The Rise of the Abolitionists

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slave Kidnap Poster from Boston-The Rise of the AbolitionistsSlavery and abolition of the practice have gone hand and hand in the United States almost from the beginning of the “peculiar institution”. We know that slavery began in 1619 when a Dutch trading ship sold 20 slaves to the Colony of Virginia as indentured servants.

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But we have often overlooked the beginnings of abolition in America, After earlier laws in Massachusetts (1641) and Connecticut (1650) limited slavery to some extent, a 1652 Rhode Island law clearly limited bond service to no more than 10 years or no later than a person attaining the age of 24.

Non-slaveholding farmers in Virginia think slave labor threatens their livelihoods. They persuade the General Assembly to discuss a prohibition of slavery or a ban on importing slaves. In response, the assembly raises the tariff on slaves to five pounds, which about equals the full price of an indenture, so as not to make importation of slaves as initially attractive or preferable to a mere indenture for a term of years.

In 1775 Quakers in Pennsylvania with the aid of other non-Quakers form the first abolition society, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia. It was reorganized in 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, (better known as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society) and was incorporated in 1789. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society still exists today, dedicated to the cause of racial justice.

Even though the Declaration of Independence declared that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” slavery remained legal in the American colonies.

In 1777 Vermont, then the Republic of Vermont, prohibited slavery in its constitution. The following year Virginia banned the importation of slaves. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other states eventually followed. In 1780 Pennsylvania adopted a law calling for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Massachusetts banned slavery in its constitution.

In 1782, Virginia liberalizes its very strict law preventing manumission; under the new law, a master may emancipate slaves in his will or by deed. The following year New Hampshire passed a law saying that children of slaves would be born free. In 1784, Rhode Island and Connecticut pass laws providing for gradual emancipation of slaves.

In 1816, Henry ClayJames MonroeBushrod WashingtonRobert FinleySamuel John Mills Jr. and others organize the American Colonization Society to send freed slaves to Liberia. The Society funds the migration of about 10,000 free blacks to return to Africa. Abolition has entered a new phase with an emphasis to return the slaves to their African homelands. Groups calling for migration and outright abolition begin to diverge along the abolition path.

In 1831 Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator. It would be a watershed event and abolitionist across the United States will become more united in the goal of emancipation of slaves. From this time forward many abolitionists call for immediate emancipation.

In 1833 Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child of Massachusetts publishes An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called AfricansWendell Phillips and Charles Sumner are persuaded to become abolitionists.

In the same year the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan. Frederick Douglass was a key leader of this society and often spoke at its meetings as well. According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, “The society’s antislavery activities frequently met with violent public opposition, with mobs invading meetings, attacking speakers, and burning presses.”

The following year, Anti-Slavery “debates” are held at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Lane had been founded by abolitionist evangelist and writer Theodore Dwight Weld with financial help from abolitionist merchants and philanthropists Arthur Tappan and Lewis Tappan. The anti-slavery speaking circuit is born and would flourish in the North right up to the onset of the war.

Committed abolitionists Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister Sarah Grimké were born in Charleston, South Carolina, but move to Philadelphia because of their anti-slavery philosophy and Quaker faith. In 1836, Angelina publishes An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, inviting them to overthrow slavery, which she declares is a horrible system of oppression and cruelty. Angelina would marry Theodore Dwight Weld in 1838.

Divisions begin to appear in churches across America. In 1844, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South breaks away from the Methodist Episcopal Church on the issue of slavery. At the same time black abolitionist, Charles Lenox Remond, and white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, declare they would rather see the union dissolved than keep the Constitution only through the retention of slavery. The following year Southern Baptist Convention breaks from the Northern Baptists but does not formally endorse slavery.

In the same year Frederick Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. The book details his life as a slave. He soon joins William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery speaking circuit. Douglass’ natural speaking ability makes him one of the circuits most popular orators and he soon become well-known across the North.

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