Guided Readings: Religion and Social Reform: Abolitionism

Reading 1

Assenting to the “self-evident truth” maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” . . . I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. . . .

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. . . . Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—And I Will Be Heard.

—William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public,” The Liberator, January 1, 1931

Reading 2

That every American citizen, who detains a human being in involuntary bondage as his property is, according to Scripture, a man-stealer:

That the slaves ought instantly to be set free, and brought under the protection of law. . . .

That all those laws which are now in force, admitting the right of slavery, are therefore, before God, utterly null and void; being an audacious usurpation of the Divine prerogative, a daring infringement on the law of nature, a base overthrow of the very foundations of the social compact, a complete extinction of all the relations, endearments and obligations of mankind, and a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments; and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated.

—American Anti-Slavery Society’s Declaration of Sentiments, 1833

Reading 3

It is not by argument that the abolitionists have produced the present unhappy excitement. Argument has not been the characteristic of their publications. Denunciations of slaveholding as man-stealing, robbery, piracy, and worse than murder; consequent vituperation of slaveholders as knowingly guilty of the worst of crimes; passionate appeals to the feelings of the inhabitants of the northern States; gross exaggeration of the moral and physical condition of the slaves, have formed the staple of their addresses to the public. . . . There is in this conduct such a strange want of adaptation of the means to the end which they profess to have in view, as to stagger the faith of most persons in the sincerity of their professions, who do not consider the extremes to which even good men may be carried, when they allow one subject to take exclusive possession of their minds.

—William E. Channing, Slavery, Boston, 1835

Questions to Think About

  1. Why was it not until the late eighteenth century that large numbers of individuals considered slavery to be morally wrong?
  2. Why did abolitionists consider slavery to be wrong?
  3. Are agitation and denunciation an effective way of opposing a social evil or do such methods simply breed resistance?