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.


“Runaway slave notices” (Boston: Webster & Southard, C.), 1839. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b11995838; “Our peculiar domestic institutions,” c. 1840. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections, b11995838.

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?