The ideological fight over slavery resulted in years of tensions between the north and the south. The north argued against slavery and believed that educating the slaves, organizing, and appeals to emotion and religion were the answers. If the slaves were educated and could read, they could organize and revolt. Also, as the Anti-Slavery Society grew, the anti-slavery movement became more organized and therefore more influential. Finally, as the feminist movement joined with the anti-slavery movement and gained momentum, the forces of slavery were under attack from all different angels. As a result of rising tensions, the slave owners were forced to go on their guard against attacks on slavery. The south used several justifications for slavery, namely that the country and the union was better off for it, and also that slaves were better off as slaves than as free men, especially when owned by a slave owner who raised them well, teaching both religion and subordination. Despite both sides using very similar arguments to support their views, the anti-slavery movement ultimately had a more compelling argument than that of the slave-holders. This is demonstrated in the defense of religion and morals that the country defended and upheld.
One way in which it was thought that slavery might end was through education. In Boston Massachusetts, David Walker was a prominent black anti-slavery writer who is well known for having exerted a lot of influence on the anti-slavery movement. In 1829, Walker wrote an appeal to American slaves titled An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to those of the United States of America. This appeal “stressed education as a vehicle for lack liberation” (Howe, 424). The document was highly controversial because it advocated for a slave revolution against white masters. He poses the question to his readers, “Was [the American colonies’] suffering under Great Britain, one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?” (Walker, et al. 1829, 1). In this rhetorical question, he is justifying slave revolution against their white masters. The pamphlets audience was the slaves, but Walker couldn’t simply send the pamphlet to them. “Walker made use of his waterfront contacts to distribute his pamphlet to southern ports, hoping its message would reach an audience that included slaves. To evade southern censorship, he sometimes stitched copies into the coats he sold black sailors” (Howe, 424). As a result, of the distribution of his pamphlets advocating slavery rebellion, the south passed new laws to make it harder for such pamphlets to make it into the south: “In the months following its publication, authorities in Georgia, Virginia, and Louisiana, confiscated copies of the Appeal wholesale. They also passed new laws against circulating seditious literature, isolated black sailors on ships coming into port, and tightened restriction on black religion and literacy” (Howe, 424-425). The south was terrified of a slave rebellion. The slaves outnumbered the white masters greatly, and some abolitionists believed that education was going to be the end of slavery. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published much later in the 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, we see from Augustine’s conversation with his brother that education was still a prevalent concern for the south: “Educated they will be, and we have only to say how. Our system is educating them in barbarism and brutality. We are breaking all humanizing ties and making them brute beasts; and, if they get the upper hand, such we shall find them” (Stowe, 245). The north and the south did not share many opinions about slavery; however, both the north and the south believed that education was a danger to the institution of slavery. Thus, the northerners often sought to educate slaves any way they could, and southerners sought to prevent their education.
William Lloyd Garrison, the man who carried out Walker’s work, was a white man who moved to Boston and established his own antislavery newspaper called the Liberator. Garrison wanted the Constitution to be amended to abolish slavery. “The weekly publication of the Liberator kept Garrison’s promise of protest until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment purged slavery from the Constitution” (Howe, 425-426). In an editorial statement of the first release, he states: “I determined, at every hazard, to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation within the sight of Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of libety” (Walker, et al. 1829, 2). His reference to Bunker Hill is a strong reminder of the American Revolution, reminding those who fight against slavery that the slave owners may win the battle, but they will suffer heavy losses and certainly not win the war. This statement also builds on Walker’s pamphlets further justifying slave revolution as a battle against an oppressive tyrant, not unlike the battle for independence fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. Garrison continued to be a very influential figure in the fight against slavery throughout his life. In 1832, Garrison and a few others began the “Anti-Slavery Society, dedicated to the principles of abolitionism” (Howe, 426). This movement spread nation-wide in a number of years following. Garrison’s efforts in aiding the anti-slavery movement had a great impact on slavery, and the Anti-Slavery Society became one of the south’s greatest advisories to slavery. “By 1835, the AASS boased 200 auxiliaries (local chapters), and by 1838, a remarkable 1,350, representing some 250,000 members” (Howe, 426). Through “communication, organization, and influence” (Howe, 426) the Anti-Slavery Society became an unstoppable force against slavery in the South.
Throughout the anti-slavery movement, the women’s movement was also taking hold and attaching itself to the slavery movement, which established another strong force against slavery. While during this period, women were often silent on political matters, some women such as Angelina Grinke were calling upon women to have a political voice and to use it to fight against the injustice of slavery. In an appeal to Christian women of the South in 1836, she writes, “Women of the South can overthrow this horrible system of oppression and cruelty, licentiousness, and wrong. Such appeals to your legislatures would be irresistible, for there is something in the heart which will bend under moral suasion” (Walker, et al. 1829, 2). Grimke believed that women should voice their belief on the matter and that through their superior moral and religious nature, they could appeal to their legislatures to end slavery by sending petitions even “if [they] could obtain but six signatures to such a petition in only one state” (Walker, et al. 1829, 2) she argued it would have a great impact on the debate. Grimke especially argued on the grounds of religion calling for women to “take up [slavery] on Christian ground, and fight against it with Christian weapons, whilst your feet are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Walker, et al. 1829, 2). Arguing from a religious standpoint, Grimke believed that “the real issue [was] not whether Jesus had ever explicitly condemned slavery but whether one could Imagine Him owning a slave” (Howe, 477-478). Sarah Grimke, like her sister Angelina, was a big part of the feminist movement against slavery. In 1838 in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes she wrote, “God has made no distinction between men and women as moral beings” (Howe, 845). The feminist movement was fueled by the connection between slavery and oppression of women. In the same sense that feminists believed there was no distinction between men and women, they believed that God made no distinction between blacks and whites. On this subject, Grimke writes, “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own” (Howe, 845). The personal connection that women of the feminist movement felt with the slaves’ situation strengthened the movement and made it that much more poisonous to the institution of slavery.
Due to attacks on slavery from various anti-slavery movements including the Anti-Slave Society and the Feminist movement, as well as those of David Walter and other free blacks, the southern slave-holders were forced to defend the institution of slavery from these attacks. One defense of slavery came from politicians such as James Hammond who “conceived the idea that the Houses of Congress should refuse to receive petitions touching slavery on the grounds that Congress had no authority over the subject” (Howe, 513). He believed that Congress had no authority on the subject of slavery and that slavery was even responsible for the success of the Union. In 1836, he wrote, “Slavery is said to be an evil; that it impoverishes the people, and destroys their morale. If it be an evil, it is one to us alone, and we are contented with it—why should others interfere? But it is not evil. On the contrary . . . it has rendered our southern country proverbial for its wealth, its genius, and its manners . . .” (Walker, et al. 1829, 2). In his defense of slavery, he claims that if it were evil, it was a burden for the South to bear alone, but that it was not evil because it has led to all the wealth and prosperity of the southern states. Therefore, he believed, it was not a national issue but an issue for the states alone. The gag rules restricted talks on slavery and made it impossible to pass legislation on the topic, effectively silencing Congress and protecting slavery.
Slavery was also defended on religious grounds as well. Some slaveholders were very outspoken about the treatment of slaves as was Reverend Charles Colcock Jones. “Jones saw himself as a social reformer trying to humanize the institution of slavery” (Howe, 478). Jones believed first and foremost that slaves were immortal beings just like white citizens were, and that their souls needed to be cared for at the same time teaching them subordination: he writes in 1847, “He, who is in the providence of God, called to be a ‘master in the flesh,’ should acquaint himself with his duties and responsibilities, taking the work of God as his good, by teaching them fidelity and subordination, one of his first duties is to remember that his servants are immortal beings, and to the best of his ability and opportunity he should provide for their religious instructions” (Walker, et al. 1829, 3). On top of encouraging slave holders to teach slaves religion and subordination, he also called for slave holders to “encourage marriages, and defend families,” meet “quarreling, and fighting, and profane swearing in every form” with “due correction,” and oversee other such actions as to promote Christian values (Walker, et al. 1829, 4). The Southerners believed that so long as the slaves were treated well and raised right, they were better off in the order of society that God had put them in than as free men, or so they argued. This is the case for our planter who writes his son “John,” as well, except he doesn’t use religion to justify slavery, but rather accepts it and advises his son: “Never require of your Slaves too much—treat them with kindness, chastise them well for disobedience and refractory conduct” (Walker, et al. 1829, 3).
Although the slave-holders tried to justify slavery as best they could using religious grounds, the anti-slavery movement ultimately had a more compelling argument. The argument in favor of slavery from a religious stand-point ultimately addressed the major concern of slavery which is the despotism of slaves; however, the argument that Jesus would never own a slave and that God had created all people equally is ultimately much stronger. Furthermore, the hypocrisy of the slavery institution, where in the Constitution declares the equality of men, and the government being founded on revolution against oppressors, could ultimately not be covered up or justified. Also, as we have seen from our history, although prejudice has faded slowly, institutions built on racism or subjugation of others is not a sustainable system. It is important for us to move forward with the knowledge of the past and to understand the arguments for and against slavery, especially how two very different ideologies can justify two opposite ideas; for it is this knowledge of the past which brings us closer to a more perfect future and promotes the perfection of human morals by not allowing us to repeat the past.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848. Oxford Univeristy Press, 2007.
Stowe, Harriet. A Norton Critical Edition: Uncle Tom's Cabin 2nd E. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Walker, David, William Garrison, Angelina Grimke, James Hammond, and Charles Jones. "Handout." "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World". 1829.
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