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Chapter 2: the Abolitionists — who and what they were

In selecting those who are to receive its remembrance and its honors, the world has always given its preference to such as have battled for freedom. It may have been with the sword; it may have been with the pen; or it may have been with a tongue that was inflamed with holy rage against tyranny and wrong; but whatever the instrumentality employed; in whatever field the battle has been fought; and by whatsoever race, or class, or kind of men; the champions of human liberty have been hailed as the bravest of the brave and the most worthy to receive the acclaims of their fellows.

Now, if that estimate be not altogether inaccurate, what place in the scale of renown must be assigned to those pioneers in the successful movement against African slavery in this country who have commonly been known as “Abolitionists” --a name first given in derision by their enemies? It should, in the opinion of the writer hereof, be the very highest. He is not afraid to challenge the whole record of human achievements by great and good men (always save and except that which is credited to the Saviour of mankind) for exhibitions of heroism superior to theirs. Nay, when it is remembered that mainly [16] through their efforts and sacrifices was accomplished a revolution by which four million human beings (but for the Abolitionists the number to-day in bondage would be eight millions) were lifted from the condition in which American slaves existed but a few years ago, to freedom and political equality with their former masters; and, at the same time when it is considered what qualities of heart and brain were needed for such a task, he does not believe that history, from its earliest chapters, furnishes examples of gods or men, except in very rare and isolated cases, who have shown themselves to be their equals.

In the matter of physical courage they were unsurpassed, unsurpassable. A good many of them were Quakers and non-resistants, and a good many of them were women, but they never shrank from danger to life and limb, when employed in their humanitarian work. Some of them achieved the martyr's crown.

In the matter of conscience they were indomitable. Life to them was worth less than principle.

In the matter of money they were absolutely unselfish. Those of them who were poor, as the most of them were, toiled on without the hope of financial recompense. They did their work not only without the promise or prospect of material reward of any kind, but with the certainty of pains and penalties that included the ostracism and contempt of their fellows, and even serious risks to property and life.

All these sacrifices were in the cause of human liberty; but of liberty for whom? That is the crucial point. In all ages there have been plenty of [17] men who have honorably striven for liberty for themselves. Some there have been who have risen to higher planes. We have an example in Lafayette. He fought to liberate a people who were foreign in language and blood; but they were of his own color and the peers of his compatriots.

The Abolitionists, however, espoused the cause, and it was for that that they endured so much, of creatures that were infinitely below them; of beings who had ceased to be recognized as belonging to humanity, and were classed with the cattle of the field and other species of “property.” So low were they that they could neither appreciate nor return the services rendered in their behalf. For their condition, the Abolitionists were in no sense responsible. They had no necessary fellowship with the unfortunates. They were under no especial obligation to them. They were not of the same family. It was even doubted whether the races had a common origin. And yet, to the end of securing release for these wretched victims of an intolerable oppression, not a few of them dedicated all they possessed-life not excepted.

True it is that they had no monopoly of benevolence. Many noble men and women have gone as missionaries to the poor and benighted, and have sought through numerous hardships and perils to raise up those who have been trodden in the dust. But, as a rule, their services have been rendered pursuant to a secular employment that carried financial compensation, and behind their devotion to the poor and oppressed has been the expectation of personal reward in another world, if not in this. [18] But such motives barely, if at all, influenced the Abolitionists. No element of professionalism entered into their work. They were not particularly religious. They neither very greatly reverenced nor feared the Church, whose leaders they often accused of a hankering for the “flesh-pots” that induced them to lead their followers into Egypt, rather than out of it. They were partly moved by a hatred of slavery and its long train of abuses that was irrepressible, and which to most persons was incomprehensible, and partly by a love for their fellows in distress that was so insistent as to make them forget themselves. Their impulses seemed to be largely intuitive, if not instinctive, and if called upon for a philosophical explanation they could not have given it.

In such a struggle for freedom and natural human rights as was carried on by the Abolitionists against tremendous odds and through a term covering many long years, it does seem to the writer of this essay that mortal heroism reached its height.

Nor am I by any means alone in the opinion just expressed. As far back as 1844, when the Abolitionists were few in number and the objects of almost savage persecution in every part of our country, the Earl of Carlisle, who, in his day was one of the most capable leaders of British public opinion, declared that they were engaged “in fighting a battle without a parallel in the history of ancient or modern heroism.”

I am moved to write the story of the Abolitionists, partly because it is full of romantic interest, and partly because justice demands it. Those doughty [19] file leaders in the Anti-Slavery fight do not to-day have an adequate acknowledgment of the obligations that the country and humanity should recognize as belonging to them, and they never have had it. Much of the credit that is fairly theirs has been misapplied. Writers of history-so called, although much of it is simple eulogy — have been more and more inclined to attribute the overthrow of slavery to the efforts of a few men, and particularly one man, who, after long opposition to, or neglect of, the freedom movement, came to its help in the closing scenes of a great conflict, while the earlier, and certainly equally meritorious, workers and fighters have been quite left out of the account. The writer does not object to laborers who entered the field at the eleventh hour, sharing with those who bore the heat and burden of the day; but when there is a disposition to give to them all the earnings he does feel like protesting.

The case of the Abolitionists is not overstated when it is said that, but for their labors and struggles, this country, instead of being all free, would to-day be all slaveholding. The relative importance of their work in creating, by means of a persistent agitation, an opposition to human slavery that was powerful enough to compel the attention of the public and force the machine politicians, after long opposition, to admit the question into practical politics, cannot well be overestimated.

They alone and single-handed fought the opening battles of a great war, which, although overshadowed and obscured by later and more dramatic events, were none the less gallantly waged and nobly won. [20] It is customary to speak of our Civil War as a four years conflict. It was really a thirty years war, beginning when the pioneer Abolitionists entered the field and declared for a life-and-death struggle. It was then that the hardest battles were fought.

I write the more willingly because comparatively few now living remember the mad excitement of the slavery controversy in ante-bellum days. The majority — the living and the working masses of to-day --will, doubtless, be gratified to have accurate pictures of scenes and events of which they have heard their seniors speak, that distinguished the most tempestuous period in our national history — the one in which the wildest passions were aroused and indulged. Then it was that the fiercest and bitterest agitation prevailed. The war that followed did not increase this. It rather modified it-sobered it in view of the crisis at hand-and served as a safety-valve for its escape.

For the same reason, the general public has now but slight comprehension of the trials endured by the Abolitionists for principle's sake. In many ways were they persecuted. In society they were tabooed; in business shunned. By the rabble they were hooted and pelted. Clowns in the circus made them the subjects of their jokes. Newspaper scribblers lampooned and libelled them. Politicians denounced them. By the Church they were regarded as very black sheep, and sometimes excluded from the fold. And this state of things lasted for years, during which they kept up a steady agitation with the help of platform lecturers, and regularly threw [21] away their votes-so it was charged — in a “third party” movement that seemed to be a hopeless venture.

Another inducement to the writer to take up the cause of the Abolitionists is the fact that he has always been proud to class himself as one of them. He came into the world before Abolitionism, by that name, had been heard of; before the first Abolition Society was organized; before William Lloyd Garrison founded his Liberator, and before (not the least important circumstance) John Quincy Adams entered Congress. He cannot remember when the slavery question was not discussed. His sympathies at an early day went out to the slave. He informed himself on the subject as well as a farmer boy might be expected to do in a household that received the most of its knowledge of current events from the columns of one weekly newspaper. He cast his first vote for the ticket of the Abolitionists while they were yet a “third party.”

The community in which he then lived, although in the free State of Ohio, was strongly pro-slavery, being not far from the Southern border. The population was principally from Virginia and Kentucky. There were a few Abolitionists, and they occasionally tried to hold public meetings, but the gatherings were always broken up by mobs.

The writer very well remembers the satisfaction with which he, as a schoolboy, was accustomed to hear that there was to be another Abolition “turnout.” The occasion was certain to afford considerable excitement that was dear to the heart of a boy, and it had another recommendation. The only [22] room in the village-“town” we called it — for such affairs, except the churches, which were barred against “fanatics,” was the district schoolhouse, which, by common consent, was open to all comers, and as the windows and doors, through which missiles were hurled during Anti-Slavery gatherings, were always more or less damaged, “we boys” usually got a holiday or two while the building was undergoing necessary repairs.

As might be surmised, the lessons I learned at school were not all such as are usually acquired at such institutions. My companions were like other children, full of spirit and mischief, and not without their prejudices. They hated Abolitionists because they — the Abolitionists-wanted to compel all white people to marry “niggers.” Although not naturally unkind, they did not always spare the feelings of “the son of an old Abolitionist.” We had our arguments. Some of them were of the knock-down kind. In more than one shindy, growing out of the discussion of the great question of the day, I suffered the penalty of a bloody nose or a blackened eye for standing up for my side.

The feeling against the negroes' friends — the Abolitionists — was not confined to children in years. It was present in all classes. It entered State and Church alike, and dominated both of them. The Congressional Representative from the district in which I lived in those days was an able man and generally held in high esteem. He made a speech in our village when a candidate for re-election. In discussing the slavery question — everybody discussed it then-he spoke of the negroes as being “on [23] the same footing with other cattle.” I remember the expression very well because it shocked me, boy that I was. It did not disturb the great majority of those present, however. They cheered the sentiment and gave their votes for the speaker, who was re-elected by a large majority.

About the same time I happened to be present where a General Assembly of one of our largest religious denominations was in session, and listened to part of an address by a noted divine — the most distinguished man in the body — which was intended to prove that slavery was an institution existing by biblical authority. He spent two days in a talk that was mostly made up of scriptural texts and his commentaries upon them. This was in Ohio, and there was not a slave-owner in the assembly, and yet a resolution commendatory of the views that had just been declared by the learned doctor, was adopted by an almost unanimous vote.

In the neighborhood in which I lived was an old and much respected clergyman who was called upon to preach a sermon on a day of some national significance. He made it the occasion for a florid panegyric upon American institutions, which, he declared, assured freedom to all men. Here he paused, “When I spoke of all men enjoying freedom under our flag,” he resumed, “I did not, of course, include the Ethiopians whom Providence has brought to our shores for their own good as well as ours. They are slaves by a divine decree. As descendants of Ham, they are under a curse that makes them the servants of their more fortunate white brethren.” Having thus put himself right on the record, he [24] proceeded with his sermon. No one seemed to take exception to what he said.

In the same neighborhood was a young preacher who had shortly before come into it from somewhere farther North. In the course of one of his regular services he offered up a prayer in which he expressed the hope that the good Lord would find a way to break the bands of all who were in bondage. That smacked of Abolitionism and at once there was a commotion. The minister was asked to explain. This he declined to do, saying that his petition was a matter between him and his God, and he denied the right of others to question him. That only increased the opposition, and in a short time the spunky young man was compelled to resign his charge.

About that time there appeared a lecturer on slavery — which meant against slavery — who carried credentials showing that he was a clergyman in good standing in one of the leading Protestant denominations. In our village was a church of that persuasion, whose pastor was not an Abolitionist. As in duty bound, the visiting brother called on his local fellow-laborer, and informed him that on the following day, which happened to be Sunday, he would be pleased to attend service at his church. On the morrow he was on hand and occupied a seat directly in front of the pulpit; but, notwithstanding his conspicuousness, the home minister, who should, out of courtesy, have invited him to a seat in the pulpit, if to no other part in the services, never saw him. He looked completely over his head, keeping his eyes, all through the exercises, fixed upon the back pews, [25] which happened, on that occasion, to be chiefly unoccupied.

Such incidents, of themselves, were of no great importance. Their significance was in the fact that they all occurred on the soil of a free State. They showed the state of feeling that then and there existed.

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