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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy

Some Americans who worked to end slavery were motivated by their religious beliefs. These people used arguments based in religious teachings to make the case against slavery. Examine each of the following documents:

John G. Whittier. “The Branded Hand.”

John G. Whittier. “The Branded Hand.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division

What religious beliefs motivated the authors? How were their arguments similar and different? To whom did they address their appeals?

Religious sermons and writings were only one way abolitionists tried to convince others of the worth of their cause. They also used visual images, songs, poetry, novels, and drama in their campaign. Read the poem that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about Jonathan Walker.

  • Describe the series of events that prompted Whittier to write the poem.
  • To what historical figures did Whittier compare Walker?
  • What did Whittier suggest the brand “SS” actually means? Give other examples of his use of the language of Christianity in the poem.
  • How effective do you think this poem was in eliciting support for the cause of abolition?
  • Find another poem written by an abolitionist and compare the two. How are they similar and different? Which do you find most effective? Why?
Detail from Anthony Burns

Detail from Anthony Burns Boston: R. M. Edwards, 1855. Wood engraving with letterpress. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-90750 (3-9)

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was one of the most controversial pieces of the Compromise of 1850. The law’s authors wanted to force law enforcement officials in free states to return slaves who had managed to escape from the South. The law had several unintended consequences. Study the section of the Special Presentation on the Fugitive Slave Law and answer the following questions:

  • Name two unintended consequences of the Fugitive Slave Law. Did these unintended consequences work for or against slaveholders? Explain your answer.
  • How did S.M. Africanus justify noncompliance with the Fugitive Slave Law? Do you agree that civil disobedience would be justified with respect to this law? Why or why not?
  • Find out more about the case of Anthony Burns. Why did his case become so important to people on both sides of the slavery issue?