On the growth of the anti-slavery movement

Since the founding of our republic the question of slavery strained the minds of statesmen and seemed to be an irresolvable conflict pitched to conclude in bloodshed. Since as early as 1787 we see in the Northwest Ordinance a dividing up of the nation into regions which sponsor the practice of slavery and those inclined against it. The study of history reveals that once a people are divided they rarely are united once more, save through bloodshed or cleansing genocide. The divisive issue of slavery in the United States proved not to be unfaithful to this trend and a number of key events which strengthen the anti-slavery position during the middle of the 19th century served as clear reminders that such a division would not be resolved with the quill and soft words.

Starting in earnest we observe the Compromise of 1850, a series of five laws intended to settle the dispute of slavery in the newly acquired states gained during the Mexican War. The laws also sought to bring about an end to the slavery controversies which by such a time were plaguing the nation and inciting talk of secession and outright rebellion. The Fugitive Slave Law, for example, demanded that fugitive slaves be returned to their “rightful owners,” reinforcing the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which by that time had come to be neglected or even outright ignored by most northern authorities. Fortunately for the many fugitive slaves escaping to the northern region this new law would also come to be neglected.

At this point the northerners were forced to make a decision whether to obey the law or to obey their moral compasses. Many northerners outright ignored the new law and its passing created the impetus and outrage capable of bringing about other key anti-slavery events to come in the next decade. The militant rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator started to reflect the majority northern opinion rather than fringe radicalism while the southerners became increasingly infuriated with the northern refusal to return fugitive slaves.

In 1852 the seminal abolitionist work Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is published, depicting the harsh and inhuman treatment of slaves and the brutality and violence of southern plantation life. The novel soon became the best selling novel of the 19th century, 2nd only in printing to the Bible, with over 300,000 copies sold in the first year of printing alone[i] and it galvanized the spirits of northerners to the cause of uncompromising abolition[ii].

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act is passed which ruled that the issue of slavery would be determined by state rather than federal authority. The passing of this law nullified the 1820 Missouri Compromise which had previously stipulated that no state above the parallel 36°30′ north would be tolerated to own slaves. The result of this legislation was widespread northern uproar leading to the creation of the Republican Party, which unlike previous parties which had adopted a compromising stance on slavery toward the southern states had instead adopted a staunch anti-slavery platform.

It was clear to the majority of southerners that if a Republican president came into office that slavery would be abolished or at least strictly curtailed. This concern would be fully realized, perhaps prematurely (as Honest Abe had stated officially that his only policy was to contain slavery, not abolish it) with the election of Abraham Lincoln, finally signaling secession.

The creation of the Republican Party gave to the abolitionists the political engine capable of seeing to the realization of their philosophies. No longer was the abolitionist a lone wolf philosopher fighting to gain popular support but now had political representatives which reflected similar opinions about the social fabric. The northerners flocked to this new Republican banner, highly inspired by the prospect of a new and bold future without slavery.

In 1855 and 1856 we observe the first instance of abolitionists dying for their beliefs on the fields of “Bloody Kansas.” In Kansas territory the issue of whether the state would become a free or slave state had erupted into violence as Free-staters (proponents of abolition) literally battled the so-called Border Ruffians, foreshadowing a national civil war to come. In the end the abolitionists prevailed, although not without a bloody campaign and several losses, both legislative and tactical. In 1857, after the battle clouds had cleared, the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was passed in Kansas, only to be repealed by the people via referendum in 1858. The Free-staters were the first to bring their words to action, and foreshadowed not only the civil war but the final match to the powerkeg lit by John Brown some years later.

Other events would soon follow Bleeding Kansas which further solidified the division between north and south. The 1856 caning of Republican Charles Sumner by Democrat Preston Brooks on the floor of the senate, inspired by personal and ideological disputes, illustrates how deep the disunity had corrupted the legislative process. Dejected Republican John C. Frémont responded not by assuaging the fire but by chanting “Free speech [in response to the violent oppression of Brooks], free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!,” a mantra which would come to serve as the unifying northern battle cry during the civil war to follow.

Hinton Rowan Helper, a southerner, published The Impending Crisis of the South in 1857, a systematic, indifferent and empirical attack on the system of slavery, arguing that the institution only weakened southern economies by avoiding industrialization. The Dred Scott decision, mandating that the federal government had no authority to ban slavery in the territories, was soon to follow and just as the caning of Sumner had done, emboldened and further infuriated the dejected northerners, while making it clear to the southerners that a civil war was imminent.

Finally in 1860 the John Brown attack on Harper’s Ferry armory in modern day West Virginia sounded the death knell for the wavering unity of the republic. John Brown had attacked the armory in hopes of supplying and igniting a slave rebellion in the south but failed, was captured and executed for treason. His radical abolitionist dispositions and courage served to enshrine him in the eyes of the north as a martyr and hero to the new ideal of a slave-free society. The death of John Brown inspired the anti-slavery movement to action, which by then had become a popular calling rather than an intellectual movement. The people took action in the voting booth and soon demanded that their leaders stand on similar convictions, as reflected in the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. With the election of Honest Abe, an abolitionist was now in power and the anti-slavery movement became the Union movement, fully realized in a philosopher king.

[i] Introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Study Guide,, accessed Feb 16, 2008.

[ii] “The Sentimental Novel: The Example of Harriet Beecher Stowe” by Gail K. Smith, The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing by Dale M. Bauer and Philip Gould, Cambridge University Press, 2001, page 221.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.