The North: Antislavery Societies and
The age of active and organized antislavery societies began in the early 1830s. In 1832, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed. Within five years, it had several hundred local chapters, primarily in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. In New York, Lewis and Arthur Tappan dominated the society. In Ohio, Theodore Dwight Weld was a charismatic and confrontational leader. In late 1833, black abolitionists and the man they had converted from African colonizationism, William Lloyd Garrison, formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. This group had, as associate members, interracial female antislavery societies in Philadelphia and Boston.
The American Anti-Slavery Society advocated the dissolution of the Union as the only means of removing Northern support for slavery and forcing emancipation. Most of the Garrisonians were pacifists who rejected all violent means of ending slavery. They were as suspicious of organized religion as they were of the government and, for the next two decades, they explored utopian communities and women’s rights. They were “non-resisters” who did not participate in politics and did not even vote under what they believed to be a fatally flawed constitution and government.
Religiously motivated abolitionists constituted a much larger group. They were organized loosely into the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society from 1840 until the mid-1850s. Political abolitionists were closely aligned with the church-based group. They were themselves divided into three regional factions. The most radical of these political abolitionists, who urged political action against slavery, was the faction organized around Gerrit Smith in upstate New York. They argued that the United States Constitution, properly interpreted, prohibited slavery in the states and that the federal government had the power to abolish slavery in the South.
Another political faction, centered in Cincinnati, was first part of the Liberty Party and then of the Free Soil Party. Both of these were third-party movements designed to force the major parties to end slavery.
The third political group was made up of Boston-area abolitionists who could not support Garrison. Most of the political abolitionists found their way into the new Republican Party, organized in 1854.
Black abolitionists, who had sought white allies, sometimes felt that they were kept on the margins of the movement they had sustained and promoted for many years. In addition, black and white abolitionists differed over tactics; they were divided over issues of concrete and practical change through politics and direct action. These divisions did not run neatly along racial lines, but white abolitionists had, more frequently, come to abolitionism through benevolence. They saw antislavery as part of a larger human reform movement.
Blacks saw the fight for an end to slavery as the first priority. Increasingly, free blacks had their own meetings and read newspapers published by African Americans, such as Samuel Cornish’s Colored American and Frederick Douglass’s Paper. The argument over which set of abolitionist tactics was more productive sometimes obscured the fact that the abolitionist movement, with all its divisions, was extremely effective.
Not all abolitionists favored encouraging fugitive slaves. Some believed that fugitives would always be a minor issue in the greater struggle for the emancipation of all those in slavery. They disapproved of money raised for escaped slaves and believed that the money might be better spent on political action. Still, even those who were not enthusiastic about the Underground Railroad were almost always willing to help when they encountered a fugitive. This impulse to help was heightened by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Now white abolitionists and the white population in general saw runaways in their struggle to escape police and slave catchers. In this climate, more turned to aiding runaways.
In the meantime, those who developed vigilance committees to prevent the kidnapping of northern free blacks (and the re-enslavement of successful runaways) learned to turn the Fugitive Slave Law to their own ends by widely publicizing the stories of fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad. Certain fugitive stories—those of Henry “Box” Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass, among others—became nationally famous. Free blacks played the most central role in aiding fugitive bondspeople and in the protection of free blacks likely to be kidnapped and sold in the South.
Vigilance committees were organized in most northern cities. The first was in New York City in 1835. Both black and white abolitionists organized it. Most vigilance committees were dominated by African Americans. They supplied fugitives with lodging, clothing, and small sums of money. They assisted runaways in establishing new homes, finding work, and perhaps connecting with family members.
In 1837, Philadelphia abolitionists of both races organized a vigilance committee and a Female Vigilant Association was convened the next year. The relationship between the two was very close. Black officers of the vigilance committee were James McCrummell, president, Jacob C. White, secretary, and James Needham, treasurer. Two of the female association’s four officers—Elizabeth White and Sarah McCrummell—were spouses of the men.
After an anti-black riot in Philadelphia in 1842, the vigilance committee slowly lost central direction. It was reorganized in 1852 as the General Vigilance Committee. This group devoted itself to support the Underground Railroad. William Still was its chairman. Under his active leadership, Philadelphia became a mecca for fugitive slaves and many famous cases, such as those of Henry “Box” Brown and William and Ellen Craft, passed through his office.
The Boston Vigilance Committee was founded in late 1842 as a result of the failed escape of slave John Torrence. He was a stowaway from New Bern, North Carolina, and was not permitted to debark in Boston. Most of Boston’s leading black and white abolitionists were on the committee. The records of the committee indicate that many black women and black workers, who were not committee members, aided escapees and were reimbursed for their expenses. The avowed commitment of the vigilance committee, influenced by the Garrisonians, to use only “legal, peaceful, and Christian methods and none other” came hard up against the Supreme Court decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that the free states could not legislate to deprive a slave owner of his property. This invalidated the North’s personal liberty laws. In Boston it caused blacks to form the New England Freedom Association. Its goal was continuing to aid fugitives, despite some loss of legal status.
In that same year, George Latimer, a slave in Norfolk, escaped to Boston with his family. His owner, James B. Gray, followed him and had him jailed. The entire state, and especially Boston, was in an uproar over Latimer and the implications of the Prigg decision. While Latimer’s freedom had been purchased, a more far-reaching effect was the passage of a Massachusetts personal liberty law in 1843; this set the state at odds with the United States Supreme Court and drew the lines between North and South ever tighter.
Non-resistance in Boston grew weaker when the Fugitive Slave Law went into effect. Shadrach Minkins, a runaway from Norfolk to Boston, was arrested. He was then rescued from a Boston courtroom. In 1854, an unsuccessful attempt to rescue fugitive Anthony Burns from a court hearing left both those willing to fight and the non-resisters frustrated. Garrisonians moved closer to disunionism, burning the Fugitive Slave Law, the Burns court decision, and the U.S. Constitution on the Fourth of July, 1854. In 1851, blacks in Christiana, Pennsylvania, shot to death a federal marshal who was attempting to seize a suspected runaway.
Many smaller towns in Pennsylvania held free black communities. Legend holds that Columbia, Pennsylvania—a town settled by free blacks from Virginia and located twenty miles north of the Maryland border on the east bank of the Susquehanna River—was a prime source of aid to runaway slaves. Christiana, Pennsylvania and York, Pennsylvania—located relatively close to the Maryland border—were renowned as transit points for fugitives. William C. Goodridge, a black barber in York, was reputed to have sent many fugitives on to William Still.
Black abolitionists in these and other Pennsylvania and New York towns included David and Philip Rodrick in Williamsport, John W. Jones in Elmira, New York, Reverend Henry Highland Garnett in Troy and Frederick Douglass in Rochester. William Wells Brown moved to Buffalo in 1834 and began to aid runaways crossing the Great Lakes to Canada. Because he worked on lake steamers, he was able to aid fugitives waiting for passage from Cleveland and Detroit, as well as from Buffalo. Of the regular participation of these men in the Underground Railroad, there can be no doubt.
1. Which of the following words best describes the leanings of those who agreed with William Lloyd Garrison’s methods? a. radical b. political c. pacifist d. religious
2. For which of the following did Gerrit Smith and his abolitionist group argue?
a. Slaves should revolt against their owners.
b. Correctly understood, the Constitution prohibited slavery.
c. No political action should be taken about the issue of slavery.
d. The North should resort to violence to free the slaves.
3. Why did some abolitionist groups discourage fugitive aid?
a. These groups were not interested in runaways and their problems.
b. The focus of their efforts was the labor force of slaves working on the plantations.
c. They did not believe that the aid would actually reach the slaves.
d. They believed that any and all available resources should go to political action.
4. Which of the following was one duty of a vigilance committee?
a. to supply the runaway slaves with weapons
b. to help slaves come to a realization of their rights
c. to give food and shelter to the runaway slaves
d. to guide the northern abolitionists
5. Why did the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Law in 1843 set the North against the South?
a. Its provisions contradicted the Fugitive Slave Law.
b. It funded those who helped the runaway slaves.
c. In effect, it destroyed all the records of freed slaves in Massachusetts.
d. none of the above
6. Why were the antislavery societies so effective? Give two examples of the kinds of actions these groups took against slavery. Secondly, imagine that you were living in the middle of the nineteenth century. Which kind of society would you have joined—one that was pacifist or one that was more aggressive?