The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition & Republican Thought

By Daniel J. McInerney | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In this hopeless state of things, a few individuals, deeply impressed with the great and increasing evil of slavery, have thought it their duty to unite their efforts to undeceive the public mind, to rouse the fortunate heirs of freedom to a sense of their own obligation to extend and secure the blessings they possess. -- New-England Anti-Slavery Convention, 18341

FROM THE 1830s TO THE 1860s, American abolitionists raised a variety of arguments to explain their opposition to slavery. They condemned the chattel system as immoral in its cruelty and inhumanity, sinful in its reduction of people to property, divisive in its consequences for politics, and backward in its economic relations. Abolitionists tied these varied concerns together through a distinctive and coherent habit of mind that they brought to their examination of slavery. Reformers drew the language, logic, and legitimacy of their cause from the familiar principles and resonant vocabulary of republican thought. Across lines of race, gender, region, class, and faction, abolitionists understood their reform effort in the same basic terms: as part of an ongoing struggle between the forces of power and liberty in which vigilant citizens battled tyranny, corruption, and conspiracy, defending the independence and virtue upon which their fragile experiment in republican government depended.

Attention to the abolitionists' republican perspective helps clarify the focus of their reform efforts. The abolitionists' concern lay not just with the slavery of a race, not only with slavery in the South, not simply with slavery in general, but more precisely with the problem of slavery in a republic. The reformers' beliefs, goals, and fears reflected their deep commitment to republican princi

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