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Radical Reform, Abolition

white abolitionists, American Colonization Society, gag rule, abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison

The logic of Northern social reform applied more clearly to slavery than to nearly any other habit or institution. From the beginning, slaves resisted their own enslavement. In the 18th century, Quakers and a few other whites opposed the institution. The American Revolution, with its rhetoric of universal natural rights, called slavery into serious question. Northern states abolished it, and Southern evangelicals, along with some of the leading slaveholders of the upper South, thought about liberating the slaves. After 1816 the American Colonization Society proposed to “repatriate” freed slaves to Africa, although the intent of this organization was less to liberate slaves than to deport free blacks. Free blacks understood that, and most of them opposed returning to Africa.

But it was not until the 1830s that significant numbers of middle–class Northerners began to agitate for the immediate emancipation of slaves and for their incorporation as equals into the republic. Like other social reforms, abolitionism took root among the most radical Northern Whigs, and it was based in the middle–class revivals of the 1820s and 1830s.

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, a Boston abolitionist, published the first issue of The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper. In 1833 Garrison helped form the American Anti–Slavery Society. The new movement included Northeastern Quakers and Unitarians and Northern blacks.

Abolitionism’s largest base of support, however, was among the evangelical middle class of New England, upstate New York, and the Old Northwest (the former Northwest Territory). These people lived in a reform culture that saw moral free will and Christian love as pitted against brutality and power. As the New England Anti–Slavery Society put it in 1833, antislavery “means, finally, that right shall take the supremacy over wrong, principle over brute force, humanity over cruelty, honesty over theft, purity over lust, honor over baseness, love over hatred, and religion over heathenism.” It was in such stark opposites that evangelical reformers viewed the world.

Sometimes working with white abolitionists, sometimes working independently, Northern free blacks also demanded freedom for the slaves. Hundreds of anonymous women and men operated an Underground Railroad that hid escaped slaves, often smuggling them to Canada. Along with pamphleteer David Walker, orator and editor Frederick Douglass, and uncompromising mystic Sojourner Truth, they formed a dedicated wing of the antislavery movement.

Abolitionists knew that they were a minority. They also knew that the two parties—Democrats in particular—wanted to keep moral and sectional questions out of politics and would try to ignore the abolition movement. They decided to attack the party system as well as slavery. They organized a postal campaign in 1835, sending massive amounts of antislavery literature through the mails. Southerners and most Northerners branded this literature as dangerous, and the Democratic administration could not avoid the issue.

In the next year, abolitionists began sending hundreds of petitions to Congress. Some of the petitions were against annexation of slaveholding Texas; others demanded the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia or the end of the interstate slave trade. Each of these issues was within the constitutional sphere assigned to Congress.

In the process of building these campaigns, abolitionists turned themselves into an organized movement. They also urged the national government to debate slavery—something that most congressmen from both sections and both parties wanted to avoid. President Andrew Jackson, rather than formally censor the mail, simply allowed local postmasters to destroy mail that they considered dangerous. And Democrats in Congress, with help from Southern Whigs, devised a gag rule whereby Congress tabled antislavery petitions without reading them. At the same time, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists and their sympathizers as threats to racial purity and social order.

These measures gave abolitionists what many of them had wanted: They tied the defense of slavery to assaults on free speech and the right of petition. No less a figure than ex-president John Quincy Adams, who had returned to government as a congressman from Massachusetts, led the fight against the gag rule. It was a fight that convinced many Northerners that Southern slavery corrupted republican government and threatened Northern civil liberties. Beginning as a tiny radical minority, abolitionists had helped force the nation to confront the troublesome problem of slavery.

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