The Abolition of Slavery in America
Christians Against Slavery
The Christian tradition has always been against slavery. That is why slavery slowly disappeared across Christendom—Europe—in the early Middle Ages. Christendom became the first part of the world where slavery—an accepted institution as old as history itself—was ever abolished.
Christianity was the national religion of America. With some exceptions, Christians viewed slavery as an offense against God and against the nation. Christianity and slavery were incompatible. The Second Great Awakening sounded the death-knell of slavery in America.
The British had set the slaves free throughout its Empire in 1833. But in America the context was far different. The British freed 800,000 slaves who lived on islands in the West Indies—thousands of miles away from Britain—and the British Government compensated the owners of the slaves with 50 million dollars from the British Treasury (about half their market value).
The citizens of the American South had 3,000,000 slaves living among them. Furthermore, the slave owners were never offered any compensation. In fact, the slaves had been transported and sold to the South by Yankees and Europeans, who now demanded it set them free without compensation.
American Colonization Society
Samuel John Mills helped found the American Colonization Society in 1818. This organization found support from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and other prominent citizens.
The idea was to abolish slavery in America by transporting African slaves back to Africa, where they would be given assistance to settle and thrive, and thereby "transfer to Africa the blessings of religion and civilization."
Mills sailed to Africa to select an area for the settlement of freed black slaves. Mills negotiated with African chiefs and bought the land that soon became the nascent nation of Liberia. But he died of a fever on his way home, at only thirty-five years old.
The capital of Liberia—Monrovia—was named after U.S. President James Monroe. Many northerners saw deportation as the only way to quickly end slavery. They understood that southerners did not want millions of slaves set free in their midst who would pose a danger to their society.
It was not believed that blacks could ever achieve economic equality with whites, and that this would cause unending friction. It was universally understood that blacks were stronger physically but weaker intellectually. And they appeared to be prone to violence and sexual promiscuity.
There were a lot of white folks who thought it best for blacks to have their own country and see what they would make of it. Whites had forged an awesome nation out of a wilderness. Perhaps blacks could forge a great nation on the edge of the wilderness of Africa.
Many black ministers and free mixed-race men supported the "Back to Africa" idea. But after the offer was made by the American Colonization Society, the majority of blacks wanted no part of returning to a life in the jungle amongst wild animals. The black Americans who did decide to move to Liberia notably looked down on the native Africans as primitive savages.
African-American abolitionist David Walker wrote An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1829, which helped radicalize the abolition movement, and resoundingly rejected the whole "Back to Africa" concept.
Though Blacks did go to Liberia by the thousands, most of them wanted to become full-fledged American citizens and enjoy the enormous benefits of living in the greatest country ever to appear on the earth.
The Abolition Movement in America
The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833 to persuade Americans that "slavery is a heinous crime in the sight of God." Most Northerners wanted the South to set the slaves free, but rioted against the idea of granting Negroes equal rights in their own communities.
William Lloyd Garrison, son of a drunken sailor who had abandoned his family to poverty when William was twelve—but also the son of a pious Baptist mother—is a well known leader of the abolition movement. Garrison grew up to become an alienated, self-righteous, angry man. Garrison said of the slaves:
"He who denies them an opportunity to improve their faculties, comes into collision with Jehovah, and incurs a fearful responsibility."
Less well known today is Theodore Dwight Weld, son of a pastor, and a disciple of the great preacher Charles Grandison Finney. Weld's book Slavery as It is, published in 1839, sold over 100,000 copies and was the most influential book in the abolition movement.
The most influential abolitionist of all may have been this little remembered minister. Weld was a brilliant orator who preached a simple message: Slavery is a sin. He surely created the mass constituency for the abolition movement.
There were many nearly forgotten heroes, such as Samuel A. Smith, a white carpenter from Richmond, Virginia, who packed the slave Henry Brown into a crate and shipped him to freedom. Smith served eight years in prison for his efforts. Many Quakers played risky roles in the Underground Railroad and sheltered fugitive slaves in their homes.
The wealthy Gerrit Smith gave mountains of his money to buy freedom for slaves, what he called "ransom." He also bankrolled temperance societies and Sunday Schools for the poor.
Gerrit Smith owned a huge chunk of land near Lake Placid, New York. He published an offer of 40 acres of free land to any Negro family that wanted it. He had room for up to 3,000 Negro families; but only 30 accepted Smith's incredibly generous offer. Those who did accept named that settlement Timbucto.
John Brown was a fiercely angry man. Brown lived in poverty, failed in every business he tried, and had a daughter tragically scalded to death when she was a child.
Brown moved to Timbuktu and tried to live "as a negro." When that didn't work out, he decided to smuggle arms into Virginia and lead a band of black guerrillas against the U.S. Government. He would later go to the gallows for his crimes.
Frederick Douglass—who was half-white—was an angry, proud fighter for freedom. No American of his era was more eager to sit for portraits of himself, and the camera loved him. His voice was even more impressive.
Douglass was awakened to his purpose as a youth when he heard a Methodist minister preach that all men, slave or free, were equal in the eyes of God. Douglass later married a white feminist, which started an alliance between black men and white feminists—both against their "common oppressor" the white man—that continues to this day.
After slavery ended, President Andrew Johnson wrote:
"I believe that man can be elevated; man can become more and more endowed with divinity; and as he does he becomes more God-like in his character and capable of governing himself. Let us go on elevating our people, perfecting our institutions, until democracy shall reach such a point of perfection that we can acclaim with truth that the voice of the people is the voice of God."
Western Christian Civilization Did Not Invent Slavery But Abolished it
What is distinctively Christian and Western is not slavery but the movement to end slavery. Abolition is a uniquely Christian institution that only appeared in Western Civilization.
Never in the history of the world, outside of the West, has a group of people eligible to be slave owners mobilized against slavery. People were willing to expend considerable treasure, and ultimately blood, to get rid of slavery not for themselves but for other people.
Slavery has existed from the dawn of human history, in the most primitive of human societies and in the most civilized. The Chinese, the Indians, and the Arabs all had slaves. Slavery was widespread in Africa, and American Indians had slaves long before Columbus came to the New World.