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American Antislavery Writings

Excerpts from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation
Edited by James G. Basker
Published by the Library of America. 2012.

These excerpts were chosen from more than 215 selections by 158 authors in the anthology.

A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves, by Eastman Johnson, ca. 1862, oil on paper board (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Gwendolyn O. L. Conkling, 40.59a-b)

All other images courtesy Gilder Lehrman Collection and Library of Congress.

Benjamin Lay from All Slave-Keepers that Keep the Innocent in Bondage

Now Friends, you that are Slave-Keepers, I pray and beseech ye, examine your own Hearts, and see and feel too, if you have not the same answer from Truth now within; while you Preach and exhort others to Equity, and to do Justice and love Mercy, and to walk humbly before the Lord and his People, and you yourselves live and act quite contrary, behave proudly, do unjustly and unmercifully, and live in and encourage the grossest Iniquity in the whole World. For I say, you are got beyond Gospel, Law, Abraham, Prophets, Patriarchs, to Cain the Murtherer, and beyond him too, to the Devil himself, beyond Cain, for he Murthered but one, that we know of, but you have many Thousands, or caused ’em to be so, and for ought I know many Hundreds of Thousands, within 50 Years. What do you think of these Things, you brave Gospel Ministers? that keep poor Slaves to Work for you to maintain you and yours in Pride, Pride and much Idleness or Laziness, and Fulness of Bread, the Sins of Sodom: How do these Things become your plain Dress, Demure Appearance, feigned Humility, all but Hypocrisy, which according to Truth’s Testimony, must have the hottest Place in Hell; to keep those miserable Creatures at hard Labour continually, unto their old Age, in Bondage and sore Captivity, working out their Blood and Sweat, and Bowels, youthful strength and vigour, then you drop into your Graves, go to your Places ordained or appointed for you; so leave these poor unhappy Creatures in their worn-out old Age, to your proud, Dainty, Lazy, Scornful, Tyrannical, and often beggerly Children, for them to Domineer and Tyrannize over, cursing them and you in your Graves, for working out their youthful Blood and strength for you, and then leave ’em to be a Plague to us; and then of the abuses, miseries and Cruelties these miserable old worn out Slaves go through, no Tongue can express, starved with Hunger, perish with Cold, rot as they go, for want of every thing that is necessary for an Humane Creature; so that Dogs and Cats are much better taken care for, and yet some have had the Confidence, or rather Impudence, to say their Slaves or Negroes live as well as themselves. I could almost wish such hardened, unthinking Sinful devilish Lyars were put into their Places, at least for a time, in a very hard Service, that they might feel a little in themselves, of what they make so light of in other People; and it would be but just upon ’em, and indeed why should they be against it, if the Negroes live as well and better than they; but such notorious Lies will never go down well, with any Sober right tender-hearted People truly fearing God, and that love the Truth above all; for such I believe firmly, when they come to see, and rightly consider the vileness of this practice in all its parts, and the cursed Fruit it brings forth, they will never enter into it; and if they are in, will endeavour to get out as soon as they can; for I do believe if all the Wickedness, Tyrany, oppressions and abominable Barbarities were written concerning this Hellish Trade, it would fill a large Volume in Folio.

Many has said, they do not see it so great an Evil or Sin, that is, Negroe-Keeping; who so Blind as them that will not see; but them that are willing to see, I think it my duty to inform them what I can by Word and Writing, and then leave it to the Lord.


Phillis Wheatley To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,
His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America, &c.

No more, America, in mournful strain

Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,

No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,

Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand

Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?


David Walker from Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World

Our dear Redeemer said, “Therefore, whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness, shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets, shall be proclaimed upon the house tops.”

How obviously this declaration of our Lord has been shown among the Americans of the United States. They have hitherto passed among some nations, who do not know any thing about their internal concerns, for the most enlightened, humane, charitable, and merciful people upon earth, when at the same time they treat us, the (coloured people) secretly more cruel and unmerciful than any other nation upon earth.—It is a fact, that in our Southern and Western States, there are millions who hold us in chains or in slavery, whose greatest object and glory, is centered in keeping us sunk in the most profound ignorance and stupidity, to make us work without remunerations for our services. Many of whom if they catch a coloured person, whom they hold in unjust ignorance, slavery and degradation, to them and their children, with a book in his hand, will beat him nearly to death. I heard a wretch in the state of North Carolina said, that if any man would teach a black person whom he held in slavery, to spell, read or write, he would prosecute him to the very extent of the law.—Said the ignorant wretch, “a Nigar, ought not to have any more sense than enough to work for his master.” May I not ask to fatten the wretch and his family?— These and similar cruelties these Christians have been for hundreds of years inflicting on our fathers and us in the dark. God has however, very recently published some of their secret crimes on the house top, that the world may gaze on their Christianity and see of what kind it is composed.—Georgia for instance, God has completely shown to the world, the Christianity among its white inhabitants. A law has recently passed the Legislature of this republican State (Georgia) prohibiting all free or slave persons of colour, from learning to read or write; another law has passed the republican House of Delegates, (but not the Senate) in Virginia, to prohibit all persons of colour, (free and slave) from learning to read or write, and even to hinder them from meeting together in order to worship our Maker!!!!!!—Now I solemly appeal, to the most skilful historians in the world, and all those who are mostly acquainted with the histories of the Antedeluvians and of Sodom and Gomorrah, to show me a parallel of barbarity. Christians!! Christians!!! I dare you to show me a parallel of cruelties in the annals of Heathens or of Devils, with those of Ohio, Virginia and of Georgia—know the world that these things were before done in the dark, or in a corner under a garb of humanity and religion. God has however, taken off the fig-leaf covering, and made them expose themselves on the house top. I tell you that God works in many ways his wonders to perform, he will unless they repent, make them expose themselves enough more yet to the world.  


William Lloyd Garrison from Truisms

1. All men are born equal, and entitled to protection, excepting those whose skins are black and hair woolly; or, to prevent mistake, excepting Africans, and their descendants.

2. If white men are ignorant and depraved, they ought freely to receive the benefits of education; but if black men are in this condition, common sense dictates that they should be held in bondage, and never instructed.

4. The color of the skin determines whether a man has a soul or not. If white, he has an immortal essence; if black, he is altogether beastly. Mulattoes, however, derive no benefit fromthis rule.

6. To kidnap children on the coast of Africa is a horrid crime, deservedly punishable with death; but he who steals them, in this country, as soon as they are born, performs not merely an innocent but a praiseworthy act.

7. In Africa, a man who buys or sells another, is a monster of hell. In America, he is an heir of heaven.

8. A man has a right to heap unbounded execration upon the foreign slave trade, and the abettors thereof; but if he utter a sentiment derogatory to the domestic traffic, or to those who assist in the transportation of victims, he is to be imprisoned for publishing a libel, and sentenced to pay a fine of not less than one thousand dollars.

11. None but fanatics or idiots desire immediate abolition. If the slaves were liberated at once, our throats would be cut, and our houses pillaged and burnt!

14. Were the slaves, goaded to desperation, to rise against their masters, the free states are constitutionally bound to cut their throats! ‘The receiver is as bad as the thief.’ The free states receive and consume the productions of slave labor! The District of Columbia is national property: slavery exists in that District! Yet the free states are not involved in the guilt of slavery!

15. A white man, who kills a tyrant, is a hero, and deserves a monument. If a slave kills his master, he is a murderer, and deserves to be burnt.

16. The slaves are kept in bondage for their own good. Liberty is a curse to the free people of color—their condition is worse than that of the slaves! Yet it would be very wicked to bind them with fetters for their good!

17. The slaves are contented and happy. If sometimes they are so ungrateful or deluded as to abscond, it is pure philanthropy that induces their masters to offer a handsome reward for their detection.

19. Slaves are held as property. It is the acme of humanity and justice, therefore, in the laws, to recognise them also as moral agents, and punish them in the most aggravated manner, if they perpetrate a crime; though they cannot read, and have neither seen nor known the laws!

20. It is foolish and cruel for an individual to denounce slavery; because the more he disturbs the security of the masters, the more vindictive will be their conduct toward the slaves. For the same reason, we ought to prefer the products of slave labor to those of free; as the more wealthy masters become, the better they will be enabled to feed and clothe their menials.

23. To doubt the religious vitality of a church, which is composed of slaveholders, is the worst species of infidelity.

24. The Africans are our slaves—not because we like to oppress, or to make money unjustly—but because Noah’s curse must be fulfilled, and the scriptures obeyed.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow The Witnesses

In Ocean’s wide domains,

Half buried in the sands,

Lie skeletons in chains,

With shackled feet and hands.


Beyond the fall of dews,

Deeper than plummet lies,

Float ships, with all their crews,

No more to sink nor rise.


There the black Slave-ship swims,

Freighted with human forms,

Whose fettered, fleshless limbs

Are not the sport of storms.


These are the bones of Slaves;

They gleam from the abyss;

They cry, from yawning waves,

“We are the Witnesses!”


Within Earth’s wide domains

Are markets for men’s lives;

Their necks are galled with chains,

Their wrists are cramped with gyves.


Dead bodies, that the kite

In deserts makes its prey;

Murders, that with affright

Scare school-boys from their play!


All evil thoughts and deeds;

Anger, and lust, and pride;

The foulest, rankest weeds,

That choke Life’s groaning tide!


These are the woes of Slaves;

They glare from the abyss;

They cry, from unknown graves,

“We are the Witnesses!”



Jairus Lincoln Hymn 17

1. My country!  ’tis of thee, Strong hold of slavery, Of thee I sing:  Land where my fathers died, Where men man’s rights deride, From every mountain-side, Thy deeds shall ring. 

2. My native country! thee, Where all men are born free, If white their skin: I love thy hills and dales, Thy mounts and pleasant vales, But I hate thy negro sales, As foulest sin.

3. Let wailing swell the breeze, And ring from all the trees, The black man’s wrong; Let every tongue awake, Let bond and free partake, Let rocks their silence break, The sound prolong.

4. Our father’s God! to thee, Author of Liberty, To thee we sing; Soon may our land be bright, With holy freedom’s right, Protect us by thy might, Great God, our King. 


Anonymous Am I Not a Sister?

Am I not a sister, say?

Shall I then be bought and sold

In the mart and by the way,

For the white man’s lust and gold?

Save me then from his foul snare,

Leave me not to perish there!


Am I not a sister say,

Though I have a sable hue!

Lo! I have been dragged away,

From my friends and kindred true,

And have toiled in yonder field,

There have long been bruised and peeled.


Am I not a sister, say?

Have I an immortal soul?

Will you, sisters, tell me nay?

Shall I live in lust’s control,

To be chattled like a beast,

By the Christian church and priest?


Am I not a sister, say?

Though I have been made a slave?

Will you not then for me pray,

To the God whose power can save,

High and low, and bond and free?

Toil and pray and vote for me!


Frederick Douglass from What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?

Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength, than such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.


Abraham Lincoln Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, Illinois

I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a free people—a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity we forget right—that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere. I object to it because the fathers of the republic eschewed, and rejected it. The argument of “Necessity” was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery; and so far, and so far only as it carried them, did they ever go. They found the institution existing among us, which they could not help; and they cast blame upon the British King for having permitted its introduction. Before the constitution, they prohibited its introduction into the north-western Territory—the only country we owned, then free from it. At the framing and adoption of the constitution, they forbore to so much as mention the word “slave” or “slavery” in the whole instrument. In the provision for the recovery of fugitives, the slave is spoken of as a “person held to service or labor.” In that prohibiting the abolition of the African slave trade for twenty years, that trade is spoken of as “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing, shall think proper to admit,” &c. These are the only provisions alluding to slavery. Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time. Less than this our fathers could not do; and more they would not do. Necessity drove them so far, and farther, they would not go. But this is not all. The earliest Congress, under the constitution, took the same view of slavery. They hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity.

In 1794, they prohibited an out-going slave-trade—that is, the taking of slaves from the United States to sell.

In 1798, they prohibited the bringing of slaves from Africa, into the Mississippi Territory—this territory then comprising what are now the States of Mississippi and Alabama. This was ten years before they had the authority to do the same thing as to the States existing at the adoption of the constitution.

In 1800 they prohibited American citizens from trading in slaves between foreign countries—as, for instance, from Africa to Brazil.

In 1803 they passed a law in aid of one or two State laws, in restraint of the internal slave trade.

In 1807, in apparent hot haste, they passed the law, nearly a year in advance, to take effect the first day of 1808—the very first day the constitution would permit—prohibiting the African slave trade by heavy pecuniary and corporal penalties.

In 1820, finding these provisions ineffectual, they declared the trade piracy, and annexed to it, the extreme penalty of death. While all this was passing in the general government, five or six of the original slave States had adopted systems of gradual emancipation; and by which the institution was rapidly becoming extinct within these limits.

Thus we see, the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the principle, and toleration, only by necessity.

But now it is to be transformed into a “sacred right.” Nebraska brings it forth, places it on the high road to extension and perpetuity; and, with a pat on its back, says to it, “Go, and God speed you.” Henceforth it is to be the chief jewel of the nation—the very figure-head of the ship of State. Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other.

(October 16, 1854)

Julia Ward Howe The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.


I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

His day is marching on.


I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my comtemners, so with you my grace shall deal;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.”


He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.


In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

(February 1862)