History Behind the Story #8: Abolition in New England
A note to readers: I wasn’t quite thinking about how broad this topic was when I chose it, so this post is a little long – sorry! I would recommend reading History Behind the Story #7 on the Congregationalist Church in New England for a little backstory on the people of New England. In addition, I should mention that there were abolitionists outside of New England. They were all over – Quakers, Free Blacks, certain groups of other Christians, moral philosophers, etc. This post will focus mainly on the New England voices, since my historical male lead hails from New England.
I created my first abolitionist family in the Torn Asunder Series. This aspect of the slavery conversation was a little easier to write, since my historical male lead, John Thomas, has views that would actually be considered more modern than my average Civil War character.
Of course, there were varying degrees of abolitionist sentiment, from those who wanted to see slavery’s end for economic purposes but were willing to brush equality or voting issues aside, to those who wanted to reestablish the enslaved in Africa (The American Colonization Society), to those who envisioned fully enfranchised, equal freedmen America. The latter are the rarest to find in primary sources, but since I was dealing with New England, I decided to go full force and make the Haleys staunch moral abolitionists.
I hope I conveyed that this was a rather radical viewpoint at the time, even for the free states. Massachusetts was the only state to allow black men to serve on a jury, and there was a pretty staunch system of segregation in the free states. And the slave states, of course, even espoused slavery as a moral “good” that “civilized” an “inferior” race. I’m putting that in quotes in that sentence but not citing any sources for it because you can find all three of those statements in so very many speeches, letters, and statements of the Era. Shannon is not by any means an anomaly when she is appalled by John Thomas’s views regarding equality. I might have made Shannon a more popular character by making her see things his way immediately, but I wouldn’t have made her an accurate one.
So how did Shannon’s husband get so “radical?”
Obviously, the story of slavery and abolition go right back to the founding generation’s decisions and compromises. The founding generation thought that slavery would die out, but, of course, that was before the invention of the cotton gin. A particularly important decision that was made was the Northwest Ordinance, which decreed that slavery would be banned north of the Mason-Dixon Line. After the Louisiana Purchase, whether the new states would be admitted as slave or free was THE hot-button issue of its day. Of course, the Missouri Compromise temporarily solved that issue. However, it is important to remember that this particular slave/free state issue was largely about the balance of power in the Senate and House of Representatives. Slave states wanted there to be more slave states, complete with all of their common interests and needs, so that the South’s coalition of power in Congress would be greater, and vice-versa. You don’t hear a great deal of heart-warming equality sentiment in this argument, unfortunately.
However, there were voices proclaiming equality, and, of course, ultimately such voices would be on the same side as and could form partnerships with the Union cause during the Civil War. I should also mention that their numbers grew exponentially during the Civil War, and one wonders if, after arguing so long against slavery’s economic evils, a lot of people either finally saw the light or decided that a partnership with moral abolitionists was extremely advantageous.
But for New England, moral abolition had been a real thing for years before the Civil War, and I think the beliefs of the Congregationalist and Unitarian churches, which we discussed in the last post, had a lot to do with it. It was one of those pockets of society where you could find people saying very controversial and pointed things about slavery that not just your average citizen was willing to venture.
I should back up and say that early New England colonists embraced the slave trade for both African and Native American slaves, according to Wendy Warren, the author of New England Bound. In addition, New England was home to many large textile mills that needed cotton to prosper, if you know what I mean. So I cannot say that there was always something inherent in all New Englanders that made them opposed to human bondage.
I do, think, however, that a large part of New England never really lost the abolitionist sentiment that swept all of the colonies during the Revolutionary Era. It matched up well with their religious beliefs of self-determination and confrontation of sin. John Adams seems to have felt himself to be on pretty solid ground in his gentle rebukes to Thomas Jefferson for his ownership of slaves. Abigail Adams admits in a letter that, while she knew she should not, she inwardly shuddered at an interracial couple’s embrace during a performance of Othello. I think this letter is key for understanding the more enlightened attitudes towards race in Massachusetts during the Founding for two reasons: 1) Abigail Adams seems to be genuinely horrified at her reaction in subsequent sentences. She is not a child of the Enlightenment for nothing. She says that there is everything to admire in Othello’s character and yet is unswervingly honest about the fact that she could not separate the person from his race. We might be judgmental of her for her reaction today. But that she could recognize this prejudice in herself at all is very nearly astounding for her era, and that she further knew herself to be in the wrong indicates some rather more elevated understanding of racial matters than we commonly see in this era. 2) She was a Massachusetts woman writing to a Massachusetts man, William Smith, with seemingly no belief that he would find anything at which to cavil in her letter, even when she ended her moral struggle with, “There is something I dare say esteemable in all, and the liberal mind regards not what Nation or climate it spring up in, nor what coulour or complexion the Man is of.” Just take a minute to think how revolutionary that thought was, that a person shouldn’t be judged by his or her nationality or race, that there is some “esteemable” quality in every human. Beyond that, she was speaking on the issue of interracial love, a particularly taboo subject in most circles eighty years later on the eve of the Civil War.
So I do think the New England founding mothers and fathers handed down a heritage of abolition to succeeding generations. New Englanders seemed to speak with a boldness on the topic only possible if they 1) felt themselves to be called by a higher power to speak out or 2) had been raised in an environment that took a more enlightened view of race for granted. New Englanders knew about slavery and its horrors to the extent they could, having not been truly exposed to it, but I do not think they could have known how vastly different their views were from a vast swath of the country. I don’t think they knew that they were “radical” because I don’t think they knew just how differently many people felt. Picture your most closely held political belief that no one has ever truly questioned. Then picture someone espousing the opposite thing in the most shocking way possible. Then picture a slaveowner who just sent his slave to the field, who would go to church the next day and be told that what they were doing for the “barbaric race” was a real mercy, and then picture the same slaveowner reading a newspaper in which a New Englander says that same slave should be able to run for Congress. I picture wine sputtering across a dining room. And that’s how New Englander abolitionists got the term “radical.”
The Fugitive Slave Laws, which required Northern cooperation in returning escaped slaves to their masters, sparked a lot of anger in the North, and, when combined with stories of enslaved families being separated, you have the makings of an abolitionist movement. Slave-hunting was despised and resisted in New England (again, I’m speaking in general terms). There was a unified effort of many Bostonians to protect slaves who had escaped or to prevent those who had been recaptured from being returned to their masters. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they weren’t. There was a highly publicized trial which ultimately ended in a slave being returned to his master. One New Englander commented, “We went to bed old-fashioned conservatives and waked up stark, mad abolitionists.”
So let’s talk about a few individuals from New England.
No conversation on abolition would be complete without a look at Charles Sumner, he of the caning, a staunch moral abolitionist, a brave and radical soul, apparently a real jerk to talk to. Sumner was unusually brave in calling out slaveholders and was a very real force to be reckoned with. I’m sure you all know about The Incident? After the violence of Bleeding Kansas, Sumner chose to call out Senator Andrew Butler publicly for being a slaveholder. Apparently, Butler was an older man who had recently been extremely ill, and Sumner’s comments sparked outrage, even in the North (doesn’t this sound like a modern political drama?). And Preston Brooks, seemingly otherwise a sane man, a loving husband and father and Butler’s cousin, beat the crap out of Sumner with a cane. I had always pictured it being a few strikes, but the caning was, in actuality, very horrifying. It was entirely premeditated (we’re talking Brooks specifically chose a cane to inflict the most damage), and Brooks beat the defenseless Sumner again and again and again in such a brutal fashion that it had Sumner out of commission in the Senate for four years. Massachusetts left his seat in the chamber vacant as a political statement. The Incident is one of those events that leave you just feeling horrified all around, but most especially for the violence, which was truly gruesome if you read accounts of it. It makes you wonder what the government had descended to, especially when you think of the delight the beating gave the slaveholding states. I will add – not in defense of Brooks, of course, but just as a side-note: apparently everyone found Sumner abrasive, insufferable, and arrogant. I remember reading in the biography of President Grant that Grant, who, with all he had been through in the war and during Reconstruction, never lost his temper, lost it on Sumner. Just an interesting dimension to the extremely horrible story that you don’t get from a history blurb.
William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison founded a newspaper in Boston called The Liberator, which was an abolitionist newspaper which espoused equality in strong moral language. He attacked proponents of slavery by calling them out as Christians, and he even publicly burned the Constitution for its toleration of slavery. Frederick Douglass described him thus, “unusually modest and retiring in his disposition; but his zeal was like fire, and his courage like steel… [He was] the man who was then and will ever be regarded as the chief apostle of the immediate and unconditional emancipation of all the slaves in America.”
After escaping slavery, Douglass lived in Massachusetts and became a leading abolitionist, forming a strong coalition with William Lloyd Garrison and accomplishing immeasurable strides for the enslaved and later for the freedmen. He was especially effective as an orator. In fact, he fictitiously appears in Southern Rain at an abolitionist rally!
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was from a prominent New England family. You probably know that she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to Fugitive Slave Laws and humanized individual slaves for the North in a way that likely would have been impossible otherwise. Literature is a remarkable, powerful thing. 300,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. There are rumors that Lincoln, who had been impacted by her book, called her “the little woman who made this great war.”
The following is a block quote that summed up a few other aspects of abolition in New England that not many people know about, such as it being a rural movement and women being involved, and I thought it would be a good note on which to end. “By the 1830s, western Massachusetts was the epicenter of the state’s growing anti-slavery movement. Numerous towns in Franklin County founded anti-slavery societies, verifying the abolitionist Theodore Weld’s claim that ‘The springs [of the anti-slavery movement] lie in the country.’ Women, including those of color, proved particularly active, forming in Garrison’s words, a ‘great army of silent workers’ who wrote and shared anti-slavery literature, sponsored lecturers, circulated petitions, offered assistance to African Americans escaping slavery, and raised funds for the cause.” That’s a wrap!
Hope you enjoyed this fascinating venture into New England anti-slavery history. I chose to craft characters who hailed from the Massachusetts and South Carolina. Massachusetts was the epicenter of abolition, just as South Carolina was that of pro-slavery sentiment. Both states were comprised of very passionate people with very firm beliefs. Since John Thomas and Shannon’s marriage represents the nation, those two states were the archetypes for their regions, and John Thomas and Shannon represent their states. Does that mean they are headed for their own Civil War? Guess you’ll have to read the Torn Asunder Series to see!
Warren, Wendy, New England Bound (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016).
Abigail Adams to William Stephens Smith, September 18, 1785, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-06-02-011.
Slavery and Abolition in New England, https://dinotracksdiscovery.org/supporting/swapfull/context/abolition-new-england/.
The Civil War Podcast, Episode 10: Anti-Slavery Movement.
The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Civil War Podcast, Episode 13: Caning of Sumner.
Image Credit: Feature Image: Boston Abolitionists Await Emancipation Proclamation, https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/boston-abolitionists-await-emancipation-proclamation.html.
Image in Body of Post: Public Domain. This is a poster for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which appeals to emotions to encourage donations. A very powerful poster!
 Abigail Adams letter to William Stephens Smith. Note: Obviously Liberal meant something different in the 1850’s from what it did today, so I in no way intend this as a political commentary on today’s politics or issues, since this website is strictly non-political.
 The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
 Boston Abolitionists Await Emancipation Proclamation. Note: Obviously Conservative meant something different in the 1850’s from what it did today, so I in no way intend this as a political commentary on today’s politics or issues, since this website is strictly non-political.
 The Civil War Podcast, Episode 11: Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
 Slavery and Abolition in New England.