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Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements, and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy

Part 1: Anti-Slavery Activists | Popularizing Anti-Slavery Sentiment
Part 2

Black and white abolitionists in the first half of the nineteenth century waged a biracial assault against slavery. Their efforts proved to be extremely effective. Abolitionists focused attention on slavery and made it difficult to ignore. They heightened the rift that had threatened to destroy the unity of the nation even as early as the Constitutional Convention.

Although some Quakers were slaveholders, members of that religious group were among the earliest to protest the African slave trade, the perpetual bondage of its captives, and the practice of separating enslaved family members by sale to different masters.

As the nineteenth century progressed, many abolitionists united to form numerous antislavery societies. These groups sent petitions with thousands of signatures to Congress, held abolition meetings and conferences, boycotted products made with slave labor, printed mountains of literature, and gave innumerable speeches for their cause. Individual abolitionists sometimes advocated violent means for bringing slavery to an end.

Although black and white abolitionists often worked together, by the 1840s they differed in philosophy and method. While many white abolitionists focused only on slavery, black Americans tended to couple anti-slavery activities with demands for racial equality and justice.

Anti-Slavery Activists

Christian Arguments Against Slavery

Benjamin Lay, a Quaker who saw slavery as a "notorious sin," addresses this 1737 volume to those who "pretend to lay claim to the pure and holy Christian religion." Although some Quakers held slaves, no religious group was more outspoken against slavery from the seventeenth century until slavery's demise. Quaker petitions on behalf of the emancipation of African Americans flowed into colonial legislatures and later to the United States Congress.

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Benjamin Lay.
All Slave Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage . . . .
Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1737.
Franklin Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-22)

Plea for the Suppression of the Slave Trade
Anthony Benezet.
Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes.
Germantown, Pennsylvania: Christopher Sower, 1760.
American Imprints Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-1)

In this plea for the abolition of the slave trade, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker of French Huguenot descent, pointed out that if buyers did not demand slaves, the supply would end. "Without purchasers," he argued, "there would be no trade; and consequently every purchaser as he encourages the trade, becomes partaker in the guilt of it." He contended that guilt existed on both sides of the Atlantic. There are Africans, he alleged, "who will sell their own children, kindred, or neighbors." Benezet also used the biblical maxim, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," to justify ending slavery. Insisting that emancipation alone would not solve the problems of people of color, Benezet opened schools to prepare them for more productive lives.

The Conflict Between Christianity and Slavery

Connecticut theologian Jonathan Edwards, born 1745, echoes Benezet's use of the Golden Rule as well as the natural rights arguments of the Revolutionary era to justify the abolition of slavery. In this printed version of his 1791 sermon to a local anti-slavery group, he notes the progress toward abolition in the North and predicts that through vigilant efforts slavery would be extinguished in the next fifty years.

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Jonathan Edwards, D.D.
The Injustice and Impolicy of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans . . . A Sermon.
New Haven, Connecticut: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1791.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-2)

Sojourner Truth
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Sojourner Truth.
Carte de visite, 1864.
Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6166 (3-11a)

Abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth was enslaved in New York until she was an adult. Born Isabella Baumfree around the turn of the nineteenth century, her first language was Dutch. Owned by a series of masters, she was freed in 1827 by the New York Gradual Abolition Act and worked as a domestic. In 1843 she believed that she was called by God to travel around the nation--sojourn--and preach the truth of his word. Thus, she believed God gave her the name, Sojourner Truth. One of the ways that she supported her work was selling these calling cards.

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Sojourner Truth.
Carte de visite (seated), 1864.
Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6165 (3-11b)

Woman to Woman
The Negro Woman's Appeal to Her White Sisters.
[London]: Richard Barrett, [1850].
Printed Ephemera Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-12)

Ye wives and ye mothers, your influence extend--
Ye sisters, ye daughters, the helpless defend--
The strong ties are severed for one crime alone,
Possessing a colour less fair than your own.
Abolitionists understood the power of pictorial representations in drawing support for the cause of emancipation. As white and black women became more active in the 1830s as lecturers, petitioners, and meeting organizers, variations of this female supplicant motif, appealing for interracial sisterhood, appeared in newspapers, broadsides, and handicraft goods sold at fund-raising fairs.

Harriet Tubman--the Moses of Her People

The quote below, echoing Patrick Henry, is from this biography of underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman:

Harriet was now left alone, . . . She turned her face toward the north, and fixing her eyes on the guiding star, and committing her way unto the Lord, she started again upon her long, lonely journey. She believed that there were one or two things she had a right to, liberty or death.

After making her own escape, Tubman returned to the South nineteen times to bring over three hundred fugitives to safety, including her own aged parents.

In a handwritten note on the title page of this book, Susan B. Anthony, who was an abolitionist as well as a suffragist, referred to Tubman as a "most wonderful woman."

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Sarah H. Bradford.
Harriet, the Moses of Her People.
New York: J. J. Little & Co., 1901.
Susan B. Anthony Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-21)

Increasing Tide of Anti-slavery Organizations
Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention.
Philadelphia, December 4, 1833.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-3)

In 1833, sixty abolitionist leaders from ten states met in Philadelphia to create a national organization to bring about immediate emancipation of all slaves. The American Anti-slavery Society elected officers and adopted a constitution and declaration. Drafted by William Lloyd Garrison, the declaration pledged its members to work for emancipation through non-violent actions of "moral suasion," or "the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love." The society encouraged public lectures, publications, civil disobedience, and the boycott of cotton and other slave-manufactured products.

William Lloyd Garrison--Abolitionist Strategies
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William L. Garrison.
"Sonnet to Liberty."
Manuscript, December 14, 1840.
Manuscript Division. (3-19a)

White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, born in 1805, had a particular fondness for poetry, which he believed to be "naturally and instinctively on the side of liberty." He used verse as a vehicle for enhancing anti-slavery sentiment. Garrison collected his work in Sonnets and Other Poems (1843).

During the 1840s, abolitionist societies used song to stir up enthusiasm at their meetings. To make songs easier to learn, new words were set to familiar tunes. This song by William Lloyd Garrison has six stanzas set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne."

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William L. Garrison.
"Song of the Abolitionist."
November 10, 1841.
Manuscript Division. (3-19b)

Popularizing Anti-Slavery Sentiment

Slave Stealer Branded

Massachusetts sea captain Jonathan Walker, born in 1790, was apprehended off the coast of Florida for attempting to carry slaves who were members of his church denomination to freedom in the Bahamas in 1844. He was jailed for more than a year and branded with the letters "S.S." for slave stealer. The abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized Walker's deed in this often reprinted verse: "Then lift that manly right hand, bold ploughman of the wave! Its branded palm shall prophesy, 'Salvation to the Slave!'"

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John G. Whittier.
"The Branded Hand."
Philadelphia, ca. 1845.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-15)

Abolitionist Songsters
George W. Clark.
The Liberty Minstrel.
New York: Leavitt & Alden [et al.], 1844.
Music Division. (3-17)

George W. Clark's, The Liberty Minstrel, is an exception among songsters in having music as well as words. "Minstrel" in the title has its earlier meaning of "wandering singer." Clark, a white musician, wrote some of the music himself; most of it, however, consists of well-known melodies to which anti-slavery words have been written. The book is open to a page containing lyrics to the tune of "Near the Lake," which appeared earlier in this exhibit (section 1, item 22) as "Long Time Ago." Note that there is an anti-slavery poem on the right-hand page. Like many songsters, The Liberty Minstrel contains an occasional poem.

Abolitionist Songsters

Music was one of the most powerful weapons of the abolitionists. In 1848, William Wells Brown, abolitionist and former slave, published The Anti-Slavery Harp, "a collection of songs for anti-slavery meetings," which contains songs and occasional poems. The Anti-Slavery Harp is in the format of a "songster"--giving the lyrics and indicating the tunes to which they are to be sung, but with no music. The book is open to the pages containing lyrics to the tune of the "Marseillaise," the French national anthem, which to 19th-century Americans symbolized the determination to bring about freedom, by force if necessary.

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The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-slavery Meetings.
Compiled by William Wells Brown.
Boston: Bela Marsh, 1848.
Music Division. (3-16)

Suffer the Children
The Child's Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children. . . .
New York: Carlton and Porter, 1859.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division. (3-13)

This abolitionist tract, distributed by the Sunday School Union, uses actual life stories about slave children separated from their parents or mistreated by their masters to excite the sympathy of free children. Vivid illustrations help to reinforce the message that black children should have the same rights as white children, and that holding humans as property is "a sin against God."

Abolition, Antislavery Movements, and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era | WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Search