Introduction

By 1830, slavery had become very much a regional, as opposed to a national institution (see Number of Slaves in the Territory Enumerated, 1790 to 1850). The New England and Middle States had, through a combination of gradual abolition and immediate emancipation measures, dramatically decreased the number of slaves in their territories, while the Southern states had increased their reliance upon slave labor in the production of various cash crops, chief among them “King Cotton.” Nevertheless, there were individuals in both sections of the country who recognized the need for continued prudential reform. In December 1833, dozens of Northern activists met in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society. Although the group called for the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all enslaved persons, they also denounced the use of violent resistance – an important concession to Southern slaveholders fearful of additional armed uprisings like Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831). Southern activist Angelina Grimke addressed similar fears in her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. Grimke urged Southern women to speak out against slavery as an unjust and oppressive system, but also counseled them to encourage patience and submission on the part of their slaves until freedom was obtained.

As the decade wore on, such moderate positions were eclipsed by a hardening of views and greater entrenchment on both sides. Southern newspapers carried advertisements for runaway slaves that described them in horrific, brutalizing terms, which Northern publishers delighted in reprinting to highlight the inhumanity of slaveholders. In 1849, Frederick Douglass – a self-emancipated former slave – emphatically denounced all plans related to abolition that did not also aim at ending racial prejudice and lead towards the formal equality of blacks and whites. Yet five years later, Southern sociologist George Fitzhugh was still defending race-based slavery as positive good, arguing that it benefited the slave as well as the owner.


Angelina Grimké, Appeal to Christian Women of the South (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836).


RESPECTED FRIENDS,

It is because I feel a deep and tender interest in your present and eternal welfare that I am willing thus publicly to address you. . . . I feel an interest in you, as branches of the same vine from whose root I daily draw the principle of spiritual vitality – Yes! Sisters in Christ I feel an interest in you, and often has the secret prayer arisen on your behalf, Lord “open thou their eyes that they may see wondrous things out of thy Law” – It is then, because I do feel and do pray for you, that I thus address you upon a subject about which of all others, perhaps you would rather not hear anything; but, “would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly, and indeed bear with me, for I am jealous over you with godly jealousy.”1 Be not afraid then to read my appeal; it is not written in the heat of passion or prejudice, but in that solemn calmness which is the result of conviction and duty. It is true, I am going to tell you unwelcome truths, but I mean to speak those truths in love, and remember Solomon says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.”2 I do not believe the time has yet come when Christian women “will not endure sound doctrine,”3 even on the subject of Slavery, if it is spoken to them in tenderness and love, therefore I now address you.

. . . It will be, and that very soon, clearly perceived and fully acknowledged by all the virtuous and the candid, that in principle it is as sinful to hold a human being in bondage who has been born in Carolina, as one who has been born in Africa. All that sophistry of argument which has been employed to prove, that although it is sinful to send to Africa to procure men and women as slaves, who, have never been in slavery, that still, it is not sinful to keep those in bondage who have come down by inheritance, will be utterly over thrown. We must come back to the good old doctrine of our fore fathers who declared to the world, “this self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights among which are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is even a greater absurdity to suppose a man can be legally born a slave under our free Republican Government, than under the petty despotisms of barbarian Africa. If then, we have no right to enslave an African, surely we can have none to enslave an American; if a self-evident truth that all men everywhere and of every color are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage and held as a slave, however fair may be the claim of his master or mistress through wills and title-deeds. . . .

But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject ? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken. You can do much in every way: four things I will name. 1st. You can read on this subject. 2d. You can pray over this subject. 3d. You can speak on this subject. 4th. You can act on this subject. I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for; it is only then we can “pray with the understanding, and the spirit also.”4

  1. Read then on the subject of slavery. Search the Scriptures daily, whether the things I have told you are true. Other books and papers might be a great help to you in this investigation, but they are not necessary, and it is hardly probable that your Committees of Vigilance5 will allow you to have any other. The Bible then is the book I want you to read in the spirit of inquiry, and the spirit of prayer. Even the enemies of Abolitionists, acknowledge that their doctrines are drawn from it. In the great mob in Boston, last autumn, when the books and papers of the Anti-Slavery Society, were thrown out of the windows of their office, one individual laid hold of the Bible and was about tossing it out to the ground, when another reminded him that it was the Bible be had in his hand. “O! ‘tis all one,” he replied, and out went the sacred volume, along with the rest. We thank him for the acknowledgment. Yes, “it is all one,” for our books and papers are mostly commentaries on the Bible, and the Declaration. Read the Bible then, it contains the words of Jesus, and they are spirit and life. Judge for yourselves whether he sanctioned such a system of oppression and crime.
  2. Pray over this subject. When you have entered into your closets, and shut the doors, then pray to your Father, who sees in secret, that he would open your eyes to see whether slavery is sinful, and if it is, that he would enable you to bear a faithful, open and unshrinking testimony against it, and to do whatsoever your hands find to do, leaving the consequences entirely to him, who still says to us whenever we try to reason away duty from the fear of consequences, ”What is that to thee, follow thou me.”6 Pray also for that poor slave, that he may be kept patient and submissive under his hard lot, until God is pleased to open the door of freedom to him without violence or bloodshed. Pray too for the master that his heart may be softened and he made willing to acknowledge, as Joseph’s brethren did, “Verily we are guilty concerning our brother,”7 before he will be compelled to add in consequence of Divine judgment, “therefore is all this evil come upon us.”8 Pray also for all your brethren and sisters who are laboring in the righteous cause of Emancipation in the Northern States, England and the world. There is great encouragement for prayer in these words of our Lord. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you”9 – Pray then without ceasing, in the closet and the social circle.
  3. Speak on this subject. It is through the tongue, the pen, and the press, that truth is principally propagated. Speak then to your relatives, your friends, your acquaintances on the subject of slavery; be not afraid if you are conscientiously convinced it is sinful, to say so openly, but calmly, and to let your sentiments be known. If you are served by the slaves of others, try to ameliorate their condition as much as possible; never aggravate their faults, and thus add fuel to the fire of anger already kindled, in a master and mistress’s bosom; remember their extreme ignorance, and consider them as your Heavenly Father does the less culpable on this account, even when they do wrong things. Discountenance all cruelty to them, all starvation, all corporal chastisement; these may brutalize and break their spirits, but will never bend them to willing, cheerful obedience. If possible, see that they are comfortably and seasonably fed, whether in the house or the field; it is unreasonable and cruel to expect slaves to wait for their breakfast until eleven o’clock, when they rise at five or six. Do all you can, to induce their owners to clothe them well, and to allow them many little indulgences which would contribute to their comfort. Above all, try to persuade your husband, father, brothers and sons, that slavery is a crime against God and man, and that it is a great sin to keep human beings in such abject ignorance; to deny them the privilege of learning to read and write. The Catholics are universally condemned, for denying the Bible to the common people, but, slaveholders must not blame them, for they are doing the very same thing, and for the very same reason, neither of these systems can bear the light which bursts from the pages of that Holy Book. And lastly, endeavor to inculcate submission on the part of the slaves, but whilst doing this be faithful in pleading the cause of the oppressed.
  4. Act on this subject. Some of you own slaves yourselves. If you believe slavery is sinful, set them at liberty, “undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.”10 If they wish to remain with you, pay them wages, if not let them leave you. Should they remain teach them, and have them taught the common branches of an English education; they have minds and those minds ought to be improved. So precious a talent as intellect, never was given to be wrapped in a napkin and buried in the earth.11 It is the duty of all, as far as they can, to improve their own menial faculties, because we are commanded to love God with all our minds, as well as with all our hearts, and we commit a great sin, if we forbid or prevent that cultivation of the mind in others, which would enable them to perform this duty. Teach your servants then to read &c, and encourage them to believe it is their duty to learn, if it were only that they might read the Bible.

But some of you will say, we can neither free our slaves nor teach them to read, for the laws of our state forbid it. Be not surprised when I say such wicked laws ought to be no barrier in the way of your duty, and I appeal to the Bible to prove this position. . . .

I know that this doctrine of obeying God, rather than man, will be considered as dangerous, and heretical by many, but I am not afraid openly to avow it, because it is the doctrine of the Bible; but I would not be understood to advocate resistance to any law however oppressive, if, in obeying it, I was not obliged to commit sin. If for instance, there was a law, which imposed imprisonment or a fine upon me if I manumitted a slave, I would on no account resist that law, I would set the slave free, and then go to prison or pay the fine. If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly. The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians.
. . .

The women of the South can overthrow this horrible system of oppression and cruelty, licentiousness and wrong. Such appeals to your legislatures would be irresistible, for there is something in the heart of man which will bend under moral suasion. There is a swift witness for truth in his bosom, which will respond to truth when it is uttered with calmness and dignity. If you could obtain but six signatures to such a petition in only one state, I would say, send up that petition, and be not in the least discouraged by the scoffs, and jeers of the heartless, or the resolution of the house to lay it on the table. It will be a great thing if the subject can be introduced into your legislatures in any way, even by women, and they will be the most likely to introduce it there in the best possible manner, as a matter of morals and religion, not of expediency or politics. You may petition, too, the different ecclesiastical bodies of the slave states. Slavery must be attacked with the whole power of truth and the sword of the spirit. You must take it up on Christian ground, and fight against it with Christian weapons, whilst your feet are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. And you are now loudly called upon by the cries of the widow and the orphan, to arise and gird yourselves for this great moral conflict, with the whole armor of righteousness upon the right hand and on the left.12. . .

I have appealed to your sympathies as women, to your sense of duty as Christian women. . . . I have sowed the seeds of truth, but I well know, that even if an Apollos were to follow in my steps to water them, “God only can give the increase.”13 To Him then who is able to prosper the work of his servant’s hand, I commend this Appeal in fervent prayer, that as he hath “chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the things which are mighty,”14 so He may cause His blessing, to descend and carry conviction to the hearts of many Lydias15 through these speaking pages. Farewell – Count me not your “enemy because I have told you the truth,”16 but believe me in unfeigned affection,

Your sympathizing Friend,

Angelina Grimké

Study Questions

A. How might the shifting demographics of slavery in the United States have contributed to the regional tensions and the escalating rhetoric on the issue? Looking at the prints from the period, what can we conclude about the treatment of southern slaves? How do the various authors view the slave experience; how do they view enslaved individuals? What reasons do they offer for ending or supporting slavery?

B. How are the arguments about slavery in this chapter like or unlike those about wage slavery and slavery?

C. How true does President Abraham Lincoln’s remark that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and read the same Bible appear in light of the very different interpretations of the Bible on the question of slavery, as evidenced here? In what ways are the arguments about eugenics in the twentieth century reminiscent of the arguments in favor of slavery? How might either set of arguments be evaluated in light of the Declaration of Independence? In what ways do the arguments for and against containment of the Soviet Union recall earlier arguments for and against the containment of slavery hinted at by the documents here? How might we evaluate the discussion of African American Civil Rights in the twentieth century light of the texts in this chapter: how have attitudes from the earlier time period remained in force? How have they changed?

Footnotes

  1. 2 Corinthians 11:1.
  2. Proverbs 27:6.
  3. 2 Timothy 4:3.
  4. 1 Corinthians 14:15.
  5. Groups of private citizens acting outside the law but supposedly in support of it. In this case, Grimke is probably referring to committees set up to restrict the circulation of abolitionist writings.
  6. John 21:22.
  7. Genesis 42:21.
  8. Jeremiah 32:23, but other passages as well.
  9. John 16:23.
  10. Isaiah 58:6.
  11. An allusion to Matthew 5:14–30
  12. This passage alludes to Ephesians 6: 11 – 17.
  13. 1 Corinthians 3:6-9.
  14. 1 Corinthians 1:27
  15. Grimke refers to the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16:14.
  16. Galatians 4:16.