Far from stemming the movement’s growth, however, mob attacks and attempts to limit abolitionists’ freedom of speech convinced many northerners that slavery was incompatible with the democratic liberties of white Americans. In a speech after Lovejoy’s murder, Theodore Weld commented on the contrast between Americans’ self-confident claims to freedom and the reality of anti-abolitionist violence: “The empty name is everywhere— free government, free men, free speech, free schools, and free churches. Hollow counterfeits all!... The substance has gone.” It was the murder of Lovejoy that led Wendell Phillips, who became one of the movement’s greatest orators, to associate himself with the abolitionist cause. “We commenced the present struggle,” announced abolitionist William Jay, “to obtain the freedom of the slave; we are compelled to continue it to preserve our own. We are now contending... for the liberty of speech, of the press, and of conscience.”

The abolitionist movement now broadened its appeal so as to win the support of northerners who cared little about the rights of blacks but could be convinced that slavery endangered their own cherished freedoms. The gag rule aroused considerable resentment in the North. “If the government once begins to discriminate as to what is orthodox and what heterodox in opinion,” wrote the New York Evening Post, hardly a supporter of abolitionism, “farewell, a long farewell to our freedom.”

For many years, the American public sphere excluded discussion of slavery. Tocqueville had noted that in a democracy, individual dissenters found it difficult to stand up against the overwhelming power of majority opinion. Americans valued free speech, he wrote, but he did “not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” The fight for the right to debate slavery openly and without reprisal led abolitionists to elevate “free opinion”— freedom of speech and of the press and the right of petition—to a central place in what Garrison called the “gospel of freedom.” In defending free speech, abolitionists claimed to have become custodians of the “rights of every freeman.”

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