Afro-Americans and Moral Suasion: The Debate in the 1830's

Article excerpt

Moral suasion, and the abolitionist movement which inspired and propelled it for about the decade between 1830-1840, have traditionally been conceived as offshoots of the activities of white abolitionists, particularly William Lloyd Garrison and his New England Anti-Slavery Society. Blacks, according to this view, derived their abolitionist impetus and ethos from whites. Not surprisingly, black abolitionists rejected this paternalistic explanation, and claimed credit for inaugurating the anti-slavery crusade. White abolitionists, including Garrison, blacks countered, began their careers as colonizationists (deemed pro-slavery), and only became abolitionists and anti-slavery after they had come under the influence of blacks. This contention is perhaps, most forcefully defended by Martin Delany.(1) Unfortunately, there is a dearth of specialized study of moral suasion, despite the tremendous interest that abolitionism generated and continues to generate among scholars. Reflecting the pervasive character of paternalism, existing studies, with notable exceptions, portray moral suasion as the creation of white abolitionists, best exemplified by the Garrisonians.(2)

Though moral suasion as a well defined abolitionist ideology is identified with Garrison, its historical root as a reform strategy is much deeper, going as far back as to the tradition of the Quakers, and among African-Americans to the self-help and cooperative activities of free blacks in New York and Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. These two abolitionists (i.e., the Quakers and free blacks), espoused and advanced values that would later surface in Garrisonian ideology. The official adoption of moral suasion by the Garrisonians occurred in 1832 with the launching of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. This was followed in 1833 with the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia by a group of between fifty to sixty abolitionists from about ten states. Their strategy, as Gerald Sorin shows, entailed the pursuit of abolition through non-violence. They pledged to work for "the destruction of error by the potency of truth . . . the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love . . . the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance."(3) These events happened after the First National Negro Convention in Philadelphia in 1831, at which blacks acknowledged their problems and shortcomings, and expressed faith in the redemptive power of moral suasion by pledging to work strenuously to "encourage simplicity, neatness, temperance and economy in our habits" in order to disprove preconceived notions and prejudices.(4) Subsequent conventions amplified tiffs moral suasionist ethics, climaxing with the formation of the American Moral Reform Society in 1835. Change was deemed the result, not of violence, or some other forms of radical political activities, but of the pursuit and realization of the ideals of moral suasion.

Pro-slavery advocates and racial conservatives justified discriminatory policies on alleged deficiencies inherent in the character and conditions of blacks. Blacks, according to popular reasoning, were disadvantaged and degraded in consequence of behavioral and situational imperfections - that they were lazy, ignorant, backward and morally decadent. Though racial conservatives described these traits as inherent, perhaps even divinely conditioned, and, therefore, permanent, blacks were somehow optimistic that a serious attempt to alleviate the deficiencies would appeal favorably to the moral conscience of all advocates of black subordination, and thus usher in a new social, economic and political order that would not only accommodate and elevate blacks, but also concede their long denied rights and privileges.

Moral suasion espoused a moral definition of slavery and racism, a view many members of the emerging black middle class accepted. It was an integrative and optimistic ideology, informed by faith in the potency of universal values - values that supposedly impacted humanity equally. …