Through decades of strife, and often at the risk of their lives, anti-slavery activists remained steadfast in the face of powerful opposition. Their efforts would ultimately force the issue of slavery to the forefront of national politics, and fuel the split between North and South that would lead the country into civil war.
Abolitionism in America
Origins of Abolitionism
By the eighteenth century, Great Britain was reaping monumental financial rewards from the transatlantic slave trade. The transatlantic slave trade, commonly known as the triangular slave trade, was composed of three parts: European goods were traded for African slaves; African slaves were sold in the Americas for plantation crops; plantation crops were transported for sale and consumption in Europe.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slavery had few opponents in England. Indeed, English society valued the slave trade for its significant contribution to the nation’s wealth, and romanticized the adventurous lives of traders on the high seas. In the late eighteenth century, however, Quakers and other religious leaders began to change attitudes toward slavery by drawing attention to the inhumanity and cruelty of the slave trade. One of most effective voices against slavery in England was Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846). Clarkson, along with the abolitionist Granville Sharpe, established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. To expose the barbarity of the slave trade, Clarkson gathered evidence, such as the tools of torture used on slave ships, and interviewed thousands of slave ship sailors. He also developed powerful allies, such as M.P. William Wilberforce, who used his political influence to lobby for abolitionist causes in Parliament. Clarkson, Granville, Wilberforce, and other activists began spreading their message. They published protest pamphlets, raised funds, and organized public lectures and rallies. Twenty years after the founding of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, their work was partially rewarded by the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. This act prohibited Great Britain from participating in the transatlantic slave trade.
In Their Own Words: Slave Narratives
For many slaves, the ability to read and write meant freedom—if not actual, physical freedom, then intellectual freedom—to maintain relationships amongst family members separated by the slave trade. A few wrote slave narratives, which, when published, powerfully exposed the evils of slavery. For slaves and their teachers, the exercise of reading and writing was a dangerous and illegal one. In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.
Although some masters did teach their slaves to read as a way to Christianize them, most slave owners believed that teaching such skills was useless, if not dangerous. They assumed that slaves had no use for reading in their daily lives, and that literacy would make them more difficult to control, and more likely to run away.
For those who managed to become literate and escape to freedom, the ability to write would spark the growth of a powerful genre of literature: the slave narrative. For the abolitionist movement, slave narratives would become tremendously effective weapons in attacking the institution of slavery. Despite the danger of physical punishment and the threat of capture for the authors of slave narratives, these men and women took great risks to empower themselves, and in some cases, achieved freedom.
In the 1830s, American abolitionists, led by Evangelical Protestants, gained momentum in their battle to end slavery. Abolitionists believed that slavery was a national sin, and that it was the moral obligation of every American to help eradicate it from the American landscape by gradually freeing the slaves and returning them to Africa.. Not all Americans agreed. Views on slavery varied state by state, and among family members and neighbors. Many Americans—Northerners and Southerners alike—did not support abolitionist goals, believing that anti-slavery activism created economic instability and threatened the racial social order.
But by the mid-nineteenth century, the ideological contradictions between a national defense of slavery on American soil on the one hand, and the universal freedoms espoused in the Declaration of Independence on the other hand, had created a deep moral schism in the national culture. During the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, anti-slavery organizations proliferated, and became increasingly effective in their methods of resistance. As the century progressed, branches of the abolitionist movement became more radical, calling for the immediate end of slavery. Public opinion varied widely, and different branches of the movement disagreed on how to achieve their aims. But abolitionists found enough strength in their commonalities—a belief in individual liberty and a strong Protestant evangelical faith—to move their agenda forward.
Spreading the Word
Fierce words and vivid images were among the tools that radical “immediatist” abolitionists used to further their cause. Instead of gently pleading their case, they employed sensational language to shock people into action against slavery. On posters for abolitionist rallies and meetings, the fervor of the language is matched only by its physical, typographical boldness and size. This poster's appeal to the “Citizens of Boston” and “Sons of Otis, and Hancock” to “see that Massachusetts Laws are not outraged with your consent,” conjures up the signers and the principles of the Declaration of Independence to stir the reader to act in favor of the cause.
Realizing that sometimes words were inadequate, abolitionists also spoke through pictures. Images used to further anti-slavery agendas idealized and mythologized slaves, thus elevating the abolitionist cause. The jigsaw puzzle “America” offers a mythologized version of liberation by representing American emancipation as a white female, reminiscent of Nike, goddess of victory. Crowned by a halo of stars, carrying broken shackles in her right hand and ivy in her left, the woman stands above slaves, kneeling, praying, and praising her. The responsibility of salvation, the image implies, rests in white Americans’ hands.
Free Northern blacks and their enslaved Southern brethren participated in personal as well as organized acts of resistance against slavery. In the North, African Americans faced huge odds and the systematic violation of their civil liberties. Consequently, many fervently supported the abolitionist cause with both open and surreptitious acts of rebellion. Northern blacks began forming groups to support the cause for freedom. As early as 1817, black Philadelphians formally protested African colonization, and by the late 1820s, black participation in anti-slavery societies had proliferated throughout the northeastern United States.
Abolitionists newspapers, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, funded abolitionist activities, thanks to the consistent and generous financial support of black activists, who made up the majority of the paper’s subscribers in its early, critical years. Former slaves and descendants of slaves also published their own newspapers to deliver powerful testimonies against slavery, at the risk of being enslaved themselves.
The likelihood of enslavement and death was extremely high for foot soldiers on the Underground Railroad. Helping runaways who had slave hunters on their heels was a perilous business, but the possibility of liberty, in their eyes, was well worth the threat of death.
Enslaved blacks conducted personal protests against their own forced labor. Many broke tools, slowed the work pace, pretended ignorance, and in some cases, engaged in violence against their masters. A few worked and saved money to buy freedom for themselves and for their loved ones, while others used the most common form of resistance—escape. For those who had reached the limit of endurance, violent insurrection was the answer.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
In 1850, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which permitted slave owners to apprehend and recover their “property” from free states without process of law. Abolitionists fought the law, which angered even moderate Northerners. In response, Harriet Beecher Stowe began work on what would become one of the best-known, most hotly-debated, and most enduring pieces of fiction in American history. Stowe’s highly sentimental and melodramatic tale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was first published in forty serial issues of the abolitionist weekly the National Era beginning in June of 1851. It was published as a two-volume book by John Punchard Jewett in March of 1852. The story’s scathing indictment of slavery’s cruelty evoked horror in the North, and outrage in the South over what Southerners perceived as an unfair condemnation of their “peculiar institution.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most contested novels of its time. Initially, the novel was criticized by whites who thought Stowe’s portrayal of black characters was too positive, and, later, by black critics who believed these same characters were oversimplified and stereotypical. Uncle Tom’s Cabin also gave birth to the racial epithet “Uncle Tom,” which is still an insult today.
Despite the criticisms and controversies surrounding the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin transcended its fictional genre, and brought the urgent issue of slavery’s brutality into the homes of white Americans. It galvanized many into becoming abolitionist sympathizers, if not activists themselves.
Abolitionists employed all manner of strategies to persuade the American public and its leadership to end slavery. One of their first strategies was to unite groups of like-minded individuals to fight as a body. Initially, groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society used lecturing and moral persuasion to attempt to change the hearts and minds of individuals. Many later activists found moral persuasion tactics insufficient and turned their attention to political lobbying.
Most famous of all abolitionist activities was the Underground Railroad, a network of assistance and safe houses for runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad stretched from the Southern states to Canada, and until 1865 provided shelter, safety, and guidance for thousands of runaway slaves.
Activists used the press to spread the abolitionist message. Newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator circulated vehement attacks on government sanctioned bondage. Other publications, such as pamphlets and leaflets, contained anti-slavery poems, slogans, essays, sermons, and songs. Abolitionists also looked to future generations to carry on their work, creating a body of children’s literature to bring the harsh realities of slavery before a young audience. These materials were deemed so threatening in slave states that they were outlawed.
Still other abolitionists felt that violence was the only way to end slavery. These militants resorted to extreme and deadly tactics, and incited violent insurrections. These acts of terror aroused fear in slaveholders, but also led to the execution of perpetrators.
The Emancipation Proclamation
After the Union won the battle of Antietam in 1862, Lincoln issued a presidential decree to the Confederate states, declaring that he would free all slaves in Southern states if they did not surrender and rejoin the Union. The Confederacy rebuffed his ultimatum, and on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some believe that the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, while others claim that Lincoln’s presidential decree was impotent, freeing no one. Both viewpoints are flawed. The Emancipation Proclamation decreed the end of slavery in all states that had seceded from the Union. When they heard about the order, slaves from rebellion states started a mass exodus to Union soldier lines. However, the Proclamation did not end slavery in slave states that had remained loyal to the Union, or in territories of the Confederacy that had been reconquered. The Emancipation Proclamation also permitted blacks to fight as Union soldiers against the rebellion states. Ironically, Lincoln had previously refused to let blacks serve in the army, even though they had a vested interest in a Union victory, and even though the Confederacy had commonly used forced black labor to assist Rebel troops. Lincoln had kept blacks out of the army in an effort to pacify loyal white Southerners and Northerners who wanted to uphold America’s racial caste system.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation depended on a Northern victory for its enactment, and some slaves were not informed of their freedom until months later, it nonetheless pierced the heart of the South. It changed the war’s focus from preserving the Union to ending slavery, and opened a path for the actual abolition of slavery in the United States.
The Thirteenth Amendment
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
On January 31, 1865%u2014two years after the presentation of the Emancipation Proclamation, and three months before the end of the Civil War%u2014the Thirteenth Amendment passed through both houses of Congress, ending almost 250 years of slavery in the United States.
Manuscript Copy of the 13th Amendment, Signed by Abraham Lincoln and Members of Congress, 1865.
The Nicholas H. Noyes Collection of Historical Americana.
To the Union Convention of Tennessee Assembled in the Capitol at Nashville, January 9th, 1865:
We the undersigned petitioners, American citizens of African descent, natives and residents of Tennessee, and devoted friends of the great National cause, do most respectfully ask a patient hearing of your honorable body in regard to matters deeply affecting the future condition of our unfortunate and long suffering race.
First of all, however, we would say that words are too weak to tell how profoundly grateful we are to the Federal Government for the good work of freedom which it is gradually carrying forward; and for the Emancipation Proclamation which has set free all the slaves in some of the rebellious States, as well as many of the slaves in Tennessee.
After two hundred years of bondage and suffering a returning sense of justice has awakened the great body of the American people to make amends for the unprovoked wrongs committed against us for over two hundred years.
Your petitioners would ask you to complete the work begun by the nation at large, and abolish the last vestige of slavery by the express words of your organic law.
Many masters in Tennessee whose slaves have left them, will certainly make every effort to bring them back to bondage after the reorganization of the State government, unless slavery be expressly abolished by the Constitution.
We hold that freedom is the natural right of all men, which they themselves have no more right to give or barter away, than they have to sell their honor, their wives, or their children.
We claim to be men belonging to the great human family, descended from one great God, who is the common Father of all, and who bestowed on all races and tribes the priceless right of freedom. Of this right, for no offence of ours, we have long been cruelly deprived, and the common voice of the wise and good of all countries, has remonstrated against our enslavement, as one of the greatest crimes in all history.
We claim freedom, as our natural right, and ask that in harmony and co-operation with the nation at large, you should cut up by the roots the system of slavery, which is not only a wrong to us, but the source of all the evil which at present afflicts the State. For slavery, corrupt itself, corrupted nearly all, also, around it, so that it has influenced nearly all the slave States to rebel against the Federal Government, in order to set up a government of pirates under which slavery might be perpetrated.
In the contest between the nation and slavery, our unfortunate people have sided, by instinct, with the former. We have little fortune to devote to the national cause, for a hard fate has hitherto forced us to live in poverty, but we do devote to its success, our hopes, our toils, our whole heart, our sacred honor, and our lives. We will work, pray, live, and, if need be, die for the Union, as cheerfully as ever a white patriot died for his country. The color of our skin does not lesson in the least degree, our love either for God or for the land of our birth.
We are proud to point your honorable body to the fact, that so far as our knowledge extends, not a negro traitor has made his appearance since the begining of this wicked rebellion.
Whether freeman or slaves the colored race in this country have always looked upon the United States as the Promised Land of Universal freedom, and no earthly temptation has been strong enough to induce us to rebel against it. We love the Union by an instinct which is stronger than any argument or appeal which can be used against it. It is the attachment of a child to its parrent.
Devoted as we are to the principles of justice, of love to all men, and of equal rights on which our Government is based, and which make it the hope of the world. We know the burdens of citizenship, and are ready to bear them. We know the duties of the good citizen, and are ready to perform them cheerfully, and would ask to be put in a position in which we can discharge them more effectually. We do not ask for the privilege of citizenship, wishing to shun the obligations imposed by it.
Near 200,000 of our brethren are to-day performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army. Thousands of them have already died in battle, or perished by a cruel martyrdom for the sake of the Union, and we are ready and willing to sacrifice more. But what higher order of citizen is there than the soldier? or who has a greater trust confided to his hands? If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel armies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting against rebel citizens at the ballot-box? The latter is as necessary to save the Government as the former.
The colored man will vote by instinct with the Union party, just as uniformly as he fights with the Union army.
This is not a new question in Tennessee. From 1796 to 1835, a period of thirty-nine years, free colored men voted at all her elections without question. Her leading politicians and statesmen asked for and obtained the suffrages of colored voters, and were not ashamed of it. Such men as Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, Hon. Felix Grundy, John Bell, Hon. Hugh L. White, Cave Johnson, and Ephraim H. Foster, members of the United States Senate and of the Cabinet, Gen. William Carroll, Samuel Houston, Aaron V. Brown, and, in fact, all the politicians and candidates of all parties in Tennessee solicited colored free men for their votes at every election.
Nor was Tennessee alone in this respect, for the same privileges was granted to colored free men in North Carolina, to-day the most loyal of all the rebellious States, without ever producing any evil consequences.
If colored men have been faithful and true to the Government of the United States in spite of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the cruel policy often pursued toward them, will they not be more devoted to it now than ever, since it has granted them that liberty which they desired above all things? Surely, if colored men voted without harm to the State, while their brethren were in bondage, they will be much more devoted and watchful over her interests when elevated to the rank of freemen and voters. If they are good law-abiding citizens, praying for its prosperity, rejoicing in its progress, paying its taxes, fighting its battles, making its farms, mines, work-shops and commerce more productive, whey deny them the right to have a voice in the election of its rulers?
This is a democracy—a government of the people. It should aim to make every man, without regard to the color of his skin, the amount of his wealth, or the character of his religious faith, feel personally interested in its welfare. Every man who lives under the Government should feel that it is his property, his treasure, the bulwark and defence of himself and his family, his pearl of great price, which he must preserve, protect, and defend faithfully at all times, on all occasions, in every possible manner.
This is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens, born and bred on the soil, are to be treated as aliens and enemies, as an inferior degraded class, who must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart, soul, mind, and body, both in peace and war.
This Government is based on the teachings of the Bible, which prescribes the same rules of action for all members of the human family, whether their complexion be white, yellow, red or black. God no where in his revealed word, makes an invidious and degrading distinction against his children, because of their color. And happy is that nation which makes the Bible its rule of action, and obeys principle, not prejudice.
Let no man oppose this doctrine because it is opposed to his old prejudices. The nation is fighting for its life, and cannot afford to be controlled by prejudice. Had prejudice prevailed instead of principle, not a single colored soldier would have been in the Union army to-day. But principle and justice triumphed, and now near 200,000 colored patriots stand under the folds of the national flag, and brave their breasts to the bullets of the rebels. As we are in the battlefield, so we swear before heaven, by all that is dear to men, to be at the ballot-box faithful and true to the Union.
The possibility that the negro suffrage proposition may shock popular prejudice at first sight, is not a conclusive argument against its wisdom and policy. No proposition ever met with more furious or general opposition than the one to enlist colored soldiers in the United States army. The opponents of the measure exclaimed on all hands that the negro was a coward; that he would not fight; that one white man, with a whip in his hand could put to flight a regiment of them; that the experiment would end in the utter rout and ruin of the Federal army. Yet the colored man has fought so well, on almost every occasion, that the rebel government is prevented, only by its fears and distrust of being able to force him to fight for slavery as well as he fights against it, from putting half a million of negroes into its ranks.
The Government has asked the colored man to fight for its preservation and gladly has he done it. It can afford to trust him with a vote as safely as it trusted him with a bayonet.
How boundless would be the love of the colored citizen, how intense and passionate his zeal and devotion to the government, how enthusiastic and how lasting would be his gratitude, if his white brethren were to take him by the hand and say, "You have been ever loyal to our government; henceforward be voters." Again, the granting of this privilege would stimulate the colored man to greater exertion to make himself an intelligent, respected, useful citizen. His pride of character would be appealed to this way most successfully; he would send his children to school, that they might become educated and intelligent members of society. It used to be thought that ignorant negroes were the most valuable, but this belief probably originated from the fact that it is almost impossible to retain an educated, intelligent man in bondage. Certainly, if the free colored man be educated, and his morals enlightened and improved, he will be a far better member of society, and less liable to transgress its laws. It is the brutal, degraded, ignorant man who is usually the criminal.
One other matter we would urge on your honorable body. At present we can have only partial protection from the courts. The testimony of twenty of the most intelligent, honorable, colored loyalists cannot convict a white traitor of a treasonable action. A white rebel might sell powder and lead to a rebel soldier in the presence of twenty colored soldiers, and yet their evidence would be worthless so far as the courts are concerned, and the rebel would escape. A colored man may have served for years faithfully in the army, and yet his testimony in court would be rejected, while that of a white man who had served in the rebel army would be received.
If this order of things continue, our people are destined to a malignant persecution at the hands of rebels and their former rebellious masters, whose hatred they may have incurred, without precedent even in the South. Every rebel soldier or citizen whose arrest in the perpetration of crime they may have effected, every white traitor whom they may have brought to justice, will torment and persecute them and set justice at defiance, because the courts will not receive negro testimony, which will generally be the only possible testimony in such cases. A rebel may murder his former slave and defy justice, because he committed the deed in the presence of half a dozen respectable colored citizens. He may have the dwelling of his former slave burned over his head, and turn his wife and children out of doors, and defy the law, for no colored man can appear against him. Is this the fruit of freedom, and the reward of our services in the field? Was it for this that colored soldiers fell by hundreds before Nashville, fighting under the flag of the Union? Is it for this that we have guided Union officers and soldiers, when escaping from the cruel and deadly prisons of the South through forests and swamps, at the risk of our own lives, for we knew that to us detection would be death? Is it for this that we have concealed multitudes of Union refugees in caves and cane-brakes, when flying from the conscription officers and tracked by bloodhounds, and divided with them our last morsal of food? Will you declare in your revised constitution that a pardoned traitor may appear in court and his testimony be heard, but that no colored loyalist shall be believed even upon oath? If this should be so, then will our last state be worse than our first, and we can look for no relief on this side of the grave. Has not the colored man fought, bled and died for the Union, under a thousand great disadvantages and discouragements? Has his fidelity ever had a shadow of suspicion cast upon it, in any matter of responsibility confided to his hands?
There have been white traitors in multitudes in Tennessee, but where, we ask, is the black traitor? Can you forget how the colored man has fought at Fort Morgan, at Milliken's Bend, at Fort Pillow, before Petersburg, and your own city of Nashville?
When has the colored citizen, in this rebellion been tried and found wanting?
In conclusion, we would point to the fact that the States where the largest measure of justice and civil rights has been granted to the colored man, both as to suffrage and his oath in court, are among the most rich, intelligent, enlightened and prosperous. Massachusetts, illustrious for her statesmen and her commercial and manufacturing enterprises and thrift, whose noble liberality has relieved so many loyal refugees and other sufferers of Tennessee, allows her colored citizens to vote, and is ever jealous of their rights. She has never had reason to repent the day when she gave them the right of voting.
Had the southern states followed her example the present rebellion never would have desolated their borders.
Several other Northern States permit negro suffrage, nor have bad effects ever resulted from it. It may be safely affirmed that Tennessee was quite as safe and prosperous during the 39 years while she allowed negro suffrage, as she has been since she abolished it.
In this great and fearful struggle of the nation with a wicked rebellion, we are anxious to perform the full measure of our duty both as citizens and soldiers to the Union cause we consecrate ourselves, and our families, with all that we have on earth. Our souls burn with love for the great government of freedom and equal rights. Our white brethren have no cause for distrust as regards our fidelity, for neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of the Union.
Praying that the great God, who is the common Father of us all, by whose help the land must be delivered from present evil, and before whom we must all stand at last to be judged by the rule of eternal justice, and not by passion and prejudice, may enlighten your minds and enable you to act with wisdom, justice, and magnanimity, we remain your faithful friends in all the perils and dangers which threaten our beloved country.
And many other colored citizens of Nashville
Unidentified newspaper clipping of Andrew Tait et al. to the Union Convention of Tennessee, 9 Jan. 1865, enclosed in Col. R. D. Mussey to Capt. C. P. Brown, 23 Jan. 1865, Letters Received, ser. 925, Dept. of the Cumberland, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 1, National Archives.