The early antislavery movement includes the early abolitionist societies (1780s–1812), which were present in almost every state, and the religious antislavery movement, which began to be significant in the mid-1700s. The movement also includes free blacks who made political and practical economic efforts to encourage emancipation, to end the slave trade, and, ultimately, to abolish slavery in the new American republic.
The early antislavery movement and the early resistance to slavery in the British colonies (1600s–1700s) are both precursors to the Underground Railroad. One example of early resistance would be African-American war-related efforts to leave the United States during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; to sue for freedom on the basis of military service; and to organize slave rebellions like the Stono Rebellion (1739), Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800), and that of Denmark Vesey (1823). In order to understand early antislavery and resistance, one should look at examples of slave and free black life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as at the circumstances that led many slaves to become runaways.
There are several intertwined strands in the early stages of the North American antislavery movement. In the British North American colonies, sentiment against slavery developed slowly throughout the years between 1680 and 1770 when the number of Africans arriving in the colonies was at its highest level and the importance of bonded labor to the colonial economy was growing. In the eighteenth century—the period of the most intense slave trading and transportation to North America—antislavery activity focused on ending the slave trade.
After the Enlightenment philosophy had grown in mid-eighteenth-century France, it soon began spreading rapidly to England and to the colonies. It emphasized the innate abilities of each person and the limitless progress available to humanity through scientific study and rational thought. Its central premise was that each person and each society was capable of progress. In this way, the Enlightenment was frequently used as a rebuke to slaveholders and to nations involved in the slave trade. The Enlightenment philosophy was important in the development of American Revolutionary theory and the subsequent talk of “the rights of man.”
Another eighteenth-century strand, which also emphasized the dignity and decision-making capacity of each person, was the rise of evangelical religion. Beginning in the 1730s, a style of emotional preaching and a theology of direct and personal experience of God contributed to the waning power of state-sponsored denominations. The “Great Awakenings,” as these religious belief systems were styled, called into question the morality of slavery.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) in England was the first religious group to question the morality of human bondage. They came slowly, over a period of several generations in the eighteenth century, to view slavery as incompatible with membership in the Friends. Quakers began to divest themselves of slaves in the 1750s. Those who found they could not do this left the Society of Friends. By the nineteenth century, southern Quakers had begun to move west to escape the culture of slavery. Both those Quakers who remained in the south and those who moved to the midwestern states often took responsibility for aiding ex-slaves and they acquired a deserved reputation for assisting runaways.
The authority of the Church of England in the south and the Congregational (Puritan) Church in the north diminished, dispersed, and disappeared. Meanwhile, in the 1780s and 1790s, independent sections of Presbyterians and, more frequently, Baptists and Methodists attracted African-American converts in the north and south. Although this did not mean true equality of condition in these denominations, it did create a moral language against slavery and a philosophical underpinning for resistance.
A third strand was the rise of benevolent societies in England and America, made possible by a rising standard of living that had created a middle class with the time and money necessary to do good works. Ironically, much of that prosperity was based on slave labor. Benevolent societies were concerned with assisting the most powerless members of society; among those were persons held in bondage in England’s colonies. Abolitionist societies in England sparked abolitionist societies in the new United States. For some three decades after the American Revolution, it seemed possible that slavery might gradually be ended, even though the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 had guaranteed the rights of slave property to slaveholders.
When British North America severed ties with England, the slave trade between West Africa, the British West Indies, and North America was also officially broken. However, colonial American merchant shipping was prepared to expand its role and replace the British. At the same time, in the Revolutionary Era, the public debate in favor of liberty from England strengthened arguments against the slave trade and human bondage.
When legal codes were changed during the American Revolution, both the Continental Congresses and the individual states took the opportunity to condemn and restrict the slave trade. Reasons for condemning the slave trade varied. Slavery was increasingly attacked as a moral evil by religious and benevolent societies. Parts of the south feared slave insurrections if the numbers of Africans grew to be much greater than the white population; it appeared that the enslaved population could sustain itself and increase in numbers without significant importations. To want to end the slave trade, however, was not necessarily to favor an end to slavery. Here the colonies divided.
The American Revolution (1775–1783) and the subsequent adoption of the Constitution (1787) challenged slavery in at least two ways. First, the rhetoric and ideology of the American Patriots, especially as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, scorned slavery and affirmed human rights and dignity, a line of argument dangerous to the continued enslavement of Africans and yet not lost on them. Second, the Revolutionary battles themselves were fundamentally contradictory on the subject of slavery. Although nearly five thousand African Americans eventually served in the American Revolutionary forces, both the British and the American military were distinctly unenthusiastic about the prospect of African-American soldiers at the beginning of the war, fearing it would encourage slave insurrection. Nevertheless, military necessity prevailed; all the states but South Carolina and Georgia eventually enlisted slaves. In addition to those who enlisted as soldiers or sailors, others served as cooks, guides, spies, laborers, and body servants. Slaves who served in the latter capacities were to be freed, although some were tricked out of their freedom.
Although the British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to slaves who joined the British Army, the result of that call to arms was less than what African Americans had hoped for. Dunmore’s Act of 1774 was more a political and military tactic than a humanitarian act. Some eight hundred African-American men enlisted in an Ethiopian Regiment and three hundred took part in a battle. However, when Dunmore and his forces left Virginia, the two thousand African Americans who contrived to leave with them received little help from the British. Those who gave aid to or served with the British or ran to the British lines during the war—sometimes called “Black Loyalists”—had varied fates. Some shipped out to the Maritime Provinces of Canada (e.g., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick) near the conclusion of the Revolution; a number of those who had gone to Canada then went to Sierra Leone. Some were claimed by Loyalist slaveholders and some were sold in the British West Indies. Others were abandoned to find their own fates. Many of the runaways found new homes and remained undetected.
Since the Americans had argued for natural rights in their Declaration of Independence, there was some sentiment for ending the slave trade, although less political will for ending slavery. Ultimately, the Constitution did not follow up on the implications for “liberty” offered in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitutional Compromise of 1787 put an end to the slave trade by 1808, but the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 confirmed the rights of slaveholders to their property. Section 2, Article 4 of the Constitution referred to slavery without naming it when it said the following:
No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.
After the American Revolution, abolitionist societies were formed in every part of the United States. The American antislavery movement was modeled after the English antislavery movement from the adoption of the Constitution (1787) until the 1820s. English reformers—led by Quakers, evangelicals, and certain politicians—had organized in 1787 to abolish English participation in the international slave trade. The British reformers ended the slave trade by 1807 and ended slavery by 1833, giving compensation to slave owners. The Americans followed the British example by being in favor of gradually abolishing slavery and compensating slave owners for their losses. But it was the activities of American free blacks and the resistance to slavery of American slaves that provided the antislavery movement with its most tireless workers and its best reasons for persisting.
The American antislavery movement ultimately differed from the English experience in one great strength and one great difficulty not found in England. Its strength lay in the fact that the reasons for the American Revolution supplied a readymade set of legal arguments against slavery. Human bondage denied the very rights of man for which the revolution had been fought. This contradiction was felt very keenly for almost two generations after the revolution and was as important as the belief that slavery violated God’s law. The difficulty was that slavery was legal in the United States and much of the new nation’s economy depended on slave labor. The early abolitionist societies could not overcome the indifference of much of the public and the success of proslavery forces in congressional debates. The abolitionist societies met every year from 1794 to 1806. They experienced some success in promoting emancipation legislation in the north and laws to make manumission (the act of freeing slaves) easier in the south. However, they lost both membership and purpose as the price of slaves rose.
The results of the American Revolution did provide for significant growth in the free black community. Some slaves were freed for their service to the American forces. Many more were manumitted (freed from slavery or bondage) when southern state legislatures made emancipation easier for slave masters and when northern legislatures began a process of gradual emancipation for their states. The era from the American Revolution to the War of 1812 was the period of greatest opportunity to end slavery. However, a reaction to these efforts to encourage emancipation set in even before the War of 1812, perhaps because the price of slaves increased as cotton production became so profitable on the southern frontier.
Congress was divided over whether or not slavery should be extended into the territories; by extension, the north and south were similarly divided as their economies had developed in different directions. It soon became clear to all Americans that slavery would not simply fade away through individual emancipations and local legislation.
Southern whites were uneasy with the presence of free blacks among a large slave population, believing that if slaves could not see free blacks, they would not imagine them. As a result, southern states passed laws that required newly-emancipated blacks to leave their states. Still, even with restrictions on manumissions, the free black population grew nationally. In addition, in the south, some slaves were able to earn money to purchase their freedom.
Especially in urban areas, slaves picked up work for which they earned cash. Laborers might sell newspapers or sweep floors in a factory at night. Those who swept the floors in a tobacco factory were permitted to use the bits and pieces of tobacco their brooms found to make plugs of tobacco. Liberally sprinkled with licorice to cover the dusty taste, these plugs sold well. Enslaved artisans, such as blacksmiths, plasterers, or barbers, could work in their free time for pay. Due to the fact that slave labor was so desperately needed, few southerners attempted to keep the slaves out of the cash economy.
In some parts of the north, the end of legal slaveholding came with the adoption of new state constitutions. In Massachusetts in the 1780s, court challenges to slavery brought an unclear end to bondage when the court interpreted the state’s Bill of Rights and the new state constitution was adopted (1783). The Vermont constitution of 1777 specifically outlawed slavery while, in New Hampshire, an assumption that the 1783 constitution and bill of rights freed slaves was maintained in the law, although some persons remained in slavery at least through the 1790s.
Laws for the gradual abolition of slavery were passed by the state legislatures in Pennsylvania in the 1780s, in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784, and in New York in 1799. Connecticut adopted a gradual abolition law in 1784 and, in 1797, repealed the entire colonial slave code. When Connecticut enacted total abolition in 1848, there were still a few aged slaves, born before the first gradual emancipation act. Gradual abolition could take a long time; it could mean that infants and children served until they reached the age of thirty or that old persons remained in bondage if it appeared that they would have to be supported by the state.
Newport, Rhode Island’s prosperity was tied to slave trade shipping. Its citizens generally opposed the abolition of slavery. Their influence on the colonial and Revolutionary legislatures gave advocates of abolition, who were primarily Quakers, difficulty. As the Revolution ended in 1783, public feeling was strong enough to pass a gradual abolition plan that compensated slaveholders and did not significantly interfere with the slave trade.
New York was the first state to pass a law for the total abolition of slavery. In 1817, New York adopted an amendment to its original act of gradual emancipation and, as of July 4, 1827, freed all blacks born before July 4, 1799. The law provided for the retroactive and uncompensated emancipation of approximately ten thousand slaves who had not been freed by the earlier scheme of gradual emancipation.
Not all northern states were quick to abolish slavery. New Jersey did not adopt an abolition act until 1846. At that time, there were seven hundred slaves in the state, half over fifty-five years old. An apprenticeship system, designed to make masters pay for the upkeep of aged slaves, also kept blacks in involuntary servitude in New Jersey. In the 1860 census, there were still eighteen slaves. They were freed either by death or by the 13th Amendment in 1865, which liberated all those still living as slaves. The War of 1812 saw black enlistment in the U.S. Navy and two free black companies in the famous Battle of New Orleans. African-American men freely volunteered during the war, but their services were not readily accepted. Prior to the war, the United States maintained a standing army of fewer than seven thousand men. Such being the case, the country was dependent upon the various state militias to cope with military emergencies. The Federal Militia Act of May 7, 1792, said that every “true able-bodied white male citizen . . . who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years . . . shall be enrolled in the Militia . . . ”
Service by African Americans was not specified, so each state adapted its own interpretation. Many black volunteers served in state militias before the war, but their role was largely relegated to that of servants or laborers. However, the lack of military success in 1812 and 1813 soon changed perspectives. By 1814, northern states like Pennsylvania and New York were recruiting entire regiments of black troops. Even some southern states like Louisiana and North Carolina followed this trend.
Black enlistment in the U.S. Army was banned by law prior to and during the first year of the war. The U.S. Navy also issued directives against enrolling black sailors. Despite the ban, many naval recruiters ignored the prohibition. The social fabric of life at sea evolved differently from that on land. Seafaring was “a partly separate subculture with its own mores and traditions” which “could offer minority men opportunities not available in the mainstream.” Getting crewmen was ultimately the commanding officer’s responsibility. The availability of skilled seamen soon became more important than skin color. Black sailors served in the Quasi-War with France and the Tripolitan Wars against the Barbary pirates. Throughout the War of 1812, black seamen comprised 15–20 percent of all enlisted men on all ships and all stations in the navy.
Both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army were integrated during the War of 1812. On March 3, 1813, Congress passed an act officially opening the naval ranks to “ . . . citizens of the United States or persons of color, natives of the U. States . . . ” The U.S. Army followed suit shortly thereafter. By no means can it be said that equality or lack of prejudice existed, especially since both slavery and racism had become part of the U.S. Nevertheless, by 1814, black soldiers and sailors fought and died side by side in line of battle and on warship gun decks. Moreover, in official records and documentation, black soldiers and sailors were treated exactly the same as their white counterparts.
Thousands of slaves escaped to the British lines during the War of 1812, but the British made little military use of them. Perhaps the most important outcome of the War of 1812, relative to runaways, was when some African Americans and Native Americans occupied a “Negro Fort” at Prospect Bluff in Florida. Some of those who were looking for a safe place to hide in Florida had fought for the British in the War of 1812; therefore, when the British left, these same people occupied the former Fort Gadsden. It was a visible base from which to harass slaveholders. However, it did not last long. In July 1816, U.S. troops destroyed the fort and killed or enslaved the inhabitants.
In addition to the debate in the northern states over an end to slavery, the Confederation Congress in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance. It prohibited the introduction of slaves into the territory west of the Ohio River, which had once been claimed by Virginia. This area, which became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, was permanently free. The belief that slavery was a moral evil and the hope—held widely in the north and south during the early republic—that somehow the slavery issue might resolve itself as the American economy changed and as slaveholders were persuaded of the evils of slavery, disappeared after the bitter congressional fight over the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state in 1820. It was, as Thomas Jefferson claimed, “a firebell in the night.”
Jefferson had heard the firebell twenty years earlier when, as president of the United States, he learned the details of slave insurrection in his native Virginia. In the summer of 1800, a young man named Gabriel was owned by Thomas Prosser, Jr. Gabriel was frequently seen in the city of Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and the surrounding countryside, where he would talk to his fellow slaves after church services, at taverns, at Sunday barbeques, at a blacksmith’s forge, or where the fishermen clustered along the James River. As a blacksmith, he had considerable freedom of movement and few whites who saw him troubled their minds about him. They were aware of a time in 1799, however, that he created quite a stir when he bit off part of a white man’s ear in a fight.
Yet on an August Sunday, after a violent thunderstorm on Saturday night, the citizens of Richmond began to hear rumors of a slave insurrection that had been halted at the last possible moment. Virginia Governor James Monroe received reports that Gabriel, his brother Solomon, and numerous other young slave men and free blacks had organized a wide-ranging conspiracy and planned a revolt to take over the city of Richmond and free the slaves. Gabriel had planned to mount his own revolution for the freedom of enslaved Africans. He expected to negotiate with whites and even to end the revolution peacefully if white Richmonders would recognize black claims. That unlikely premise was never to be tested. Gabriel’s plot was disclosed by two slaves to their master. At the same time, the swollen creeks outside Richmond halted his advance toward the city on Saturday night. Over the next few days, most of the conspirators were arrested, although Gabriel stayed hidden on a commercial vessel in the James River for ten days, apparently protected by its white captain until betrayed by a slave on board.
The trials of the conspirators revealed their view of slavery. One described a piece of silk Gabriel intended to purchase on which to inscribe “death or Liberty” and noted that they planned to kill all whites except “Quakers, Methodists, and French people.” While the conspirators saw their actions as an extension of the Age of Revolution, white Virginians saw the nightmare of slave insurrection—recently acted out in Haiti—now at their doorstep. Virginia’s response was to hang many people, including Gabriel, and transport others to the West Indies for sale. Throughout the trials, Gabriel said nothing. He had reportedly said earlier that if the white people agreed to their freedom, then they would hoist a white flag, and he would dine and drink with the merchants of the city on the day when it should be agreed to.
Jefferson and his fellow Virginia revolutionaries were deeply and permanently disturbed by Gabriel’s rebellion. The fear of insurrection now hung over the south even as the north ended slavery. The results of this division would be seen after 1820.
1. Which of the following was not a militant antislavery movement?
a. the Stono Rebellion
b. Denmark Vesey’s rebellion
c. Gabriel’s Conspiracy
d. the Underground Railroad
2. In the eighteenth century, what was most important to those against slavery?
a. ending slave trading
b. catching runaway slaves
c. spreading evangelical religion
d. encouraging slaves to revolt
3. What effect did the Enlightenment have on the issue of slavery?
a. It tied slaves more closely to England and France.
b. It helped point out that even slaves had the ability to progress.
c. It changed the way people felt about the colonies.
d. It made people realize that slaveholders were capable of scientific study and rational thought.
4. What would be characteristic of evangelical religion?
a. state-sponsored services
b. speeches about personal religious experiences
c. members supportive of slavery
d. the absence of moral standards
5. What was the Quakers’ relationship to the slaves?
a. They feared them, so they left the south.
b. They took them to the midwestern states.
c. They helped them to escape and hide.
d. They supported human bondage, especially for slaves.
6. In the late eighteenth century, African Americans were mainly drawn to join the ________ Churches.
a. Society of Friends and Quakerb.Presbyterian and Congregationalc. Church of England and evangelicald.Methodist and Baptist
7. When the legal codes were changed during the Revolutionary War, why did some of the southern states speak out against the slave trade?
a. They were afraid of the possibility of slave revolt.
b. They were being worn down by the religious and benevolent societies.
c. They didn’t want anyone to know about their secret support of the slave trade.
d. They knew the slaves would only be able to create their own independent society if more Africans were imported to the colonies.
8. Why were the British and American military forces uneasy about having African-American soldiers?
a. They didn’t think they needed any extra soldiers.
b. They thought the African Americans might try to escape.
c. They were afraid the African Americans might decide to revolt.
d. The African Americans were too badly needed off the battlefield.
9. Who were “Black Loyalists”?
a. African Americans who were rewarded by the British
b. African Americans who helped the British during the Revolutionary War
c. African Americans whom Lord Dunmore had chosen in his Act of 1774
d. African Americans loyal to slave runaways
10. Which of the following best summarizes the point being made in Section 2, Article 4 of the Constitution?
a. Slaves who escape to another state must be returned to their original owners.
b. No one who lived in one state could escape to another.
c. By law, if a slave escaped, he or she was considered officially discharged from service.
d. If a slave wanted to work in another state as a slave, then he or she could not return to the state he or she had worked in.
11. What was the great strength that the author mentions when comparing America’s antislavery efforts to those of England?
a. Abolitionist societies met frequently between 1794 and 1806.
b. The public was indifferent to the topic.
c. As a result of the American Revolution, there were legal arguments against slavery.
d. Slavery was legal in the United States.
12. Why did southern states require free blacks to leave?
a. They did not want free blacks to be happy.
b. They did not think slaves should be exposed to free blacks.
c. They did not want any blacks in the south.
d. They knew that free blacks would try to hurt their former owners.
13. In which of the following states would you be most likely to find records of slaves having lived there in 1791?
b. New Hampshire
14. ________ had been declared permanently free.
a. Any slave living in Prospect Bluff
c. A slave who assisted the British during the War of 1812
d. The territory west of the Ohio River
15. In what way was Jefferson using the term, “firebell”?
b. loud noise
16. Gabriel swore to “drink with the merchants of the city” when
a. they threatened to hang him.
b. he was transported to the West Indies.
c. Haiti faced slave revolt.
d. white people agreed to let African Americans go free.
17. Describe the three strands the author believes to have been “intertwined” in the antislavery movement. Explain how each contributed.
18. Why do you think South Carolina and Georgia were the only states that did not enlist African-American soldiers during the Revolutionary War?
19. In what ways were Lord Dunmore’s actions “more a political and military tactic than a humanitarian act”?
20. Why do you think so many freed African Americans volunteered to join the U.S. military? What could some of the benefits have been?