Antislavery Arguments: An Overview

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Antislavery Arguments: An Overview

During North American slavery from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, there were those who challenged the system for a variety of reasons. First and foremost among those who opposed slavery were the slaves themselves. Individuals disagreed with a system that held them in a lifetime of labor with no pay, under poor living conditions, and gave them no power over their own bodies. In the late 1700s, British abolitionists began to attack those in Great Britain who had long profited from the transatlantic slave trade. These notions crossed the Atlantic and influenced those working to do the same in the United States in the first organized work toward the abolition of slavery. A more immediate call for the end of slavery began in the late 1820s, picked up speed in the following decades, and continued until the end of the Civil War. Both African Americans and European Americans living primarily in the northern part of the United States formed this antislavery movement, which helped to successfully end institutional slavery by 1865.

Early Arguments

Though some English settlers were against slavery in the seventeenth-century North American colonies, those in favor of slavery made it permissible throughout the British colonies, even if only nominally practiced in some areas. Around the turn of the eighteenth century slavery had become widely institutionalized, incorporating those of African and Native American descent into lifelong bondage. Considering antislavery sentiment at its most basic form, it can be safely stated that the largest group in favor of eradicating slavery was the slaves themselves. However, people held in bondage in North America were only organized on a level significant enough to challenge the system on a handful of occasions through revolts. The Stono Rebellion in 1739 and Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 are two examples where revolts planned by slaves were partially carried out with limited success in North America. These and other rumored slave insurrections provided other abolitionists in the North with ammunition to attack pro-slavery arguments, for in revolting slaves showed they were not content with their position and indeed sought the freedom and equality held by their masters.

Outside of slaves, the first groups to openly oppose the system were free African Americans and Quakers. Individual "free people of color" and communities challenged slaveholding throughout the tenure of slavery and encouraged European Americans to oppose the colonizing of free African Americans in West Africa. The other group who began to first disagree with slavery was the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, who began emigrating from England in the seventeenth century. Like other colonists, Quakers also owned slaves during most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, individual Quakers gradually spoke out against slaveholding, equating it to dealing in stolen merchandise. Individuals within the organization disagreed with the practice in the late 1600s and began to protest it more in the early 1700s. By the mid-1700s, Quakers began to ostracize members who purchased slaves and when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Quakers had officially become an antislavery religious sect.

During the eighteenth century, Quakers Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, and John Woolman based their disagreement with slavery on their Christian instruction. Their central belief in the equality of all people meant that holding other persons in bondage was in violation of God's law. In addition, their pacifist ideals were at odds with the possibility of slave insurrection. If a Quaker owned slaves who attempted to revolt, that Quaker would be in direct conflict with upholding peace in putting down the insurrection.

In the last few decades of the 1700s, religiously inspired principles were coupled with the notions of equality, liberty, and freedom generated during the Revolutionary War and the forming of the United States of America. During this time, however, the contradiction of slavery was ingrained within the nation's Constitution by giving three-fifths congressional representation for each slave, enacting a fugitive slave clause, and including a twenty-year period before the Atlantic slave trade could be banned. As the United States were founded, many pointed out that slavery went against the democratic ideals laid out in the founding documents of the nation. These beliefs, in connection with the declining economic viability of slavery in the North, helped push most of the northern states to provide for gradual emancipation or outright emancipation in their state constitutions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most during this time were in favor of gradual abolition, with compensation for slave owners. Some of these people included southerners who believed the threat of slave insurrection had become too high. In fact, many southerners during this time bemoaned the problematic necessity of slavery.

There were many antislavery sentiments that were not necessarily in line with abolitionist goals of integration and social equality for all. Some of these came from the American Colonization Society (ACS). Established in 1816, the ACS was supported both by antislavery and pro-slavery European Americans alike, for they believed that free African Americans should leave the United States and colonize in West Africa (Liberia). Free African Americans were among the first to oppose this drastic measure, arguing they had been born in the United States, had helped make the nation strong, and deserved to enjoy that prosperity. Their opposition in the 1820s helped inform the great abolitionist rise in the nineteenth century.

Gradual versus Immediate Emancipation

By 1821, one dozen states in the Union were in favor of slavery, while an equal number stood in opposition. Even before the Missouri Compromise (1820) banned slavery in territory north of the 36° 30′ parallel, it was clear that the nation was divided between free states in the North and slave states in the South. However, this did not mean that all people living in the North opposed slavery. Most people living in free states felt that slavery did not directly affect them and therefore took no position on the issue. Others were perhaps opposed to the idea of slavery, yet were not impelled to contest it openly.

During the 1830s, a growing number of people began to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, breaking with ideas surrounding gradual emancipation and colonization. Initiated by free African Americans who gained European American support, various integrated antislavery societies began to appear in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. While abolitionist numbers grew in the following decades, those who countered slavery were always in the minority. Their antislavery arguments were likewise based firmly on moral and religious reasoning found in the Christian faith. The main goals of those who identified strongly with the abolitionist movement were to eradicate slavery and to create a society where those of African descent were equally accepted and could exercise the full rights of citizenship.

However, abolitionists held a wide variety of views in how certain goals should be achieved, which led to increasing factionalism throughout the years. Many radical abolitionists who emerged in the 1830s argued that federal documents, such as the Constitution, were proslavery and therefore could not be used in their fight. For these reasons they remained apolitical, refusing to participate in a government that supported slavery in any way. William Lloyd Garrison and others feared that stepping into the political arena would eventually lead to a renegotiation of antislavery ideals. They did not want to compromise the twin evil of race prejudice in solely fighting the injustices of slavery.

More radical abolitionists demanded immediate abolition and felt moral persuasion was the best way to enlighten their peers. This view demanded that people identify slavery as sin, recognize their complicity in its maintenance, and take direct steps to bring about its end. Many within this group also sought to extend equality among all within society, including women, who were an integral part of the movement to end slavery. Antislavery protests were made through boycotting goods that had connections to slavery, as well as speak-ins, sit-ins, and ride-ins on segregated transport facilities. However, these actions were sporadic, usually occurring on the individual level, and never reached mass organized proportions. Their beliefs were sparked by evangelical revivalism and British emancipation efforts. However, European American abolitionists were also influenced by increasing African American opposition to slavery, inspired by the petitions of free people in the North and also by the militant struggles of those in the South, specifically the slaves who participated in Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831.

Political Change

In the 1840s and afterward, there were a number of different views that caused splits within the abolitionist movement, as others moved toward politics and attempted to work through the government to enact change. Here abolitionists strategically placed themselves—or their small number of votes—to accomplish the greatest good in the small Liberty and Free Soil parties. The calculated and hard-fought efforts of abolitionists helped keep slavery in the national dialogue and worked on larger Whig and Republican parties to make slavery an issue their politicians had to take a stand on. They pushed politicians to combat the expansion of slavery into the territories and new states. Most abolitionists opposed the annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican Cessation (1848), for they saw these areas becoming open to slavery in the future. Abolitionists abhorred the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, as they believed it gave the southern states "slave power" control in northern states, for when slaves escaped to these states they could be captured by slave hunters and returned to bondage.

In many ways, Garrison and others were correct in that political parties compromised abolitionist values. For example, prior to the Civil War, the Republican Party would only go as far to say that slavery should not expand. Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential election may have incited the South to separate from the Union, but he had never directly threatened the existence of slavery anywhere it had already existed. Some abolitionists had actually advocated voluntary disunion between the free and slave regions two decades prior. Wendell Phillips used it largely as a philosophical line of reasoning, arguing that if slavery were left to the South to handle on its own without northern support, the system would implode under slave insurrection. Abolitionists did not know what to expect when southern states actually left the Union, but instead of passively waiting to see what the outcome would be, they made a renewed push to make sure that at the end of the war all people would be free and equal.

Though radical abolitionists supported integration in most respects, prejudice still remained among abolitionists of European descent, as evidenced by their paternalism toward African Americans. This caused tension within the movement and reflected differences in motivations. In the North, African American abolitionists remembered family members still cut off from freedom in the southern states. Feelings of guilt, complicity with slavery, and even notions of white superiority sometimes pushed European American antislavery men and women. Still, the primary goals of both groups were to rid the nation of slavery.

Working past their own personal biases was a tough process for European American abolitionists, but convincing others that they needed to do the same was even more difficult. Most European Americans in the North were not against slavery even during the Civil War. Some abolitionists still believed they could win converts to the cause simply by appealing to their moral consciences. However, reaching individuals apathetic to slavery by pointing out the atrocities of the system was a slow process. Some felt taking more direct action would make greater progress. One of the most direct assaults on slavery was the failed attack at Harpers Ferry in 1859. In many ways, John Brown's African American and European American coalition militia exemplified the struggle for unity and equality that radical abolitionists sought. Though Brown's use of violence was denounced by many of those against slavery, the goals for which he and his cohorts fought were revered by many abolitionists. Many in the South saw this as an attack by the North and prepared for what they believed was an impending regional battle.

In the early years of the Civil War, abolitionists feared that the conflict would end without slavery being touched or that it might even possibly be strengthened. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass pushed President Lincoln, who had been wavering on the issue of slavery, into making slave emancipation an outcome of the war. Douglass argued that the question of slavery was truly at the heart of the war, the freedom for slaves could be the only just outcome, and that African Americans should be allowed to fight for that freedom in northern regiments. These protests were eventually heard, yet even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, abolitionists complained that it did not go far enough. The proclamation only abolished slavery in rebelling states, which suggested that the move was made out of military necessity, not morality. Still, abolitionists kept pressure on Lincoln and Congress (where they now had close allies) to help push through the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, which forbade slavery.

Whereas some abolitionists considered the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment the end of the movement, others pressed on toward the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which granted African American citizenship rights and the right to vote respectively in 1868 and 1870. Most abolitionist societies dispersed after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, for many believed that African Americans could fend for themselves and realize social equality on their own once their rights were equally protected under the law. During the era of Reconstruction, many former abolitionists continued to work as individuals to help the Freedmen's Bureau and other organizations assist newly freed slaves. They also kept pressure on public officials in order to secure civil rights for African Americans.

In the years following the Civil War, former abolitionists began to realize that their vision of equality for the freed people was far from fulfilled and the hard-fought freedom African Americans had finally earned was increasingly falling into jeopardy. In hindsight, Garrison's reticence at getting involved in political activism turned out to prove founded. Politics had compromised abolitionist goals, for equal justice under the law for African Americans was not protected and racial prejudice was renewed instead of alleviated in the years following the Civil War and period of Reconstruction. Still, abolitionists had a real and lasting effect on ending slavery in the nineteenth century.


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Lay, Benjamin. All Slave-keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure & Holy Christian Religion, of What Congregation So Ever, but Especially in Their Ministers, by Whose Example the Filthy Leprosy and Apostacy Is Spread Far and Near; It Is a Notorious Sin Which Many of the True Friends of Christ and His Pure Truth, Called Quakers, Has Been for Many Years and Still are Concerned to Write and Bear Testimony against as a Practice so Gross & Hurtful to Religion and Destructive to Government beyond What Words Can Set Forth, or Can be Declared of by Men or Angels, and Yet Lived in by Ministers and Magistrates in America. Philadelphia: Author, 1737.

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                                    A. B. Wilkinson

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Antislavery Arguments: An Overview

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