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The turbulent politics of the present moment have reached far back into American history. Although not for the first time, the very character of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been thrown into question by the hideous reality of slavery, long before and then during the founding era and for eighty years thereafter; and then by slavery’s legacy. In this accounting, slavery appears not as an institution central to American history but as that history’s essence, the system of white supremacy and economic oligarchy upon which everything else in this country has been built, right down to the inequalities and injustices of today.
More than forty years ago, when a similar bleak pessimism was in the air, the pioneering African American historian Benjamin Quarles remarked on that pessimism’s distortions. The history of American slavery could never be properly grasped, Quarles wrote, “without careful attention to a concomitant development and influence — the crusade against it,” a crusade, he made clear, that commenced before the American Revolution. Quarles understood that examining slavery’s oppression without also examining the anti-slavery movement’s resistance to it simplifies and coarsens our history, which in turn coarsens our own politics and culture. “The anti-slavery leaders and their organizations tell us much about slavery,” he insisted — and, no less importantly, “they tell us something about our character asa nation.”
If we are to speak about the nation’s origins, we must get the origins right. As we continue to wrestle with the brutal, and soul-destroying power of racism in our society, it is essential that we recognize the mixed and mottled history upon which our sense of our country must rest. In judging a society, how do we responsibly assess its struggle against evil alongside the evil against which it struggles? With what combination of outrage and pride, alienation and honor, should we define our feelings about America?
On November 5, 1819, Elias Boudinot, the former president of the Continental Congress, ex-U.S. Congressman, and past director of the U.S. Mint, wrote to former President James Madison, enclosing a copy of the proceedings of a meeting held a week earlier in Trenton, New Jersey, opposing the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave state. The crisis over Missouri — which would lead to the famous Missouri Compromise the following year — had begun in the House of Representatives in February, but Congress had been out of session for months with virtually no sign of popular concern. In late summer, Boudinot, who was 79 and crippled by gout, mustered the strength to help organize a modest protest gathering in his hometown of Burlington, long a center of anti-slavery. The far larger follow-up meeting in Trenton was truly impressive, a “great Assemblage of persons” that included the governor of New Jersey and most of the state legislature. The main speaker, the Pennsylvania Congressman Joseph Hopkinson, who was also a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, had backed the House amendment that touched off the crisis, and his speech in Trenton, according to one report, “rivetted the attention of every auditor.” Boudinot, too ill to travel to the state capital, agreed nevertheless to chair a committee of correspondence that wrote to dozens of prominent men, including ex-President Madison, seeking their support.
If Madison ever responded to Boudinot’s entreaty, the letter has not survived, but no matter: Madison’s correspondence with another anti-slavery advocate made clear that he was not about to support checking the future of slavery in Missouri. Boudinot’s and the committee’s efforts did, however, meet with approval from antislavery notables such as John Jay. It also galvanized a multitude of anti-Missouri meetings all across the northern states, pressuring Congress to hold fast on restricting slavery’s spread. “It seems to have run like a flaming fire through our middle States and causes great anxiety,” Boudinot wrote to his nephew at the end of November. The proslavery St. Louis Enquirer complained two months later that the agitation begun in Burlington had reached “every dog-hole town and blacksmith’s village in the northern states.” The protests, the largest outpouring of mass antislavery opinion to that point in American history, were effective: by December, according to the New Hampshire political leader William Plumer, it had become “political suicide” for any free-state officeholder “to tolerate slavery beyond its present limits.”
Apart from indicating the scope and the fervor of popular antislavery opinion well before the rise of William Lloyd Garrison, two elements in this story connect in important ways to the larger history of the antislavery movement in the United States, one element looking forward from 1819, the other looking backward. Of continuing future importance was the breadth of the movement’s abolitionist politics, as announced in the circular of the Trenton mass meeting. Although it aimed, in this battle, simply to halt the extension of slavery, the anti-Missouri movement’s true aim, the circular announced, was nothing less than the complete destruction of slavery in the United States. “The abolition of slavery in this country,” it proclaimed, was one of “the anxious and ardent desires of the just and humane citizens of the United States.” It was not just a matter of requiring that Missouri enter as a free state: by blocking human bondage from “every other new state that may hereafter be admitted into the Union,” it would be only a matter of time before American slavery was eradicated. Just as important, the abolitionists took pains to explain that restricting slavery in this way fell within the ambit of Congress’ powers, “in full accordance with the principles of the Constitution.” Here lay the elements of the antislavery constitutionalism — asserting congressional authority over slavery in places under its jurisdiction — that would evolve, over the ensuing thirty-five years, into the Republican Party’s program to place slavery, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “in the course of ultimate extinction.”
The second connection, looking backward, was embodied by Elias Boudinot. Some historians have linked Boudinot’s antislavery enthusiasm in 1819 to his Federalist politics; more persuasive accounts see it as a natural outgrowth of a deeply religious humanitarianism that had led him, after his retirement from politics and government, to help found the American Bible Society and become a champion of American Indians. The most recent comprehensive study of the Missouri crisis depicts him as something of a throwback, “the quintessential antiegalitarian patrician Federalist” with a pious humanitarian streak who had lingered long enough to play a part in the commencement of the nation’s crisis over slavery.
In fact, Boudinot had already had a long career not only as an antislavery advocate but also as an antislavery politician. He first threw himself seriously into antislavery politics in 1774 when, as a member of the colonial assembly, he worked closely with his Quaker colleague and abolitionist leader Samuel Allinson in ultimately unsuccessful efforts to hasten total abolition in New Jersey. In 1786, Boudinot joined with another antislavery politician, Joseph Bloomfield, in founding the New Jersey Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; and after several years of indifferent activity, the Society presented a gradual emancipation plan that Bloomfield, elected New Jersey’s governor in 1803, signed into law the following year. Boudinot, meanwhile, was elected to the first U.S. Congress in 1789, where he denounced slavery as an offence against the Declaration of Independence and “the uniform tenor of the Gospel.” In all, if the antislavery arguments of the 1850s dated back to the Missouri crisis, then the antislavery politics that brought about that crisis dated back to the Revolutionary era.
These two connections — the history of the antislavery constitutionalism that surfaced in the Missouri crisis and the history of antislavery politics dating back to the Revolution — deserve an important place in our account of our origins. I have argued, in a recent book, that by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of property in man in national law, the Federal Convention in 1787 left open ground upon which antislavery politics later developed at the national as well as the state level. Those politics emerged, to be sure, out of the local struggles that dated back before the American Revolution. But the ratification of the Constitution, even with that document’s notorious compromises over slavery, left room for the rise of antislavery politics on the national level. And the origins of those politics, as I wish to make clear here, lay in the efforts by antislavery agitators and their allies in Congress, beginning in the very first Congress, to find in the Constitution the authority whereby the national government could abolish slavery or, at the very least, hasten slavery’s abolition.
These national antislavery politics, it needs emphasizing, developed by fits and starts, and only began to gather lasting strength in the 1840s. The abolitionists enjoyed just a few significant successes at the national level during the twenty years following the Constitution’s ratification, and they endured some important defeats. These were some of the leanest years in the history of antislavery politics. But that the abolitionists won anything at all, let alone anything significant, contradicts the conventional view that southern slaveholders thoroughly dominated national politics in the early republic. The abolitionists did occasionally prevail; and just as important, in doing so they discovered and began to refine the principles and stratagems of antislavery constitutionalism that would guide antislavery politics through to the Missouri crisis and then, further refined, to the Civil War.
Reviewing the early history of these abolitionist politics — running from the birth of the federal government in 1789 until the abolition of American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 — is part of a broader re-evaluation currently underway of what Manisha Sinha has called “the first wave” of abolitionist activity that lasted from the Revolutionary era through the 1820s. Scholarship by a rising generation of historians, including Sarah Gronningsater, Paul J. Polgar, and Nicholas P. Wood, as well as Manisha Sinha, have begun to revise completely the history of antislavery in this period. They have more or less demolished, for example, the once dominant view of northern emancipation as a grudging and even conservative undertaking, led by polite gentlemen unwilling to take their antislavery too far. When completed, the work of these scholars and others will, I am confident, become the basis for a new narrative for the history not just of antislavery but of American politics from the Revolution to the Civil War. But there is a lot of work left to do.
Prior to the 1750s, there was very little in the way of antislavery activity among white Americans, with the exception of the Quakers, and it took even the Quakers several decades of struggle among themselves before they turned misgivings about slavery into formal instructions to abandon the institution. Amid an extraordinary moral rupture at mid-century, wider antislavery activity began in earnest. Initially, these efforts emphasized limited public efforts to change private behavior, relying on moral suasion to hasten manumissions, but soon enough some antislavery reformers turned to politics in more forceful ways. In 1766 and 1767, Boston instructed its representatives in the colonial assembly to push for the total eradication of slavery. In 1773, a Quaker-led campaign against the slave trade, captained by Anthony Benezet, the greatest antislavery agitator of the time, swept through the middle colonies and touched New England; and in that same year several Massachusetts towns petitioned the assembly to abolish the slave trade and initiate gradual emancipation. Black abolitionists, including Felix Holbrook and Prince Hall in Massachusetts, initiated their own petition drives, supplementing the freedom suits that would kill slavery in Massachusetts outright in the mid-1780s. Bills for the gradual abolition of slavery were debated in New Jersey in 1775 and in Connecticut in 1777; Vermonters approved the first written constitution ever to ban adult slavery in 1777; and by 1780 ascendant radical reformers in Pennsylvania led by George Bryan prepared to enact the first gradual emancipation law of its kind in history.
By then, political abolitionists had begun organizing their own institutions. On April 14, 1775 — five days before the battles of Lexington and Concord — a group consisting chiefly of Quakers formed the Society for the “Relief for Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,” the first society with antislavery aims anywhere in the world. Although the Revolution soon disrupted the group, it reorganized in 1784 as the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery; three years later, the society named Benjamin Franklin — conspicuously a non-Quaker — as its president. In 1785, the New-York Manumission Society appeared, dedicated to the same basic goals. By 1790, two more states, Rhode Island and Connecticut, had approved gradual emancipation. Slavery was ended in Massachusetts by judicial decree in 1783, had crumbled in New Hampshire; and at least six more abolitionist societies had formed from Rhode Island as far south as Virginia (where, in 1785, an abolition law was debated to supplement a widened manumission law enacted in 1782). In 1794, the state societies confederated as the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race.
Abolitionist politics at the national level would await the framing and ratification of the Federal Constitution in 1787-1788. Since the Articles of Confederation had afforded the national government no authority over national commerce, let alone either slavery or the Atlantic slave trade, national abolitionist politics barely existed. The one exceptional effort came in 1783, when a small Quaker delegation from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting delivered to the Confederation Congress, then sitting in temporary exile in Princeton, a petition signed by some five hundred Quakers, asking in vain for a prohibition of the Atlantic trade. With the calling of the Federal Convention in 1787, though, both of the then-existing abolitionist societies, in Philadelphia and New York, mobilized to send petitions. Benjamin Franklin, a delegate to the convention as well as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society decided on tactical grounds against presenting his group’s forceful memorial opposing the Atlantic slave trade, while the New-York Manumission Society failed to complete its broader antislavery draft before learning that slavery as such would not be debated at the convention.
To comprehend the national abolitionist politics that followed these developments requires a closer look at the Constitution’s paradoxes and contradictions concerning slavery. None of the framers’ compromises over slavery that many historians cite as the heart of the supposedly proslavery Constitution were nearly as powerful in protecting slavery as an assumption that was there from the start: that whatever else it could do, the federal government would be powerless to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed — a doctrine that became known as the federal consensus. This assumption, far more than the three-fifths clause or the Atlantic slave trade clause or the fugitive slave clause or anything else, was the basis of the slaveholders’ confidence that the Constitution had enshrined human bondage. But if the federal government could not abolish slavery outright, then how might it be done, short of hoping that the slaveholders of South Carolina and Georgia would suddenly see the light — a prospect that the South Carolinians and Georgians made clear was not in the offing anytime soon? Once the abolitionists had launched the campaign for emancipation in the North, this would be their great conundrum — but they seized upon it immediately, with actions as bold as their demands. In doing so, they fostered a convergence of radical agitation and congressional politics that would have enduring if as yet unforeseen repercussions.
Far from discouraging abolitionist activity, the ratification of the Constitution, even with its notorious compromises over slavery, bolstered it. Above all, the framers’ granting to the new national government, over furious southern objections, the authority to abolish the nation’s Atlantic slave trade, even with a twenty-year delay, struck many and probably most abolitionists and their political allies as a major blow for freedom. This should not be surprising: as historians note too rarely, it was the first serious blow against the international slave trade undertaken anywhere in the Atlantic world in the name of a national government; indeed, the American example, preceded by the truly inspiring anti-slave agitation led by Anthony Benezet, encouraged the rise of the British movement to end the Atlantic trade, formally organized in 1787. Some leading American abolitionists described the Constitution as nothing less than, in the words of the framer James Wilson, “the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.” Ending the trade had long been considered the vital first step toward eradicating slavery itself; and it seemed at the least highly probably that, as soon as 1808 arrived, Congress would do so. More immediately, though, members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society wanted to see if Congress would entertain extending its constitutional authority beyond the slave trade provision.
The first great confrontation over slavery in national politics was a famous but still largely misunderstood conflict in the House of Representatives during the First Congress’ second session in New York, the nation’s temporary capital, in 1790. Through a friendly congressman, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society presented a petition to the House of Representatives, above the signature of its aging president Franklin, bidding the representatives to “step to the very verge of the powers vested in you” and to abolish slavery itself, not simply the Atlantic slave trade. (At the request of John Pemberton of the PAS, two groups of Quakers had already sent milder petitions referring only to the trade.) Paying no attention to the federal consensus, the PAS petition specifically cited the preamble of the Constitution that empowered the new government to “promote the general Welfare and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” which they contended authorized far-reaching if unspecified congressional action against slavery. Without telling Congress exactly what to do, the petitioners bid the representatives to look beyond the federal consensus to find ways they could attack slavery — to the extent, quite possibly, of disregarding the federal consensus entirely.
A fierce on-and-off debate over the next three months ended with Congress affirming the federal consensus as well as the ban on congressional abolition of the Atlantic trade until 1808. The outcome is often portrayed fatalistically as a crushing defeat for the abolitionists, sealing the immunity of slavery in the new republic while calling into question the rights of abolitionists even to petition the Congress — an effort undertaken, in one historian’s estimation, by naïve and “psychologically vulnerable” reformers, unprepared “for the secular interest politics of a modern nation.”
In fact, although the petition (along with the two others from regional Quaker meetings) did not gain the sweeping reforms it sought, it was decidedly not a failure. For one thing, the mobilization behind it, far from weak-kneed, was the first auspicious political protest of any kind to be directed at the new national government. Strikingly modern in its strategy and its tactics, the abolitionists blended insider maneuvering and hard-headed direct appeals to members of Congress with popular propagandizing and political theater of a kind associated with the protest movements of much later decades. The campaign was spearheaded by a delegation of eleven Quaker lobbyists from Philadelphia, including John Pemberton and Warner Mifflin, who were certainly the opposite of naïve and vulnerable. As a consequence, the congressional deliberations over the petitions took a surprisingly radical turn, and inthe end the effort secured important political as well as practical gains.
Lower South slaveholders reacted with predictable fury as soon as congressmen friendly to the abolitionists introduced the petitions on the floor of the House. The slaveholders’ diatribes asserted that the constitutional ban on congressional abolition of the Atlantic slave trade until 1808 meant that the Constitution barred any federal interference with slavery whatsoever. Given the federal consensus, meanwhile, the slaveholders called the petitions unconstitutional on their face and demanded they be rejected without further debate. But despite the inflation of their numbers in the House by the three-fifths clause, the proslavery forces were badly outnumbered. (“Alass — how weak a resistance against the whole house,” one resigned South Carolina congressman wrote.) By a vote of 43 to 11, the House approved sending the radical petitions to a special committee for consideration.
Working hand-in-hand with members of the special committee, the abolitionists immediately supplied them with a small library of abolitionist writings, while they arranged, through the Speaker of the House, an ally, to distribute additional abolitionist propaganda to the rest of the chamber. The Quaker lobbyists then advised the committee on its report behind the scenes, sharing drafts and submitting their own suggestions while backing up the PAS petition’s claim that the “General Welfare” section of the Constitution’s preamble gave Congress some unspecified powers over slavery. The committee narrowly turned aside that suggestion — by a single vote, John Pemberton reported — and agreed that the Congress could not ban the Atlantic slave trade before 1808. Yet it also asserted, contrary to lower South protests, that the federal government could regulate the trade as it saw fit at any time. More portentously, the members included wording that the Constitution empowered Congress to abolish slavery outright after 1808 — making the special committee’s report perhaps the most radical official document on slavery approved by any congressional entity before the Civil War.
When the report reached the House, the abolitionists swung into action as both agitators and what today we would call lobbyists. Quakers crowded the House gallery to witness the debate, their presence in Quaker gray suits and broad-brimmed black hats inciting and unnerving the southerners. Outside the hall, the abolitionists pursued individual congressmen right down to their lodging houses and taverns and eating places to make their case. Mifflin began a letter-writing campaign, addressed both to individual congressmen and to the House at large. The abolitionists also arranged with allies in the New-York Manumission Society to have a full record of the House debates printed along with antislavery articles in the New York Daily Advertiser, as well as to distribute pamphlets vividly describing the horrors of the slave trade.
Finally the House affirmed Congress’ powerlessness over slavery where it existed and over the Atlantic trade before 1808, and a revised report removed the select committee’s language about abolishing slavery itself after 1808. Yet the outcome was hardly a one-sided triumph for the proslavery southerners. The lower South failed utterly in its initial effort to dismiss the petitions without debate. Evidently, contrary to the slaveholders, Congress might well have some authority over slavery worth debating. In the course of arguing that point, moreover, several House members had affirmed that, short of abolishing slavery outright, Congress might restrict slavery in various ways quite apart from the slave trade, including, James Madison remarked, banning slavery from the national territories, where, he declared, “Congress have certainly the power to regulate slavery.” And over howls from lower South slaveholders, the final report affirmed that Congress could legislate over specific matters connected to the Atlantic trade before 1808 — issues that, as we shall see, the abolitionists would agitate successfully. In all, the federal consensus stood, but at the same time the House majority repulsed the proslavery forces and backed the abolitionists on whether slavery was immune from federal authority.
Over the ensuing decade, the abolitionists, far from discouraged, redoubled their national efforts, despite some serious setbacks. The Southwest Territory — what would become the state of Tennessee — was admitted to the Union with slavery in 1790, with little debate. A coterie of antislavery congressmen could not stave off passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Five years later, a spirited antislavery effort to bar slavery from Mississippi Territory was defeated by a wide margin.
And yet the abolitionists had reason to remain optimistic. At the state level, the New York legislature, under intense abolitionist pressure, finally passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799 and New Jersey followed five years later, completing the northern “first emancipation.” In part as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, the American Convention of Abolition Societies was up and running in 1794. There were various signs, from a proliferation of freedom suits in Virginia to the spread of antislavery opinion in Kentucky and Tennessee, that the upper South was seriously questioning slavery. In national politics, antislavery congressmen, numbering about a dozen and led by a few northerners who worked closely with the abolitionists, made good in 1794 on the victory wrung from the abolitionist petition debates four years earlier, passing a law that outlawed the use of any American port or shipyard for constructing or outfitting any ship to be used for the importing of slaves.
Five years later the Reverend Absalom Jones, a prominent abolitionist and mainstay of Philadelphia’s free black community, helped lead an even more propitious effort. Late in 1799, a group of seventy free men of color in Philadelphia, headed by Jones, sent yet another petition to the House of Representatives. The drafters of the petition, as Nicholas Wood has shown, were John Drinker and John Parrish, prominent local Quaker abolitionists who had long worked closely with Jones and other black abolitionists; the signers included members of various black congregations, including Jones’ St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, the majority of them unable to sign their names.
The petitioners asked for revisions of the laws governing the Atlantic slave trade as well as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. But they also went further, as far as the PAS petitioners had in 1790, pressing for — as the abolitionist congressman Nicholas Waln observed when he introduced the petition to the House — “the adoption of such measures as shall in due course emancipate the whole of their brethren from their present situation.” Stating that they “cannot but address you as Guardians of our Civil Rights, and Patrons of equal and National Liberty,” the petitioners expressed hope that the House members
will view the subject in an impartial, unprejudiced light. — We do not ask for the immediate emancipation of all, knowing that the degraded State of many and their want of education, would greatly disqualify for such a change; yet humbly desire you may exert every means in your power to undo the heavy burdens, and prepare the way for the oppressed to go free, that every yoke may be broken.
As if brushing aside the House’s decision in 1790, the abolitionists, citing once again the Constitution’s preamble, wanted Congress to probe once more the document’s antislavery potential. The idea that Congress had untapped antislavery powers was emerging as a core abolitionist argument. And, though the sources are silent, this portion of the petition may have also had tactical purposes. In 1790, the defeat of grand claims about emancipation proved the prelude to the House affirming Congress’ authority over more specific issues connected to slavery. Roughly the same thing would happen this time.
Southern slaveholders and their New England allies reacted with predictable wrath. John Rutledge, Jr. of South Carolina thanked God that Africans were held in slavery, then railed against the “new-fangled French philosophy of liberty and equality” — he was talking about Thomas Jefferson and his supporters — that was abroad in the land. Rutledge’s fellow Federalist, the notorious Atlantic slave trader John Brown of Rhode Island, attacked the petition’s effort to restrain American participation in the trade, while another New England Federalist, Harrison Gray Otis, sneered that most of the petitioners were illiterate and thus unable to understand what they had endorsed, and that receiving their memorial would mischievously “teach them the art of assembling together, debating, and the like.”
The next day, the House considered a resolution condemning those portions of the petition “which invite Congress to legislate upon subjects from which the General Government is precluded by the Constitution.” The resolution passed 85 to 1, a crushing repudiation of the idea that Congress possessed implied powers to interfere directly with slavery where it already existed. Even the abolitionist congressman who presented the free blacks’ petition ended up voting with the majority.
But that was only part of the story. The core of antislavery Northerners fiercely rebutted the proslavery outbursts. George Thacher, a Massachusetts Federalist and longtime antislavery champion in the House, repudiated the racist attacks on the petitioners, upheld the right of constituents to a redress of grievances regardless of their color, and condemned racial slavery as “a cancer of immense magnitude, that would some time destroy the body politic, except a proper legislation should prevent the evil.” Moreover, once the condemnation resolution predictably passed — Thacher’s was the sole vote in opposition — the House was free to act on the petitioners’ more specific demands, which it swiftly did, sending the petition to committee — thereby, among other things, affirming the right of free blacks to petition Congress.
The committee assigned to consider the petition sympathized with its section on the fugitive slave law — free blacks, its report contended, were “entitled to freedom & Protection” — but the slaveholders and their allies prevailed on that issue on jurisdictional grounds. On the slave trade, however, Congress took action. After a heated debate, the House, with the concurrence of the Senate, approved by a wide margin the Slave Trade Act of 1800, banning even indirect involvement by Americans with the shipping of Africans for sale in any foreign country while also authorizing naval vessels to seize ships that were in violation. While it expanded enforcement of the restrictive law enacted six years earlier, the new law reinforced expectations that the Atlantic slave trade to the United States would be entirely abolished at the earliest possible date in 1808.
The scale of this antislavery victory should not be exaggerated — indeed, three years later South Carolina would re-open its own slave trade with a vengeance — but neither should it be scanted. Most immediately, within a year, under the new law’s provisions, the man-of-war U.S.S. Ganges seized two illegal slave schooners off the coast of Cuba and discovered more than one hundred and thirty African captives, men, women, and children, in chains, starving and naked; once freed, the Africans obtained apprenticeships and indentures from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The free black petition debate also marked a highpoint in the efforts by the antislavery congressmen, first to restrict and regulate the Atlantic slave trade prior to its abolition, and then to reform and restrict the Fugitive Slave Law.
More broadly, that same small but resolute group took up new antislavery battles and established an antislavery presence that from time to time became an antislavery majority. This was not just the agitation of an elite. It must be emphasized that the congressmen acted in coordination with dense interregional as well as interracial networks of antislavery activists, organized in state abolition societies, churches and church committees, mutual aid societies, fraternal groups, and more. With such popular backing, year after year, antislavery congressmen voiced defiantly antiracist as well as antislavery sentiments on the floor of the House, exploring the Constitution in search of antislavery meanings, trying to find in it whatever powers they could whereby the federal government could limit slavery’s expansion leading to its eventual eradication. Some of their successes were defensive, as when they defeated efforts to augment the Fugitive Slave Act, to otherwise restrict the rights of free blacks, and to repeal the Northwest Ordinance’s ban on slavery in Illinois and Indiana. But the antislavery forces in Congress could be aggressive as well.
In 1804, once again bidden by abolitionist petitions, the Senate approved a provision that would have effectively shut the domestic slave trade out of the entire Louisiana Territory, obtained from France a year before, while the House, stunningly, passed a bill that banned outright further introduction of slavery into the territory. The House provision failed to gain approval from the Senate, and the efforts to keep slavery out of Louisiana proved futile, but the passing success was a signal that the antislavery presence in Congress had grown since 1790. Fittingly, the effort in the House was led by a sharp-witted and acid-tongued member from New Jersey named James Sloan, a Jeffersonian Republican who had cut his political teeth as a member of the New Jersey Abolition Society and as its delegate to the American Convention. A permanent goad to the southern slaveholders, including those in his own party, Sloan would cause an uproar in the House in 1805 by proposing a plan for gradual emancipation in the District of Columbia — yet another effort to find places in the Constitution giving the federal government the authority to attack slavery.
Finally, in 1807, at the earliest date stipulated by the Constitution, Congress approved the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States. With the bill supported by most of the large Virginia delegation, whose slaveholders stood benefit, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but the antislavery members had to beat back several efforts to soften the law, including one proposal by the states-rights dogmatist John Randolph which in effect would have recognized slaves as property in national law. “Hail! Hail, glorious day,” the New York black abolitionist minister Peter Williams, Jr., an ally of the New-York Manumission Society, exclaimed at the city’s celebration.
This high point in the politics of early American abolitionism would also prove a turning point. Although national agitation continued, there was a noticeable decline in enthusiasm in the ranks, at least outside Pennsylvania, once New York and New Jersey had completed their emancipation laws. A powerful racist backlash instigated by the Haitian Revolution and then by reactions to northern emancipation jolted the existing abolitionist societies and paved the way for the emergence of the American Colonization Society. Just as their British counter-parts perfected the massive petition campaigns required to shake Parliament into abolishing Britain’s Atlantic slave trade, also achieved in 1807, the American movement began to falter. Above all, the dramatic shift in the Southern economy that came with the introduction of the cotton gin in 1793 and the consequent renaissance of plantation slavery dramatically changed the terms of antislavery politics, dispelling forever the original abolitionist hope that the closing of the Atlantic trade would doom American slavery.
Northern antislavery opinion did rebound after 1815 and reached a political flashpoint during the Missouri crisis of 1819-1820. But the abolitionist organizations, including the American Convention, although still alive and active, were becoming less of a factor in guiding events in Congress than they had been at the end of the eighteenth century. By now, with the expansion of mass mainstream party politics, popular mobilizations in the form of an impromptu Free Missouri movement did more to embolden antislavery congressmen than did the abolitionist’s continued memorials, petitions, and lobbying efforts. And then, in the wake of the Missouri crisis, shaken mainstream politicians sealed what amounted to a bipartisan consensus to prevent slavery from ever again entering into national political debates. With national politics seemingly closed to antislavery agitation, the old Quaker abolitionist strategy of working directly with sympathetic officeholders and political leaders began to look feeble.
But the fight had been irreversibly joined. The established abolitionist movement’s strategies left an important legacy on which later antislavery political movements would build. Even as the early abolitionist movement sputtered out, it played a part in shaping abolitionism’s future. In forming as sophisticated a political movement as they did, the early abolitionists created a practical model for organized political agitation in the new republic, antedating the political parties that arose thereafter. Although the effectiveness of that model declined after 1800 or so, it never disappeared; and elements of it would remain essential to later abolitionist politics, including the transformation of abolitionist petitioning into monster popular campaigns, along the lines that British abolitionists had pioneered after 1787.
The legacy was even more important with respect to antislavery ideology and strategy. If the initial impetus of the early abolitionists, dating back to 1775, had been to politicize antislavery sentiment, in order to make direct claims on government, so the abolitionists of the early republic perpetuated the idea that politics was the only sure means to achieve slavery’s eradication. In national politics, after the ratification of the Constitution, that meant, above all, advancing antislavery interpretations of the framers’ work. Although the most expansive ideas about Congress’ authority over slavery met with ever firmer resistance, the idea that Congress possessed numerous implicit or indirect powers to hasten slavery’s demise remained.
Consider again the petition from the free men of color of Philadelphia in 1799. In addition to asking Congress to find the authority to abolish slavery, the petition included its own innovative antislavery interpretation of the Constitution to demonstrate that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional: as “no mention is made of Black people or Slaves” in the Constitution, the document observed, it followed that “if the Bill of Rights or the declaration of Congress are of any validity,” then all men “may partake of the Liberties and unalienable Rights therein held forth.” The assertion got nowhere, but it had been made, and as long as abolitionists kindled a basic optimism about the Constitution’s antislavery potential, they would sustain their belief that political efforts, and not moral suasion alone, would bring the complete abolition of American slavery.
This optimism peaked again during the Missouri crisis, when abolitionists seized upon federal control of the territories and the admission of new states as an instrument to commence slavery’s abolition. The optimism persisted through the 1820s, even as the colonization movement flourished and even as mainstream political leaders built a new system of national politics based on two opposed intersectional national parties — a party system deliberately designed to keep antislavery agitation at the margins. In 1821, a sometime colonizationist, the pioneering abolitionist editor Benjamin Lundy, offered a comprehensive seven-point plan to abolish slavery under the Constitution that began with banning slavery in the national territories and abolishing the domestic slavery trade. Four years later, Lundy joined with the abolitionist and political economist Daniel Raymond in trying to establish an antislavery political party in Maryland. After that failed, Lundy persuaded the American Convention to pick up the dropped thread of James Sloan’s earlier agitation in the House and pressure Congress to use its authority to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. He then had the idea of mounting a mass petition campaign to support the demand; and in 1828, working in coordination with a Pennsylvania Abolition Society member, congressman Charles Miner, who had announced his intention to work for abolition in the district, he forced the issue to the floor of the House. Younger PAS members warmed to the campaign and kept it going; so would, somewhat ironically in retrospect, the young editor whom Lundy later picked up as his assistant and brought into the abolitionist cause, none other than William Lloyd Garrison.
The optimism would be badly battered in the 1830s and 1840s. Some members of a new generation of radical abolitionists, led by Garrison, would conclude that there was no hope of achieving abolition and equality in a political system attached to a proslavery U.S. Constitution — a “covenant with death” and “agreement with hell,” in Garrison’s famous condemnation. Only moral suasion backed with militant protest, Garrison declared, would advance the cause; moral purification would have to precede political action. Taking the long view, this represented as much a regression as an advance, back to the anti-political stance of the more pious of the Quaker abolitionists in the 1750s and 1760s. Garrison’s absolutist high-mindedness forthrightly but perversely lifted the cause above the grimy necessities of actual politics.
Yet for all of Garrison’s fiery and intrepid polemics, he and his followers were a minority inside the abolitionist movement, increasingly so after 1840. The abolitionist majority never relinquished the idea, passed on from the first-wave abolitionists, that Congress, by acting wherever it could against slavery, would hasten slavery’s destruction. Inside Congress, meanwhile, a luminary with antislavery convictions but no previous antislavery record, John Quincy Adams, led a small group of colleagues in a guerilla war against the gag rule and finally prevailed in 1844. Adams, the ex-president turned congressman, was a singular figure in American politics, unlike any before or since; and the 1840s were not the 1820s or the 1790s. But Adams, who came to work closely with abolitionists, in his way reprised the roles of George Thacher, James Sloan, and Charles Miner, becoming the face of antislavery inside the Capitol — “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of slavery that ever existed,” in the view of his fiercely proslavery Virginia rival Henry A. Wise.
By the time he collapsed and died on the floor of the House in 1848, opposing the American war with Mexico, Adams had also helped turn antislavery politics back toward issues concerning federal power over slavery in the territories — the very issues that, within a decade, led to the formation of the Republican Party. The abolitionists search for the constitutional means to attack slavery, begun in 1790, culminated in the agitation over Kansas, the convulsions that followed the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and everything else that led to the Civil War. All of which is a vast and complicated story, making the final connection between the antislavery politics of Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Franklin with those of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The important point, in the consideration of American origins, is that the early American abolitionists, audacious in their own time, formulated the essentials of a political abolitionism that, however beleaguered and often outdone, announced its presence, won some victories, and made its mark in the national as well as state politics of the early republic. It was not least owing to this constitutive achievement of American democracy that in the relatively brief span of fifty years, some of them very violent, slavery would be brought to its knees.
Which brings us back to Benjamin Quarles’ observations, about the concomitant development of American slavery and American antislavery. The struggle for justice is always contemporaneous with injustice, quite obviously, and the power of injustice to provoke a hostile response is one of the edifying lessons of human life. Once joined, that struggle forever shapes both sides: there is no understanding the growth of pro-slavery politics, leading to the treason of secession, without reference to the growth of anti-slavery politics, just as anti-slavery politics makes no sense absent pro-slavery politics. But the history of anti-slavery in America, even during its most difficult periods, is not merely a matter of edification. It is also a practical necessity, a foundation for political action. It presents contemporary anti-racism with a tradition from which it can draw its ideas and its tools. It is a barrier against despair, and a refreshment of our sense of American possibility. The struggle against slavery was hard and long, and it was won. The struggle against racism is harder and longer, and it has not yet been won. But as our history shows, it has certainly not been lost.