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BAMS 313/ENGL 344
5 May 2013
Practicality over persuasion
Slave abolition went through many changes in its practices, methods, and tactics through history. Vast changes are noted in the actions and language of abolitionist as the movement progressed. Moral persuasion was the original campaign attempted by prominent abolitionist, following moral persuasion was political action. Aside from their end goal the two campaigns were different in target audience and ideology. The trajectory of slave abolition and its language progressed to political action as a reaction to the domestic social and political arena that did not react with the empathy expected from moral persuasion.
Particularly important to note in the campaign for peaceful emancipation is the language of fear that was stated early within abolitionism and moral persuasion. William Garrison is a much respected abolitionist of the 1800’s. His ideology is a standard in which other theories of abolitionism are measured against. Garrison’s message of immediate emancipation of slaves is driven by a fear of innocent blood being spilled. Garrison feared that “Within a century there would be ‘TWENTY MILLIONS’ of slaves; no society could hold so many humans in bondage, and the blacks would break their chains to take revenge” (Abzug, 16). Class war was Garrison’s fear and he understood that if violence were to occur, the political and social equality of Negro American’s would never be achieved.
Also important to origins of the Garrison standard is his tactical “application of the principles of evangelical religion to the slave question” (Abzug, 16). This approach emphasizes that although slavery is a problem politically, socially, and economically. Slaveries worst attribute was that it was a religious sin. The nation as a whole was sinning because it allowed slavery to be practiced. According to Garrison, God would punish the United States by an escalation of violence that would result in a “war of extermination on either side” (Abzug, 19).
Another key figure of moral suasion was Frederick Douglass, prior to being influenced by Gerrit Smith. At the Troy National conventions, Douglass was able to show his influence on the topic of abolition, by writing the first reports from committees that included language of the moral suasion nature: “the best means of abolishing slavery is the proclamation of the truth, and the best means of destroying caste is the mental, moral and industrial improvement of our people,” (Bell, 10). This language is considered to be moral suasion because it aims to change the beliefs of people into accepting that all men are equal in nature. It attempts to win the hearts of people by exposing that social inequality is detrimental.
Beyond Douglass and Garrison there are other voices that must be noted to fully understand the whole picture of moral suasion. Josephine Brown and her novel Biography of an American Bondmen is the narrative of her father’s life escaping freedom and is meant to create emotions sympathetic to the cause of slavery abolition. Being separated from ones family under any circumstances is extremely emotional; the emotion is heightened when the root of the separation is unjust bigot laws. When Brown writes and describes the emotions involved when her father and grandmother were captured and separated in Illinois, she is attempting condemn slavery with tears running down the readers face. “I found her chained to another woman. On seeing me, she dropped her head upon her bosom, her emotion being too deep for tears. I approached her and fell upon my knees, threw my arms around her neck, and mingled my tears with hers, that now began to flow” (Brown, 33).
Another author, Harriet E. Wilson, wrote a novel that formed a narrative for a typical moral suasion argument. It is believed that her novel Our Nig was the first novel published by an African American woman. There is speculation that Our Nig was, in a sense a fictional autobiographical novel of her life. The preface of the novel acknowledges that the story is created to gather support against unjust treatment of African American citizens who live in the North and are still abused by their owners.
The story has a few irrational characters like Mrs. B who regularly beats Frado and forces her to starve, even though she is an innocent little girl. The narrative of abuse towards our Nig, who technically is a free citizen, is in line with the aims of moral persuasion. If slavery abolition was going to occur, first the sins of characters like Mrs. B needed to be addressed. Also if abolitionism was to be brought to the South, the North needed to develop progressive thinking in accepting African Americans.
Our Nig includes a few characters that are examples of the figures that understand the wrongs of physical abuse and have empathy towards the injustices of African Americans. Jack Bellmont frequently stood up for Frado and was not afraid to point out to his mother the error in her ways; “So you thought you’d vent your spite on Nig, did you? Why can’t you let her alone? It was good enough for you to get a ducking, on you did not stay in half long enough” (Wilson, 20). Another character with the purpose of showing moral and spiritual progress was Aunt Abby. Aunt Abby was an outlet for Frado who felt safe within her company. Frado would often attend church with Aunt Abby, the religious lessons really impacted Frado and gave her hope and “strengthened her conviction that a heavenly Messenger was striving with her,” (Wilson, 48). The idea of a spiritual being to aid Frado is the type of language regarding proper religious morals that Garrison would preach Americans to follow. Garrison followed Catholic morals and teachings that he believed would enlighten society to why slavery needed to be illegalized. The nature of moral suasion novel is certainly distinguishable. Yet the expected results of moral suasion never occurred. The hearts of citizens and important lawmakers were not won over by these compelling and tragic stories. This inability to persuade public was shown in a national light with the ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Supreme Court made two important decisions from this case. The first was that any African American with slave ancestry could not be considered a citizen. The reasoning was that, “when the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its “people or citizens” (Dred Scott v. Sandford). Secondly the clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to make all rules and regulations for the government of the territory is not applicable to states that were not a part of the original 13 colonies. This means that decisions regarding property ownership could not be decided by the federal government in newly acquired territory. Even though Dred Scott was a resident with his master in Illinois, a state that banned slavery, he was not allowed to sue for his freedom, since the court decided he was not a citizen and had no legal right to sue.
Even before the Dred Scott ruling, it was clear that moral persuasion was not delivering the results wanted by abolitionist. The Kansas-Nebraska act in 1854 set forth the agreement that popular sovereignty would decide if the newly formed territories would legalize slavery. It created a frantic rush of activist into the areas being contested. Each faction mobilized to swing the referendum in their sides favor. The polarizing opinions on the bill within the community escalated to violent confrontations. Stories like Biography of an American Bondmen that attempted to create a nation more empathetic towards African Americans failed in doing that. Stories of heroic perseverance even after the mental anguish of family separation thanks to slavery could not captivate lawmakers. Instead after the Dred Scott ruling African Americans are federally considered inferior to white’s and are recognized only as property.
The activism involved in organizing people to reside in Kansas from the North is one of the early defining moments of political action. Instead of trying to change the heart of the constituents in Kansas, the northerners mobilized 20,000 people to vote for emancipation (Bleeding Kansas). On March 30, 1855 voting was held to decide the legal definition of citizens within the territory, and the pro-slavery faction won the election (Bleeding Kansas). After a state committee review they decided anti-slavery was the will of the territory (Bleeding Kansas), the decision was not federally recognized. In response local tensions arose on May 21, 1856 as pro-slavery groups burned the Free State Hotel, and ransacked the town of Lawrence (Bleeding Kansas).
In retaliation to these attacks abolitionist John Brown “led a group of men on an attack at Pottawatomie Creek. The group, which included four of Brown’s sons, dragged five proslavery men from their homes and hacked them to death” (Bleeding Kansas). John Brown and his followers acted against the non violent ideology of moral persuasion. Other abolitionist such as Madison Washington followed his lead and tried to force abolition upon the US through quasi-military tactics.
One of the most famous examples of these new waves of aggressive abolitionism is in the short story by Frederick Douglass, inspired by the life of Madison Washington. The event that inspired the short story took place 12 years before it was published; nonetheless it was an inspiring story for John Brown and other abolitionist. Douglass attempted moral persuasion previously though his literature like Uncle Tom, in contrast now had written a novel with pro political action messages.
The Heroic Slave is a prime example of support for political action instead of moral persuasion. The story was cleverly written so that it avoids focusing its message on Madison’s personal narrative regarding the loss of his wife. Instead, the tragic and emotional ending to Susan Washington’s life is a criticism of moral persuasion. Madison Washington had thankfully gotten to the free earth of Canada, only to return to danger in an attempt to save his wife. The manner in which Madison describes his emotions when leaving his family, gives a sense of hopelessness and weakness; “The thought of leaving my poor wife and two little children caused me indescribable anguish” (Douglass, 189). The emotions that were meant to stir the heartstrings of the readers now are defects in the stories protagonist. Instead of looking for empathy through the literature, The Heroic Slave can be seen as a call for others to follow Madison Washington’s action and grab equality by the neck. Washington again to be sold into the market after he was captured freeing his wife, was given a file by Mr. Listwell. He used the file to free himself and the other slaves aboard the ship. They commandeered the vessel and set sail for liberty in the Bahamas.
Madison was the metaphor which Douglass used to criticize moral persuasion. His language in his “Slumbering Volcano speech” further shows his conversion to the political action ideology. During his address he criticizes the ideas of the American Colonization Society, and offers advice to the enslaved African Americans. The American Colonization Society wanted to create a separate colony outside of the US for African Americans to emigrate to. In order to ensure that African Americans left they promoted the idea “that we can never enjoy equal rights or peace in this country- that we are doomed people, and that no efforts can save us while we remain here” (Slavery, 150). He urges slaves in the south to remain and to rally around the ideas that the slave owners will be punished and that slaves will have justice “those who have given us blood to drink for wages, may expect that their turn will come one day” (Slavery, 152). This quote shows this conversion to political action, the wait for justice has not been provided by legal means. “Those sable arms that have long been engaged in cultivating, beautifying, and adorning the South, to spread death and devastation there” (Slavery, 153). The language from Douglass is now clearly in favor of political action; the messages of his words have tones of revenge. His message in “Slumbering Volcano” is also nationalist because it attempts to rally African Americans together. Nationalism must include rallying against a common enemy. Douglass quote calls for revenge against the enemy white slave holders.
Another example of political action for emancipation was the incident at Harpers Ferry. Captain John Brown and 20 men attempted to create a slave revolt by capturing the town Harper Ferry, Virginia and the weapon factory within it. For a short while Captain Brown was successful in capturing the armory and in control of the town. He was even able to capture a relative of George Washington “Col. Washington opened his room door and begged us not to kill him. Capt. Stevens replied ‘that he had come to abolish slavery, not to take life but in self-defense” (Anderson, 32). Captain Brown’s men did receive some military training but still they were no match for the marines sent by Washington to quell the revolt. The overwhelming numbers of the troops forced Brown and his remaining men into an engine room early Monday. The troops forced themselves within the engine room and “Osawatomie Brown, Received three bayonet stabs, and a cut on his brave old crown” (Anderson, 65).
The revolt created actual fear of a revolt that the early gospel sermons of Garrison could not instill on the public. The raid was not successful but its effects still resonated amongst the United States. The significance of John Brown’s fearless leadership throughout the Harpers Ferry Incident turned him into a heroic icon, songs such as “John Brown’s Body” illustrate the impact he left behind, especially since the battle for emancipation was nowhere near over. Moral persuasion in stories like Our Nig and Biography of an American Bondmen meant to create empathy for African Americans was not present in important decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford. Events like Harpers Ferry and Washington’s revolt escalated tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. If Douglass had continued to push moral persuasion instead of political action then it is possible that leaders like John Brown or Washington would have never risen to initiate results for slavery abolition.
Abzug, Robert. “The Influence of Garrisonian Abolitionists’ Fears of Slave Violence on the
Antislavery Argument, 1829-40.” The Journal of Negro History. Vol,55. No. 1
Web. 05 May, 2013
Anderson P. Osborne, “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, a Narrative of Events at Harper’s Ferry: with Incidents Prior and Subsequent to its Capture by Captain Brown and his Men.” Boston. 1861. Web. 05 May, 2013
Bell, Howard. “The Influence of Garrisonian Abolitionists’ Fears of Slave Violence on Antislavery Argument, 1829-40”. The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 42, No. 4. October, 1957. Web. 05 May, 2013
“Bleeding Kansas.” PBS. Africans in America, n.d. Web. 05 May, 2013
Brown, Josephine. Biography of An American Bondman, by his Daughter. R.F. Wallcut. Boston. 1856. Web. 05 May, 2013
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. John P Jewett and Company. Boston. 1853. Web. 05 May 2013
Dred Scott v. Sandford. 60. U.S. 393.Supreme Court of the United States. February 1857.
“Slavery, the Slumbering Volcano: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, On 23 April 1849.” Frederick Douglass. National Anti-Slavery Standard. 3 May, 1849. Web. 05 May, 2013.
Wilson, Harriet. Our Nig. Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Penguin Books. New York. 2009.