A bit of a loaded word, isn’t it? But a label that American anti-slavery activists would have felt entirely comfortable with, in the first half of the 19th century. Such was the knowledge that taking up the cross of a cause could be hazardous, indeed – but the fight was for the right, and the eventual prize was worth it and more; the promise that every man (and by implication, every woman as well) had a right to be free. Not a slave, as comfortable as that situation might be to individuals – but to be free, answering only to ones’ conscience, as was expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, never mind that one might have varying degrees of success in that pursuit – one had the right to decide how to go about it, in whatever method and manner than one chose. One had the right to not be property, as if an ox or a horse.
The abolitionists logically took that understanding to apply to all, without regard to color or national origin; the more radical also took it to apply to women. This was a breathtaking insight, in its’ own way. It should be noted that the founders of the great American political experiment had serious qualms regarding the question of slavery, despite what the New York Times insists through their 1619 Project. New Englanders like John Addams certainly took the promise of the Declaration seriously. Those Founding Fathers who were slaveholders, were themselves pretty conflicted, if one reads contemporary accounts aright. They acknowledged the contradiction, making various accommodations as circumstances dictated. Cash poor, property-rich and for many, there was an element of personal responsibility: to see to the long-term welfare of those they owned, those slaves who were too aged, to young, or otherwise unfit for work. Patronizing and perhaps laden with a bit of self-interest there – but an honest feeling of obligation, and a hope that the institution of chattel slavery would die a natural death. At the time of the Revolution, (the late 18th century) it appeared to most thinking citizens of the 13 Colonies that slavery was morally wrong, economically unsustainable and headed for the dustbin of history. As this recent article in the City Journal has it:
“… the equality principle of the Revolution began to make many Americans antislavery. The most ardently revolutionary region of the country, New England, also led the first abolition movement. Prior to the revolutionary period, few significant public discussions of slavery’s injustice took place. But following the Revolution’s equality principle, eight states—either through their legislatures or their courts—began abolishing slavery after the publication of the Declaration. Vermont did so in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804.
Ample evidence shows that the Founders wished for an end to slavery…”
Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin – a device to mechanically separate the useful cotton fibers from seeds, a process which formerly had to be done slowly, tediously and uneconomically by hand – had the result of reviving the US slave trade just when chattel slavery appeared to be breathing it’s last. A mechanical cotton gin made cultivating and harvesting cotton enormously profitable, breathing new life into what came to be called ‘the peculiar institution.’ Cotton became king, supplying the mills of Manchester, England, and Lowell, Massachusetts; and slavery became essential to the South, or at least, the leaders and shakers believed it did.
And just as firmly, those who were opposed to the existence of chattel slavery anywhere in the United States came out, ever more vociferously against the practice. Almost from the very start of the American experiment, an impressive array of intellectuals, academics, politicians, social activists, free Negroes and the religiously-devout spoke out in public against slavery, and in the pages of newspapers, tracts and popular novels, in a chorus which became louder and more defiant as the decades passed. Intellectual opposition let to passive resistance, then armed resistance … and finally open and bloody war. The history of the Abolition movement is out there for anyone to read and research, even though most of those once-prominent voices are fairly obscure now. (I’m doing some heavy research into the abolition movement in the 1840s and 1850s, as part of the next book, which is why I’m particularly outraged by the 1619 Project.) It is beyond obscene for the Times’ 1619 Project to try and reframe this republic as a body established for the sole purpose of nurturing slavery. In perpetuating outright progressive propaganda, the Grey Lady has become the Old Grey Whore of newspapers. Discuss as you wish.