We’ve discussed the end of American slavery many, many times here on DIG. We’ve talked about abolition in the context of Reconstruction, in the context of refugees sometimes called “contraband,” in the context of Black military service, in the context of the Black Codes and Jim Crow – just to name a few. You might notice something in that list: each of those things centers specifically on the end of slavery, but not on the long and arduous effort to end slavery. In the many times we’ve talked about abolition and emancipation (at least in the US) we’ve talked almost exclusively about the final days of America’s peculiar institution. Today, let’s shift our focus and look instead at the big picture, the long and shifting effort to end slavery in the United States.

Transcript for The Long History of Abolition in America

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: We’ve discussed the end of American slavery many, many times here on DIG. We’ve talked about abolition in the context of Reconstruction, in the context of refugees sometimes called “contraband,” in the context of Black military service, in the context of the Black Codes and Jim Crow – just to name a few. You might notice something in that list: each of those things centers specifically on the end of slavery, but not on the long and arduous effort to end slavery. In the many times we’ve talked about abolition and emancipation (at least in the US) we’ve talked almost exclusively about the final days of America’s peculiar institution. Today, let’s shift our focus and look instead at the big picture, the long and shifting effort to end slavery in the United States.

Averill: Slavery didn’t end in an instant, and it didn’t end in a vacuum. Emancipation was a long, protracted, painful process, built on over eight decades of debates, activism, and armed rebellion. It wasn’t a straight path – it was built on as much, if not more, grief and disappointment as it was on successful action. It was the very definition of people creating a foundation for a future that they would not see.

Sarah: Today, we’re talking about the long road to abolition of slavery in the United States. It’s a story that transcends historical specializations (it encompasses the history of politics, economics, colonization, agriculture, race, and more) national boundaries (it includes colonies and nations around the Atlantic world) and historical eras. It’s a dense and difficult and, ultimately, I think holds an important lesson for all those who strive for justice.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Patreon/we’re going to the OAH

Sarah: First, as I so often do, I want to start with a little disclaimer and also a little shout out. The disclaimer: this is a history of the long journey to abolition, not of the abolitionist movement. What I mean by that is that it is going to be miles long but an inch deep. If you’re interested in some aspect of this story, I will link our other episodes that cover those topics and offer ideas for further reading in the show notes. I will also probably do future episodes on some of those topics! Second, a shout out: the majority of the research for this episode was drawn from Patrick Rael’s beautiful written book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865. If you want to know more or want to support his excellent research, please consider picking up the book!

Averill: Let’s start with an incredibly brief reminder of how slavery came to be entrenched in America. Slavery first arrived in the North American colonies as part of the process of colonization. European nations like Great Britain (is that the right term for this era?), France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal looked to the rest of the world, particularly to North and South America, as sites of great potential wealth. To get the most out of the global demand for sugar, the Portuguese began to expand their previous use of African labor, previously used mostly off the coast of African on islands like Sao Tome and Cape Verde, to their colony in Brazil. Even as early as 1500, over 80,000 Africans had already been transported in the Portuguese Atlantic slave trade.[1] Other European nations were quick to get in on what was essentially a cash grab: between sugar production and the trade in African slaves, there was serious money to be made. South America and the Caribbean islands were the most lucrative – the Dutch and Portuguese squabbled over Brazil, and the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all scrambled to gobble up the tropical islands.

Sarah: The British were initially the big losers in this dash for land and money. While they did control the British West Indies, a large number of islands in the Caribbean, the rest of their colonial holdings weren’t all that lucrative. Fur trading in Canada was decent, but Jamestown, the settlement in what is now Virginia, struggled to even feed itself for the first few years, let alone produce wealth. Other British colonies, especially those in New England, like the Massachusetts Bay Colony, weren’t centered on economic productivity at all. Nevertheless, in 1619, as we all know now thanks to Nikole Hannah Jones’s 1619 Project, the first enslaved people arrived in the American colonies. Slavery was common and widespread across the American colonies, regardless of region. Remember, the American colonies were holdings of those European nations, which all embraced slavery – as people moved around and between colonies, they brought their enslaved Africans with them. So there were enslaved people held in bondage across the northern colonies and the southern colonies. In the southern colonies, which slowly but surely were becoming productive, enslaved Africans were largely put to work in sugar, indigo, and tobacco cultivation; in the northern colonies, they performed a mix of domestic labor, agricultural work, and skilled labor. Over the ensuing century and a half, slavery became an important component of the mercantile system between the metropole and the American colonies.

 (Let me just note: we know that indigenous Americans were also enslaved, and we just discussed that in our episode on Tituba, the enslaved woman embroiled in the Salem witch trials. In this episode, though, we’re limiting our focus to the enslavement of Africans. Also, for more on slavery in the northern colonies, we have an episode on slavery in colonial New York!)

Averill: This brings us to the first phase of the quest for abolition, what historian Patrick Rael calls the age of revolutionary abolitionism. Feeling neglected and exploited by their colonial masters in England, the American colonists began to agitate for independence. But this was a conflict about more than a simple frustration over high taxes – it was also informed by the philosophy of English thinkers like John Locke and William Blackstone as well as French Enlightenment philosophes like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Kant. Influenced by the writing of such thinkers, Americans saw high taxes and other ‘abuses’ as the attempt of English elites to subjugate American colonists and disrespect their individual rights to “life, liberty, and property.”[2] Slavery, then, occupied a complicated part of this rhetoric. On the one hand, slavery became a useful metaphor. To emphasize the sense that they were being oppressed by the Crown, Americans embraced a philosophy that understood all human society as either slave or free. For instance, John Jay, a revolutionary from the NY colony, wrote to the Continental Congress that Great Britain was “forging chains for her friends and children” and “enslaving” colonists with bureaucratic plans. Silas Downer, a patriot from Rhode Island, stated that taxation without representation “placed colonists in the lowest bottom of slavery.”[3] John Hancock, describing the colonists at the Boston Massacre, said that the men were “delivering the oppressed from the iron grasp of tyranny,” transforming “the hoarse complaints and bitter moans of wretched slaves into cheerful songs.”[4]  In one of the most famous addresses of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, the southerner and slaveholder cried “there is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!” Even British statesmen used the term. Edmund Burke, a supporter of the calls for American independence, asked Parliament “tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from?….Slavery they can have anywhere, freedom they can have from none but you.”[5]

Sarah: But in reality, colonists were not slaves – their enslaved Africans were slaves. Slavery wasn’t just a rhetorical device in the American colonies, it was a very real thing. This was a problem American revolutionaries recognized immediately. John Jay, who compared the colonists to slaves, also recognized that these cries for liberty were a joke while Americans held other humans in bondage, saying that until America embraced abolition, “her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious.” Thomas Jefferson recognized that human bondage was immoral and wrote that he worried when he remembered that “God was just.” A printer in Boston attached a call for abolition for four enslaved men to a famous oration on liberty that urged Americans not to forget that “near one sixth part of the inhabitants of America are held in REAL Slavery.” Abigail Adams, always the voice of reason in her letters to her husband John Adams, wrote “I wish most sincerely tehre was not slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me – to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”[6] And the English used this hypocrisy as a point against the Americans. One Englishman wrote to a friend in the colonies, “you and your countrymen are reduced to the dilemma of either acknowledging the rights of your Negroes or of surrendering your own.”

American soldiers at the siege of Yorktown
American soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger, watercolor, 1781 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Early antislavery Americans seized on the widespread ideology of liberty to advocate for emancipation. While there had been a movement to end slavery before the revolution, it was limited and scattered. Many historians credit the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who advocated against the enslavement of indigenous Americans in the Spanish colonies, as the first antislavery writer in the Atlantic world. In the American colonies, starting in the late 17th century Pennsylvania Quakers declared that Quakers must, in accordance with their religious beliefs, oppose slavery. A century later, Quakers like John Woolman and Anthony Benezet became some of the first antislavery activists in the colonies. Those early calls for emancipation, though, were grounded in Quakerism and Christianity. The ideology of the revolution, then, allowed antislavery to become embedded in the general ethos of the era, transcending religious affiliation and belief. Afrer all, it was easy for proponents of slavery to refute calls for abolition with the very accurate point that slavery existed in the Bible, and was endorsed or at least recognized by the founders of the faith. But the idea that slavery violated a person’s natural rights made slavery seem clearly “incompatible with the “transcendent principles upon which the new nation had been established.”[7]  The argument was used by enslaved people themselves. In 1777, four African American men sought their freedom from the Massachusetts state legislature, making an argument based entirely on the ideology of the American Revolution: “The efforts made by the [legislature] of this province … to free themselves from slavery gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction. We expect great things from men who had made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them. We cannot but wish and hope, Sir, that you will have the same grand object – we mean civil and religious liberty – in view of your next session.”[8]

I think we should clarify something here. We’re not saying that African Americans were simply regurgitating ‘white’ ideas, or that the concept of abolition or liberty ‘came’ from whites. Rather, African Americans seized on the moment and the language of the revolution to redefine what slavery and freedom meant. They were able to punch a hole into the colonists’ claims to liberty in such a way that whenever those claims were invoked, colonists were forced to grapple with the realities of chattel slavery in America. That was an effect that outlasted the revolutionary era – the “American Paradox” became a permanent feature of debates around American slavery and ultimately helped to spell its demise. 

(I know this was not immediately successful. They did apply again, but it’s not clear in Rael’s text whether they were freed before Massachusetts abolished slavery; I suspect not.)

Sarah: In practical terms, though, American colonists (especially Southern slaveholding ones) were nervous that ideas about slavery and liberty could be weaponized against them. James Madison wrote worriedly in 1774 that enslaved Virginians were approaching the British in hopes that they could gain their freedom by offering their support. “A few of these unhappy wretches,” he wrote, “met together and chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive,” with the idea that “by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom.” Ultimately, Madison was less worried about Black Americans joining forces with the English and more about them seizing the chaotic moment to launch insurrections. Other patriots recognized that the enslaved could easily exploit the moment to seize their freedom. John Adams described in 1775 the way that some southern colonists were panicky about the possibility that British troops could promise freedom to African Americans in exchange for promises of later freedom after the war was over. Slaves, he wrote, “had a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves” and would organize and “run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight.”[9] These did not turn out to be unfounded fears. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, used Virginians’ fears of slave insurrection against them, threatening to free slaves and foment violent insurrection if any Virginians who disobeyed his orders. Later, Dunmore declared martial law in Virginia, and released a proclamation that promised freedom to all slaves who would join the Crown’s armed forces. The proclamation threw colonists into a tizzy, who scrambled to warn the enslaved away from taking the governor up on his offer. For many, it became another item on their list of British threats to American liberty. Dunmore eventually was forced into exile and the few hundred slaves who answered his call went with him – many returned to slavery in other parts of the Atlantic world. Whether they went to Dunmore or to other commanders, it’s now estimated that thousands of enslaved Americans flocked to British troops around the colonies, hoping to earn their freedom, over the course of the war.

Averill: The paradox of liberty and slavery did not disappear when the Revolution came to an end in 1783. In some ways, the problem only became thornier as Americans worked to build new governments. The founding generation, it should go without saying, had a complicated relationship to slavery, one that was manifest in the federal Constitution, which was hashed out in Philadelphia the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. Fifty-five delegates took part in the conventions. Of that number, twenty-five were slaveholders. Immediately, the issue of how slavery would be represented in the new Constitution was contentious. There were several concessions to slavery – for instance, the fugitive slave clause (article 4, section 2) which required that states to return all escaping slaves. Probably the biggest problem had to do with the creation of a federal legislature. Small states wanted fixed representation, while large states advocated for proportional representation based on state population. As we all know, the compromise solution included a bicameral legislature, with houses that used use system (senate being fixed two 2 senators, and the House of Reps based on population). Population would be determined by the three-fifths clause, which gave southern, slaveholding states a clear advantage. Rael points out, just as one example, that in the first Congress, the three-fifths clause resulted in an “11% bonus for southern power.” That power imbalance remained pretty consistent for decades. (We discussed slavery and the Constitution in our episode on the 1776 Commission Report last year.)

Sarah: At the same time, the states were drafting their own Constitutions. In every northern state, antislavery advocates seized the moment as legislatures convened to draft new governing documents, eager to convince framers to take the opportunity to end slavery in their states. But each state had a very different path to abolition. Vermont, in 1777, became the first state (and, in fact, the first government in the New World!) to unequivocally abolish slavery in its Constitution, punctuated with the statement that “the idea of slavery is expressly and totally exploded from our free government.” In Massachusetts, a series of lawsuits brought by enslaved African Americans for their freedom led to court rulings that effectively killed slavery, even though no official law was on the books until the passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1865. In 1784, both Rhode Island and Connecticut passed laws declaring all future children born into slavery free once they reached adulthood (18 for girls, 21 for boys). In Pennsylvania, the legislature, heavily influenced by Quakers, passed a bill that declaring slavery “repugnant” to liberty but also imposed a gradual emancipation process that kept the people in slavery for twenty-eight years. In New York and New Jersey, the process was more drawn out. New York debated abolition for over fifteen years before finally passing a graduate emancipation law in 1799. New Jersey didn’t pass an abolition law until 1804, which only freed children born into slavery after 21 years for girls and 25 for boys. Patrick Rael notes that on the eve of the Civil War, New Jersey still listed 18 enslaved people on the federal census.

Averill: Many of the so-called founding fathers believed that slavery was dying a slow death – it was a vestige of the past that was destined to eventually peter out as the young nation grew. This did not translate, however, into real efforts to end slavery in southern states. Thomas Jefferson, who often wrote about his worries about the morality of slavery and the threat it contained for the future of the nation (and, of course, sexual partner of his own enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, and father of her children), ultimately rejected abolition efforts in the belief that the “public” would reject them. Instead, upper South states Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland passed laws making it easier to manumit slaves upon your death. This soothed the minds of some members of the founding generation, who were able to manumit a few slaves upon their deaths while extracting as much labor as possible from them while living. Manumission laws did have an impact, creating significant increases in the free black populations of the upper south – people who often lived in close proximity to those still in bondage and remembered intimately what it was like to be enslaved.

Sarah: The American Revolution helped to inspire an age of revolutions which served to underscore the hypocrisy of America’s legacy of liberty and embrace of slavery. In the Caribbean, slave revolts exploded in Martinique and a full-blown revolution unfurled on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) sent shockwaves through America’s slaveocracy. There is almost no way to explain the Haitian Revolution quickly and do it justice, so please do keep exploring that topic if you’re interested (we do discuss it in our episode on Caribbean Slave Revolts). But essentially, the revolution in Haiti was combination slave revolt and political revolution, as enslaved Haitians seized the chaos amid the French Revolution to demand their freedom as a colony and as people held in bondage. In other words, the war in Haiti represented the greatest fears of American colonists during the Revolution: that the enslaved would use the moment to demand their freedom, using the language of liberty borne out of the revolutionary ethos. While abolitionists cheered the revolution, considering it a welcome extension of the principles of the American Revolution, others saw it as a harbinger of potential terror. President George Washington pledged to the French ambassador in 1791 that America would “render every aid in their power” to the French against the “alarming insurrection” in Saint-Domingue. In Charleston, where white refugees entered the port from Haiti, bringing their enslaved people with them, paranoia raged that those slaves would foment rebellion.

Averill: African Americans, however, insisted that Americans could not ignore the linkages between the struggle for freedom in Haiti and the legacy of the American Revolution. The most immediate impact of the Haitian Revolution was in its inspiration of similar slave uprisings in America. In 1800, an enslaved Virginian man named Gabriel Prosser was inspired by the revolution on Saint-Domingue to plot a similar uprising in which armed slaves would storm the capital in Richmond and demand their freedom. His revolt was discovered and quashed before it could even begin. Twenty years later, formerly enslaved pastor Denmark Vesey reportedly read deeply about the age of revolutions, especially consuming everything he could about Haiti. He planned a revolt to be launched on July 14 (to coincide with the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in France, which had helped launch the revolution there). Rebels would capture an armory, burn the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and escape to Haiti, where they would continue their quest for freedom like a government in exile. But like Prosser, Vesey’s plot was also discovered before it could get underway, and Charleston unleashed a brutal crackdown on its Black and enslaved residents.

Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot
Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot. Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Abolitionists also used other means to invoke the Haitian Revolution.  At least three African American writers wrote books about the Haitian Revolution before the Civil War, including the intellectual and abolitionist William Wells Brown. In his book, Brown compared the Haitian general Toussaint Louverture to George Washington, saying both were “leader of an oppressed and outraged people, each had a powerful enemy to contend with, and each succeeded in founding a government in the New World.” The difference, though, Brown said, was that Toussaint liberated his people, while Washington continued to enslave his. White abolitionist James Birney noted that Haitians achieved their liberty in the same way that Americans had – through rebellion. In this way, abolitionists ensured that Americans were forced to continue to grapple with the paradox at the core of their nation.

Sarah: As America moved into the nineteenth century, it became increasingly clear that the slow death of slavery the founding had counted was not happening. While a wave of manumissions took place in the wake of the revolution, something else happened that served to re-entrench slavery in the United States. One of the compromises the founding fathers had written into the Constitution was the end of American participation in the Atlantic slave trade. On its face, this seems antislavery, but in practice, it only helped to create a market for an internal slave trade. In 1793, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a machine that made it faster and more efficient to clean cotton to be used in textile manufacturing. As a result, the textile industry’s demand for cotton – previously a crop that had limited use – boomed. Bonded labor was crucial to growing, picking, and processing the vast quantities of cotton the industry demanded, meaning that instead of dying out, the institution of slavery grew. To make things worse, it spread. Cotton cultivation required land. The demand for more and more and more land to grow cotton spurred the forcible removal of the Native American tribes who lived in the fertile lands of the American southeast and encouraged the annexation of Texas and war against Mexico. As the nation grew – whether through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase or the territorial acquisitions after the Mexican War – debate raged over how to handle the spread of slavery. Congress desperately tried to find ways to please all sides three separate times (in Missouri in 1820, Comp of 1850, and Kansas-Nebraska in 1854).

Averill: That is a very quick run through the first half of the United States, so let’s slow down and take a closer look at a couple of things. First, it’s important to see the shift happening in slavery during the cotton boom in order to understand the evolution of abolition during the same period. During the age of revolutions, we saw how calls to end slavery were tied to the insistence that enslaved people had natural rights, like all Americans, and thus deserved liberty. Even slaveholders like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and others recognized that this was true, and posed a problem for those who profited from the ownership of human flesh. But in order for slavery to grow (as it needed to facilitate the cotton boom) the ideology surrounding slavery would have to change. Instead, slaveholders developed a proslavery mindset, one that leaned heavily on white supremacy and racism. No longer satisfied to consider slavery a necessary evil, southerners embraced it as a positive good. Further, slaveholders flexed their political power over and over again as they forced new territories open to slavery. The sense that the slaveholding south held outsize power and could dictate national policy without needing to even negotiate with the north (due to the “hyper-empowerment” of the 3/5ths clause!) became known as the slave power conspiracy in the north. As Patrick Rael puts it so succinctly, “slavery was wrong not simply (or even) because it hurt slaves; slavery was wrong because it imperiled the government, and unity, of free whites.”[10]

Sarah: Abolitionist approaches likewise changed. Ideas about race hardened during the late 18th and early 19th century. If humans had natural rights and deserved liberty, and slaves could not have liberty, many Americans reasoned that this wasn’t because of a failing on the part of slaveholding whites, but due to something inherent in the biology of Blacks. For some abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, it seemed clear that this was a potential problem for them – abolition, though their desired goal, would result in a mixed race society. Blacks wouldn’t be satisfied to be free, they reasoned, but would demand the civil rights (including the right to vote) they believed all people deserved. This did not bode well to many white Americans, whether north or south, abolitionist or slaveholder. (This is a good time to remind you that abolitionist does not mean antiracist!) To subvert that mixed race future, in the 18-teens, a certain subsection of abolitionists (mostly, though not entirely, white) advocated for what they called colonization, or the plan to essentially ship African Americans to Africa, where they would establish their own societies safely distanced from white American society. This distance and ‘fresh start,’ so to speak, would allow Blacks the space to become civilized. In 1817, a group of white men founded the American Colonization Society. This was no fringe group – the ACS brought on prestigious members like Francis Scott Key, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster – and had funds enough to purchase land in Africa, soon named “Liberia,” and ship almost 5000 African Americans to establish new lives in the colony.  (Which very much still exists.) Though founded as a way to abolish slavery, the ACS largely resettled free blacks. The American Colonization Society, while technically an abolitionist organization, was primarily an organization created by and for white people. A handful of prominent African Americans supported the society, such as Richard Allen and James Forten, who seemed excited by an some outreach the ACS did, pitching the men on their proposal for a free and independent Black state – Forten, tellingly, suggested that this could be a chance to establish a “great nation” in the example of the Blacks of Saint-Domingue. But more generally, Black Americans largely rejected colonization. When the ACS presented their plan to a public group of free Black Philadelphians, they roundly rejected the idea. “Three thousand [people] at least attended,” James Forten reported to the white ACS organizers, and there was not one sole [sic] that was in favor of going to Africa.”[11] Over the course of the nineteenth century, the idea of colonization would reappear, and even morph into Black nationalist ideology at the end of the century – but for now, as an abolitionist effort, it was dead in the water.

Sarah: The whites who shaped the colonization society were motivated more by racism, couched as benevolence, than a desire to destroy slavery. But in the 1830s, another white Northerner launched a new way of advocating for abolition. William Lloyd Garrison, a newspaper man and moral reformer from Massachusetts, transformed antebellum abolition by demanding immediate and unconditional emancipation. In 1831, Garrison founded a newspaper called The Liberator, which became the central mouthpiece for abolitionism. Additionally, Garrison helped to draw together multiple smaller antislavery societies into one, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS). Garrison was a fiery and radical speaker, unafraid of drawing criticism or risking his safety in his condemnation of the slave system and slaveholders. In the first issue of the Liberator, Garrison explained his position thus: “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No, no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I WILL BE HEARD.”[12] And his radicalism was risky. In 1835, a mob in Boston attacked Garrison and dragged him through the street by a rope, threatening to tar and feather him. But Garrison recognized that, while certainly not fun, such attacks could be harnessed and used to draw wider attention from the press, helping to spread the abolitionist message. And Moreover, Garrison recognized that slavery wasn’t a southern problem, but an American problem, one that would need to be cut out from the very core of the nation. Famously, in the 1850s, Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution during a demonstration, calling it a ‘covenant with death’ and an ‘agreement with sin’ for its pro-slavery clauses and compromises.

William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison | Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs/ Library of Congress 

Averill: It’s really important to remember that Garrison was not the first radical abolitionist. Other antislavery activists had called for immediate emancipation, including, critically, African Americans who had in some cases paid for their advocacy with their lives. David Walker, a free Black abolitionist who died at the young age of only 33 in 1830, published a pamphlet called “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” which rejected racism and colonization, and demanded immediate emancipation and civil rights for African Americans. So Garrison is in now way inventing this stuff – Rael says that Garrison could only be successful because previous Black abolitionists had “built a platform upon which he could stand.” Let’s be real: Garrison was able to stand on that platform and get attention because he was white. But with that platform, Garrison played an incredibly important role in helping to transform abolition in the antebellum era. As Rael puts it, “never before had a white activist bundled together so many radical messages: the uncompromising tone, the moral righteousness, the call for immediate change, the utter neglect of slaveholder interest and sentiments.”[13] He outright rejected colonization, pointing to his readers the arguments of Black abolitionists, who insisted it was racist and did not support it.

Sarah: Garrison wrote clearly and powerfully, and used his newspaper experience to effectively spread the message that slavery was a moral wrong that must be ended. He used his power as a public figure, and the pages of his newspaper, to essentially ‘signal boost’ Black abolitionists and escaping slaves. He encouraged Frederick Douglass to tell his story by quite literally giving him the stage (without notice, lol) at antislavery gatherings, and helped him to publish his narrative in 1845. He also helped to translate other antislavery efforts in ways that Americans could better understand. For example, when Nat Turner’s rebellion ended in the deaths of more than fifty whites in South Carolina, Garrison used the Liberator to explain to his readers that such violence was the natural outcome of a system that denied humanity to a class of people. It was the same thing, he wrote, that happened in every region where oppressed peoples tried to overthrow their oppressors – reminding Americans that they, too, had used violence to demand their liberty. Enslaved people were no different, and such rebellions were justified. But the Garrisonians weren’t all talk and no action: they also innovated interesting new tactics to attack slavery. They encouraged Northern abolitionists to swamp their elected officials in Washington with petitions against slavery. We talked about this a lot in our episode on political violence, so check out the details there, but while the petitions weren’t taken very seriously, they caused such gridlock in the Capital Congress actually had a short lived ‘gag order’ that prohibited they even be discussed. Garrisonians understood that the petitions would almost certainly not be taken seriously, but instead intended that they cause political strife in the halls of Congress and bring attention to the cause – which they absolutely did. They used the same tactic when they organized the mass mailing of abolitionist newspapers and pamphlets into the South, with the hopes that they would get into the hands of literate slaves. They understood that enslaved people were kept – on threat of violent punishment – from learning to read, so they knew the intended effect would be limited. But they also understood that flooding southern post offices with abolitionist material would cause problems for slaveholders – which, again, it absolutely did. The US Postal Service allowed southern post masters to essentially censor the mail, and in South Carolina (it’s always South Carolina!!!) a post office was attacked by thousands of men who burned bags of mail along with abolitionist effigies in 1835.

Sarah: One of the important things about Garrisonian abolitionism was its insistence that slavery was a moral wrong. With his skills in causing a stir and in publishing, the Garrisonians helped to convince many Americans that slavery wasn’t just an alternate economic or labor system, but a moral injustice. But this message just wasn’t all that convincing to a large number of Americans, some who were just straightforwardly racist, and others who just weren’t tapped in, so to speak, to the issue. But as slaveholders increasingly demanded new territories to the west where slavery could expand, many Northerners were convinced by a different antislavery argument: that free labor could not exist alongside the institution of chattel slavery. Who would hire free laborers when they could rent or purchase the enslaved to work for little to nothing? In the 1840s, the growing sectional crisis between north and south over westward expansion, splintered the existing party system, forcing Americans to make their political decisions largely based on their positions in regards to slavery. In other words, slavery and abolition forced a complete realignment of the American political system. The Free Soil Party emerged, making the free labor argument central to their platform. The Free Labor movement was really not concerned with the morality of slavery, but rather their opposition to the spread of slavery into new territories. Even Northerners ambivalent about race or the institution of slavery as it existed in the South could be convinced by this argument. Within a decade, Americans who didn’t fit into the increasingly pro-slavery, pro-expansion Democratic party combined with refugees from the disintegrating Whig Party and smaller, more radically anti-slavery parties (like the Liberty Party) joined forces with the Free Soilers to establish the Republican Party.

Sarah: Pro-slavery and abolition movements both hardened and radicalized in the 1850s. A new Fugitive Slave Law strengthened the legal commandment that Northerners must actively return escaping bondspeople back to their masters, which abolitionists argued made all cooperating Northerners complicit in enslavement. When Illinois senator Stephen Douglas drafted a bill that would bring the Kansas and Nebraska territories into the union as states, the tension over slavery’s expansion reached a boiling point. The bill allowed the territories to determine their own status in terms of slavery using popular sovereignty, or a general vote. Unsurprisingly, supporters of both slavery and abolition rushed into the state, each vying to establish a state government and influence the vote. The Kansas territory devolved into chaos almost immediately. And Kansas marked a shift for some abolitionists. While southerners had always been very willing to use violence to protect its system of enslavement, most abolitionists were evangelical Christians committed to pacifism. But were abolitionists willing to cling to pacifism as slavery, a moral evil, became even more entrenched and slaveholders used force to ensure its spread? Moral suasion – the Garrisonian tactic of persuading people using appeals to their emotions through things like books and speeches (think Uncle Tom’s Cabin) – was all well and good, that started to seem like bringing a Bible to a gunfight as the sectional crisis intensified. Some abolitionists changed their approach. In northern cities like Syracuse and Boston, abolitionists rioted to protect fugitive slaves from being returned to bondage. Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist minister from New York City, helped to organize the New England Emigrant Aid Society, which paid for passage for abolitionists willing to move to the Kansas Territory and fight on behalf of abolition. Famously, Beecher supplied his emigrants with Sharps carbine rifles, which he suggested had more “moral power” than hundreds of Bibles – earning the guns the nickname “Beecher Bibles.”

An 1859 Sharps Berdan rifle, like the "Beecher Bibles"
An 1859 Sharps Berdan rifle, like the “Beecher Bibles” | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: One abolitionist took the idea that violence could be used for righteous ends very seriously. John Brown, a radical abolitionist from upstate New York, moved to Kansas in 1855, joined by several of his family members. In May 1856, enraged by a pro-slavery raid on the abolitionist settlement of Lecompton that destroyed two abolitionist newspapers, as well as the attack on abolitionist senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress, John Brown led a small group of abolitionists on a raid against proslavery settlers in the area of Pottawatomie Creek. In the matter of a few hours, Brown and his band (mostly made up of his own sons and son-in-law) hacked five proslavery men to death with broadswords. The raid kicked off even more unrest in Kansas, inspiring raids and retaliation from both sides for months. Abolitions back on the east coast were divided in their feelings on the violence. Garrison remained committed to pacifism and tried to ignore Brown as a marginal radical – but other prominent white abolitionists took him very seriously and started to believe that violence was going to be the key to actually ending slavery. After decades of writing, speaking, organizing, mailing pamphlets, some abolitionists started to believe that only force would end slavery. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Gerrit Smith, and George Luther Stearns made up a shadowy group sometimes called the “secret six,” who organized and bankrolled John Brown in the late 1850s as he developed a plan to finally destroy slavery by attacking it from the inside.

Sarah: The funding and intellectual support from the secret six allowed John Brown to formulate a plan he’d been thinking on for years: that abolitionists could actively enable the creation of maroon communities (communities of fugitive slaves) in the Appalachian Mountains, which would undermine slavery and facilitate escape from enslavement in the lower south. Like so many before him, Brown cited Haiti as his precedent, believing that the maroon society could work to destroy slavery through guerilla warfare, which would inspired Black and white abolitionists and escaping slave to join the fight as combatants against the immoral institution. This is not what happened. Brown gathered a small coalition of supporters and in October of 1859, led his band to the small town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where they attempted to seize a federal armory, which they hoped they could use to outfit their future guerilla band. Quickly, the raid fell apart as the group was discovered and Virginia militia and federal troops (always on alert against slave insurrections) eventually arrested Brown and his men.

Averill: In December, Brown was hung by the state of Virginia. In his final days, Brown used his time left on earth to write and speak at length about his motives, never begging for his life, but rather doubling down on why he had taken his actions and why, he believed, more such actions should take place. He cast himself as just one small part of a larger process to dehumanize and destroy anyone who opposed slavery: “If I is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of the millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done.” On the morning of his execution, Brown wrote a short note that he handed to his jailor. It read: “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.” In other words, Brown was saying that he thought he might be able to end slavery with only a little violence – now, he knew that it would only end with a great deal of spilled blood. Disheartened, but also inspired, by Brown’s martyrdom, many abolitionists – even the pacificists! – agreed. Garrison wrote that “rather than ese men wearing their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the head of the tyrant with their chains.”[14] Brown’s raid was remarkable, not only in its radical combining of insurrection and abolitionist ideology, but because nowhere in the slaveholding world of the ‘New World’ had a white abolitionist led an armed attempt to destroy slavery. Unlike other whites who were willing to signal boost and write moralizing, sentimental literature, John Brown was willing to lay down his life to destroy an unjust institution.

Tragic Prelude, a mural depicting John Brown's role in the Civil War era in the Kansas State Capitol
 Tragic Prelude, a mural depicting John Brown’s role in the Civil War era in the Kansas State Capitol, painted by John Steuart Curry. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Slavery did not end with John Brown’s death. Southern slaveholders doubled down on their commitment to white supremacy and enslavement; Northerners became more leery of the slave power conspiracy. And when Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election just months later, we all know what followed – secession, declarations of war, a long and bloody war that ended in the deaths of some 750,000 American men, plus more civilians. But it also ended in the destruction of the institution of slavery in the United States.John Brown had been prophetic: it could not be destroyed without significant bloodshed. But I want to adjust our perspective just a bit. Instead of seeing the Civil War as the event that destroyed slavery, I think it’s important that we think of the Civil War (and the many debates, laws, challenges, and decisions that went into abolition during the Civil War) as the final event in a decades long process of destroying slavery. The abolition of slavery didn’t happen in the US in 1865 – instead, the EP and 13th amendment  were the culmination of the decades long fight for abolition in America.


Rael, Patrick. Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.


[1] Patrick Rael, 7-8

[2] Rael, 34.

[3] Rael, 42.

[4] Rael 42.

[5] Rael, 43.

[6] Rael, 44.

[7] Rael, 47.

[8] Rael, 48.

[9] Rael, 53.

[10] Rael, 123

[11] Rael, 140

[12] Rael, 169

[13] Rael, 169

[14] Rael, 231.


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.