Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata

The Antislavery Movement

Looking Ahead

After the end of this section, you will be able to:

- identify the ways in which Americans tried to end slavery;

- describe the work of the underground railroad;

- describe an important result of slave revolts;

- recognize the use of propaganda in slavery arguments.

As the 1700s came to a close, many Americans predicted that slavery would soon died out. By 1804, most northern states had abolished it. As you may recall, slavery was not important to the economies of New England or of most Middle Atlantic states. In the South, planters were finding it difficult to pay their debts. In Virginia and North Carolina, for example, the soil of many plantations was wearing out from years of raising tobacco. In Georgia and South Carolina, planters were making little profit from rice and indigo. As you may remember, this was before the invention of the cotton gin turned the South into the cotton kingdom.

Although Congress had forbidden the importing of slaves after 1808, many Americans were not satisfied with this. They saw slavery as morally wrong and were determined to do away with it completely. Their efforts took several forms.


One form was colonization. Some Americans thought that the US had a duty to blacks to pay for their return to Africa and to help them set up communities there. Other Americans saw this as a way to rid the country of free blacks. Southern slave owners, especially, wanted their slaves protected from the influence of free blacks.

In 1817, the [E] [F] American Colonization Society was founded to send blacks to Africa. In the next few decades, the society paid for several thousand blacks, most of them free, to go to Africa. These people founded the nation of [E1] [E2] [F] [I] Liberia. Most blacks, however, angrily opposed colonization. They had been born in the US and felt that they had a right to remain. By the 1830s, white abolitionists also began attacking the idea.

[E] [I] Abolition

One of the first white abolitionists to see that colonization was not the answer was [E] [F1] [F2] [Es] William Lloyd Garrison. In 1831, he began publishing the abolitionist newspaper [E] [I] The Liberator. In 1832, he helped organise the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison and his followers used a non-violent method called “moral suasions”. They used words to try to convince people that slavery was immoral and unjust. Garrison believed that once enough people believed this there would be a nationwide demand for an immediate end to slavery. His call brought many people to the movement for abolition. In 1833, he helped organise the [E1] [E2] [E3] [E4] American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1840, the society had about 1,400 local groups in the North and Midwest and about 250,000 members. Garrison also supported equality for women workers in the abolitionist movement.

Blacks, both free-born blacks and former slaves, played important roles in abolition. Perhaps the best known black was [E1] [E2] [F] [I] Frederick Douglass.

Born a slave in 1817, he escaped to the North when he was 21. He became a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In 1845, he published his autobiography Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, which gave a full account of his sufferings under slavery. In 1847, he began the abolitionist newspaper North Star. One of Douglass’s goals was to get more free blacks involved in the movement. Among free black abolitionists were David Ruggles and William Still. Ruggles led the New York movement, and Still was active in Philadelphia. Both were conductors on the underground railroad. [E1] [E2] [E3] [F1] [F2] [Es] [I] Sojourner Truth, a former slave, travelled the country speaking in favour of rights for blacks and women. She told movingly of her experiences in [E] The Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

In the early 1800s, the abolitionist movement had some support in all sections of the nation. By about 1830, however, this was changing. Southern opposition to slavery was lessening as cotton farming was becoming more profitable. Among southern abolitionists were [E1] [E2] [Es] Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a Charleston slave owner. Because of her experiences as a teacher in a black Sunday school, Sarah opposed the law that forbade teaching slaves to read. In time, the sisters moved North to work for abolition. When they met opposition to their speaking in public because they were women, the Grimkes joined the woman’s right movement.

Other abolitionists wrote pamphlets and sent petitions to state legislatures and to Congress asking for an end to slavery. By 1836, abolitionists’ petitions were flooding Congress. Debating them all would have taken much of Congress’s time. In addition, Southerners in Congress did not want any debate on slavery. With support coming mostly from southern members, both Houses of Congress passed gag rules. According to these rules, petitions were rejected without discussion. Later, Northerners in Congress fought to repeal the gag rules and in 1844 were successful. Massachusetts Representative John Quincy Adams, the former President, led the fight for repeal.

The Underground Railroad

Some abolitionists attacked slavery with more than words. They helped runaways slaves escape on what became known as the [E1] [E2] [E3] [F] [Es] [I] underground railroad. This was a secret network of people called conductors who helped slaves flee to northern states or to Canada. Quakers were especially active in the underground railroad. During the journeys, slaves were hidden in cellars, attics, old mills, church towers, and other places provided by the conductors. Sometimes the runaways were transported from one stop to another in false-bottom wagons covered with hay. If caught, runaway slaves were brutally punished. Conductors were fined and jailed if found helping runaways. The Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church was just one of the hundreds of stops on the underground railroad.

The most famous conductor was [E] [F] [Es1] [Es2] [I] Harriet Tubman. She was born a slave on a Maryland plantation around 1820. When she was in her twenties she ran away. By day, she hid in caves and cemeteries. At night, she travelled North. Tubman settled in Philadelphia where she became part of the underground railroad. Risking her life and freedom, she returned to the South 19 times to lead more than 300 men, women, and children to freedom.

In their spirituals, black slaves often expressed their desire for freedom. One such spiritual, [E] [I] “Go down, Moses” is often linked to Harriet Tubman and her trips into the South. The words of the song tell the Bible story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. In this spiritual, Moses is a symbol for Harriet Tubman. The slaves used religious symbols so that slave owners would not know they were singing about freedom.

Slave Revolts

Blacks protested their slavery in many ways. During the 1800s, the most dramatic method was rebellion. [F] Slave revolts, however, were difficult to carry out because of the secrecy needed. Slave owners expected trouble and tried to keep slaves from gathering. Nevertheless, slaves attempted a number of revolts.

In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a 24-year-old blacksmith, led a plot to set up a black nation in Virginia. On August 30, Prosser and over 1,000 slaves met to begin their rebellion with an attack on Richmond. A storm arose, and Prosser postponed the attack. Two slaves told their owners who, in turn, notified the state government. The governor ordered 600 soldiers to crush the rebellion before it began. Many slaves were arrested and 35 were hanged, including Prosser.

Other revolts followed. Denmark Vesey spent several years planning a rebellion among slaves around Charleston. A former slave himself, he had bought his freedom by working as a carpenter. In 1822, whites learned of Vesey’s plan from some of the slaves involved, and 139 blacks, free and slave, were arrested. Thirty-seven were executed. Four whites who had helped the blacks were fined and jailed.

Another revolt was led by [E1] [E2] [F] [Es] Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. He and his followers began the revolt by killing Turner’s owner and his family. Within a day, Turner’s group had killed 60 whites. In putting down the revolt, state and federal soldiers killed 100 blacks. Fourteen more, including Turner, were hanged.

Following these revolts, some southern states passed harsh laws to try to frighten slaves into obedience. For robbing a house or store, for example, a slave could be whipped and his or her ears cut off. For small offences, such as refusing to work, slaves were whipped, branded, or disabled in some way. A toe or a finger might be cut off.

Fanning the Flames of War

For a number of reasons, Americans in both the North and South opposed the antislavery movement. Merchants and planters feared the fight against slavery would hurt trade between North and South. Others feared the abolitionists would force the South to secede and so destroy the Union. Northern workers feared they would lose their jobs to freed blacks.

These fears often led to violence on both sections of the country. In 1835, a mob dragged Garrison through the streets of Boston with a rope around his neck. In 1837, Elijah Lovejoy, editor of an antislavery newspaper, was killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois.

The antislavery movement caused even bitterer feelings in the South. A white man was whipped in Virginia for saying that blacks deserved their freedom. A Georgian who subscribed to The Liberator was dragged from his house, tarred and feathered, set afire, dunked in a river, and whipped.

Some Southerners responded to abolitionist charges that slavery was immoral and unjust with several arguments. One argument tried to justify slavery on the grounds that blacks were thought to be naturally inferior to whites. Southerners argued that blacks could not handle the responsibilities of freedom. Some Southerners claimed that most slaves were content and happy. In 1846, Matthew Estes of Columbus, Mississippi, published a defence of black slavery. In it, he describes his view of slavery’s benefit to the US.

There are benefits to the country from slavery. It must be admitted as a fact, that without slave labor, the larger and more fertile portion of the South would be left uncultivated. Destroy slavery and you destroy southern agriculture and the blessings that flow from it. The cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar of the South, all the products of slave labor, are the bases of much of the wealth of this country, North and South, and also of Europe.

A different southern view of slavery was presented in Hinton R. Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, published in 1857. Helper, a North Carolinian, wrote the book for southern lower- and middle-class whites who did not own slaves. It describes the terrible effects slavery had on all parts of southern life. The following gives Helper’s view of slavery’s effects on the southern economy:

It is a well-known fact that Southerners must go to the North for almost every good and service, from matches and paintings to cotton-mills and steamships. From want of profitable employment at home large numbers of us must move to the West. The free states keep their large population. Everything made in the North is sold while there is no demand for southern products. We depend on northern capitalists for money to build our railroads, canals, and other improvements.

And now, to the point. In our opinion, the reason why the progress of the South has been held back; out trade has decreased; large portions of our people live in poverty; some have been driven away from their homes; and we are dependent on the free states can be traced to the source – slavery.

Because of the ideas in the book, Helper was unable to have it published in the South. Southern speakers and writers attacked it. Some people were even arrested for buying a copy. In the North, this southern case against slavery was widely read.

Looking Back

- What was one early solution to ending slavery that was opposed by most blacks?

- How did Garrison hope to end slavery?

- Choose two other abolitionists and explain how each worked to end slavery.

- a. What was the purpose of the underground railroad? b. How did it operate?

- a. What did some southern states do as a result of slave revolts? b. What was the purpose of the laws?

- a. State the propaganda Estes uses to support his idea that slavery was good for the US. b. How does Helper's view of the effect of slavery differ from Estes's view?



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