwest. Among them were Gideon Blackburn, John Rankin, and David Nelson. Sometime in the 1820's, Doak moved to Ohio, where he died in 1830.

    Rev. John Rankin

    Doak's son-in-law was John Rankin [1793-1886], born in Tennessee, in 1793. He studied under Doak, later married his daughter, and was licensed to preach in 1817. He was a staunch opponent of slavery and active in the Kentucky Abolition Society while preaching at Carlisle in 1817-21. He then moved to Ripley, Ohio, where he served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church for forty-four years. He converted his home into a haven of refuge for fugitives crossing the river and was mobbed many times by irate Kentuckians. A series of his letters first published in 1823 and reprinted in book form as Letters on American Slavery, Addressed to Mr. Thomas Rankin, Merchant at Middlebrook, Augusta County, Virginia, remains one of the twenty-five most important antislavery publications. He later served as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society, but his most important contribution was in the Presbyterian General Assemblies, where year after year he led the fight against slavery until the schism of 1837.

    There came also to the Chillicothe Presbytery in early years, James H. Dickey, born in Virginia in 1780, and William Dickey, a native of South Carolina. James began his ministerial career as a missionary in Tennessee, but freed the slaves inherited by himself and his wife, and went to South Salem, Ohio, in 1810, where he became widely known for his antislavery work. William Dickey moved with his family from South Carolina to Kentucky where he preached for seventeen years. He went to Ohio, organized a church at Bloomingsburg in 1818, and served as its pastor for forty years.

    Finally, there came from Pennsylvania by way of Kentucky, Samuel Crothers. He had intended to make Winchester, Kentucky, his home, but moved to Ross County, Ohio, where he preached from 1810 to 1820 and then went to Greenfield, where he organized the Paint Valley Abolition Society. Gilliland, Rankin, the two Dickeys, and Samuel Crothers made the Chillicothe Presbytery of Ohio an antislavery stronghold before 1820. Rankin quickly emerged as a national figure in the movement.

    Another of the giants in the movement was Levi Coffin, born in North Carolina in 1789. He was of a family of Quakers, by instinct and tradition opposed to slavery. Opposition to his religious instruction of the slaves in the New Garden area led to his migration to Newport, Indiana, in 1826. Here he devoted as much time to aiding the fugitives as to business, helped three thousand slaves on their way to freedom, and ultimately became the most important figure in that exciting phase of antislavery work. He was in Cincinnati during the riotous forties and continued his aid to freedmen until long after the Civil War.

    From the schools of Samuel Doak in Tennessee came a number of men. Gideon Blackburn was born in Virginia, in 1772. His family moved to Tennessee, where he attended Martin Academy. He was licensed to preach at twenty, founded a church at New Providence in 1792, and conducted a school for Cherokee children from 1804 to 1810. He became pastor of the Presbyterian church at Louisville in 1823, and president of Centre College at Danville in 1827. He went to Illinois in 1833, assisted Elijah P. Lovejoy in organizing the Illinois Antislavery Society, and founded Blackburn College at Carlinville.

    Ed. Note: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Key (1853), has Part IV, Chap. III, pp. 223-228, on Rev. Lovejoy.

    David Nelson, born in Tennessee in 1793, studied under Doak, served as a surgeon in the War of 1812, became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Danville in 1828, rose to national prominence as director of education for the church, freed his slaves in Kentucky and went to Palmyra, Missouri, as president of Marion College. He was driven from his pulpit and from the state for advocating compensated emancipation, and barely escaped with his life into Illinois.

    Thomas Morris was born in Virginia in 1776. He was bitterly opposed to slavery and moved to Ohio in 1795, where he studied law at night while making a living, as a brickmaker, for a family of eleven children. He served in the Ohio legislature from 1806 to 1830, as chief justice of the state from 1830 to 1833, and as United States senator from 1833 to 1839. In the Senate he led the fight for the right of petition, fought Calhoun's resolutions of 1837, and delivered a masterful defense of civil rights in debate with Henry Clay. He was read out of his party and promptly joined in the political movement to abolish slavery.

    Two Virginians of equal stature went to Illinois to escape slavery, and their combined efforts probably kept that state free. James Lemen settled at New Design in 1786, organized the first eight Baptist churches, all on an antislavery basis, diligently counteracted the many proslavery petitions sent to Congress while William Henry Harrison was governor of Indiana Territory, and organized "The Baptized Church of Christ, Friends of Humanity, on Cantine Creek," with a constitution
    "denying union and communion with all persons holding the doctrine of perpetual, involuntary, hereditary slavery."
    This close-knit organization gave tremendous weight to Lemen's work as a member of the first Constitutional Convention.
    "The church," it was said, "properly speaking, never entered politics, but presently, when it became strong, the members all formed what they called the 'Illinois Anti-Slavery League,' and it was this body that conducted the anti-slavery contest. It always kept one of its members and several of its friends in the territorial legislature, and five years before the constitutional election in 1818 it had fifty resident agents—men of like sympathies—in the several settlements throughout the territory quietly at work."

    Edward Coles was born in Virginia in 1786, of wealthy, slaveholding parents. He was educated at Hampden-Sidney College and William and Mary College, served as private secretary to President Madison from 1809 to 1815, and went to Russia on a diplomatic mission in 1816. Coles made plans to free his slaves as early as 1815. In the spring of 1819 he took his slaves by boat to the West and gave them freedom and land upon which to start a new life. He immediately made common cause with the antislavery forces of Lemen's association, was elected [Illinois] governor in 1822 by a narrow margin, and was a tower of strength in preventing adoption of a new proslavery constitution.

    Finally, there came into this area two stalwarts of the later movement: William T. Allan and James A. Thome.
  • Allan was the son of the Presbyterian minister at Huntsville, Alabama, and Thome the son of a wealthy slaveholding planter of Augusta, Kentucky. Both came to Lane Seminary, Cincinnati, in 1833, under the influence of Theodore Weld. Both took part in the great debate there, and in the contest over academic freedom . . . . Both joined the exodus to Oberlin, became antislavery lecturers and ministers, and remained active in the movement until slavery was abolished.

  • Thome went to the British West Indies for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836 [Ed Note, see resultant book and context]; Allan was undoubtedly the most powerful force in Illinois for freedom after Governor Coles removed to Philadelphia in the early 1830's.
  • George Bourne [1780-1845] was born in Westbury, England, in 1780. He came to America and became pastor of the Presbyterian church at South River, Virginia, in 1814. Two years of contact with slavery so shocked him that he published, in 1816, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable. He was immediately charged with heresy and condemned by the Presbyterian Council. He went to Germantown, Pennsylvania, ultimately joined the Dutch Reformed Church, and wrote some bitter denunciations of slavery:
    • An Address to the Presbyterian Church, Enforcing the Duty of Excluding All Slaveholders from the "Communion of Saints";

    • Man Stealing and Slavery Denounced by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches;

    • Picture of Slavery in the United States of America [1834]; and

    • Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects upon Women and Domestic Society.
    Bourne's attack upon slavery was bold. Some would say that it was extreme, but no one knew better than he the relentless fashion in which the slave power was silencing its critics, and he retaliated in kind. [Ed Note: See list of his writings and context]

    The list of exiles grows long; but there were others:
  • Andrew Bankson of Tennessee who came to Illinois in 1808, became a state senator, and worked actively in the antislavery cause;

  • William Brisbane of South Carolina who freed his slaves, moved to Cincinnati in 1835 and ultimately to Wisconsin, where he was pastor of the Baptist Church in Madison and chief clerk of the state senate;

  • Alexander Campbell of Virginia, who went to Kentucky in 1796 and to Ripley, Ohio, in 1803, where he freed his slaves, served in the Ohio legislature and in the United States Senate, and became the first vice-president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1835;

  • Peter Cartwright, of Virginia, who moved to Kentucky in 1790, and from fear that his daughters would marry slaveholders, to Illinois in 1824, where he served in the state legislature and ran against Lincoln for Congress in 1846;

  • Obed Denham of Virginia, who went to Ohio in 1797, founded the town of Bethel, and endowed a Baptist church for those
    "who do not hold slaves, nor commune at the Lord's Table with those that do practice such tyranny over their fellow creatures."
  • Others were
  • William Dunlop who went from Kentucky to Ohio in 1796, freed his slaves and settled them on land near Ripley, and further proved his steadfastness in the cause by paying $1600 for the release of John B. Mahan when he was kidnapped and taken to Kentucky for trial on a charge of abducting slaves;

  • Samuel Grist of Virginia, who bought land in Brown County, Ohio, for one thousand slaves to whom he gave not only farms but livestock and tools; and

  • Risdom Moore, who lived from 1760 until 1812 in his native state of Delaware, then in North Carolina, and then in Georgia, moved to Illinois in the latter year, freed his slaves, served as speaker in the territorial legislature, and as a member of the state legislature, was burned in effigy by proslavery men because of his activities in behalf of the Negroes and against slavery.
  • This does not by any means exhaust the list. There were hundreds who came North to escape slavery and worked quietly for emancipation in local anti-slavery societies and at the ballot box. There were the two—James G. Birney and Angelina Grimké—whose lives are woven inextricably into every phase of the struggle. Finally, there were the thousands of fugitives who settled in Northern communities and by their industry and good citizenship bore mute testimony of the falsity of the proslavery doctrines, and thousands, too, who bore the indestructible marks of cruelty.

    The people who have been here mentioned, with very few exceptions left the South about 1800, shortly before or shortly after the turn of the century, when the Revolutionary impulse for emancipation was checked and the South was dedicated to perpetual slavery. They left because so-called security regulations impinged upon their freedom to discuss slavery, to educate or preach to the slaves, and to ease their distress and set them free; or because they feared the baneful influence of slavery upon their children, or because they lost faith in the future of the slave country. Almost all of them were slaveholders who freed their slaves at tremendous financial sacrifice. There was no quibbling on their part about gradual emancipation, or compensated emancipation, and they did not participate in that refined form of brigandage known as "allowing the slaves to purchase their freedom." They emancipated them, and in most cases brought them North and gave them a start as free men.

    These people, also, were not lowly people seeking to improve their economic status. All of them were men of assured positions and security in their communities.

    If there is one thing crystal clear about the antislavery movement up to this point—and it continued to be true to the end—it is this: it was an intellectual and moral crusade for social reform and common decency in human relationships, initiated and carried through at great personal sacrifice by men of property and high position in religious and educa tional institutions, in public life, and in the professions. These exiles from the South were that kind of people.

    Those who became active in the agitation against slavery were devoted to the cause and effective in their contributions. One does not ask, Could slavery have been abolished without Rankin, Coles, Birney, and Angelina Grimké? One shudders at the possible consequences to the Presbyterian church, to the state of Illinois, to the Constitution, to women's rights, had these great intellects and courageous souls become hostages to the slave power. [Ed Note. See writings of free Northern clergy writers, by Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.]


    Excerpt 6, from Cornell Univ Am. History Prof. David Brion Davis,
    "The Emergence of Immediatism in
    British and American Anti-slavery Thought,"
    XLIX Mississippi Valley Historical Review 209-230 (Sep 1962)
    Note his discussion of the term "Immediate Emancipation"

    In [a] subjective sense the word "immediate" was charged with religious overtones and referred more to the moral disposition of the reformer than to a particular plan for emancipation. Thus some reformers confused immediate abolition with an immediate personal decision to abstain from consuming slave-grown produce; and a man might be considered an immediatist if he were genuinely convinced that slavery should be abolished absolutely and without compromise, though not necessarily without honest preparation. Such a range of meanings led unavoidably to misunderstanding, and the antislavery cause may have suffered from so ambiguous a slogan. The ambiguity, however, was something more than semantic confusion or the unfortunate result of a misleading watchword. The doctrine of immediacy, in the form it took in the 1830's, was at once a logical culmination of the anti-slavery movement and a token of a major shift in intellectual history.

    A belief in the slave's right to immediate freedom was at least implicit in much of the antislavery writing of the eighteenth century. . . . Several of the philosophes held that since masters relied on physical force to impose their illegal demands, slave revolts would be just; Louis de Jaucourt went so far as to argue that slaves, never having lost their inherent liberty, should be immediately declared free. Anthony Benezet advanced a similar argument, asking what course a man should follow if he discovered that an inherited estate was really the property of another: "Would you not give it up immediately to the lawful owner? The voice of all mankind would mark him for a villain, who would refuse to comply with this demand of justice. And is not keeping a slave after you are convinced of the unlawfulness of it—a crime of the same nature?"

    In England, [abolitionist] Granville Sharp denounced slavery as a flagrant violation of the common law, the law of reason, and the law of God. [Ed Note. See scriptural analyses by, e.g., Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.] After exhorting Lord North to do something about the plight of the slaves, he warned: "I say immediate redress, because, to be in power, and to neglect . . . even a day in endeavouring to put a stop to such monstrous injustice and abandoned wickedness, must necessarily endanger a man's eternal welfare, be he ever so great in temporal dignity or office." Sharp, who argued that "No Legislature on Earth . . . can alter the Nature of Things, or make that to be lawful, which is contrary to the Law of God," secured a judicial decision outlawing slavery in England. Americans like James Otis, Nathaniel Appleton, and Isaac Skillman took a similarly uncompromising stand before the Revolution; by the 1780's the doctrine of natural rights had made the illegality of slavery an established fact in Vermont and Massachusetts.

    But the natural rights philosophy was not the only source of immediatism. Officially, the Society of Friends showed extreme caution in encouraging emancipation, but from the time of George Keith a latent impulse of moral perfectionism rose to the surface in the radical testimony of individual Quakers, who judged slavery in the uncompromising light of the Golden Rule. For reformers, slavery was not a social or economic institution, but rather an embodiment of wordly sin that corrupted the souls of both master and slave; . . .

    Immediatism, in the sense of an immediate consciousness of the guilt of slaveholding and an ardent desire to escape moral contamination, is similarly evident in the writings of men who differed widely in their views of religion and political economy.

    John Wesley's combined attack on the opposite poles of Calvinism and natural religion could also be directed against slavery, which some defended by arguments similar to those that justified seeming injustice or worldly evils . . . . In 1784 Wesley's antislavery beliefs were developed into a kind of immediatism in the rules of American Methodists: "We . . . think it our most bounden duty to take immediately some effectual method to extripate this abomination from among us." A related source of immediatism can be traced in the development of the romantic sensibility and the cult of the "man of feeling," which merged with Rousseau and the French Enlightenment in the writings of such men as Thomas Day and William Fox.

    In the light of this evidence we may well ask why immediatism appeared so new and dangerously radical in the 1830's. The later abolitionists charged that slavery was a sin against God and a crime against nature; they demanded an immediate beginning of direct action that would eventuate in general emancipation. Yet all of this had been said at least a half-century before, and we might conclude that immediatism was merely a recurring element in antislavery history.

    But if immediatism was at least latent in early antislavery thought, the dominant frame of mind of the eighteenth century was overwhelmingly disposed to gradualism. Gradualism, in the sense of a reliance on indirect and slow-working means to achieve a desired social objective, was the logical consequence of fundamental attitudes toward progress, natural law, property, and individual rights.

    We cannot understand the force of gradualism in antislavery thought unless we abandon the conventional distinction between Enlightenment liberalism and evangelical reaction. It is significant that British opponents of abolition made little use of religion, appealing instead to the need for calm rationality and and an expedient regard for the national interest. Quoting Hume, Lord Kames, and even Montesquieu to support their moral relativism, they showed that principles of the Enlightenment could be easily turned to the defense of slavery. A belief in progress and natural rights might lead, of course, to antislavery convictions; but if history seemed to be on the side of liberty, slavery had attained a certain prescriptive sanction as a nearly univeral expression of human nature. Men who had acquired an increasing respect for property and for the intricate workings of natural and social laws could not view as an unmitigated evil an institution that had developed through the centuries.

    Though evangelicals attacked natural religion and an acceptance of the world as a divinely contrived mechanism, in which evils like slavery served a legitimate function, they nevertheless absorbed many of the assumptions of conservative rationalists and tended to express a middle-class fear of sudden social change. Despite the sharp differences between evangelicals and rationalists, they shared confidence, for the most part, in the slow unfolding of a divine or natural plan of historical progress. The mild and almost imperceptible diffusion of reason, benevolence, or Christianity had made slavery—a vestige of barbarism—anachronistic. But while eighteenth-century abolitionists might delight in furthering God's or nature's plan for earthly salvation, they tended to assume a detached, contemplative view of history, and showed considerable fear of sudden changes or precipitous action that might break the delicate balance of natural and historical forces.

    There was therefore a wide gap between the abstract proposition that slavery was wrong, or even criminal, and the cautious formulation of anti-slavery policy. It was an uncomfortable fact that slavery and the slave trade were tied closely to
  • the rights of private property,

  • the political freedom of colonies and states, and

  • the economic rewards of international competition.
  • Ed. Note: Only the latter, in fact. Slavery was a violation of the
    So the only "property rights" to be respected, were in fact solely those of the slave, i.e., his right to himself.

    Yet from the 1790's to the 1820's British and American reformers were confident that they understood the basic principles of society and could thus work toward the desired goal indirectly and without infringing on legitimate rights or interests. . . . The British reformers focused their attention on the slave trade, assuming that if the supply of African Negroes were shut off planters would be forced to take better care of their existing slaves and would ultimately discover that free labor was more profitable. In America, reform energies were increasingly directed toward removing the free Negroes, who were thought to be the principal barrier to voluntary manumission. Both schemes were attempts at rather complex social engineering, and in both instances the desired reform was to come from the slaveowners themselves. Antislavery theorists assumed that they could predict the cumulative effects and consequences of their limited programs, and since they never doubted the goodness or effectiveness of natural laws, they sought only to set in motion a chain of forces that would lead irresistibly to freedom.

    This gradualist mentality dominated antislavery thought from the late eighteenth century to the 1820's. Though French thinkers had been among the first to denounce slavery as a crime, the emancipation scheme which they pioneered was one of slow transformation of the slave into a free laborer. Even the Amis des Noirs feared immediate emancipation; and the French decree abolishing slavery in 1794, which was the result of political and military crisis in the West Indies, seemed to verify the ominous warnings of gradualists in all countries. The years of bloodshed and anarchy in Haiti became an international symbol for the dangers of reckless and unplanned emancipation.

    Ed. Note: For more on Haiti, from a pro-freedom anti-slavery viewpoint, see, e.g., Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., The Uses of Haiti (Common Courage Press, 1994 and 2006) (on Haiti history including U.S. imperialism vs Haiti,   Excerpts).

    British abolitionists were particularly cautious in defining their objectives and moving indirectly, one step at a time. When outlawing the slave trade did not have the desired effect on colonial slavery, they then sought to bring the institution within the regulatory powers of the central government by limiting the extension of slavery in newly acquired islands and by using the crown colonies as models for gradual melioration; and when these efforts failed, they urged a general registration of slaves, which would not only interpose imperial authority in the colonies but provide a mechanism for protecting the Negroes' rights. By 1822 these methods had proved inadequate and the British reformers began agitating for direct parliamentary intervention. Even then, however, and for the following eight years, British anti-slavery leaders limited their aims to melioration and emancipation by slow degrees.

    Between British and American anti-slavery men there was a bond of understanding and a common interest in suppressing the international slave trade and finding a home in Haiti or western Africa for free Negroes. But in America, the antislavery movement was given a distinctive color by the discouraging obstacles that stood in the way ofeven gradual emancipation. While states like New York and Pennsylvania provided tangible examples of gradual manumission, they also showed the harsh and ugly consequences of racial prejudice. Americans, far more than the British, were concerned with the problem of the emancipated slave. Even some of the most radical and outspoken abolitionists were convinced that colonization was the inescapable prerequisite to reform. Others stressed the importance of education and moral training as the first steps toward eventual freedom.

    In America the gradualist frame of mind was also related to the weakness and limitations of political institutions. British abolitionists could work to enlist the unlimited power of Parliament against colonies that were suffering acute economic decline. But slavery in America was not only expanding but was protected by a sectional balance of power embodied in nearly every national institution. A brooding fear of disunion and anarchy damped down the aspirations of most American abolitionists and turned energies to such local questions as the education and legal protection of individual Negroes. Antislavery societies might call for the government to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia or even to abolish the interstate slave trade; but in the end they had to rely on public opinion and individual conscience in the slave states. While British abolitionists moved with the circumspection of conservative pragmatists, their American counterparts acted with the caution of men surrounded by high explosives. . . .

    But if British and American abolitionists were gradualist in their policies and expectations, they did not necessarily regard slavery as simply one of many social evils that should be mitigated and eventually destroyed. The policy of gradualism was related to certain eighteenth-century assumptions about historical progress, the nature of man, and the principles of social change; but we have also noted a subjective, moral aspect to antislavery thought that was often revealed as an immediate consciousness of guilt and a fear of divine punishment.

    During the British slave trade controversy of the 1790's, the entire system of slavery and slave trade became identified with sin, and reform with true virtue. Though antislavery leaders adopted the gradualist policy of choosing the slave trade as their primary target, they bitterly fought every attempt to meliorate or gradually destroy the African trade.

    It was the determined opponents of the slave trade who first gave popular currency to the slogan, "immediate abolition," which became in the early 1790's, a badge of moral sincerity. When uncompromising hostility to the slave trade became a sign of personal virtue and practical Christianity, the rhetoric of statesmen acquired the strident, indignant tone that we associate with later American abolitionists. . . . "How shall we hope," asked William Pitt, "to obtain, if it is possible, forgiveness from Heaven for those enormous evils we have committed, if we refuse to make use of those means . . . for wiping away the guilt and shame with which we are now covered?"

    This sense of moral urgency and fear of divine retribution persisted in British antislavery thought and was held in check only by a faith in the certain and predictable consequences of indirect action. Whenever the faith was shaken by unforeseen obstacles or a sense of crisis, there were voices that condemned gradualism as a compromise with sin. Granville Sharp, who interpreted hurricanes in the West Indies as supernatural agencies "to blast the enemies of law and righteousness," called in 1806 for direct emancipation by act of Parliament, and warned that continued toleration of slavery in the colonies "must finally draw down the Divine vengeance upon our state and nation."

    When William Allen, Zachary Macaulay, and James Cropper became disillusioned over the failure to secure an effective registration scheme and international suppression of the slave trade, they pressed for direct though gradual emancipation by the British government. The British Anti-Slavery Society remained officially gradualist until 1831, but individual abolitionists, particularly in the provinces, became increasingly impatient over the diffidence of the government and the intransigence of colonial legislatures. From 1823 to 1832 the British Caribbean planters violently attacked the government's efforts to meliorate slavery. They not only devised schemes to nullify effective reform but threatened to secede from the empire and seek protection from the United States. Though the evils of West Indian slavery were probably mitigated in the 1820's, the planters' resistance convinced many abolitionists that gradual improvement was impossible.

    The most eloquent early plea for immediate emancipation was made in 1824 by a Quaker named Elizabeth Heyrick, who looked to the women of Great Britain as a source of invincible moral power, and who preached a massive consumers' crusade against West Indian produce. The central theme in Mrs. Heyrick's pamphlet, Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition, was the supremacy of individual conscience over social and political institutions. . . . Like the later American immediatists, she excoriated gradualism as a satanic plot to induce gradual indifference. . . . For Mrs. Heyrick the issue was simple and clearcut: sin and vice should be immediately exterminated by individual action in accordance with conscience and the will of God. [Ed Note. See data showing slavery as sin, by, e.g., Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.]

    In 1824 such views were too strong for British antislavery leaders, who still looked to direct government action modeled on the precedent of the Canning Resolutions, which had proposed measures for ameliorating the condition of West Indian slaves as a step toward ultimate emancipation. Abolitionists in Parliament continued to shape their strategy in the light of political realities, but by 1830 several prominent reformers had adopted the uncompromising stand of Elizabeth Heyrick. The shift from gradualism to immediatism is most dramatically seen in James Stephen, who possessed a mind of great clarity and precision and who, having practiced law in the West Indies, had acquired direct experience with slavery as an institution. For a time Stephen adhered to the principle of gradualism. . . . By 1830, however, he was convinced that debate over alternative plans merely inhibited action and obscured what was essentially a question of principle and simple moral duty. . . . Lashing out at the moral lethargy of the government, he denounced the principle of compensation to slaveowners and rejected all specific gradualist measures such as the liberation of Negro women or the emancipation of infants born after a certain date. Stephen's immediatism was based ultimately on a fear of divine vengeance and an overwhelming sense of national guilt. . . .

    On October 19, 1830, the Reverend Andrew Thomson, of St. George's Church in Edinburgh, delivered a fire-and-brimstone speech that provided an ideology for George Thompson and the later Agency Committee. Beginning with the premise that slavery is a crime and sin, Thomson dismissed all consideration of economic and political questions. When the issue was reduced to what individual men should do as mortal and accountable beings, there was no possibility of compromise or even controversy. The British public should "compel" Parliament to order total and immediate emancipation. With Calvinistic intensity he exhorted the public to cut down and burn the "pestiferous tree, root and branch: "You must annihilate it,— annihilate it now,—and annihilate it forever." Since Thomson considered every hour that men were kept in bondage a repetition of the original sin of man-stealing, he did not shrink, from violence: "If there must be violence, . . . let it come and rage its little hour, since it is to be succeeded by lasting freedom, and prosperity, and happiness."

    Taking its cue from men like Stephen, Thomson, and Joseph Sturge, the Anti-Slavery Society reorganized itself for more effective action and focused its energies on raising petitions and arousing public feeling against slavery. While Thomas Fowell Buxton sought to make the fullest use of public opinion to support his campaign in Parliament, he found himself under mounting pressure from abolitionists who refused to defer to his judgment. People's principles, he told his daughter, were the greatest nuisance in life. When the government finally revealed its plan for gradual and compensated emancipation, the Anti-Slavery Society committed itself to vigorous and aggressive opposition. But once the law had been passed, the antislavery leaders concluded that they had done as well as possible and that their defeat had actually been a spectacular victory. They had achieved their primary object, which was to induce the people to support a tangible act that could be interpreted as purging the nation of collective guilt and proving the moral power of individual conscience.

    In America the developing pattern was somewhat similar. Despite the conservatism of most antislavery societies, a number of radical abolitionists branded slaveholding as a heinous sin, which, if not immediately abandoned, would bring down the wrath of the Lord. A few early reformers like Theodore Dwight Weld, David Rice, Charles Osborn, and John Rankin were well in advance of British anti-slavery writers in their sense of moral urgency and their mistrust of gradualist programs.

    As early as 1808, David Barrow, although he denied favoring immediate abolition, anticipated the later doctrine of the American Anti-Slavery Society by refusing to recognize the lawfulness of slavery or the justice of compensation. Holding that slavery was the crying sin of America, he urged a prompt beginning of manumission in order to avert the retribution of God.

    Three years earlier [1805] Thomas Branagan, who opposed "instantaneous emancipation" if the freed Negroes were to remain within the United States, contended that his plan for colonization in the West would bring a speedy end to slavery and avert the divine judgment of an apocalyptic racial war.

    In 1817 John Kenrick showed that colonization could be combined with a kind of immediatism, for though he proposed settlement of free Negroes in the West, he went so far as to suggest that the powers of the central government should be enlarged, if necessary, in order to abolish slavery. "If slavery is 'a violation of the divine laws,'" Kenrick asked, "is it not absurd to talk about a gradual emancipation? We might as well talk of gradually leaving off piracy, murder, adultery, or drunkenness." [Ed Note. See other data on slavery as a sin, by, e.g., Rev. Weld, Fee, Cheever, Stowe, Pillsbury, etc.]

    The religious character of this radical abolitionism can best be seen in the writings of George Bourne, an English immigrant who was to have a deep influence on William Lloyd Garrison. In 1815 Bourne condemned professed Christians who upheld the crime of slavery.

    "The system is so entirely corrupt," he wrote, "that it admits of no cure, but by a total and immediate, abolition. For a gradual emancipation is a virtual recognition of the right, and establishes the rectitude of the practice."

    But while Bourne associated slavery with the very essence of human sin, his main concern was not the plight of Negroes but the corruption of the Christian church. . . . Thus for Bourne "immediatism" meant an immediate recognition of the sin of slavery and an immediate decision on the part of Christians to purge their churches of all contamination. He was far more interested in the purification of religion than in slavery as an institution.

    In 1825 the Boston Recorder and Telegraph published a long correspondence that further clarifies the origins of immediatism. After arguing that slavery was unlawful and suggesting that slaves might have a right to revolt, "Vigornius" [Samuel M. Worcester] asserted that "the slave-holding system must be abolished; and in order to the accomplishment of this end, immediate, determined measures must be adopted for the ultimate emancipation of every slave within our territories." This was the position of the later Kentucky and New York abolitionists, but Vigornius combined it with strong faith in the American Colonization Society.

    He was bitterly attacked by "A Carolinian," who accused him of believing in "an entire and immediate abolition of slavery." "Philo," the next contributor, said he opposed immediate emancipation on grounds of expediency, but he recognized the right of slaves to immmediate freedom; he advocated, therefore "immediate and powerful remedies," since "We are convinced, and if our Southern brethren are not convinced, we wish to convince them, and think with a little discussion we could convince them, that to postpone these prospective measures a day, is a great crime . . . and moreover, we wish to state directly, that this postponement is that, in which we consider the guilt of slavery, so far as the present proprietors are concerned, to consist."

    A Southerner, who called himself "Hieronymus," defended Vigornius and tried to avoid the ambiguities that were later to cloud discussions of immediate abolition. Vigornius, he wrote,
    "pleads, it is true, for speedy emancipation, and immediate preparatory steps. But immediate and speedy are not synonimous [sic] expressions. One is an absolute, the other a relative or comparative term. An event may in one view of it be regarded as very speedy, which in another might be pronounced very gradual. If slavery should be entirely abolished from the United States in 30, 40, or even 50 years, many . . . will readily admit, that it would be a speedy abolition; while every one must perceive, that it would be far, very far, from an immediate abolition. In a certain sense abolition may be immediate; in another, speedy; and in both, practicable and safe. . . ."
    Hieronymus, who had read and been impressed by Elizabeth Heyrick's pamphlet, agreed with Vigornius that colonization was the only practicable solution to the nation's most critical problem.

    These ardent colonizationists believed that slavery was a sin that would increase in magnitude and danger unless effective measures were adopted without delay. Yet by 1821 Benjamin Lundy and other abolitionists had come to the opinion that the American Colonization Society was founded on racial prejudice and offered no real promise of undermining slavery. Lundy thought that slavery could not be eradicated until his fellow Americans in both North and South were willing to accept the free Negro as an equal citizen. But in the meantime the institution was expanding into the Southwest and even threatening to spread to such states as Illinois. In the face of such an imposing problem, Lundy called for the swift and decisive use of political power by a convention of representatives from the various states, who might devise and implement a comprehensive plan for emancipation.
    Lundy favored colonization at public expense of Negroes wishing to leave the country, but he also called on the North to receive emancipated slaves without restriction, and exhorted the South to repeal laws discriminating against free Negroes.

    The American antislavery organizations absorbed some of this sense of urgency and mistrust of palliatives. The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery was cautious in its approach to the national problem, but in 1819 it approved a declaration that "the practice of holding and selling human beings as property . . . ought to be immediately abandoned."

    In 1825 the Acting Committee of the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery advocated the "speedy and entire" emancipation of slaves, a phrase later used by the British Society. The convention showed little confidence in any of the specific proposals for gradual abolition but at the same time rejected direct emancipation by act of Congress as an impossibility. Alert always to the need for conciliating the South and remaining within the [allegedly] prescribed bounds of the Constitution [Ed. Note: in actual fact, it was anti-slavery], the Convention considered every conceivable plan in a rationalistic and eclectic spirit. In the South, however, there was an increasing tendency to see the most conservative antislavery proposals as immediatism in disguise. By 1829 the gradualist approach of the American Convention had reached a dead end.

    It is a striking coincidence that both the British and American antislavery movements had come to a crucial turning point by 1830. In both countries the decline of faith in gradualism had been marked in the 1820's by enthusiasm for a boycott of slave produce, a movement which promised to give a cutting edge to the moral testimony of individuals. In both countries the truculence and stubborn opposition of slaveholders to even gradual reforms brought a sense of despair and indignation to the antislavery public. To some degree immediatism was the creation of the British and American slaveholders themselves. By accusing the most moderate critics of radical designs and by blocking the path to many attempted reforms they helped to discredit the gradualist mentality that had balanced and compromised a subjective conviction that slavery was sin.

    The sense of crisis between 1829 and 1831 was also accentuated by an increasing militancy of Negroes, both slave and free. In 1829 David Walker [in Appeal] hinted ominously of slave revenge; groups of free Negroes openly repudiated the colonization movement; and in 1831 bloody revolts erupted in Virginia and Jamaica. In that year a new generation of American reformers adopted the principle of immediatism, which had recently acquired the sanction of eminent British philanthropists. But while American abolitionists modeled their new societies and techniques on British examples, the principle of immediatism had had a long and parallel development in both countries.

    In one sense immediatism was simply a shift in strategy brought on by the failure of less direct plans for abolition. Earlier plans and programs had evoked little popular excitement compared with parliamentary reform or Catholic emancipation in England, or with tariff or land policies in the United States. As a simple, emotional slogan, immediate abolition would at least arouse interest and perhaps appeal to the moral sense of the public. As a device for propaganda, it had the virtue of avoiding economic and social complexities and focusing attention on a clear issue of right and wrong. If the public could once be brought to the conviction that slavery was wrong and that something must be done about it at once, then governments would be forced to take care of the details.

    But immediatism was something more than a shift in strategy. It represented a shift in total outlook from a detached, rationalistic perspective on human history and progress to a personal commitment to make no compromise with sin.

    It marked a liberation for the reformer from the ideology of gradualism, from a toleration of evil within the social order, and from a deference to institutions that blocked the way to personal salvation. Acceptance of immediatism was the sign of an immediate transformation within the reformer himself; as such, it was seen as an expression of inner freedom, or moral sincerity and earnestness, and of victory over selfish and calculating expediency. If slaveholders received the doctrine with contempt and scathing abuse, the abolitionist was at least assured of his own freedom from guilt. He saw the emergence of immediatism as an upswelling of personal moral force which, with the aid of God, would triumph over all that was mean and selfish and worldly.

    There are obvious links between immediate emancipation and a religious sense of immediate justification and presence of the divine spirit that can be traced through the early spiritual religions to the Quakers, Methodists, and evangelical revivals. The new abolitionism contained a similar pattern of intense personal anxiety, rapturous freedom, eagerness for sacrifice, and mistrust of legalism, institutions, and slow-working agencies for salvation. It was no accident that from the late seventeenth century the boldest assertions of antislavery sentiment had been made by men who were dissatisfied with the materialism and sluggish formality of institutionalized religion, and who searched for a fresh and assuring meaning of Christian doctrine in a changing world.
    There is a clear relationship between anti-slavery and religious anxiety in the lives of many abolitionists. Obviously, most religious anxiety found other outlets than antislavery; but the writings of abolitionists in both Britain and America show that the cause satisfied religious yearnings that could not be fufilled by the traditional institutions of the church.

    To the extent that slavery became a concrete symbol of sin, and support of the anti-slavery cause a sign of Christian virtue, participation in the reform became a supplement or even alternative to traditional religion. As a kind of surrogate religion, antislavery had long shown tendencies that were pietistic, milennial, and anti-institutional. By the 1830's it had clearly marked affinities with the increasingly popular doctrines of free grace, immediate conversion, and personal holiness. According to Amos A. Phelps, for example, immediatism was synonymous with immediate repentance:
    "All that follows is the carrying out of the new principle of action, and is to emancipation just what sanctification is to conversion."

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