Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

American slavery was widely criticized from the very beginning, and many of the nation’s founders hoped, perhaps naively, that the Peculiar Institution would soon die a natural death. But critics of slavery could never seem to agree on how the institution should best be discontinued.

The War of Independence generated a lot of public discourse concerning freedom and personal liberty, and during the last several decades of the eighteenth century, every northern state in the U.S. enacted measures to prohibit slavery. But the hoped-for natural death of slavery did not follow. Partly this was attributable to the fact that the federal government remained largely in the hands of southerners; between 1788 and 1848 all but four U.S. presidents were slaveholders.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, slavery was given a new lease on life. This was due to the sudden and spectacular growth in world demand for cotton, which quickly became the country’s most important export. Slave states and free states alike benefited from the cotton trade, and the antislavery sentiments inspired by the War for Independence soon faded in the light of these new economic considerations.

Still, slavery remained a divisive political issue, and between 1790 and 1830 dozens of antislavery proposals came before Congress. During this period, most antislavery proposals were paired with the idea of “colonization” – the removal of the black population from the United States. Advocates of this idea envisioned a nation peacefully freed from both the institution of slavery and the unwanted presence of free blacks.

Although colonization may sound far-fetched today, it was quite popular in its time, and Thomas Jefferson remained committed to the idea to his dying day. He personally proposed that the federal government purchase all slave children born each year for the purpose of deporting them – yes, infants – so that the slave population would age and eventually die out.

The first emancipation – that of slaves in the north – had contained no provision for colonization. That emancipation had been gradual rather than immediate, and usually included some sort of compensation to the owners. For example, slave children born after a certain date were required to work for the mother’s owner for a certain number of years before eventually becoming free. In effect, these slaves were required to purchase their own freedom with a period of indentured servitude.

It seems to have been assumed in the north that the former slaves would somehow just be absorbed into mainstream society. But this did not happen. Indeed, it should not be imagined that free northern blacks enjoyed either political or social equality with whites; they could neither vote, become citizens, nor serve in the armed forces. Instead, the rapid growth of the free northern black population was followed by a upsurge of anti-black sentiment among northern whites. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, first directed its efforts at removing free blacks from the north.

Although a few African-Americans agreed with the colonization movement, most were strongly against the idea of being deported, either voluntarily or by force, from the land of their birth. Their vision of an America of birthright citizenship and equality before the law helped to give rise to a new, militant abolitionism in the 1820s and 30s.

Abolitionism combined the energies of two impulses – black anti-colonization and white evangelicalism. It rejected gradual emancipation, compensation, and colonization, and called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and an America that was fully biracial. Rather than spending time formulating detailed plans for emancipation, abolitionists focused on altering public opinion, using the public media of the day – lectures, petitions, and pamphlets. Abolitionist rhetoric often appealed to the heart as well the mind, exposing the day-to-day brutality of slavery as well as its weakness as an economic system.

Abolitionists diverged most widely from other critics of slavery in their vision of a post-slavery America. The first racially integrated social movement in America, abolitionism was also the first to link emancipation with equal rights.

This was a radical departure from the mainstream, and many northerners expressed their disfavor by violently attacking abolitionist meetings and destroying printing presses. Still, during the 1830s between 200,000 and 300,000 northerners joined the movement.

Colonizationists resented the spread of abolitionism, and they were responsible for instigating a series of anti-abolitionist riots that swept the north. Their main objection was that abolitionism would harm the cause of emancipation since no southerner would ever accept the idea of equal rights.

(Foner 14-22)

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2 Comments

Filed under 18th Century, 19th Century

2 responses to “Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

  1. Paul Rolf

    Do you know of any African American supporters of gradual emancipation? I assume that none would have done so from genuine conviction but is there any evidence that some recognised it as an undesirable but pragmatic means to an end, and therefore gave the idea their support?

  2. I don’t know of any specific black individuals who supported gradual emancipation. As for colonization, I understand that in general, when freed slaves supported it, they tended to choose Canada over Africa. For example, the Cincinnati group that established the Wilberforce Colony in Ontario. But this seems to have been inspired less by abolitionist aims than by a desire to escape restrictive Black Laws.

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