Home > Uncategorized > Inheritors of the New England Abolitionist Tradition – posted 8/31/2021

Inheritors of the New England Abolitionist Tradition – posted 8/31/2021

Current debates about racism, critical race theory or the 1619 Project generally lack historical perspective. Advocates take positions pro or con without putting 2021 issues in any historical context. As an anti-racist, I would like to situate current struggles in a different framework.

I would suggest that New Englanders are the inheritors of a most proud and noble abolitionist tradition that includes figures like William Lloyd Garrison, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

There is a long interracial tradition of New Englanders taking the national lead in opposing racism and slavery. New England’s reputation as a cradle of American civilization is tied up with being in the anti-slavery vanguard.

Surprisingly though, abolitionists have been inadequately recognized in American history for their contributions to moving the struggle against racism forward. They started as a tiny despised minority and ended up persuading much of a nation. The abolitionists present a paradigm that all later progressive social movements in American history draw on.

I would begin with William Lloyd Garrison of Newburyport, Massachusetts and later Boston. In the late 1820’a there were about two million African Americans held in slavery. Few voices were raised in opposition. Garrison got the idea of publishing a newspaper to promote the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1831, he started the Liberator, a paper that had more black than white readers. In the first issue, Garrison wrote:

“…I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this moment to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity…I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice…I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.”

The world around Garrison did not appear to be moving in any direction he favored. The introduction of the cotton gin had made slavery economically indispensable to both the South and the North. Slavery was extremely profitable and deeply entrenched. Nevertheless, Garrison persisted, helping to found the New England Anti-Slavery Society and later the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Garrison believed in moral suasion. He actually believed he could convert all kinds of people, including slaveholders, to oppose slavery.

Garrison paid a heavy price for his writing and activism. Southern states placed a bounty on his head. In 1835, a Boston mob constructed a gallows in front of his office, apprehended him, put a rope around him and almost lynched him. He was rescued at the last minute and put in jail for his own protection. The mob burned him in effigy.

Allies in the Boston African American community supported the anti-slavery fight. In 1830, David Walker, a leader of the Boston black community, authored An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Walker opposed colonization, a movement that sought to move free blacks to a colony in Africa. At the time, even some abolitionists supported colonization. Garrison published Walker’s Appeal.

Maria Stewart, an African American woman from Hartford Ct and later Boston, became one of the first women to speak publicly including to mixed audiences of black and white men and women. That was almost unheard of then. Stewart lectured before the New England Anti-Slavery Society and Garrison also published her anti-slavery writing. She became famous for powerful speeches she delivered in the early 1830’s.

In 1835, the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society based in Concord published the Herald of Freedom, a weekly newspaper with its motto “No compromise with slavery”. A Plymouth-based attorney Nathaniel Peabody Rogers became the editor. In 1840, Rogers represented New Hampshire abolitionists at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Thoreau wrote highly of Rogers and he became a subject of an 1844 Thoreau essay.

Abolitionists built a school in Canaan, New Hampshire named Noyes Academy that admitted 14 black students including Henry Highland Garnet, a later-to-be well-known abolitionist. The school only last a few months. Locals objected to the attendance of black students. They used a team of oxen to drag the school building off its foundation. The building was then destroyed.

On the political front, John Quincy Adams and Charles Sumner, both of Massachusetts, deserve special mention. After this presidency, Adams fought the Slave Power as a Congressman. For years, against massive opposition, he brought up petitions from his constituents demanding an end to slavery. As a master of parliamentary procedure, Adams fought the Slave Power tooth and nail.

Sumner was right there with Adams. Through a long political career, including 20 years as a U.S. Senator, Sumner fought eloquently. He was a great orator. In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Sumner on the floor of the Senate after a Sumner speech excoriating slavery. Brooks felt Sumner had slandered his family. The assault almost killed Sumner. It took Sumner several years to recover but he went on to lead the Radical Republicans in the Senate right through the Civil War.

New England abolitionists were also most outspoken on the literary front. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier, all of Massachusetts, and Harriet Beecher Stowe of Connecticut all saw slavery as monstrous. Thoreau wrote “Slavery in Massachusetts” and raked the state for its collaboration with slaveholders. He also fiercely defended John Brown. Emerson denounced the Fugitive Slave Act.

Whittier, a Quaker and a poet, devoted twenty years of his life to abolitionism. He edited a leading Northern anti-slavery newspaper, the Pennsylvania Freeman. In May 1838 its offices were burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob. Stowe was most famous for writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Stowe supported the Underground Railroad. Supposedly when Stowe met President Lincoln in 1862 he said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”.

I think all American progressives are in debt to the New England abolitionists. Although they were stereotyped as single-minded fanatics, they were quintessential moralists who placed human rights at the center of their world view. They transformed words into deeds and made peaceful co-existence with slavery an impossibility.

As 21st century activists, we are building on the abolitionist tradition. In our era, advancing an anti-racist agenda means attacking the pillars of institutionalized racism which have led to huge economic inequality, restricted voting rights, mass incarceration, poor housing, medical apartheid, and re-segregated public education.

Opponents of critical race theory and the 1619 project have shown no willingness to face the actual history of our country.

Just as the abolitionists moved from being a tiny minority to transforming a majority, we inheritors of that tradition can move toward a more just society now and in the years ahead. The New England abolitionists are a great example to follow.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 7, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    This is an excellent piece on the Abolitionist Movement, which arose in the wake of the American Revolution of 1776. When William Lloyd Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator on Jan 1, 1831, he was in a distinct minority. But with the expansion of the Slave Power and its increasing control of policy – the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857- public opinion began to shift.
    The book “The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History” presents an accurate view of this history.
    For the Abolitionists, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was, said historian David Brion Davis, “the touchstone, the sacred scripture.”

    • September 8, 2021 at 8:06 pm

      Thanks and thanks for telling me about that book. I never heard of it. There is a good PBS documentary titled The Abolitionists. It has a lot on Garrison. You might enjoy checking it out.

      • September 9, 2021 at 1:06 pm

        And thanks in return for the documentary reference. If you send your address, we will send you a copy of the 1619 book for review.

      • September 9, 2021 at 1:55 pm

        I will privately send my address. What is the email I should send it too? Thanks

      • September 9, 2021 at 1:57 pm

        inquiries@mehring.com. Let me know if that works; if not, I’ll provide another email.

      • September 9, 2021 at 2:20 pm

        Thanks I will use that one

  2. September 9, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks, Jon. Read more about NH’s radical abolitionists — NP Rogers, Parker Pillsbury, Stephen S. Foster — plus the story of Noyes Academy and NH visits by Frederick Douglass at http://www.nhradicalhistory.org.

    • September 9, 2021 at 8:45 pm

      Thanks Arnie! I do not live too far from Canaan.

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