America had always been home to people who felt that slavery was wrong and should be eliminated. These people, called abolitionists because they wanted to abolish or destroy slavery, denounced the practice as horrible and evil. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, however, their efforts to eliminate slavery from U.S. soil failed to gather enough popular support because everyone knew how much the South depended on slaves to make its economy and society work. But in the 1830s and 1840s, organized opposition to slavery in the United States became more powerful and confrontational (meeting an issue head-on) than it had ever been before. Describing slavery as an evil and un-Christian system and a stain on the values enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence, the abolitionists finally convinced large numbers of Northerners that slavery should not continue. This development angered and frightened white Southerners, who recognized that the abolitionist movement was a serious threat to the society that they had built for themselves.
Words to Know
Abolitionists people who worked to end slavery
Colonization an action in which an existing country establishes a new community or state in a foreign land
Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression
Quakers a religious group that strongly opposed slavery and violence of any kind
Underground Railroad a secret organization of free blacks and whites who helped slaves escape from their masters and gain freedom in the Northern United States and Canada bied tirelessly for the freedom of their race, and some white people—religious leaders and politicians as well as ordinary citizens—expressed reservations about "the peculiar institution," as slavery was sometimes called. Slavery remained common across the colonies, but discomfort with the practice became more evident.
By the end of the 1700s, when America became an independent nation, slavery in the North was fading away. Even some wealthy Southern slaveholders expressed hope that slavery might pass out of existence some day. In the early 1800s, however, the South's reliance on slavery increased as white landholders turned to the labor-intensive crop of cotton for their livelihood. This development was a bitter disappointment to people opposed to slavery.
The very first abolitionist demonstration in America took place in 1688. A group of brave Quakers gathered in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to voice their religious objections to the slave trade. At first, few people paid much attention to the Quakers' calls for an end to slavery. During the eighteenth century, however, a growing number of people living in the American colonies looked at slavery with a more critical eye. Free blacks like Episcopal church leader Absalom Jones (1746-1818), businessman James Forten (1766-1842), and Methodist bishop Richard Allen (1760-1831) lob
In 1816, American abolitionists tried a different tactic to end slavery. They recognized that many whites who thought that slavery should be abolished still did not want to live with blacks, either because they saw blacks as inferior or because they thought that racial prejudice was too firmly ingrained in American society to make integration (the mixing of the two races) work. Aware that many whites opposed the idea of sharing their society with free blacks, supporters of abolition formed an organization called the American Colonization Society. This group came to include many of the nation's leading business men and political leaders. The Society encouraged slaveholding states to establish programs in which they would free their slaves gradually. The emancipated (freed) slaves would then be transported to Africa, where they could form their own free nation.
Boosted by financial support from the federal government and endorsements from a number of states, the Society established the nation of Liberia on the west African coast in 1822. Over the next forty years the Society transported more than six thousand blacks to its shores. Most free blacks, however, resisted the idea of returning to Africa. They had built lives for themselves and their families in the United States, and they did not want to leave and start over somewhere else. "We are natives of this country," argued Peter Williams, Jr., a leading free black abolitionist who opposed colonization. "Not a few of our fathers suffered and bled to purchase its independence [in the Revolutionary War]." Another free black named David Walker (1785-1830) stated similar feelings in an 1829 pamphlet called An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. "Tell us no more about colonization," Walker wrote, "for America is as much our country as it is yours."
Despite the humiliations that they and their families had endured over the years, most free blacks considered themselves Americans. Pointing to the sacrifices that their ancestors had made to help build America, these men and women said that blacks de-
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