Anti-Slavery and the Second Great Awakening
Theodore Dwight Weld
The author of American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, Weld is credited with penning “the most influential anti-slavery publication” prior to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was a controversial figure for several reasons, including the fact that his wife Angelina Grimke was one of the leading female abolitionists and spoke before “promiscuous audiences” comprised of both men and women. He also dared to encourage “fellow students to work with the free black population of the city, something local whites disapproved of vigorously.”
American Slavery was both radical and extraordinarily thorough in the material it printed. It was a compilation of true stories gathered from “all who have had personal knowledge of the condition of slaves in any of the states of this Union.” Each story was authenticated by the condition that names and addresses had to be provided with submissions, and references were additionally required for persons detailing accounts who were unknown to Weld or his committee. The names and addresses were also published alongside the personal narratives wherever possible, except in cases where the author still lived in a slave state and exposing their identities would “make them the victims of popular fury.” The Introduction to American Slavery opens in the language of a prosecutor arguing in court; Weld presents the condition of human slavery as though on trial, contending that was a tradition condemned by both the human heart and nature itself. He mocks the absurdity of slaveholders who insist that they care for their slaves, portrayed them essentially as monsters who “have seized their victims, and annihilated all their rights, [but] still claim to be the special guardians of their happiness!”
One of the testimonials given in American Slavery comes from a Mr. Caulkins of North Carolina. Nearly a dozen testimonials are offered as proof of the integrity of Caulkins’ character. Once that has been established, Caulkins’ account describes in great detail the brutality against slaves that he either directly witnessed or heard from likewise reliable sources. The following story strongly makes the point that slaves were treated as property by their owners, who held an utter disregard for their humanity:
“One of the slaves on another plantation gave birth to a child which lived but two or three weeks. After its death the planter called the woman to him, and asked her how she came to let the child die; said it was all owing to her carelessness, and that he meant to flog her for it. She told, him with all the feeling of a mother, the circumstances of its death. But her story availed her nothing against the savage brutality of her master. She was severely whipped. A healthy child four months old was then considered worth $100 in North Carolina.”
NOTE: The large, bold woodcut image of a supplicant male slave in chains appears on the 1837 broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier's antislavery poem, "Our Countrymen in Chains." The design was originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s, and appeared on several medallions for the society made by Josiah Wedgwood as early as 1787.
Here, in addition to Whittier's poem, the appeal to conscience against slavery continues with two further quotes. The first is the scriptural warning, "He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. "Exod XXI, 16." Next the claim, "England has 800,000 Slaves, and she has made them FREE. America has 2,250,000! and she HOLDS THEM FAST!!!"
The Pro-Slavery Riot in Cincinnati
In sharp contrast to the anti-slavery agenda that abolitionists held, other citizens of the country (in particular Southerners) were vehemently opposed to the end of slavery. Perhaps one of the strongest examples of this resistance was the pro-slavery riot in Cincinnati. Although this was just one of many examples of Southern protest to what they saw as the dangerous ideas proposed by the North, it remains a strong testament to the lengths Southerners were willing to go to ensure the continuation of slavery. The Cincinnati protest targeted James Birney, who was repeatedly warned to stop publishing The Philanthropist, his weekly anti-slavery newspaper. Birney refused to be intimidated, even after his office was broken into by prominent men in the town and his press was nearly destroyed.
On July 30, 1836 at least one hundred men banded together and “went on a rampage against the paper, abolitionists and members of the city's community of free blacks.” Their motivation was two-fold: fear of offending slave owners whose wealth helped the city to prosper, and fear that the spirit of the abolitionists would make the black population harder to control. Famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe witnessed the riot, and wrote about it in a journal to her husband. Her words give an insider’s perspective on the frenetic mentality that swept the city during this time:
“The mob madness is certainly upon this city when men of sense and standing will pass resolutions approving in so many words of things done contrary to law, as one of the resolutions of this meeting did. It quoted the demolition of the tea in Boston harbor as being authority and precedent.”
William Lloyd Garrison
Another key player in the abolition era, Garrison founded and published The Liberator, an anti-slavery paper. What makes him a stand-out figure, however, is that Garrison is a man who both “helped organize the Anti-Slavery Society, [and] also helped to break it apart.” In a time when many abolitionists were seen as radicals (at least by the Southerners), Garrison’s beliefs were even more extreme. He believed women should be allowed to participate in the abolition movement and become members of the Anti-Slavery Society. Even among other abolitionists, this idea was largely rejected on the grounds that “the matter was too controversial and took attention away from the anti-slavery cause.”
Still Garrison stood by his beliefs, and in 1840 he and his supporters elected to send several female delegates to London to act as representatives at the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Even when the Convention members voted against seating these women, the refusal “did not persuade the Garrisonians to restrict the roles of women in their society.” Garrison continued in his crusade against the institution of slavery, often interjecting his messages with biblical references that he felt highlighted the immorality of slavery.
Theodore Weld’s letter to James Hall gives us excellent insight to the parallels between the anti-slavery movement and the Second Great Awakening. Religious philosophy was burgeoning in America and the morals and values of mid-nineteenth century America were being called into question. Slavery was an area of society seen as intrinsically evil by revivalists and theologians wrapped up in the religious revival (and it is important to note that most revival seemed to be going on in the North).
James Hall had apparently written an article downplaying Lane Seminary’s open debate about the issue of slavery. Weld responds to statements Hall made questioning the seminary’s methods of education, and that students at the seminary should be concerned more about their religious education than taking sides on a political issue. Weld makes ten specific answers, which I will summarize below.
The first thing Weld refutes is Hall’s claim that the students are not well-educated enough on the issue to be debating it. He cites their ages, which many are in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. And, most convincingly, he says that fourteen of the eighteen speakers at the debates had lived in slave-holding states; eight of them had lived in slave states their whole lives. So, we can see that anti-slavery revivalists were well-educated, and not simply radicals with no backing to their claims.
Weld’s next two points emphasize that the anti-slavery movement in the institution was not a move of political partisanship (as, of course, religion and government in the United States was supposed to be separate), but it was the promotion of their moral values. “…even if Congress had the power to abolish slavery, our principles ‘show us a more excellent way.’” This shows that abolitionist-revivalists didn’t care about abolishing it through the government; they wanted it abolished through the consciences of the people.
Points four and five say that if, as Hall suggests, talk of slavery and the creation of an anti-slavery club is suppressed in Lane, then the whole system of Lane’s education would be undermined. Talk on both sides encourages learning and a more in depth opinion one can have on the subject.
Point six is where Weld really gets into his argument. He uses harsh language and formally declares slavery a sin in its first sentence. If slavery is a moral issue, if slavery is a sin, then it is the duty of aspiring theologians to address it. “Is it not the business of theological seminaries to educate the heart, as well as the head?” Weld asks. He goes on to say that if alcoholism, the abuse to the virtue of temperance, is largely a revivalist, religious movement, then slavery, another societal abuse, should be dealt with likewise.
The tenth point illustrates Weld’s belief that anti-slavery will win out eventually, saying, “Through the grace of God, the history of the next five years will teach this lesson to the most reluctant learner.” We know it took longer than five years for the movement to progress, however, this illustrates the revivalists’ optimism about their belief. He repeats a quote by Hall that he thinks undermines American freedom to choose its own morals: “the indignation of the community will put it [the anti-slavery movement] down” (note that it is repeated twice in Weld’s tenth point).
Finally, the letter ends with a declaration of why slavery is a sin: it is a sin of oppression. It robs the body and the soul “from birth to death.” While this should probably be in the beginning of the letter, it is the strongest point Weld makes about slavery, and why the revivalists took it up as one of their issues.
The language of the documents around this time shows us the evolving attitudes on both sides of the slavery issue. Each side was using stronger language by the 1830s, and the use of the phrase “slave states” acknowledges that there is a clear rift between the North and South. Weld refers to the “people of the southern states,” not, perhaps, his “fellow countrymen” or his “southern neighbors.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her account of the riots of Cincinnati, speaks of “converts” to the abolitionist movement. The sheer notion of converts indicates a strong, almost religious belief (and in revivalists’ cases, it was a religious belief).
The anti-slavery students of Lane, after being suppressed by Lane administrators, left the seminary and founded Oberlin Seminary in Oberlin, Ohio. This alone also shows us how serious many of the revivalists were in their ideas, and how divisive the issue of slavery had become by the mid-1830s.
Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses was the most influential anti-slavery publication before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Weld, a prominent abolition speaker and Finney convert, encouraged his peers at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati to work with the free black population of the city, which became quite unpopular with the whites. Weld had previously traveled and gave lectures in the South to fund money so that he could attend college. While he was down there, he became introduced to the horrors and evils of slavery. This caused him to become a radical abolitionist and he even succeeded in convincing several Southerners to change their view on slavery. In fact, Mr. Birney, a plantation owner, freed his slaves and founded an anti-slavery paper called “The Philanthropist.” He helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1836 the society devoted all its resources towards enlarging a band of trained lecture agents to preach the abolitionist gospel. The new class of lecturers, known as the Band of Seventy, trained in New York City (http://www.wwhp.org/Resources/Biographies/theodoredwightweld.html).
William Lloyd Garrison, founder and publisher of The Liberator, was one of the most famous abolitionists of his time as he helped organize the Anti-Slavery Society. He and other “ultra” abolitionists “believed that their duty was to stand upon principle.” He wanted an immediate end to slavery. The Garrisonians even welcomed women to join the abolitionist movement to combat the evilness of slavery. In 1854, he stated: “What then is to be done? Friends of the slave, the question is not whether by our efforts we can abolish slavery, speedily, or remotely – for our duty is ours, the result is with God…”
In his Address to the Slaves of the United States, Garrison reassured the slaves in bondage that God was on their side and would deliver them from their chains. He went on to explain how the abolitionists up North were their true, devoted friends “who are laboring to effect your emancipation without delay, in a peaceable manner, without the shedding of blood.” He vividly described the sacrifices and physical suffering the abolitionists endured to fight against slavery. Many of the abolitionists were beaten, tarred and feathered, lynched, imprisoned, lost their reputation, failed in business, and were even killed for what they believed in. Nonetheless, Garrison stated that the abolitionists were instruments of God and that they would ultimately succeed in their endeavor.
Garrison was right as the Abraham Lincoln, a strong opponent of slavery, declared after Antietam that the war would also be fought to liberate the slaves down South. As a child Lincoln had been beaten by his father and therefore felt that he could relate with the slaves. During his early career in legislative government, Lincoln vigorously attacked the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. When he was running as a presidential candidate of the United States, he stated that he did not want slavery to extend itself into the new territories of the west. He also famously quoted the Bible saying that “A house divided against itself cannot stand…” He felt that the Union could not remain intact with both free and slave states. It would have to be either all slave or all free to remain together. Lincoln had made a secret covenant with God and promised God that if He gave the Union a major victory, Lincoln would declare the Emancipation Proclamation.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was an American writer and philanthropist who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Law stated that it was illegal to shelter and assist runaway slaves in their escape. While she lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, she witnessed the cruelties of the slave trade, which inspired her to write her famous anti-slavery novel. One of the most disturbing scenes she described was watching a husband and wife being sold to different slave owners thus disbanding the family. Her family shared her abolitionist beliefs and helped hide runaway slaves (http://www.uwm.edu/Library/special/exhibits/clastext/clspg149.htm). Stowe believed that she was an instrument of God in educating many Americans about the destructiveness of slavery and helping them flee to Canada where the Fugitive Slave Law could not be enforced. Abraham Lincoln supposedly visited with Stowe and jokingly remarked that her book had caused a great war.