History Textbook Exercise

The Antislavery Agitation

From: Bassett, John S.  Short History of the United States.  New York, 1913.


     Two phases of antislavery agitation occurred in the United States during the nineteenth century, one pacific and intended to persuade the South that slavery should be given up, the other seeking to induce the North to use her influence in congress to wipe out what was considered a blot on American civilization. Of the first movement Benjamin Lundy, a New Jersey Quaker, was the leading spirit. He was persistent and patient, and wished to secure the cooperation of slave holders, who generally feared that antislavery agitation would suggest insurrection to the minds of the slaves. He traveled extensively in the South, organized emancipation societies, and published a paper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, as a means of promoting his ideas. He met no opposition from Southerners, but succeeded only in the sections in which there were few slaveholders, and chiefly with his fellow Quakers. His period of activity extended from about 1815 to 1831.


     In 1816, while his movement was still in its hopeful stage, the American Colonization Society was founded. Its first president was Bushrod Washington, a justice of the Supreme Court, and Clay and many other prominent men gave it support.  The object was to promote emancipation by sending the freedmen to Africa; for it was believed that slave holders would emancipate more readily if the emancipated ones were returned to their original homes. To aid its operations the government in 1822 established the colony of Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, and branch colonization societies north and south collected money to sustain it, By 1830 the society had sent 1162 Negroes to Liberia, most of whom fell victims to the pestilential fevers of the place.


     At that time it was evident that colonization, like emancipation by persuasion of the masters, was a failure. The truth is that the expansion of cotton farming and the consequent rise of the prices of slaves were increasing the hold of slavery in the South. A new generation of Southerners had grown up since 1800. They had not the zeal for human rights so prevalent in revolutionary days and they were eager to develop their immense regions of fertile lands. To such men Negroes, who accepted bondage easily, happier in slavery than out of it; and so it came about that most conscientious men in the South, while recognizing the harshness of slavery, eventually came to consider it fixed in Southern life. The efforts of Northern men to remove it seemed to them mischievous interference with Southern affairs, a course likely to lead to insurrection and massacre.


     The second movement originated in 1831 when William Lloyd Garrison began to publish the Liberator in Boston. He was young, poor, and friendless, but a passionate hatred of slavery filled his heart. He had been imprisoned in Baltimore for an article in Lundy's paper, and the remembrance of it whetted his purpose. "I shall contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population," he said; "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice on this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard" Drawing to himself the more earnest opponents of slavery in New England he was soon a power in the land. Local societies were founded, money was raised by contributions, fairs, and other means, and then he proceeded to unite the local societies into a common organization. In 1832 was formed the New England Antislavery Society, and in 1833 the American Antislavery Society. The object was to oppose slavery in every possible manner. In 1840 there were 2000 local organizations, with a total membership of nearly 200,000.  Soon after its origin this phase of the antislavery movement began to be called "abolitionism."

     While Boston remained the center of abolitionism in the East, Oberlin, Ohio, became the center in the West. This village was founded around a coeducational school in 1833. In 1835 it received an accession of three professors and thirty students from Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, all abolitionists who had left Lane Seminary because it frowned on their opinions. Oberlin College was incorporated, and Negro students were admitted to its courses. The village became an important point for Western abolitionists. A leading Ohio abolitionist was James G. Bimey, who had left Kentucky because he was opposed for teaching the doctrine of freedom.

     About this time appeared the "underground railway," conducted by abolitionists to help slaves to escape from the South. " Stations were formed at regular distances at the homes of trusted Persons, called "agents," while other persons, known as conductors, "went south and escorted fugitives secretly from "station" to "station" until safety was reached at last in a free state or in Canada. The persons connected with the " underground railway" were men of great probity in ordinary matters, but they thought it no crime to snatch a slave from bondage. It is estimated that 2000 slaves a year thus escaped from their masters from 1830 to 1860. By such means as these the abolitionists attracted a great deal of attention, exasperated the Southerners to the point of fury, and called the attention of Northern people to the harshness of slavery. Their efforts at first were denounced by most people in the North, and sometimes their meetings were violently broken up, but opinion there gradually changed, so that the Northerners, by 1850, would do nothing to aid masters in recovering runaway slaves.


     Let us look at the other side of the picture. In 1831 the South was probably already more proslavery than in 1800. It received the Garrisonian movement with violent scorn. Many bitter things were said about those who would recklessly incite the slaves to murder their masters. The "black terror" was ever the nightmare of the community. In 1831 Nat Turner, a black slave in Southampton county, Virginia, began an insurrection, killing sixty whites before he was captured and hanged. It was believed he had read the literature of the abolitionists. The incident sent a shock of horror throughout the South. Out of the shock came the motions in the Virginia, legislature to abolish slavery, and a great debate followed in the succeeding winter. But no one could suggest a satisfactory way of disposing of the freedmen, and all the discussion came to naught. Virginia was not willing to have the Negro population freed and left within the state. The upshot was to convince the South that the blacks were a fixed part of its population and that if they remained; they could be best controlled as slaves. From that time the Negro's lot became harder. Laws were passed to forbid his instruction in reading and writing, his free use of the roads, his preaching to his own people, his right to assemble in meetings of any kind where no white man was present, and whatever else might enable him to combine for any action which might lead to freedom. This new "black code" now became common to all the Southern states, and by 1860 the Negro was completely cowed. As abolition gained in the North, proslavery gained in the South. In 1800 Southern statesmen and preachers generally considered slavery an evil, though they knew not how to remedy it: in 1860 Southerners of both classes were found who argued that slavery was a blessing to the Negro, a benefit to the South, and a beneficent institution whereby peace and happiness was established for society.


     This growing division between the sections soon found expression in congress. Southerners were alarmed when abolition literature began to be sent south, some of it to Negroes, and in 1835 a great group of indignant citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, seized and burned a mass of such papers before they were delivered.  Appeals were sent to the postmaster general to refuse the use of the mails for such purposes. He did not think such action legal, and a compromise was reached by which abolition papers were to be accepted by postmasters when offered for mailing, but need not be delivered at the offices to which they were directed. Then Calhoun offered a bill in the senate to forbid sending antislavery literature through the mails to places in which it might not lawfully circulate; but the proposition received an adverse vote. The incident attracted much attention, and that helped the abolitionists in the North.


     Much more excitement was aroused a few months later by the attitude, of the House of Representatives toward antislavery petitions. Many such appeals had come to the house in recent years, and they were beginning to irritate Southern members. Yet the number of petitions did not diminish; for the abolitionists got them signed more with the purpose of giving their efforts a definite form than with the expectation of success in the object asked for. Finally on May 26, 1836, the house resolved that such memorials in the future be tabled without reading or other action on them. John Quincy Adams, now a member of the house, protested against the resolution as unconstitutional, and a violation of the rights of his constituents. The abolitionists could now say the right of petition, the ancient bulwark of liberty, was denied, and more memorials than ever were sent to Washington. Adams took upon himself the task of presenting them. Whenever the regular hour for petitions arrived, he could be seen at his desk in the house, a huge pile of papers before him. As the order of the day was announced, he would rise with words like these  " I hold in my hands a request from citizens of the town of praying the abolition of slavery in ."  At this point the hammer of the speaker would fall, and Adams would be declared out of order. Not abashed, he would take another paper from the pile, begin with the same words, only to be cut off in the same manner, proceeding thus until the pile was exhausted. This action made him very unpopular with Southern members, but he became the honored champion of the abolitionists. At last the friends of slavery came to see that the "gag rule" in regard to petitions but strengthened the abolitionists in their appeals to the North, and in December 1844, the offending rule was repealed. In resenting an irritating practice of the abolitionists the Southern members had put themselves in the wrong and given their adversaries a point to support the general argument that slavery tinged with cruelty and despotism whatever it touched.