MILITANT ABOLITIONISM

The abolitionist movement that arose in the 1830s differed profoundly from its genteel, conservative predecessor. Drawing on the religious conviction that slavery was an unparalleled sin and the secular one that it contradicted the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, a new generation of reformers rejected the traditional approach of gradual emancipation and demanded immediate abolition. Also unlike their predecessors, they directed explosive language against slavery and slaveholders and insisted that blacks, once free, should be incorporated as equal citizens of the republic rather than being deported. White abolitionists themselves were hardly free of the racism that pervaded American society. Some, indeed, wondered whether the slaves were too “feminine” in character to revolt against oppression, which they claimed manly Anglo-Saxons would surely do. Nonetheless, nearly all abolitionists insisted that economic, civil, and political rights in the United States should be equally enjoyed without regard to race. Perfecting American society, they insisted, meant rooting out not just slavery, but racism in all its forms.

William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator and probably the nation’s most prominent abolitionist, in a daguerreotype from around 1850.

The masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, with engravings of scenes of slavery and freedom.

The first indication of the new spirit of abolitionism came in 1829 with the appearance of An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World by David Walker, a free black who had been born in North Carolina and now operated a used-clothing store in Boston. A passionate indictment of slavery and racial prejudice, the Appeal called on black Americans to mobilize for abolition—by force if necessary—and warned whites that the nation faced divine punishment if it did not mend its sinful ways. Walker invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, but he went beyond these familiar arguments to call on blacks to take pride in the achievements of ancient African civilizations and to claim all their rights as Americans. “Tell us no more about colonization,” Walker wrote, addressing white readers, “for America is as much our country as it is yours.”

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