Rather, the movement was fraught with ambiguity over who its leaders would be, how they would go about fighting the institution of slavery, and what the future would be like for black Americans. Some of the persisting goals of antislavery activism were legal emancipation, aid to runaway slaves through vigilance groups and the Underground Railroad, civil rights for freed blacks in the north, and education, suffrage, and economic advancement for African-Americans.
Perhaps the most unifying ideal of the anti-slavery movement was that the racial basis forAmerican slavery could be undermined by promoting Christian values, education and economic progress among free blacks to show that they were capable of succeeding as individuals in an integrated American society. Richard Allen, leader of the A. M. E. church, stated the case for black progress as an answer to the justifications of slaveholders: “if we are lazy and idol, the enemies of freedom plead it as a cause why we ought not to be free. In addition to the connection between abolition and economic and social progress, most abolitionists worked for the assurance of civil rights and legal protection for free blacks, who lived in an anomalous condition of “freedom” without citizenship and with constant threat of discrimination, violence, and abduction to be sold into slavery. There were some bitter conflicts over specific strategies. Though Garrison and most blacks favored immediate abolition, many whites continued to prefer or express willingness to settle for gradual emancipation.
Violent resistance was at first rejected by many, again under the influence of Garrison, but David Walker’s appeal that violence should be used against slavery became more popular as blacks and abolitionists searched for an effective means of self-defense against mobs and pursuit of civil rights. Whether or not individuals worked within the political framework of the constitution to effect change again depended on allegiance to Garrison, and in general the early antislavery activists preferred moral arguments while later leaders were more willing to use political means.
To what extent black abolitionists cooperated with and trusted white abolitionists varied, for though whites were essential to the movement, blacks often felt they needed to rely on their own race’s leadership, and so both black and integrated organizations formed. A few abolitionists supported the proposal of African or Haitian colonization by free blacks, but most viewed the colonization schemes as a way for whites to get rid of the “black problem” in the US rather than a viable alternative to gaining equal rights in the nation of their birth (since only a small minority of blacks in the US after the 1820s were African-born).
Furthermore, colonization reinforced the notion that African-Americans would be better off somewhere else because they could never be integrated into American society as whites’ equals. Blacks saw similarities between Jackson’s Indian removal policy and federal funding for African colonization, and most determined to resist relocation.
Settlement in Canada was not similarly viewed as running away from the struggle for equality at home because it not only provided safety, legal protection, and civil equality for black refugees but also harbored the founders of new abolitionist publications who strengthened the antislavery movement in the American North and Midwest. Leaders of the anti-slavery movement were well known for their publications and speeches, and many served the equally important but less public role of organizers or “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.
The assortment of leaders included free blacks, like William Still in Philadelphia, radical whites, like William Lloyd Garrison, former slaves, like Frederick Douglass, and women of both races, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Garrison’s anti-political, non-violent moral opposition to slavery was the largest sect of antislavery agitation for many years, but his unwillingness to work within the political system to reclaim the constitution and his allegiance to women’s rights were controversial positions that caused many, including Douglass, to split with Garrison eventually.
Many whites who were identified with the antislavery cause, such as Stowe, did not extend their sympathies for enslaved blacks as far as supporting equal rights for freedmen. Though generally considered radicals, few leaders of the antislavery movement committed large-scale revolutionary or violent acts. Quiet small-scale acts of resistance termed “the Underground Railroad” gave way to more violent public resistance in the 1850s, particularly in “radical” centers like Boston, against the recapturing of fugitive slaves who lived as free blacks in the northern states.
A later martyr for the cause of abolitionism, John Brown, was one of the few who were brave (or insensible) enough to direct violent action against the federal government with hopes to end slavery through militancy in his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Blacks and whites who rallied behind the unified cause of abolitionism did not always cooperate fully, sometimes because their goals differed, but often because blacks were wary of whites.
As the Hortons summarize, “white reformers were more likely to accept a gradualist approach to anti-slavery, and blacks sometimes faced discrimination or subtle prejudice in integrated organizations” (Hortons 222). Racism of various forms existed among white antislavery reformers, who often felt that slavery was a moral wrong but nonetheless thought blacks inferior to whites or distasteful to associate with.
Harriet Beecher Stowe notes this phenomenon in her creation of the character Miss Ophelia for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like many white northerners who object to the institution of slavery, Miss Ophelia sees the education and moral improvement of blacks as a Christian duty that whites owe to the race they have long enslaved, but does not see that the “spiritual equality” of blacks and whites implies social equality and is uncomfortable with physical contact with her black charge.
In addition to direct racism, white reformers often harbored a more subtle condescension when they “credited their work with blacks as broadening their views and stimulating personal growth,” as if the movement was more about the moral development of white individuals through their acts of charity than about seeing justice enacted in fulfillment of the Constitution’s claim that all men are created equal (Horton 224). Despite these tensions and overwhelming white paternalism, whites “brought financial power, reformist zeal, and the respectability of heir color” to the movement and were “instrumental in opening higher education to African Americans on an equal basis” which bolstered the educated black leadership of the 1840s and 50s (Horton 236, 215). Many short-lived organizations, some comprised solely of blacks and others integrated, competed to some extent for support, and allied themselves with different causes. There were a few longer-lasting organizations, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the National Convention of the People of Color, and publications such as the Freedman’s Journal and the Colored American, that were highly influential.
Discounting one convention’s endorsement of the Free Soil Party in 1848, the Liberty Party was the only political party that embraced an antislavery platform. Garrisonian opposition to recognizing the Constitution and working within the existing political system, termed “union with slaveholders,” detracted from potential early antislavery political organization, favoring moral arguments which proved largely ineffective for provoking large-scale change.
Between the period of the 1820s through the eve of the civil war, and particularly during the 1850s, the antislavery movement grew in response to political developments and increasing sympathy to abolitionist propaganda. Federal victories for slavery such as the expansion of slavery in the west, the Fugitive slave law of 1850, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 threatened blacks and white northerners alike as they represented the power of the slaveholding south to influence federal policy.
In nine Northern states, where twenty years before towns had passed regulations against integrated schools and where racism persisted to some extent, Personal Liberty Laws passed which essentially nullified the federal Fugitive Slave Law, evincing that states’ rights to reject complicity with slavery was more widely supported than black equality. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, slave narratives, and other popular publications aroused many white northerners’ sympathies.
The alliances forged between antislavery agitation and other political and social reform movements garnered support for the anti-slavery cause among moderates. Over time, as hopes of gradual emancipation and an end to racism soured in light of the political and social realities, many shifted from adherence to Garrisonian apolitical non-violence to a widespread sentiment, especially among blacks, in favor of David Walker’s appeal for the use of violence in defense and in opposition to slavery.
Resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law included groups rescuing blacks from jails, like the case of Shadrach in Boston in 1852. Whites and blacks alike worked for black suffrage, and the blacks who cast votes in the 1860 presidential election overwhelmingly voted for the Republican candidate Lincoln, a departure from the call for Garrisonian disunion by blacks like Charles Lenox Remond. Blacks in the North formed militias, including Boston’s Massasoit Guard, without state governmental sanction.
On the eve of the Civil War, blacks were ready to engage in a federal struggle for freedom, a new revolution that would grant them the equality promised to all men in the Constitution that was now nearly a century old. The decades leading up to the south’s secession had taught blacks that patience and diligence in educating themselves and working to acquire land and social status was far from achieving the end of slavery or earning them equal citizenship.
White northerners who were not necessarily proponents of black civil rights often supported the antislavery cause in order to counter the seeming growing influence of Southern slave power. Secession lit the fuel of 40 years of antislavery agitation and began a war that some would say was waged for union, but most blacks and many whites insisted that the coming war would be the final struggle for universal freedom.