Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 17 IMPULSES FOR REFORM

When John Rankin, James Duncan, and Elizabeth Heyrich were writing their pamphlets and Charles Osborn and Benjamin Lundy were printing their newspapers at Mt. Pleasant, the country was in the midst of a momentous freshening of the wells of liberalism. It was on the verge of a great reform movement. The period was one of intellectual ferment, and of devotion to progress. Had the impulses for reform been uniformly felt in all parts of the country, slavery must quickly have disappeared. They scarcely touched the slave states, however, and that section soon passed from a state of conservatism to one of reaction.

The first of these impulses derived from westward migration. History does not reveal another migration of people equal to that which poured no less than six million souls across the Alleghenies in three decades after 1810; nor a habitation so congenial to the development of great wealth and political power as was the transmontane area; nor so fortuitous a convergence of intellectual and religious impulses for reform on the one hand, and black reaction, born of fear, greed, political power, and ignorance, on the other.

A deep depression settled down upon the Eastern states, particularly the cities, when the government sought to defend neutral rights by non- intercourse, and then embargo in 1807. The West was truly a land of promise and opportunity to older people who had fallen upon adversity and to young people unable to find a place for themselves in the stagnant economy of the Eastern cities. They crossed the mountains in a steady stream year after year. The government sold 13,000,000 acres of land between 1814 and 1820, and in the West five new states were added to the Union: Indiana ( 1816), Mississippi ( 1817), Illinois ( 1818), Alabama ( 1819), and Missouri ( 1821).

The process of state-making was ever a rich experience in the nation's cultural development. It could only happen when men and women of many divers religious and national and cultural origins came together to build new homes for themselves and new schools for their children, and to form new church congregations, and to create new governments, local and state. Whatever it was they were building, be it log cabin, or roads, or schools, or churches, or governments, there had to be co-operative effort, exchange of ideas, recourse to past experience, assessment of current requirements, discussion, concession, agreement, contract, experimentation, and, out of it all, one universal hope, one prayer, one common objective: a new and better life for themselves and their children. America was built by co-operative effort and by faith. Within a period of thirty years these people transformed a virgin wilderness into homestead farms, towns, and cities, with roads and churches, and schools and governments. So much of the culture of these people was indigenous, and the sense of power which came from their achievement was so overwhelming that they sometimes forgot the source of their strength and security -- forgot, that is, that every essential element of their institutional life flowed from basic principles of the fundamental law.

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