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Abolitionist Movement
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The Abolitionists


Opposition to slavery in America goes back as far as 1688 when a small group of Quakers drafted a two page letter called the 'Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery' condemning the practice of slavery as Un-Christian. For the most part the Quakers, with their belief in pacifism and religious tolerance, were seen as a bunch of religious weirdos and the Quakers' call to end slavery pretty much ended up in history's trash bin. Fast forward to 1776. Americans, inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of human freedom, begin demanding their freedom from the British monarchy claiming that their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were being repressed. The irony of a bunch of slave owners demanding freedom wasn’t lost on the Founding Fathers. When he was writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson,  who owned slaves with a guilty conscience, added in a piece condemning the slave trade. But that bit was quickly edited out by the Founding Fathers who had no intention of losing their cash cow just because Jefferson was having a moral crisis of conscience.


In 1775, Benjamin Franklin, a former slave owner himself, helped to found the American Abolition Society whose goal was to bring about the end of slavery in the United States. Abolitionists created societies all around the country to spread the word about the horrible conditions that slaves endured in the South. Many abolitionists printed journals and wrote stories in newspapers denouncing slavery. But up until 1830, most abolitionists were trying not to rock the boat by taking a moderate approach to abolition. Most abolitionists up to this point called for a gradual abolition of slavery, perhaps even by compensating the slave owners for their “loss”. In 1808, Thomas Jefferson succeeded in banning the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but this well-intentioned plan only had the effect of boosting the price of slaves and soon American slave owners were eagerly getting into the slave breeding business.

Things Turn Radical

But then things began to take a turn for the radical when William Lloyd Garrison founded his own newspaper in 1831 in Boston dedicated to the anti-slavery movement. Garrison was considered to be a radical abolitionist who disagreed with those who wanted a gradual abolition of slavery. For Garrison, abolition had to be immediate.The Liberator at first started off as a small publication with limited readers with not a single subscriber in the South. Garrison was what you might call a super-liberal. In his newspaper, he pushed for all kinds of radical and crazy things like racial equality, women’s suffrage, and an end to child labor. Garrison, not a man to pull his punches, began publishing a so-called “blacklist” that reported on the barbarities of slavery including whippings, murders, and illegal slave trading. Garrison found himself slapped with a libel suit which unsurprisingly, the pro-slavery Maryland jury found him guilty. When lawsuits and jail time failed to shut him up, several slave states including North Carolina and Georgia offered bounties for his capture. Because, you know, to hell with free speech.



But Garrison only stepped up his attacks demanding an immediate end to slavery without compensation to the slave owners who had exploited African-Americans for decades. With each publication, he became bolder in his attacks. Once he even called the U.S. Constitution a covenant with death because it had hypocritically ignored its promises of liberty. Garrison, with a flair for the dramatic, followed up his speech by setting a copy of the Constitution on fire before an audience. Garrison quickly became one of the most hated and feared men in the South. Possession of the “Liberator” could get you arrested in several southern states. But his membership continued to grow, mostly among free-blacks in the North. By 1861, the Liberator had attracted a wider following with subscriptions being delivered to members of Congress, the White House, and powerful northern businessmen. Garrison’s message might have seemed like the ravings of radical kook back in 1830 but on the eve of the Civil War many had been converted to the cause of immediate abolition.


With support from the Liberator growing Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. Many other spin-off societies began to emerge in the major cities of the North forming a small but tightknit group of Americans (both white and black) whose sole purpose was to bring an end to the evil institution. Some of the big names include fugitive slaves like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman who went on public speaking tours describing the reality of slavery. They used the money raised during their tours to help runaways escape or legal fees. Their goal was to raise awareness of slavery among northerners who didn't seem to understand or care what life was like for enslaved blacks. However, they did more than just talk about slavery. In their speeches they often attacked northern racism which made many abolitionists uncomfortable. When Douglas was asked to give a speech in Rochester, New York for a Fourth of July event, he blasted the hypocrisy of American notions of freedom Most southerners rejected these ideas.


Slave Owners Return Fire

Southerners weakly tried to fire back against the abolition movement by claiming that slaves were like happy children who needed the protection of their benevolent white masters. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that slaves often sang during their long hours of forced labor in the fields.See the slaves seemed to enjoy their work. wink, wink. Southern politicians and preachers even turned to the Bible using obscure passages like the book of Ephesians that said, "...slaves obey your earthly masters..."But the real motivation came down to economics and human greed.


Slavery was too profitable to be abolished. They argued that if slavery ended then cotton prices would soar, which would hurt the northern textile industry. Few people believed that ending slavery could be achieved without destroying the American economy. Plus, abolitionism rarely had the support of powerful American leaders. Consider this: 13 of the first 18 presidents had owned slaves. For these reasons, the government worked to compromise rather than solve the problem of slavery. In the South it was illegal to own or distribute copies of the Liberator or other abolitionist propaganda. Southern postmasters refused to deliver letters and books written by abolitionists. Southern states offered rewards for the arrest of abolitionists. Garrison had a $5,000 reward for his arrest by the State of Georgia. Harriet Tubman was once said to have a reward as high as $40,000. Tubman's reward would be the equivalent of over $1 million in today's money. This goes to show how much of a threat abolitionists were to the southern planters and their way of life.


Uncle Tom's Cabin
In 1852, a bestseller hit the shelves that would force the American public to confront the realities of what it was like to be a slave. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fictional novel that tells the story of  a benevolent Kentucky plantation owner who decides to sell two of slaves, Uncle Tom and his wife Eliza to settle his debts. With the knowledge that their family was about to being torn apart and Eliza takes their child and decides to make a break to freedom. Meanwhile Uncle Tom is sold down river to a plantation in the Deep South. The story of the manhunt, fear, whippings, and cruelty of slavery hit many Americans right in the feels. Up until that time slavery had been some remote issue that could easily be ignored or rationalized. The moral of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was that  there was no such things as "good masters" and it opened people's eyes to the realities of slavery. After that, no one could claim that they ‘just didn't know’.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was an abolitionist work like no other. The book was wildly successful and in its first week sold 10,000 copies. By the time the Civil War broke out eight years later, the number of copies sold mushroomed to over 2 million. It was the first work to tell the story of slavery from a slave's point of view. Using the dialect of everyday black people, she told a fictional tale using real events about the abuses and injustice of slavery. She also made Uncle Tom, a black man, the first black hero in American literature.

As you might have guessed, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew the anger of pro-slavery forces. Uncle Tom's Cabin was banned and people could be fined for owning a copy. In the first three years of its publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin was called the most popular book ever. (probably a wee bit of an exaggeration) During the Civil War, Beecher Stowe had the opportunity to meet with President Lincoln who said to her, "So you're the little lady who started this great war.” Whatever people's opinions of slavery or Uncle Tom's Cabin, one thing is for certain - the book stirred up an anger that fired people into action.



John Brown's Raid-1859
By 1859, the Civil War was just months away and violence was being carried out like a dress rehearsal before the opening of a play. John Brown was a radical abolitionist, hell-bent on ending slavery by any means necessary. Unlike abolitionists like Garrison and Douglass John Brown believed that he had a mission from God to rid the country of the evils of slavery. Brown was a take action sort of man and decided that the best way to accomplish this was by breaking into a federal armory and setting off a slave insurrection that would engulf the country. Under Brown’s logic, the best way to end slavery was to end the slave masters.

Brown and his sons had already been involved in the violence that was engulfing Kansas, after all, they were the ones who led the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas back in 1856. After Kansas, Brown moved east to drum up support for his cause to abolish "the wicked curse of slavery.”



John Brown decided that the only way to achieve this was to arm the slaves; that would set off a wave of violence against their masters. Slave rebellions were not common (there had been only nine in the United States since 1663) but they were something that every southern plantation owner lived in fear of. The latest slave rebellion was led by a Virginia slave named Nat Turner - who was deeply religious and claimed to see visions from God. On July 4th, 1831, he led a group of 22 slaves on attacks against whites that left 55 people dead. Nat Turner's rebellion led to a crackdown on the movement of free blacks and slaves alike. People became more vigilant - at times paranoid of future slave rebellions. All southern states passed laws to prevent black people from gathering in large groups. In some places, armed patrols were set up to travel the main roads at night to watch for runaway slaves.



John Brown had clubs and knives created to help arm the slaves but needed guns which could be found at a nearby (and lightly guarded) military arsenal in Harper's Ferry, VA. On October 16, 1859, Brown led a surprise raid on the arsenal and he and his sons managed to take over the place. Their goal: steal the guns and powder and arm nearby slaves who would, in turn, help other slaves rise up until the entire South was engulfed in revolution.

His plan didn't work. Brown managed to get in but was quickly surrounded by armed militiamen and then the Marines. Brown and his sons holed themselves up in a firehouse while holding a few hostages. Brown's sons attempted to surrender but were shot to death by the enraged crowd while holding a white flag of surrender.

Brown was captured, arrested and tried for treason.  After being convicted he replied, "let them hang me.” That is exactly what happened. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison wished "success to every slave insurrection against the South." The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called Brown a saint.  The effect of John Brown's raid was to confirm to southerners what the radical conservatives had been saying all along: That the North was leading a plot to destroy slavery.



"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."  - John Brown, Dec 2nd, 1859


Why It Matters

The issue of slavery had divided America even before the country had won its independence. But for decades most Americans had remained apathetic to the plight of the four million black Americans who were brutally being kept in bondage. The abolitionists themselves were never more than a small minority but their voices kept growing louder and more demanding until they could not be ignored any longer. The effect of the abolitionist movement in the South was more psychological. Too many southern slave owners held powerful positions in Congress and the Supreme Court for slavery to be in any real danger. But the militant attitude of the new abolitionists like Garrison and Brown were making them edgy enough to start seriously debating whether it was time to make a break with the Union and start their own country. Even up until the Civil War most northerners wanted nothing to do with abolition and when fighting broke out they claimed that they were fighting to preserve the Union not free the black man.

william lloyd garrison

Looking more like a math nerd than a fiery abolitionist speaker, Garrison would use his "in your face" style to force Americans to confront the evils of slavery

slave scars
Frederick Douglass Quote
slave music
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
John Brown
John Brown's Raid
John Brown Execution
Secession Confederacy

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