The word, “abolitionist,” had different meanings at different times in U.S. history. When state societies, such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Virginia Abolition Society, were formed in the 1780s, their purpose was to abolish slavery through public legislative action and private manumission. Yet, they imagined that emancipation leading to the abolition of slavery would be gradual, perhaps taking a generation. Abolitionist societies faded and antislavery lost energy in the early 1800s. It was revived by Congressional political debates on the future of U.S. territories and by the voices and actions of both free and enslaved blacks, especially as they responded to the American Colonization Society in the 1820s.
It is both customary and convenient to date abolitionism from the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, published in Boston on January 1, 1831. Garrison had begun as a gradual emancipationist, sympathetic to African colonization, but he was later persuaded by black friends to “immediatism” which meant calling for the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all slaves. Beginning in the early 1830s, support for this idea became the new definition of abolitionism. In the same year that Garrison began his newspaper, an event occurred which electrified the South and made the southern reaction to abolitionism even more hostile.
The fear of slave revolts hung over the slaveholding sections of the United States, especially where the black population was equal to or more numerous than the white population and that fear controlled much of daily life in those regions. Slave patrols and armed militia routinely stopped blacks and demanded passes. Free blacks had to carry their papers with them. During the colonial era and throughout the period of the Revolution, many whites had not been surprised by the facts of runaways or conspiracies. They expected slaves to revolt if they were given the opportunity. They tried to limit these opportunities. Later, in the 19th century, the comforting belief grew among whites that enslaved blacks would not resist their condition if they were not encouraged to do so. Southern whites then passed laws to prevent enslaved blacks from learning to read and write or to hear black preachers without a white person present.
Despite the persistent fear of rebellion in the U.S. South and historic evidence for several dozen conspiracies, only a few slave rebellions actually occurred. Most were betrayed while they were still plots. In 1712, slaves and Indians began an insurrection in New York City, setting fires and murdering whites. Slaves led the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, a rebellion on a Louisiana sugar plantation in 1811, and Nat Turner’s Revolt in Virginia in 1831. Typically, slaves fashioned weapons from tools made into swords and scythes, and they managed to acquire a few guns. Thus armed, they went from household to household, scattering and murdering whites, until a larger and better-armed force of militia or other military force caught up to them.
Nat Turner’s Revolt followed this pattern. It was the most destructive of the three. Turner and five other slaves began, on Sunday evening, August 21, 1831, a rebellion that started with the murder of Turner’s master’s family. As the group traveled through the farm neighborhoods of Southampton County, Virginia, their numbers grew to nearly sixty. They left behind them at least fifty-seven whites—men, women, and children—dead. After several days, Turner’s band was hunted down and destroyed, although Nat escaped and hid for some weeks before being found.
In his confession, dictated to Thomas Gray, Turner said that his revolt was not the result of harsh treatment, but that it was divine retribution for the many injustices which whites had committed on blacks. The governor of Virginia quickly blamed “Yankees” in general and the Garrisonian abolitionists in particular, black preachers, and soft-hearted women who had taught blacks to read the Bible. However, he did admit that there was no way to truly prevent slave revolts. There were only two alternatives. One was to emancipate all the slaves. The other was to exert more control over their actions in an effort to quash all independent thought and action. Virginia, and the South, chose the option of maintaining slavery and attempting to control and justify it.
Nat Turner’s rebellion showed the North the level of anger among slaves. The rebellion also showed the South its vulnerability. It marked the beginning of a period in which slave escapes and rebellions received financial and legal support from sympathetic northerners. A well-known example occurred in 1839. In the heat and darkness of a June night, several hundred captured Africans were unloaded onto the shores of Cuba from a Portuguese slave ship. There, hurried transactions took place. Small groups of Africans were hastened away to other ships. Fifty-three of the captives were forced onto the Amistad. They had been bought by two Spaniards. They were being transported to a nearby plantation.
A mutiny on the Amistad took place a few days after leaving the Cuban beach. Led by Singbe Pieh, or Joseph Cinque, the Africans freed themselves from their irons, and then demanded that the Spaniards who had purchased them sail them back to Africa. The Spaniards, however, cruised up the U.S. coast. Forced to anchor and seek supplies, the rebels were captured by an American ship off Long Island and brought to New London, Connecticut.
Their trial in the Connecticut courts attracted national attention. The Spaniards claimed that the Africans were their legal property and should be tried for murder. The Africans won support from American abolitionists who raised funds for their defense and sympathy from much of the American public. Their case was tried in January, 1840, in U.S. District Court. It ruled that the Africans had been illegally captured and sold and that they had a right to rebel. On the other hand, the judge determined that a slave to the ship’s captain had to be returned to Cuba, thus upholding the institution of slavery.
The U.S. government was not prepared for this verdict. President Martin Van Buren had argued for a return to Spanish territory for the Africans. A ship was waiting to return them to Cuba before an appeal was possible, but it was the U.S. government that was forced to appeal. Some months later, John Quincy Adams defended the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite a preponderance of southerners on the court, that body upheld the lower court ruling. The Africans were freed. Money was raised to return them to Africa. Antonio, the ship captain’s slave, was spirited away to Africa by abolitionists. In November 1841, the remaining 35 Africans left the port of New York for Sierra Leone. The Amistad mutiny had demonstrated once again the resistance of Africans to slavery and the deep divisions in American society about this “peculiar institution.”
1. What did “immediatism” mean?
a. compensation for slave states
b.gradual emancipation for slaves in certain states
c. immediate emancipation of all slaves
d.the position of being sympathetic to African colonization
2. Why did southern whites prohibit slaves from learning to read and write?
a. They thought that only wealthy people have the right to education.
b. In the everyday lives of working slaves, there was no time to do such things.
c. Literacy gives people a sense of personal power and dignity.
d. The whites feared that educating blacks would be too expensive.
3. Why did Nat Turner start a revolt?
a. He didn’t have enough work to do.
b. The idea had come from some fellow slaves.
c. Life was dull and some excitement was needed.
d. He wanted to be free from oppression.
4. The Amistad was a ship that held
b. illegal slaves.
c. free Africans.
d. all of the above.
5. Why did the U.S. Supreme Court declare that the Amistad people were free?
a. They had jettisoned the cargo sent by Spanish merchants.
b. They had been illegally kidnapped from Africa.
c. They had become the property of the United States.
d. They were considered as property stolen from Cuba.
6. In the United States, the abolitionist era included a series of events that eventually led first to the Civil War and then to emancipation for the slaves. Using the text you have just read, choose two events from this time period that you think were important. For each event, explain its significance and tell why you chose it.