Thursday, August 6, 2009

Just finished reading - The Abolitionists & the South, 1831-1861 by Stanley Harrold

I have a research topic in mind that I want to investigate further, so I have been reading anything I can find on antislavery, especially as it pertains to the border states and upper-South, and The Abolitionists & The South was just what I was hoping for. Author Stanley Harrold, a history professor at South Carolina State University, asks the important question of, how did antislavery work in the South influence abolitionist efforts leading up to the Civil War?

Before diving into that question though, Harrold spends some time examining the historiography of Southern abolitionists. Some historians have contended that abolitionist sentiment emerged in the South before William Lloyd Garrison came on the scene with his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. Harrold explains that most of those that are normally associated with antislavery in the South before 1831 should not considered true abolitionists, or what Harrold calls "immediatists." In other words, these men may have wanted the slaves freed eventually, but not immediately, and usually not without some compensation to the owner, and or the possibility of the slaves being sent to African colonies. These men included northern-born Quaker and East Tennessee transplant Benjamin Lundy, who published his weekly newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation from Jonesborough, Tennessee, and a couple of East Tennessee Presbyterians, Elihu Embree and John Rankin.

True Southern abolitionists were usually found in those states closest to the Northern border and came on the scene post-1831. It certainly would have been foolhardy to attempt abolitionist activities in the Deep South states where antislavery actions were considered serious threats to public peace. That is not to say that abolitionists in Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Northern Virginia, and parts of North Carolina did not receive their fair share of discouragement and threats, but they seem to have had more leeway in these states. This is probably mainly because border states like Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri saw a significant decline - percentage-wise - in slaves in the later part of the antebellum era. Slaves from the border states were increasingly sold to Deep South plantations, manumissions were given, and runaways were more common in the border states where slaves had a better chance of making good their escape with help close by in free states. All of these factors had a drain on slave populations in the border states. Men such as John G. Fee, later founder of interracial Berea College in Madison County, Kentucky, William S. Bailey (see July 1 post) in Newport, Kentucky, George Candee in Jackson County, Kentucky, and Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware, are among the numbers who all worked in Southern states for the immediate end of slavery.

A significant point that Harrold makes and that I will quote due to its conciseness, is that, "it was a pattern of abolitionist initiative in the upper South since the 1830s that accounts for the southern commitment to drastic action. While an abolitionist presence in the upper South was a product of more fundamental forces driving the North and South apart, that presence-in conjunction with the rise of the Republican party to national power-was beyond question a precipitative cause of secession and the Civil War." In other words Southerners were worried that a Republican president would not take measures to stop abolitionist activity on their own turf, and thoughts that as the Charleston Mercury put it, "The under-ground railroad, will become and over-ground railroad," were definitely unacceptable. This threat of course would have shortened the slaveholding territory and thus their political influence and power in Washington. That couldn't be stood for, and thus to save their property and keep perceived public peace and safety, they seceded.

Harrold concludes his book with a look at some to the Southern abolitionists' lives after the Civil War and into Reconstruction. What this look shows, is their deep commitment to equality and civil rights. Men such as John G. Fee, as mentioned above, continued their work with African Americans by founding educational facilities, politicking for equal rights, the Freedmen's Bureau, and universal manhood suffrage.

Too often Southerners are left out of the abolitionist picture, but Professor Harrold with this book has put them right back in their well deserved place in history.

No comments:

Post a Comment