The American Civil War, Abolition, The Movement

Edited by: Robert Guisepi

2002
 

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There can be no doubt that antislavery, or "abolition" as it came to be called, was the nonpareil reform. Abolition was a diverse phenomenon. At one end of its spectrum was William Lloyd Garrison, an "immediatist," who denounced not only slavery but also the Constitution of the United States for tolerating the evil. His newspaper, The Liberator, lived up to its promise that it would not equivocate in its war against slavery. Garrison's uncompromising tone infuriated not only the South but many Northerners as well and was long treated as though it were typical of abolitionism in general. Actually it was not. At the other end of the abolitionist spectrum and in between stood such men and women as Theodore Weld, James Birney, Gerrit Smith, Theodore Parker, Julia Ward Howe, Lewis Tappan, Salmon P. Chase, and Lydia Maria Child, all of whom represented a variety of stances, all more conciliatory than Garrison's. James Russell Lowell, whose emotional balance has been cited by a recent biographer as proof that abolitionists need not have been unstable, urged in contrast to Garrison that "the world must be healed by degrees.  

"Whether they were Garrisonians or not, abolitionist leaders have been scorned as cranks who were either working out their own personal maladjustments or as people using the slavery issue to restore a status that as an alleged New England elite they feared they were losing. The truth may be simpler. Few neurotics and few members of the northern socioeconomic elite became abolitionists. For all the movement's zeal and propagandistic successes, it was bitterly resented by many Northerners, and the masses of free whites were indifferent to its message. In the 1830s, urban mobs, typically led by "gentlemen of property and standing," stormed abolitionist meetings, wreaking violence on the property and persons of blacks and their white sympathizers, evidently indifferent to the niceties distinguishing one abolitionist theorist from another. The fact that abolition leaders were remarkably similar in their New England backgrounds, their Calvinist self-righteousness, their high social status, and the relative excellence of their educations is hardly evidence that their cause was either snobbish or elitist. Ordinary citizens were more inclined to loathe Negroes and to preoccupy themselves with personal advance within the system.

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