History of the Abolitionist movement

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

American slavery was a barbarous tyranny. Its history, however, is not merely one of impoverishment, deprivation and oppression. For imbedded in the record of American slavery is the inspiring story of the persistent and courageous efforts of the Negroes (aided, not infrequently, by the poor whites) to regain their heritage of liberty and equality, to regain their right to the elemental demands of human beings. The effects of this strug­gle were national and world-shaking in its day.

The fundamental point is that American slavery was, as Karl Marx stated, “a commercial system of exploitation”. That is, American slavery, on the whole, was a staple producing system dependent upon a world mar­ket. There was, therefore, no limit to the exploiting drive of the slaveowners.

Vengeance did not sleep. The history of American slavery is marked by at least two hundred and fifty reported Negro conspiracies and revolts. This certainly demonstrated that organized efforts at freedom were rather a regular and ever-recurring phenomenon in the life of the old South. But the great plantation oligarchs of eastern Virginia 1 and North Carolina,2 of South Carolina,3 Georgia4 and Louisiana5 never seriously considered the elimination of slavery.

The struggle of the American colonies for political and economic free­dom from Great Britain gave a considerable impetus to the anti-slavery movement. This was anxiously watched and, where possible, aided by the Negro people themselves. But the liberal laws which granted freedom to the Negroes in some states were soon repealed. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence also contained an overt and powerful anti-slavery statement. But it was deleted from the final copy at the request of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and certain of the slave- trading New England states.6

The crusade against the institution of Negro slavery in the United States after the Revolution continued with growing intensity, and it brought about the Abolitionist movement. The Abolitionist movement flowed, in large part, from the activities of the slaves themselves. The struggle for equality and liberty for the Negro people broadened into the struggle to preserve and extend the rights and freedom of all other Americans.

The slaveholders in the South developed the myriad devices of repres­sion of disobedient slaves and besides felt it advisable to have the armed forces of the Federal government always available and these were used as either slave-catching agencies or for purposes of suppression. Thus the tax money went to support an armed force used to suppress efforts at lib­eration, and this disturbed the nation’s conscience. The Negro people themselves were not impassive. They have shown immense ingenuity and heroism in their efforts to free the land of sorrow. They went; thousands of them. Many failed, died in the attempt or were recaptured and suffered lashes or were sold again. But others succeeded (at least sixty thousand fugitive slaves reached the North from 1830 to 1860), and their success was made possible originally by the aid of other Negroes free and slave, an assistance given in spite of the heavy penalties involved.

The Abolitionist movement grew and expanded and the rails of the Un­derground Railroad7 branched through hundreds of homes in scores of communities embracing thousands.

There is also evidence of the existence of Negro societies which had as their objective even more dangerous tasks than the sheltering of fugitives and the spreading of the literature and ideas of Abolitionism. These were dedicated to the aim of overthrowing slavery by every and any possible way not excepting militant action and to organizing the rescue of Negroes from slavery by entering the South and helping them escape.

The decade prior to the Civil War witnessed a sharply accelerating growth in militant abolitionism as the struggle between pro- and anti-sla­very forces became more acute. An individual, a white man, who was soon to put his philosophical convictions into practice and thereby attract the attention of the world and help precipitate the Second American Revolu­tion, John Brown, had by this period arrived at those convictions. John Brown had in mind the establishment of centres of armed Negroes in the mountains of Virginia to which the slaves might flee and from which liber­ating forays might be conducted. His raid was a failure for two main rea­sons: first, Brown’s attack was made in the north-western part of Virginia where slavery was of a domestic, household nature, and where Negroes were relatively few; secondly, Brown gave the slaves no foreknowledge of his attempt. So on October 18,1859 a force of United States marines over­powered the rebels. The survivors of the battle and J. Brown himself were tried and convicted.

The development of Abolitionism is an important part of the anti-slav­ery crusade and makes more understandable the growth of a temperament in the North necessary to a people who successfully waged a terribly bloody war (1861-1865).

For two hundred years the American Negro people waged a persistent struggle against the system of chattel slavery, and they eagerly grasped the opportunity offered by the Civil War to accentuate their struggles. The years of the war also saw tremendous rebellious activity among the poor whites within the South. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Negroes from the slave states served in the Federal armies of the North. They, together with the eighty thousand from the North, fought with an inspiring and inspired courage that was of the utmost importance in bringing about the collapse of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery.

Finally, a bloodstained, militaristic oligarchy saw its national power ripped from it. It rose in rebellion itself in a desperate attempt to stop the clock of history. Its effort was foiled essentially because the internal revolt it foresaw occurred. The poor whites in the South fled from its armies and waged war upon it. The slaves conspired or rebelled. Thus was American slavery crushed. The nation was now unified and controlled by an indus­trial bourgeoisie based upon free wage-labor.

There were, of course, immediate struggles and advances following the war. During the post-Civil War period, the Negro people, in alliance with the poor whites of the South and the radical bourgeois democrats of the North secured the extension of suffrage, the establishment of a public school system for both races and the greater distribution of land. These democratic advances were achieved only after the most bitter struggles.

But this heroic fight was defeated chiefly as a result of the shameful betrayal by the industrial and financial bourgeoisie of the North. In 1877 the latter came to an understanding with the reactionary plantocracy of the South by giving the old slave oligarchy a free hand (“Home rule”) in the Southern states. This “gentlemen’s agreement” meant disenfranchisement for the Negro, share-cropping peonage8, lynch terrorism9 and the loss of civil liberties and educational opportunities.

But the fight for Negro rights was not ended. It continued thereafter and today is being carried on as never before with the aid of the labor and progressive movement. The alliance between Negro and white is a natural and firm one capable of accomplishing the unfinished tasks of revolution­ary Reconstruction10.

 Based on: Essays in the History of the American Negro and To Be Free by H. Aptheker