Abolitionist Movement

2011-10-10 02:32:54

A new and aggressive phase of American abolitionism emerged in the 1830s. Called ‘‘immediatism,’’ the movement for the immediate, uncompensated emancipation of slaves without expatriation (which received institutional expression first from the regional New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1832, then the national American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833) comprised individuals regardless of race, class, or gender, a stark departure from previous efforts that were primarily gradual in scope and genteel (read elite white male) in composition. The changes signified by immediatism’s seemingly sudden appearance were anything but welcomed, as evidenced by the scores of mobs that assaulted exponents of that creed; by the federal postal service’s (especially its state auxiliaries in the South) effective ban of abolitionist literature from reaching a southern audience; and by the U.S. Congress’s virtual stranglehold, for nearly a decade, on the voices of antislavery petitioners, preventing them from receiving an appropriate hearing in the nation’s highest council.

Although those reactions constituted a curtailment of, if not utter disregard for, traditional rights as guaranteed in the state and federal constitutions—freedom of speech and of the press, the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, according to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—Abolitionists, though seriously challenged, were neither thwarted nor suppressed. On the contrary, since the enjoyment of basic civil liberties was jeopardized, abolitionism actually thrived, despite and because of the animosity that immediatists directly and indirectly provoked.

Hostility and violence early greeted the Abolitionist Movement, as outbreaks of mob activity readily indicate. Although anti-abolitionist attacks occurred in the North throughout the three decades preceding the Civil War, the high tide of such riots took place in the years between 1834 and 1838. Too numerous to list in detail, a few incidents shall sufficiently illustrate immediatism’s initial impact on northern society and reveal the difficulties that Abolitionists encountered in order to broadcast their message.

In their attempts to assemble peaceably, Abolitionists frequently confronted local antagonism, potentially volatile situations that sometimes threatened the safety of their very persons. For example, on October 21, 1835, an angry mob stormed a gathering of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. Although concerned citizens directly targeted the meeting’s invited speaker, William Lloyd Garrison, the outspoken and controversial editor of the Boston antislavery weekly, The Liberator, the society’s members also confronted a raucous crowd. Yet, to protect one another from harm, white and black women marched in double- file, arm-in-arm, past protestors, a dangerous display of social equality that could have elicited unintended reactions from already belligerent demonstrators. Indeed, once the female Abolitionists exited the building, the mob seized Garrison and then dragged him through the city’s streets—only a night’s refuge in prison protected him from additional assault.

Anti-abolitionist rioters also played havoc with the exercise of freedom of speech and of the press. Twice in July 1836 Cincinnatians sought to dissuade the southern-born former slaveholder and future Liberty Party presidential candidate James G. Birney from continuance of his abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, by partial or complete destruction of his printing press. The relocated Maine native Elijah Lovejoy suffered similar opposition in the southern Illinois town of Alton. Over about a three-month period in 1837, city residents, alarmed by Lovejoy’s increasing abolitionist editorial policy and his attempts to organize a state antislavery society, wrecked the press of his Presbyterian reformist paper, the Observer, three times. It was on that final and what proved to be fatal occasion, on November 7, that Lovejoy succumbed to five gunshot wounds when he, himself armed, rushed the mob that set ablaze the roof of the building that housed his press. Although some Abolitionists expressed regret over Lovejoy’s use of physical force in his defense, the lack of unity over faithful adherence to the movement’s founding pacifistic principles gave way to near unanimity over Lovejoy’s symbolic importance for abolitionism. Thus, Lovejoy was thereafter known as ‘‘the first MARTYR to American LIBERTY[,] MURDERED for asserting the FREEDOM of the PRESS.’’

Although riotous events concerning Abolitionists were occurrences largely in free states, anti-abolitionism reared its ugly head against immediatists throughout the country. The concurrent pamphlet and petition campaigns, amplified in 1835–1836, clearly revealed that nationwide antipathy to the cause. Each initiative underscored Abolitionists’ faith in the redemptive power of ‘‘moral suasion,’’ one of the movement’s fundamental tenets that emphasized the demise of slaveowning and racial prejudice once their sinfulness was exposed to the American public. To achieve that much-desired end, Abolitionists appealed especially to those most capable of instituting the process of emancipation: slaveholders and congressmen.

Whatever Abolitionists’ expectations, the reactions from those groups to their proselytizing schemes were not unlike those of the northern mobs—vitriolic and censorious. For example, when postal sacks filled with antislavery newspapers and journals (addressed to prominent citizens and not free blacks or illiterate slaves) arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, on the morning of July 29, 1835 (only a small fraction of the more than one million pieces of printed matter circulated by the American Anti-Slavery Society to points and persons across the country during the fiscal year ending in May 1836), enraged residents quickly alleviated the uncertainties that beset the city’s postmaster over what to do with the troublesome material. That evening, members of the Lynch Men vigilance committee spirited away the satchels containing immediatist propaganda during a raid on the post office. The following night the abolitionist mails—as appropriately befitted what the local press called ‘‘incendiary’’ tracts—were ceremoniously burned, along with effigies of three leading Abolitionists, before a crowd of between two and three thousand people.

Despite the swift resistance by Carolinians to outside abolitionist incursions, antislavery periodicals continued unabated. Charlestonians once more mobilized in retaliation, forming another vigilance society to search for and confiscate what were judged to be seditious publications; the committee even called upon northern state governments to legislate abolitionist organizations out of existence. Although the Charleston postmaster provided for a guarded escort for the conveyance of that dreadful material from such seemingly malignant individuals, his protection of the mails was limited to the delivery of abolitionist pamphlets to the post office only. Once there, they remained safely quarantined until orders from the postmaster general directed otherwise. The latter, Kentuckian and stalwart Jacksonian Democrat Amos Kendall, did not order a contrary course—which would have necessitated the uninhibited distribution of antislavery literature—but intimated approval, noting in correspondence that obedience to the community where one lived surpassed obligations to federal statutes.

The anti-abolitionist sentiments that the postal campaign unleashed finally reached a crescendo in December 1835, when President Andrew Jackson, in his annual message, urged Congress to enact appropriate measures against ‘‘the misguided persons [Abolitionists] who have engaged in these unconstitutional and wicked attempts.’’ The national assembly, he suggested, should pass ‘‘such a law as will prohibit, under severe penalties, the circulation in the Southern States, through the mail, of incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.’’

Just as Carolinians prevented (extralegally if not illegally) the discussion of slavery (specifically, its abolition) at home, they sought similar action in the nation’s capital. In the same month that Andrew Jackson addressed Congress, South Carolina Representative James HenryHammond remonstrated against any further introduction of abolitionist petitions in the lower house. In so doing, he not only captured the ire and recalcitrance of his constituents in matters involving the security of the ‘‘peculiar institution,’’ but also, by his demand that such memorials be peremptorily repudiated, initiated a debate that shifted congressional practices regarding the historic right of petition and spurred Abolitionists to greater activity.

What resulted after weeks of heated deliberation was the ‘‘gag rule,’’ which prohibited congressmen from discussing or printing the contents of any petitions that dealt with slavery. Those antislavery memorials that reached, and would soon bombard, Congress were automatically ‘‘laid on the table,’’ with ‘‘no further action [taken] whatever.’’ That order, adopted in May 1836 and remaining in force until 1844, did not repulse Abolitionists, but rather increased their resolve. Indeed, in 1837 and 1838 alone, 412,000 antislavery petitions deluged the House, and nearly two-thirds that amount flooded the Senate. Women especially contributed to the success of such operations. They were not only active in gaining signatures—women comprised over half of the signatories—but also became more involved in public affairs and more assertive on behalf of their own, deprived, rights.

The response to abolitionism was gravely important to activists at that time, for at stake was nothing less than the Bill of Rights. The ensuing civil liberties controversy almost instantly redounded to the benefit of an otherwise unpopular and dissenting minority portion of the citizenry. In the short run, immediatist organizations increased by more than twofold, from about two hundred in May 1835 to over five hundred the following year. To be sure, Abolitionists would remain a small segment of the population throughout the antebellum period, but the struggle over the maintenance of traditional American rights, which antislavery agitation instigated, catapulted the immediatist movement and the question of slavery onto a national stage. They remained there, despite attempts to the contrary, until President Abraham Lincoln officially announced the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863.


References and Further Reading

  • Grimsted, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
  • Nye, Russel B. Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830–1860. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1949
  • Richards, Leonard L. Gentlemen of Property and Standing: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970
  • Wyatt–Brown, Bertram. ‘‘The Abolitionists’ Postal Campaign of 1835.’’ The Journal of Negro History 50(4) (1965):227–238
  • Wyly–Jones, Susan. ‘‘The 1835 Anti-Abolition Meetings in the South: A New Look at the Controversy over the Abolition Postal Campaign.’’ Civil War History 47(4) (2001):289–309
  • Yellin, Jean Fagan, and John C. Van Horne, eds. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994
  • Zaeske, Susan. Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.