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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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Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

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From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.

Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.

These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.

Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.

The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.

During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.

With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.

(Flamming 94-98)

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Exodusters

In the years immediately following the Civil War, black southerners did not suddenly leave the South for greater opportunities in the North or out West. Most freedmen placed their hope in Reconstruction, as their Republican allies sought to redeem the South and protect their newly-acquired political rights.

But Reconstruction did not go far enough. The freedmen were never given the allotments of land they’d been promised. The Southern state governments were all recaptured by former Confederates, and all federal troops left the South in 1877, leaving the former slaves to fend for themselves. With no protection, they faced unrestrained violence, especially in the areas along the lower Mississippi River, in northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi.

In 1879, rumors started to circulate that the federal government was making plans to send boats up the Mississippi to transport black families to St. Louis and on to freedom out West. The promised land, where they  hoped to build their new lives, was the state of Kansas.

Kansas had a strong abolitionist history. It was there that John Brown and other white abolitionists first took up arms against the slave South. During the war, Kansas had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery, and it was there that blacks were first armed to fight for the Union. After the war, the Republican government of Kansas was strongly in favor of black civil rights.

Believing that boats would arrive any time to take them away to freedom in Kansas, thousands of black families began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. The large numbers of people camped on the riverbank, the fact that they appeared to have no leader, and their faith that boats would come for them and that they would be welcomed in Kansas made them national news. Their story seemed like something out of the Old Testament, and they soon became known as “Exodusters.”

Riverboats did eventually begin picking up the crowds, and some 6,000 Exodusters made their way to Kansas.

Although there was neither enough land nor adequate public resources to meet the needs of these new emigrants, Kansas authorities did not turn them away. At both state and local levels, the authorities worked to blend the new arrivals into the state’s growing urban economy. Although many Exodusters had to give up their dreams of land ownership for service jobs in Topeka and other railroad towns, for many it was good enough to be safely out of the South.

(Flamming 74-77)

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Martha Washington’s Black Sister

It was a not very well-kept Washington family secret that Martha Washington had a sister who was black.

Ann Dandridge was the daughter of Martha Washington’s father, John Dandridge, and an unknown slave of mixed African and Native American blood. After John Dandridge’s death in 1756, Ann, who was a young girl at the time, went to live with George and Martha at Mount Vernon and was kept by them as a slave.

Why didn’t Martha free her little sister from slavery? If she had felt any resentment towards her half-sister, Martha could easily have sold or otherwise gotten rid of her, yet she didn’t. She kept her around, lived with her, let her children play with her, but did not set her free.

To Martha, this may have seemed like benevolence. After all, there was no place in 1759 Virginia society for a free black Dandridge female. Ann’s choices in life would have been very limited. She could perhaps have obtained a position as a servant girl to a rich family, but no white man of any substance would have married her. If she had found a black husband, he would most likely have been a slave; her dark-skinned children would have been perpetually at risk of enslavement. Martha may have felt it best to keep Ann enslaved and under her own protection.

So Ann lived at Mount Vernon with her half-sister and brother-in-law. What she did there is unknown, but she probably spent much of her time knitting or sewing in the parlor along with the mistress of the estate and the female house slaves. To visitors she would have seemed just another mixed-race servant, perhaps the mistress’s favorite.

Martha’s “protective” ownership of Ann was not foolproof. Sometime around 1780, Ann Dandridge bore a son, William. It appears that Martha’s son, an unsavory character named Jacky Custis, exerted the rights of a master over a slave; he fathered a child with Ann, who was his aunt as well as his property. Ann’s son William was both grandson and nephew to Martha Washington.

After giving birth to the child of Jacky Custis, Ann married a slave named Costin. The couple had four daughters, all of them nieces of Martha Washington, and all of them born slaves-for-life of the Custis estate. Yet William, her first child and Martha’s grandson, was legally regarded as free, by request of the mistress herself.

Once George and Martha were both dead and Ann was in her forties, she came into the possession of Martha’s granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law.

Eliza and her husband, Thomas Law, were uniquely sensitive to the plight of mixed-race people, for Thomas, before marrying Eliza, had been an official of the East India Company, and had three half-Indian sons.

Upon inheriting ownership of Ann Dandridge in 1802, the Laws freed her almost immediately. Five years later, they emancipated all Ann’s children, her grandchildren, and William Costin’s wife.

(Wiencek 84-86, 282-290)

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Slavery in Texas

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and abolished slavery.

But the sparsely-populated region of East Texas was a temptation to Americans. The area’s rich farmland was ideal for cotton. So although the border between Mexico and the U.S. was officially closed, Southern planters began to illegally populate the area in droves, bringing large numbers of slaves with them to the supposedly free Mexican state. By the 1830s Americans in the area greatly outnumbered the Mexicans.

Eventually these American Tejanos decided to declare themselves politically independent.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was determined to crush this rebellion and free the slaves in Texas. With a large army he marched northward to meet the Texans who had occupied the Alamo mission in San Antonio. His army easily prevailed, leaving only one man – a black slave – alive. But Santa Anna was unexpectedly caught by another rebel force, and compelled to accept Texan independence in exchange for his own life. The Texans proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Texas.

Texas quickly legalized slavery, which had become the region’s dominant economic force.

For the slaves who made up more than half of the population of Texas, the geography offered several unique avenues of escape. One could run straight west into the vast territory controlled by the Plains Indians; rumor had it that the Indian warriors would accept blacks into their tribes. Or one could run north into Indian Territory; although the Five Civilized Tribes who occupied the area had their own system of black slavery, it was easier to escape detection there than in the Deep South.

But the best means of escape was to run south into Mexico. The Mexican government generally approved the establishment of runaway settlements, such as the one at Matamoros. Further south, groups of African Americans, Mexicans and Plains Indians established communities together. Although Texas slaveholders could chase runaways across the river, to do so they had to leave the protection of their own jurisdiction and face hostility from the people of Mexico.

The U.S. eventually won Texas away from both the Texans and Mexico, and Texas was made a state – a slave state – in 1845.

After the Confederacy surrendered in April of 1865, news of emancipation quickly spread to slaves in most of the Southeast. But in Texas, most blacks did not learn of their new freedom until June 19th of that year. On that day, General Gordon Granger, with 2,000 Union troops at his command, entered the port of Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, the official emancipation proclamation for all slaves in Texas.

Among black Texans, June 19th became a beloved holiday, known as “Juneteenth.” It was like a Fourth of July celebration that included parades, speeches, festive suppers and rodeos. The holiday eventually spread to other parts of the country and is still being celebrated by many today.

(Flamming 34-58)

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The First Emancipation Proclamation

There was a time, during the American Revolution, when the abolition of slavery seemed to be just around the corner.

The Continental Army had become integrated under the leadership of George Washington, and black soldiers had continually demonstrated their valor. In Congress and among the military leaders, there was a strong assumption that emancipation must soon follow.

One giant step in this direction was Washington’s creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment. By late 1777, patriotism was waning, and the revolutionary cause was in desperate need of soldiers. While camped at Valley Forge, Washington received a message from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island. In the message, Varnum requested permission to enlist black soldiers in his home state.

With Washington’s permission, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act granting enlistment eligibility to “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian man slave.” To such, the act promised complete manumission, plus all the wages and other benefits to which any soldier was entitled. About 250 men immediately joined the First Rhode Island Regiment, which went on to fight valiantly at the Battle of Rhode Island.

Inspired by the success of the Rhode Island plan, Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina soon drafted a plan of his own. Laurens, heir to a slave-trading fortune, had become persuaded that slavery was wrong; his father Henry Laurens shared his views, and the two had discussed strategies for freeing their own slaves. Realizing that Washington’s Rhode Island plan must inevitably lead to the emancipation of Northern slaves, John hoped to accomplish the same for the South.

In the spring of 1778, John Laurens came up with a proposal to raise a force of 5,000 black soldiers who would remain slaves while in the service, and then receive their freedom at the war’s conclusion. Washington immediately approved the plan; his only regret was for the slave owners’ loss of property.

But then the senior Laurens began to have doubts, worrying that the men might not fight as long as they were still slaves. He proposed instead that they be freed immediately, then be given the choice, as free men, whether or not to serve. Given these circumstances, he presumed that most of them would choose to stay home with their families, thus defeating the stated purpose of the plan. Henry further objected on the grounds that if the proposal were made public, few would support it, and John would be exposed to ridicule. Frustrated by his father’s resistance, John Laurens put his plan aside.

By the end of the year, with Southern loyalists rallying to the British cause, the British had captured Savannah, Georgia. Rumors circulated that they were poised to take South Carolina as well. With his home state facing danger, John Laurens revived his plan for a black regiment. Encouraged by his good friend Alexander Hamilton, Laurens refined his original plan, and in March of 1779 he contacted General Washington.

Given Washington’s earlier support of his idea, and the success of the Rhode Island plan, Laurens surely expected that the commander in chief would give his endorsement. But he was disappointed.

Washington had had a change of heart. He now feared, not that the plan would not succeed,but that it would succeed too well. He seems to have feared the consequences for his own slave property. In his letter to Laurens he wrote:

“I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.”

He had realized that the existence of free black battalions would make it impossible to preserve the institution of slavery any longer. Paralyzed between financial considerations and his own conscience, he resisted a plan that might lead to the loss of his own property, despite very compelling military necessity.

The window that had opened at Valley Forge, when Washington had seen fit to include black men in the revolutionary cause, had closed again.

John Laurens did not give up. By now it was clear to everyone that emancipation, rather than enlistment, was primarily at issue. Nevertheless, some Southern leaders were willing to tolerate emancipation, simply because of the dire need for troops. Supported by powerful allies, Laurens submitted his proposal, and on March 29, 1779, the Continental Congress unanimously passed what could be called the first Emancipation Proclamation. According to the resolution, congress would compensate slave owners in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1000 apiece for every able-bodied male slave up to 35 years of age who could pass muster. At war’s end, each black soldier would be expected to turn in his arms in exchange for his freedom.

While no one expected an immediate general emancipation, the revolutionary implications of the resolution were clear to everyone. Congress was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in America.

Now all the plan needed was the consent of the Georgia and South Carolina legislatures.

Their answer was immediate. The Southern plantation owners would see their region fall to the British before they would agree to arm three thousand slaves.

As a direct result of South Carolina’s failure to produce a black regiment, Charleston fell to the British. The city was reduced to rubble, and John Laurens himself was captured and imprisoned.

He still did not give up. After being released in a prisoner exchange, he continued to promote his plan, without avail, until 1782.

America’s victory in the war for independence meant there would be no Southern emancipation for another eighty years.

(Wiencek 217-236)

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