Northern abolitionists continued to operate under the threat of violence throughout the 1830s, but by the end of that decade, the Northern view of the movement had changed considerably. One major reason for this change was the 1837 murder of an abolitionist named Elijah P. Lovejoy (1802-1837) at the hands of a proslav-ery mob in Illinois. A publisher of anti-slavery pamphlets and other materials, Lovejoy was killed trying to protect his printing press from a violent crowd of antiabolitionists. As people across the North learned of Lovejoy's murder, the abolitionist movement received a big increase in support. Indeed, former president John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) called the event "a shock as of an earthquake throughout the continent." Lovejoy became known as "the martyr abolitionist."
Lovejoy's death generated a wave of sympathy for the cause of abolitionism and spurred many Northerners to examine criticisms of slavery more closely. In addition, many whites who had opposed the abolitionists or remained undecided about supporting them started to view their cause differently. They began to see abolitionism as an issue that was dedicated to preserving civil liberties for all people, which included securing freedom for all black Americans. White Northerners noted that Southern states had placed limits on freedom of speech in order to stop the abolitionist movement, and that Love-joy had been murdered defending his
Theodore Dwight Weld was one of the giants of the American abolitionist movement. A minister who had been profoundly influenced by evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), Weld organized many antislavery lectures and distributed thousands of antislavery pamphlets around the country. One of his most notable works was a book called American Slavery as It Is. This 1839 work, which he compiled with his wife, Angelina Grimke, and his sister-in-law, Sarah Grimke, was a collection of articles and notices from Southern newspapers that documented the inhumanity of the Southern slavery system.
The following is an excerpt from Weld's introduction to the collection. The anger and passion of his words are representative of the sentiments of the larger abolitionist movement and show why Weld came to be regarded as one of abolitionism's most powerful and eloquent voices.
Every man knows that slavery is a curse. Whoever denies this, his lips libel [give a damaging picture of] his heart. Try him; clank the chains in his ears and tell him they are for him. Give him an hour to prepare his wife and children for a life of slavery. Bid him make haste and get ready their necks for the yoke, and their wrists for the coffle chains [fastened together in a line], then look at his pale lips and trembling knees, and you have nature's testimony against slavery.
Two million seven hundred thousand persons in these states are in this condition. They were made slaves and are held such by force, and by being put in fear, and this for no crime! Reader, what have you to say of such treatment? Is it right, just, benevolent? Suppose I should seize you, rob you of your liberty, constitutional right to free speech. They began to wonder if the issue of slavery might someday endanger their rights as well.
By the early 1840s, the Northern abolitionist movement was firmly established as a powerful force in American politics. Antislavery feelings reached heights never before seen in the Northern states. Disputes within the antislavery camp over various strategic and philosophical issues caused divisions in its ranks, but even though the movement splintered into several factions, its members never wavered from their basic goal of abolishing slavery from the shores of America.
As Northern abolitionists continued their call for immediate emancipation and racial equality, they were encouraged not only by their growing influence in the North, but also by events elsewhere in the world. They noticed that slavery was being abolished in many other countries. Throughout
Theodore Dwight Weld. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
drive you into the field, and make you work without pay as long as you live— would that be justice and kindness, or monstrous injustice and cruelty?
Now, everybody knows that the slaveholders do these things to the slaves every day, and yet it is stoutly affirmed that they treat them well and kindly, and that their tender regard for their slaves restrains the masters from inflicting cruelties upon them. . . . It is no marvel that slaveholders are always talking of their kind treatment of their slaves. The only marvel is that men of sense can be gulled [tricked] by such professions. Despots [dictators] always insist that they are merciful. . . . When did not vice lay claim to those virtues which are the opposites of its habitual crimes? The guilty, according to their own showing, are always innocent, and cowards brave, and drunkards sober, and harlots chaste, and pickpockets honest to a fault.
Central and South America, former colonies of Spain and Great Britain outlawed slavery as they gained independence. In Europe, countries like France and Denmark formally abolished slavery as well. To delighted antislavery activists in the United States, these international developments made it seem as if the institution of slavery was crumbling everywhere.
Southerners watched all of these events unfold with ever-increasing anger and fear. Even when the abolitionist movement was small and weak, people in the South had been offended by its charges that their slave-based economy was evil and immoral. By the 1840s, when the abolitionists' influence in the North seemed to grow with each passing day, Southerners were completely fed up. Tired of being told what to do, they criticized the North as arrogant and dictatorial. Some people in the South also defended slavery even more vigorously, insisting that it was a good and moral system.
Angelina Emily Grimke (18051879) and Sarah Moore Grimke (17921873) were two of America's leading abolitionists. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, the sisters were raised in a wealthy slavehold-ing family. They converted to Quakerism, however, and eventually moved to the North to add their energy and talents to the cause of abolitionism. In fact, the Grimke sisters became the first American women to publicly speak out against slavery.
The Grimke sisters' decision to give lectures on the subject of abolitionism triggered heavy criticism from clergymen and other community leaders who thought that women who delivered public speeches violated standards of appropriate female conduct. Angelina and Sarah were stung by such criticisms, but they continued to deliver lectures and publish works (such as Angelina's famous An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) explaining their abolitionist beliefs. A key ally in their efforts to speak out against slavery was the revivalist preacher
Theodore Dwight Weld, whom Angelina eventually married.
As time passed, the prejudice the Grimkes encountered—even in some abolitionist circles—convinced them to work for the cause of female equality as well. By the 1830s, they had emerged as leading spokespersons for the cause of women's rights.
As the debate over the morality of slavery swirled across America, countless families and organizations divided over the issue. Even religious denominations fell victim to this growing tension. Indeed, differences over the morality of slavery became so bitter within the national Baptist and Methodist churches that both organizations split into northern and southern branches during the mid-1840s. "The trend [throughout the United States] was unmistakable," wrote Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in
Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. "Slavery was dissolving ideological and institutional bonds between North and South."
Was this article helpful?