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
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
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.