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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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The Democratic Party Goes Liberal

Since the Civil War, the GOP had identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, while the Democratic Party had always been dominated by southern Jim Crow conservatives.This all began to change during the Great Depression.

In 1932, a wave of newly-active voters from among the white American middle class swept the polls. They managed to place liberal Democrats in office at all levels of the government, including the presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first one hundred days in office, led the federal government in a series of unprecedented actions to help Americans survive the economic crisis. His New Deal raised the hopes of millions, and working-class Americans everywhere loved him.

They also loved his wife, Eleanor, who became the first politically active first lady in US history. She connected easily and with no apparent condescension to the poor and to African Americans, who mostly fell into that category. (While about 30 percent of Americans were unemployed during the Depression, among blacks the unemployment rate was around 50 percent.)

While the New Deal focused on economic liberalism, it did not at first include the kind of racial liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt. Early New Deal leaders were mostly northern white intellectuals who had little firsthand experience with the southern white mindset. They believed that race prejudice was a result of economic conditions – African Americans were discriminated against because they were poor – and they naively thought that once the New Deal had lifted blacks out of poverty, race would cease to be an issue.

Eventually, as they saw their economic programs in many states segregated along racial lines, they began to realize that racism was the cause, rather than the effect, of black poverty. Of course, black leaders had been saying this all along, but finally, New Deal liberals began to see it too.

In order for blacks to get civil rights onto the agenda of the Democratic Party, first they had to join that party. This meant leaving the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln and emancipation. For many this was a painful decision; as one man said, Roosevelt might feed him, but Lincoln had freed him. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, blacks in the North and West overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. That shift was to permanently change American politics and the civil rights movement.

In some ways, Republicans brought it on themselves. For a long time, the GOP had been taking black votes for granted. They had largely ignored the subject of black civil rights, figuring that African Americans had no choice but to vote Republican; the only alternative was the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Now suddenly, the triumph of the liberal Democrats gave black voters new motivation to switch parties.

Also, New Deal aid did reach African American families, saving homes and livelihoods. This was a strong influence on winning black support for the Democratic Party.

A third reason black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in the 1930s had to do with the Roosevelts themselves. Largely through Eleanor’s prompting, FDR established an unofficial “Black Cabinet” committee of African American leaders, to advise him on race issues in the New Deal. He actively welcomed African Americans into the Democratic Party and made a special effort to court the black vote in the 1936 election. While his popularity among all Americans virtually assured his reelection, he won a large percentage of the black vote that year. More and more blacks would continue to become Democrats in the following years and decades.

While conservative southern Democrats continued to fight black civil rights to the end, it was the liberal Democrats who would eventually reshape racial law in America.

(Flamming 150-157)

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