Resistance and Abolition
Although it was the law of the land for more than 300 years, American slavery was challenged and resisted every day, by its victims, by its survivors, and by those who found it morally unacceptable. The long campaign to abolish the trade in human beings was one of the great moral crusades in U.S. history, and its success was the result of decades of organization and agitation by African Americans and their European American allies.
Negotiations and Insurrections
Daily life in a slave workplace was marked by countless acts of everyday resistance. Although their freedom was denied by the law, enslaved African Americans used a wide variety of strategies to contest the authority of slaveholders and to assert their right to control their own lives. Slaveholders depended on slaves' labor to keep their businesses solvent, and slaves often used work slowdowns and absenteeism to negotiate some of the terms of their labor.
Many African Americans defied the slave system by leaving it. Escape attempts were dangerous and uncertain, and slaveholders posted substantial rewards for captured fugitives, but every year thousands of slaves fled to free states or territories. On the way, they were aided by slaves on nearby farms and plantations and by networks of free African Americans and European Americans. By 1860, an estimated 400,000 people had escaped from slavery.
The form of resistance most feared by slaveholders, however, was violent insurrection. Throughout the history of slavery, African captives and enslaved African Americans had taken up arms and fought back against their captors. In the early 19th century, however, there came a series of armed revolts in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida, punctuated by the rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, in which more than 50 European Americans were killed.
Slaveholders were haunted by the possibility of a large-scale rebellion, and they publicized lurid accounts of the Turner uprising and other, sometimes fictional, conspiracies in the hopes of increasing public vigilance. In the North, however, their efforts found a much different audience than they expected.
For an in-depth look at slave revolts and insurrections, visit African American Odyssey: Liberation Strategies.
Calls for Abolition
While enslaved African Americans fought against the strictures of slavery in their daily lives, another battle was taking place in the public sphere.
African Americans had spoken out against slavery since its beginnings, often joined by European Americans, but by the beginning of the 19th century the fight for its nationwide abolition was reaching a boiling point. The rhetoric of the American Revolution, with its invocation of inalienable rights and universal freedom, had led to heated debate over the access of African Americans to these rights. Most Northern states, many of which had not used much slave labor for some time, had abolished slavery by the 1820s, and the North became the staging ground for newly energized attacks against the slave society of the South.
Former slaves and free African Americans were in the vanguard of the battle for abolition, and they fought on many fronts. They formed local, regional, and national abolitionist societies and toured the country relentlessly. In time, a star team of powerful public speakers was assembled, to be dispatched to trouble spots at a moment's notice, including Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Isabella Baumfree, better known as Sojourner Truth. Henry Highland Garnet spoke directly to African Americans still in slavery, calling for dramatic action.
Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been-you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than to be slaves. Remember that you are FOUR MILLIONS!
Some African American activists carried on the fight in a less public way, working undercover and planning daring raids to free fugitive slaves from kidnappers and lynch mobs. Others traveled deep into hostile territory, guiding fugitives to freedom through the vast network of sympathetic helpers and hiding places that was known as the Underground Railroad.
Much of the struggle was carried on in print. African Americans founded anti-slavery newspapers, such as the Mirror of Liberty, Freedom's Journal, the National Watchman, and the North Star. They sparred with the defenders of slavery in the pages of newspapers and magazines and posted broadsides on city streets. Soon, a new genre of literature came into being, as abolitionists flooded the market with books and leaflets providing true accounts of life under slavery, of hair-raising slave escapes, and of the lives of free African Americans who had risen to public prominence.
Abolitionists often faced violent opposition. Their printing presses were smashed, their books burned, and their lives threatened in both the North and South. Through their perseverance, however, they escalated the conflict over slavery to a critical point. The unrelenting attacks of the abolitionists galvanized slaveholder opinion in the South, and helped guarantee that the issue would eventually be decided through open war.
In so doing, the abolitionists also provided a model for organized public opposition that would be followed by countless advocacy groups to come, including advocates for women's suffrage and, in the next century, the campaigners for complete civil rights for African Americans.
For more information on the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass, visit The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress.
For a closer look at some of the operators of the Underground Railroad, visit The African-American Experience in Ohio.