Some may be ready to say, as Martha did, who seemed to expect anything but sympathy from Jesus, "Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days." She thought it useless to remove the stone and expose the loathsome body of her brother; she could not believe that so great a miracle could be wrought, as to raise that putrefied body into life; but "Jesus said, take ye away the stone;" and when they had taken away the stone where the dead was laid, and uncovered the body of Lazarus, then it was that "Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me," &c. "And when he had thus spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth." Yes, some may be ready to say of the colored race, how can they ever be raised politically and intellectually, they have been dead four hundred years? Be we have nothing to do with how this is to be done; our business is to take away the stone which has covered up the dead body of our brother, to expose the putrid carcass, to show how that body has been bound with the grave-clothes of heathen ignorance, and his face with the napkin of prejudice, and having done all it was our duty to do, to stand by the negro's grave, in humble faith and holy hope, waiting to hear the life-giving command of "Lazarus, come forth." This is just what Anti-Slavery societies are doing; they are taking away the stone from the mouth of the tomb of slavery, where lies the putrid carcass of our brother. They want the pure light of heaven to shine into that dark and gloomy cave; they want all men to see how that dead body has been bound, how that face has been wrapped in the napkin of prejudice; and shall they wait beside that grave in vain? Is not Jesus still the resurrection and the life? Did He come to proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of the prison doors to them that are bound, in vain?
Angelina E. Grimké, Appeal To The Christian Women of the South (New York: New York Anti-Slavery Society, 1836)
As widely as this incendiary spirit [abolitionism] has spread, it has not yet infected this body, or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North; but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the Union into deadly conflict. . . . A large portion of the Northern States believed slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance, and that this doctrine [Congressional authority over slavery in the District of Columbia] would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless, - and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain political control. . . .
However sound the great body of the non-slaveholding States are at present, in the course of a few years they will be succeeded by those who will have been taught to hate the people and institutions of nearly one-half of this Union, with a hatred more deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another. It is easy to see the end. By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great nations, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system. The conflicting elements would burst the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together. Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it, - and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions.
. . . .But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good - a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history.
John C. Calhoun, "Slavery a Positive Good," 6 February 1837
When Frederick Douglass published his Narrative in 1845 he was already well-known as a lecturer. In fact, he wrote his account of his life in slavery because his eloquence and command of language led to accusations that he had never been enslaved. Until the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was the most influential anti-slavery work in print. By that time, the battle between abolitionists and apologists for slavery was well-joined.
This page lays out some of the basic sources on the rise and development of the abolitionist movement. It was, despite the influence and prominence of Douglass, despite the visibility of Sojourner Truth, largely a white person's movement. It officially started in 1833 at a convention in Philadelphia. John Greenleaf Whittier, the unofficial poet laureate, of the movement, wrote an account of the convention in 1874. William Lloyd Garrison was the leading figure at the convention and he wrote the new American Anti-Slavery Society's Declaration of Principles, reprinted in Whittier's account. The new society quickly gained an important group of recruits, the so-called "Band of Seventy," led by Theodore Dwight Weld. Weld was a student at the new Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. The Uncle Tom's Cabin site at the University of Virginia has collected several important sources about how Weld and his fellow students came into conflict with the Seminary's Board of Trustees who objected to their work among the free blacks of Cincinnati. Lane President Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, tried to mediate the dispute. His failure led Weld and his cohorts to leave Lane, an exodus that helped launch Oberlin College. There is also an account, by Weld, of the dispute in his Appeal for funds for Oberlin written in the early 1840s.
Weld and other members of the "Band" became itinerant evangelists in the abolition cause. So did Angelina Grimké. The daughter of a prominent South Carolinian planter, she created a sensation with her vivid descriptions of the horrors of slave life. Itinerant speaking for abolition was a very dangerous occupation. Local audiences were often hostile, sometimes violent. There was, for example, an anti-abolition riot in Cincinnati also collected at the University of Virginia. And, in Alton, Illinois, a mob killed an abolitionist newspaper publisher, Elijah Lovejoy. The same Virginia site provides excerpts from the account by the Rev. Edward Beecher, son of Lyman Beecher. The hostility had several sources. One was a concern that abolition would endanger the Union. Another, according to Angelina Grimké, was prejudice.
. . . the North is most dreadfully afraid of Amalgamation. She is alarmed at the very idea of a thing so monstrous, as she thinks. And lest this consequence might flow from emancipation, she is determined to resist all efforts at emancipation without expatriation. It is not because she approves of slavery, or believes it to be "cornerstone of our republic," for she is as much anti-slavery as we are; but amalgamation is too horrible to think of. . . . The same prejudice exists here against our colored brethren that existed against the Gentiles in Judea. Great numbers cannot bear the idea of equality, and fearing lest, if they had the same advantages we enjoy, they would become as intelligent, as moral, as religious, and as respectable and wealthy, they are determined to keep them as low as they possibly can.
Grimké had a first-hand encounter with mob violence against abolitionism in 1839 in Philadelphia. Her speech, as a mob surged outside the hall, is perhaps the most stirring of her career as an anti-slavery speaker. She was the first woman to speak to mixed, so-called promiscuous, audiences of men and women, an activity which scandalized many in the North as well as in the South. The General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter against women speaking in public. This is an important moment. As Kathryn Kish Sklar has recently shown, the woman's rights movement quite literally grew out of abolitionism. Angelina's sister Sarah responded in what is one of the first and fullest statements of the rights of women. Catherine Beecher, daughter of Lyman Beecher and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, weighed in against the propriety of Angelina Grimké speaking in public. Beecher had her own ideas about reform, including expanding the public roles of women. Like her father in dealing with Weld, she urged caution. Grimké, like Weld, urged the immediacy of moral duty. Their exchange, in excerpted form, is available at the University of Virginia.
Also in 1839 Theodore Dwight Weld, soon to become Angelina Grimké's husband, published Slavery As It Is, a collection of first-person narratives, newspaper notices, and other "testimony" about the South's "peculiar institution." This is also at the University of Virginia.
Ironically, in the controversy over the public role of women in the abolition movement, Weld joined the opposition. It was a stance dictated by tactical concerns, not principle. Abolitionists had already to defend themselves against charges of fanaticism. Defending the right of women to speak in public would only add to the difficulty. Even Weld, in other words, and with him both Grimké sisters, chose to restrain their principles about women's rights to advance the cause of abolition. Garrison chose the course of principle. As a result, the abolition movement split. In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the issue came again to the fore. Would Garrisonian delegates, such as Lucretia Mott, be able to participate? The majority decided against. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, present not as a delegate but as the bride of delegate Henry Stanton, claimed this was the origin of her, and Mott's, campaign for woman's rights. Mott's diary makes no mention of any such discussion but does detail her campaign to have women seated at the Convention.
Most anti-slavery activity in the 1830s and early 1840s focused upon slavery in the District of Columbia. Under the Constitution, slavery could be abolished by individual states or by amendment which would require the consent of three-fourths of all the states. After the debate in the Virginia legislature following the Nat Turner Insurrection of 1831, open discussion of ending slavery virtually ceased in the South. And, as there were an equal number of slave and free states, there was no possibility of constitutional amendment. Congress itself had full control over the District, however, and therefore could vote at any time to end slavery there. This would have a large symbolic value. So abolitionists organized campaigns to send petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the District. Southerners demanded an end to this in the form of the "Gag Rule," a rule of the House of Representatives which prohibited petitions on the subject of slavery. The rule pitted one provision of the Constitution, that giving to each House the power to establish its own rules, against another, the amendment guaranteeing the right of petition.
Former president John Quincey Adams led the battle in the House against the Gag Rule, earning the title "Old Man Eloquence" in the process. The struggle against the Rule was far more popular than that against slavery, but the Rule did substantiate the abolitionists' claim that slavery limited the freedom of northern whites as well as of southern blacks. Here are excerpts from the Congressional debate from January and February 1837.
By the middle of the 1840s the slavery question shifted from arguments about slave auctions in the nation's capitol to a debate over western expansion. The War with Mexico led to the acquisition of California, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Texas was a slave state. What would happen in the rest of the territory taken from Mexico? The discovery of gold in California and the ensuing "Rush" made the question urgent. The great majority of those in the North opposed to the expansion of slavery were not abolitionists. Their cause was "Free Soil," a west open to settlement by people like themselves and without slavery. Many would gladly have made the west a "white man's country." Abolitionists lost the ability to frame the debate. The large majority of Northern whites considered them extremists.
Once again, white Southerners came to their rescue. Just as the Gag Rule had lent support to the abolitionists' claim about white and black freedom being linked, the Fugitive Slave Law, one of the elements in the Compromise of 1850, made vivid their assertion that northern whites had to do the bidding of the slaveholders. The law made it mandatory upon state officials to assist slaveholders in recovering their "property." Relatively few slaves escaped. And relatively few of them were captured in the North. But each became a cause celebre. The most famous fugitive was Anthony Burns. He escaped from his master in Virginia. By his own account he was apprehended only a few weeks after he arrived in Boston. An emergency meeting at Faneuil Hall led to an abortive attempt to rescue Burns by force, led by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In the attempt a "special" marshall, i.e., a man hired for the occasion to guard Burns, was killed. Burns was returned to Virginia where he was purchased by abolitionists and set free. He returned to the North and lectured on his captivity, escape, rendition to Virginia, and emancipation. A deeply religious man, Burns asked the Baptist church he attended in Virginia to give him a letter he could bring to a new congregation in the North. Instead the church excommunicated him for the "sin" of stealing himself by escaping. The church's letter and Burns' public response proved powerful arguments against slavery.
The passage in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened that territory to slavery, once again focused the debate over slavery on the west. Once again abolition seemed irrelevant as free soilers in the North and self-proclaimed "Missouri ruffians" contended, sometimes violently for control of Kansas. A kind of guerilla warfare broke out with both sides engaging in atrocities of various kinds. The most notorious free soil partisan was John Brown who, with a small band, perpetrated the "Pottowatomie Massacre" in which he killed and then mutilated the bodies of five pro-slavery men. The "ruffians," even by their own accounts, were no better. One young Englishman left an entertaining account of his days as a "ruffian."
With the formation of the Republican Party and its strong showing in the 1856 presidential election, reformers had to make a difficult choice. Should they ally themselves with the new party, despite the fact that many of its adherents were not in favor of abolition, because it offered the best hope of freeing the national government from pro-slavery Democrats? Should they support further guerilla campaigns, especially John Brown's plan which led to the attack upon Harper's Ferry? Should they, at least those who had stayed with the Garrison wing of the movement, remain true to their principles, stay out of politics, and eschew violence? Events would make this choice for them. Whatever their individual inclinations, the election of Lincoln and the ensuing secessionist crisis, turned virtually all into Republicans.