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[Detail] Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Gouge, La. 1888.

Responses to Slavery in the New Nation

Some religious leaders continued to work against slavery in the period following the founding of the United States. Consider, for example, George Bourne, born in England in 1780. Bourne settled in Baltimore, Maryland, when he was 24.  He later moved to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and became pastor of a Presbyterian church.  Bourne deplored slavery.  Because of his vocal opposition to the institution, he was expelled from his church and moved north.  He published A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument; by a Citizen of Virginia   in 1845. In the book’s first chapter, he attacked the institution as cruel and ungodly:

… MEN, bartered, leased, mortgaged, bequeathed, invoiced, shipped in cargoes, stored as goods, taken on executions, and knocked off at public outcry! Their rights, another's conveniences; their interests, wares on sale; their happiness, a household utensil; their personal inalienable ownership, a serviceable article or a plaything, as best suits the humor of the hour; their deathless nature, conscience, social affections, sympathies, hopes--marketable commodities! We repeat it, "THE REDUCTION OF PERSONS TO THINGS!" Not robbing a man of privileges, but of himself; not loading him with burdens, but making him a beast of burden; not restraining liberty, but subverting it; not curtailing rights, but abolishing them; not inflicting personal cruelty, but annihilating personality; not exacting involuntary labor, but sinking man into an implement of labor; not abridging human comforts, but abrogating human nature; not depriving an animal of immunities, but despoiling a rational being of attributes, uncreating A MAN to make room for a thing!

From A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument by a Citizen of Virginia, page 8

According to Bourne, how did slavery subvert liberty?
What inferences can be drawn from Bourne’s expulsion from the Presbyterian Church?

Use the Subject Index to find material about abolitionists. You might also read the chapter “Efforts for Freedom” in Edward A. Johnson’s A School History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1890. What motivated white and black abolitionists to work for freedom for enslaved people?  How might the life stories of people like Reverend Josiah Henson and Reverend J.W. Loguen have motivated people to work for an end to slavery?

Abolition was not the only response to slavery in the United States’ early years as a nation. Another response was a call for colonization of former slaves in Africa. Read “The Formation of the American Colonization Society” by Henry Sherwood from the Journal of Negro History (July 1917). Sherwood traces the origins of the Colonization Society to spasmodic movements as early as 1714 through the attempts by states to lobby for a national organization to transport freed slaves to unsettled areas of the West or repatriation to West Africa.

  • What were the motives behind the removal of free Blacks from the United States?
  • Why did some anti-slavery organizations support colonization?
  • What role did Paul Cuffe play in the establishment of a colony in Sierra Leone?
  • What were the religious motives of Christian “deportationists”?

The American Colonization Society, officially formed in 1817, petitioned Congress for funds to support the establishment of a colony in West Africa.  In 1822 the colony of Liberia was established.  In addition to some federal funds, money for support of the colony came from some state legislatures, private bequests, and from religious communities.

Jehudi Ashmun

Jehudi Ashmun, from “Sketch of the Life of Rev. Lott Cary,” frontispiece. Who was Jehudi Ashmun? What was his role in the American Colonization Society?

Lott Cary, a former slave and celebrated Baptist minister in Richmond, used his influence to encourage the development of missionary work in Africa.  He sailed for Sierra Leone in 1821, becoming the first American Baptist missionary in Africa. Read “Sketch of the Life of Rev. Lott Cary.”

  • What was Cary’s goal in Africa? What challenges did he face in the course of his work there?
  • Describe the circumstances surrounding Cary’s death. What do these circumstances suggest about the difficulty of the colonization effort?

African Americans did not universally support colonization. Richard Allen, founder of the AME church and one of the most respected leaders of the free Black community in Philadelphia, opposed the attempt to establish a colony in West Africa. Conduct research to learn more about the arguments against colonization. List the pros and cons of colonization.Explain which list you find more compelling.

Did the effort to resettle in Africa continue after emancipation? Find at least two sources in the collection that provide insight on this question.

The collection also includes materials on another response to slavery—active rebellion. In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a free black who had agonized over the oppressiveness of slavery and the national debate over the Missouri Compromise, organized an uprising to take place on a Sunday night in July when many of the whites would be away from Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey was keenly aware of the declarations of the American and French Revolutions based on natural and inalienable rights. 

Vesey’s plot was discovered in June when a slave turned informer.  James Hamilton, Jr., Mayor of Charleston, won fame for foiling the plot and wrote Negro Plot:  An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection Among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina,  describing the events leading to the planned revolt.  Hamilton served in the South Carolina legislature and later became governor of the state, where he was a leading force in the Nullification Crisis.

Some years later, Archibald Grimké, an African American lawyer and diplomat, wrote an account of the Vesey uprising from an altogether different perspective.  Right on the Scaffold, or the Martyrs of 1822 was published by the American Negro Academy in 1901.  Grimké wrote a detailed account of the events leading to the insurrection and the resulting trials and executions. 

It [the insurrection] contains a lesson and a warning which a fool need not err in reading and understanding.  Oppression is a powder magazine exposed always to the danger of explosion from spontaneous combustion. . . .

It is verily no light thing for the Negroes of the United States to have produced such a man, such a hero and martyr. It is certainly no light heritage, the knowledge that his brave blood flows in their veins. For history does not record, that any other of its long and shining line of heroes and martyrs, ever met death, anywhere on this globe, in a holier cause or a sublimer mood, than did this Spartan-like slave, more than three quarters of a century ago.

From Right on the Scaffold, or the Martyrs of 1822, pages 22, 24

  • How do the two accounts of the Vesey Uprising differ?
  • What accounts for the celebratory nature of Hamilton’s account?
  • Why do you think this account increased Hamilton’s influence in South Carolina politics?
  • According to Grimké, what were the underlying causes for the insurrection?
  • Why do you think he referred to the insurgents as “Martyrs of 1822”?

Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher in Southampton Country, Virginia, was convinced that he was God’s chosen instrument to free slaves from bondage.  Relying on divine intervention rather than enlisting a large force to achieve his goal, in August 1831 he and a few followers launched their rebellion.  As Turner marched through the countryside, his numbers swelled.  Some 55 white Virginians were seized and put to death during the short-lived rebellion.  Turner escaped capture for six weeks.  Upon capture, he was jailed.  His court-appointed attorney, Thomas Gray, published what he attested was Turner’s actual confession shortly after his arrest.  However, doubt exists whether “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is accurate.  Within two weeks after capture, Turner and accused co-conspirators were executed.  Several Southern states called special sessions of their legislatures to strengthen their slave codes, the laws that regulated slavery.

Why do you think the Nat Turner Rebellion stirred such concern among whites throughout the South?