Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

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)

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under 18th Century, 19th Century

Howell v. Netherland

In 1770, a mixed-race man from Virginia, Samuel Howell, brought suit against his master to be freed from indentured servitude. His pro bono lawyer was future president Thomas Jefferson.

Howell’s enslavement was due to the law of partus sequitur ventrem. This ancient Roman law, adopted by Virginians, simply meant that whatever your mother was, you were. As punishment for having a black child out of wedlock, Howell’s white grandmother had been fined, and her child had been bound out for servitude until the age of thirty-one. That child, Howell’s mother, had borne Samuel Howell while she was still an indentured servant; under the law, it meant that her child would also be enslaved.

When Howell sued to gain his freedom, the 27-year-old Jefferson had been practicing law for only three years. By serving as Howell’s lawyer in this very weak case, Jefferson had to appear against his own beloved mentor and law teacher, George Whythe.

Jefferson, whose views on race are notoriously complicated, appears in this instance to have worked tirelessly in support of the natural rights of man, regardless of color. His brief in Howell v. Netherland contains his first known public comment on human rights.

Written five years before the Declaration of Independence, the brief includes the following statement:

“All men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance.”

Jefferson would use this idea to better effect in 1776; in this case, no one even got the chance to hear it. The judge immediately decided against Howell, cutting Jefferson off in midsentence. (Howell later solved his own problem by running away, aided with money given him by Jefferson.)

The legal brief also contains an intriguing statement about sex across the color line. Jefferson wrote that laws against such behavior were meant to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” For a man as careful as Jefferson was about verbal precision, “seems to have considered” hints at some equivocation on his part about the inherent evils of race mixing. Although he would later profess other views, this is an important early statement about “confusion of species” from the man who would later become the father of Sally Hemings’ children.

(Gordon-Reed, 99-101)

2 Comments

Filed under 18th Century

Lincoln as Rebel

Lincoln was a rebel from the beginning. He had immense confidence in his own intellectual abilities, to the point of arrogance, so from childhood on he didn’t mind going against the grain. While his family was subsisting on what they could forage for and kill, he disdained hunting and even wrote a childhood treatise on animal rights. Surrounded by frontier piety, he was a skeptic and a deist. Surrounded by frontier tough-guyism, he didn’t drink, smoke, chew, gamble or swear.

To us today, Lincoln’s life embodies the American dream. But in autobiographical sketches he wrote in 1858 through 1860, he dismissed his childhood as tough, poor, uninteresting and even embarrassing. He said that his education in frontier one-room schoolhouses didn’t amount to so much as a year. HisĀ  father was illiterate and his birth mother was illegitimate. The family literally hacked a series of homesteads out of the wilderness; at eight years old Lincoln was compelled to use an axe to help his father clear forests and build poorly-chinked cabins for the family to live in. His father did not allow him to attend school and spurned him for his reading. Later Lincoln claimed, in reference to these years, that he had himself once been a slave. Although Lincoln was a forgiving and generous man, he never quite forgave his father, according to scholar William Freehling. Among his backwoods community, only his stepmother encouraged his intellectual pursuits.

He left his family at 21, as soon as he was legally allowed to, and drifted to New Salem, a rough riverfront town. He got a job as a clerk in a store, then spent his free time reading and studying. The six years in New Salem were probably his most formative, according to this author. He lived in poverty until he discovered a way out through politics and the law.

He loved to debate, which led him first to politics and then to the law. Freehling says, “As usual, Lincoln did things in reverse.” At 25 he was elected to the state legislature, then began studying law on his own. In 1837 he combined his two passions and managed to get the state capital moved to Springfield, a town in his own county. He then moved to Springfield as a legislator and got hired as a junior partner in a law firm. It was not an easy transition for him, since he was still pretty callow and uncouth.

He lived in Springfield for 24 years; it was his only true home. He became solidly middle-class, then with the help of wife Mary Todd began plotting a course that eventually led to the presidency. He was able to use his unsophisticated manner to his advantage as a lawyer, since it appealed to the common man on the jury. He also used the new medium of photography to good political effect, deliberately mussing up his hair for photos so that frontier people would recognize him as one of them.

He was a Whig at heart. Whigs were the party of more and bigger government, more railroads and transportation, and a national banking system. While personally he was anti-slavery, he didn’t at first address it politically, because the issue of slavery was bound up in the issue of states’ rights. He only began to involve himself in the slavery issue in 1854, after Stephen A. Douglas managed to overturn the Missouri Compromise.

Thomas Jefferson had predicted that if the Missouri Compromise was passed, the Union would be broken, and by the 1850s his prophecy was beginning to come true.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 declared that except for Missouri, slavery was not permitted in the northern part of the former Louisiana Territory, and this kept the slavery issue from exploding until mid-century, when America’s victory in the Mexican-American War added huge new territory in the West.

In 1854 Douglas overturned the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave the white male voters of those territories the right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery. This added to the country’s factionalism.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, Lincoln spotted a political opening, and decided to take on Douglas in a series of debates that lasted for four years. He never tried to alienate the South by proposing to abolish slavery in states where it existed, only to stop its spread.

In 1857, the infamous Dred Scott decision heated things up even more. It declared that no black person, slave or free, could be a U.S. citizen, and that furthermore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

The final series of formal debates between Lincoln and Douglas took place the following year. Lincoln lost his bid for the the office of Republican senator from Illinois; Stephen Douglas was reelected in 1859.

(Kostyal 17 – 29)

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century