Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
While many Southerners viewed abolitionists as a monolithic threat to their way of life, in actuality, the abolitionists were a very diverse group whose positions and fervor differed based on ideological, racial, and political differences. Some abolitionists believed that slavery was a great evil that should be ended immediately, while others saw a more gradual emancipation as the best way to restructure American society. Another group believed that moral suasion, using the power of moral education, was the best way to achieve their goals and still others felt that political and economic factors were the keys to ending the peculiar institution. A few abolitionists like David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet felt that slavery must be destroyed using all means at their disposal, including violence.
Yet those who espoused abolitionist sentiments were a very small percentage of the population in the North in the years prior to the Civil War. Most Northerners felt that abolitionists were extremists whose views were far outside of the mainstream of American life. Though their numbers were relatively modest, abolitionists were seen in the South as yielding enormous influence. The abolitionists effectively spread their message of freedom through newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator” and by organizing a cadre of anti slavery lecturers, many of whom were formerly enslaved like Frederick Douglass, who traveled throughout the country, often at great personal risk, to highlight the evils of slavery as a way to counter the Southern notion that slavery was a “positive good” that helped both the country and the enslaved. Abolitionist spread their messages to those usually outside of the decision making process including women, children and the growing free black population.
In many ways, the abolitionist movement was more influential in the South than it was in the Northern states. Many Southerners believed that most Northerners were influenced by the actions and rhetoric of those involved in the anti-slavery movement. Despite the relatively modest numbers of people who identified themselves as abolitionists, the South’s fear of abolitionism was a central tenet of antebellum Southern political life. To many Southerners, any discussion and debate over slavery was seen not only as a political threat but also as a potential factor in causing unrest amongst the enslaved. Almost from the inception of the Republic, Southerners saw a correlation between abolitionist critiques and possible slave insurrections. After the debates over the limits of slavery in the new territories that led to the Missouri Compromise in 1820, South Carolina pointed in fear towards the failed slave uprising led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston. The publication of “The Liberator” in 1831 seemed, to some, to be a factor in Nat Turner’s insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia. This fear of debate over the issue of slavery was so pervasive that from the 1830s Southern members of Congress were able to enforce a “gag rule” that prevented any Congressional action on the flood of anti-slavery petitions that abolitionists sent to Capitol Hill.
All of this foreshadowed the fears and concerns that shaped the discussions at the secession conventions that occurred after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. By 1861, the South became convinced that abolitionist sentiment held sway throughout the North. And they saw the election of Lincoln as confirmation that the cornerstone, the foundation, of the Southern way of life, slavery, was threatened as never before. Thus the abolitionist movement, a movement with greater influence in the South than in the North, was a key factor in creating an environment where Southern planters and political leaders saw secession as the best way to preserve a system of enslavement.